The retro becomes new again in Nintendo’s latest Fire Emblem strategy role-playing game outing. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia re-imagines the little-known NES title Fire Emblem Gaiden, a Japan-only game, into a brand new 3DS adventure. The game’s 8-bit armies are now rendered in gorgeous artwork and snazzy 3D character models. Lore previously limited to the NES game manuals has now been properly written into the game. The result is a game of strategy and high-fantasy storytelling well worth your attention, whether you’re first-time or a veteran Fire Emblem player.

Strategy, Exploration, and Adventure

Fire Emblem Echoes’ gameplay should sound familiar. The focus, as always, are battles between player armies and enemy troops along a grid-based battlefield. Maneuver and position your characters through varied battlefield environments, and fight your way to victory. One reckless or wrong step could spell permanent death for one of your fighters for the rest of the campaign (or at least in the traditional way to play, Classic mode- which you really should play).

However, Echoes is a huge departure from most of the series. In an analogy that Nintendo’s fans might well understand, Fire Emblem Echoes remakes a game that has long considered to be the Zelda II of its franchise: a black sheep. Like Zelda II was to the original Legend of Zelda, Gaiden was a huge departure from what’s the norm in Fire Emblem— and Echoes preserves these differences and unapologetically flaunts them.

Echoes puts extra emphasis on the “RPG” part of “strategy-RPG.” Legend of Zelda-like dungeon exploration sequences are part of this Fire Emblem experience. As either Alm or Celica, you’ll brave bandit hideouts, musty ruins, and caverns infested with undead dragons and warriors. You might uncover hidden paths to a forgotten holy weapon, crack open barrels and pots for spare cash, and run into monster battles during these adventures. It’s that kind of a fantasy adventure.

Exploration is even more immersive now than in 1992 because the dungeons are rendered and explored in 3D. The 3D really drives home the atmosphere of an abandoned tomb or a forgotten temple compared to its 2D counterpart. Plus, in 3D, you can also outmaneuver the enemies trying to ambush you into battles more easily.

Town exploration is also an enjoyable, fresh change of pace. “Towns” in this series have usually never amounted more than a single house of NPC dialogue or a merchant store, but Echoes allows you traverse them in far more depth. You can explore them in point-and-click sections that feels familiar to fans of games like Ace Attorney or Professor Layton: check out small areas, investigate background objects, and talk to NPCs. Inspecting details in the environments adds amusing and interesting flavor text that makes the world feel more alive, and talking to NPCs will also provide quests for you to attempt.

Support conversations will let your units talk among each other and bond. These conversations tell you more about the characters, their motivations, and how they interact with each other. However, unlike recent Fire Emblem games with this feature, you can’t play matchmaker for romances and child-making among your characters. Supports don’t provide any tactical advantages like stat boosts either. For some, this might feel like a downgrade. However, I’m frankly okay with this. It’s just a neat feature that adds more lore and characterization without throwing the original game balance out of the window.

A Classic Story Reborn

Echoes’ story thrusts us into a world of gods and men, split into two rival kingdoms that each worship a different founding god. When war breaks out, an adventure of discovery and heartbreak begins. We follow all of this as Alm and Celica, two childhood friends who are drawn towards a destiny to change the world. Alm matures into a young warrior, who leads a rebellion against the conquerors of their kingdom. Celica matures into a priestess, who seeks to plead the gods to resolve this conflict peacefully. As the player, you control Alm’s army and Celica’s army across the continent on two different quests. Their fates intertwine, separate, and inevitably come back together again.

It’s a classic 90’s fantasy RPG story, full of heroics and tragic losses. You’ll genuinely ache for the moment when Alm and Celica reunite, and if they’ll ever be able to see each other again at all by the end of the war. You’ll find yourself emotionally invested for all of your units, who have their personal stakes for fighting alongside either Alm or Celica. You’ll even feel for some of the antagonists. Lord Berkut, who wasn’t originally in Gaiden, deserves ovations as a standout tragic villain. As for those of you interested in lore and politics, Echoes delivers this very well. Overall, Echoes’ storytelling is a delight and reminds me what the series has been missing in recent entries: protagonists with distinct personality and choices, powerful world building, and a more robust supporting cast.

