Although it fails to address some of the shortcomings of the source material, Shadows of Valentia is a good remake that tells a story with a touching core and punctuates it with engaging battles
Prior to the release of Fire Emblem Awakening in the early days of 2013, Nintendo’s saga of medieval strategic warfare had constantly failed to gain any sort of traction in the western gaming market, and it was not for lack of trying. Before Awakening, a full decade of attempts and failures to make the franchise relevant outside Japan elapsed, a period during which four Fire Emblem installments reached the shelves of American stores only to be either ignored or not given enough attention by the public. Regardless of why exactly Awakening succeeded in breaking through – a huge bag of factors that certainly includes the popularity of the 3DS, a strong marketing push, and the spotlight that was put on many Fire Emblem characters thanks to the Super Smash Bros. series – the bottom line is that the critical and commercial laurels achieved by Awakening opened up the door to quite a deep treasure trove: the saga’s backlog of titles that remained unreleased in the United States and that now could be shipped over from Japan into the arms of a welcoming audience.
That pile of titles ready to be ported consisted of six games published between 1990 (the year of Fire Emblem’s creation) and 2002, and given the original Fire Emblem had already been remade and released outside Japan – albeit before Awakening came out – it was only natural Nintendo would next turn towards the second installment of the franchise: Fire Emblem Gaiden, a 1992 NES game. And so, under the guise of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, Fire Emblem Gaiden reaches the modern gaming world and gives the Nintendo 3DS its fifth title of the now widely popular property.
Shadows of Valentia follows the story of Alm and Celica, two childhood friends that spent the early days of their lives together, under the protection of a famous knight, in a village tucked away in the southern portion of the titular continent. Valentia was created by two gods, Duma and Mila, which held different views on how humans should live: the former believed in power and conquest, while the latter stood for peace and leisure. The two warred, and the continent was eventually broken up into two kingdoms: Duma and his people controlled Rigel, to the north; and Mila and her children established the realm of Zofia, to the south. Rigel’s thirst for power grows, though, and the king’s wish to spread his way of thinking into the whole continent leads his armies to break the peace pact between Duma and Mila, invade Zofia, and start a war that throws the balance between the gods – and the land itself – into chaos.
Alm and Celica have their lives and joy torn apart when the war begins. As the small village starts being invaded, Celica is taken away by her protector and hidden somewhere else, whereas Alm – searching for new meaning in his life and unable to understand why Celica had to leave – joins the Zofian resistance that is trying to stop the Rigelian forces. Players, then, follow and control the two protagonists as they take tackle their separate (yet occasionally overlapping) journeys and discover the truth about themselves, their past, and the roles they are to play in the conflict.
Given Fire Emblem was created to match the strategy elements of Famicon Wars with the stats-focused and story-heavy nature of role-playing games, it is not surprising all games of the saga have lived and died based on how well they were able to balance those pieces. Shadows of Valentia, therefore, does not escape such judgment; and while, truth be told, the game does not excel in any of them, there are redeeming and intriguing portions in all of those areas.
From a storyline standpoint, the relationship between Alm and Celica is nailed. Their bond, their ups and downs, the foggy reasons behind the distance that separates them, and their occasional meetings form the heart of the game, and players will most likely care about what happens between the protagonists because their backstory is nicely set up during the initial stages of Shadows of Valentia. However, the surrounding parts are a bit lackluster: the plot twists are predictable, becoming clear a few hours into the game; the dialogues featuring sidecharacters are usually too exaggerated for their own good, creating shallow caricatures rather than full-fledged personages; and the reasoning of some villains, with a few exceptions, is weak. The fact that it is quite interesting to see how the dual storylines of and the distinct objectives chased by the two characters converge and clash, though, somewhat makes up for those issues.
When it comes to gameplay, Fire Emblem Gaiden was the franchise’s installment that introduced a navigable overworld, in the vein of Super Mario Bros. 3; as a consequence, players move one of the two protagonists from point to point, and – as they head towards their respective goals – they will do battle against enemy armies, stop by towns and other major locations, and dive deep into