The game’s presentation is handled wonderfully. Gorgeous anime cutscenes, illustrations, and in-engine sequences breath life into this retro classic. Given that the NES’s hardware limitations, Gaiden’s content was much more barebones in the original. Here, Echoes lets the story shine much more strongly. New story elements have been included, but they don’t feel intrusive or detract from the game’s main story. In fact, they feel like natural additions and add more depth to the story.

Almost every line of text is voice acted, and the game’s English cast knocks it out of the ballpark. Kyle McCarley and Erica Lindbeck give strong, breakout performances as Alm and Celica respectively. My personal MVP is Ian Sinclair, the proud Lord Berkut. We feel Berkut’s pride, rage, envy, insecurity, and pain so intensely during his best scenes. Berkut may just be a recurring midboss in the grand scheme of the story, but Sinclair’s performance elevates this guy into a truly memorable villain. With strong performances like that, I’m okay with the lack of the Japanese voice track.

“This is the part that hurts!”

While I enjoyed the game greatly, Echoes is plagued with a number of frustrating elements and weak game design. It’s a faithful remake of Gaiden, alright- that means inheriting a number of Gaiden’s shortcomings too.

Gaiden was notorious among fans for its weak map design, and Echoes does nothing to fix it. Good map design would favor well-placed terrain obstacles, good enemy placement, and offer a decent challenge. In this regard, Echoes’ maps feel half-baked. Many levels are flat and open, leaving little room for strategic placement. Other levels make you chase after obnoxious summoner enemies who have turtled far away from you, who keep spamming reinforcements to harass your units. It’s admittedly rough for a series that focuses on strategic play.

Likewise, there’s a lot less thought about how you arrange your front lines and your defenses. Just like the original games of this era, Fire Emblem’s iconic rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle isn’t present in this title. That, unfortunately, means having fewer weaknesses to think about when you send your units out to defend or launch attacks against the enemy. It’s a little bit more mindless, which some may or may not prefer.

Dungeons wind up as one of the game play’s weaknesses, despite being what makes the game unique in the series. While it’s interesting to see a different direction to Fire Emblem, this game doesn’t do JRPG dungeon crawling well. A standard monster encounter will play out as a brief skirmish across a flat map. More often than not, it feels boring and repetitive. In larger dungeons like the endgame and post-game dungeons, it’s a slog to get through these brainless fights over and over again. In addition, I felt that the dungeons could have benefitted from more interesting puzzles or tasks. Exploring these mazes for hidden treasures and EXP was cool, but I wanted to engage a bit more.

Lastly: random field encounters are obnoxious and repetitive. They spawn too often, and rather than being optional grinding, these random mooks will actually force you into battle or block your way. By the end of my playthrough, I was crossing my fingers that each step I took across the world map as Alm or Celica didn’t trigger a new enemy to spawn.

The Verdict?

Fire Emblem Echoes turns one of Fire Emblem’s most inaccessible titles into a title to be remembered. It’s quirky, different, and most importantly, fun. I argue that Echoes makes a new case for why people ought to love Gaiden, after years of being treated as the ugly stepchild of the series. It might be a bit less strategic than other offerings from the series, but it’s fun in its own right and its quirks are enjoyable.

In spite of its shortcomings and some archaic features, Fire Emblem Echoes is a real treat. If possible, I’d love to see a Fire Emblem with the story and presentation of Echoes and the game design of a title like Conquest. You can also bet that other remakes are on their way eventually and given the same polish as Echoes. For now, Echoes is a solid entry that overcomes weaker strategy elements with both heart, solid presentation, and uniqueness.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review
The Good
  • Fantastic Story, Voice Acting, and Music
  • Simple, but Addictive Strategy Gameplay
  • Unique Exploration System for an SRPG
The Bad
  • Weak Map Design
  • Oh God, Not Another Random Skirmish!
  • Endgame Dungeons Are a Slog
8Overall Score
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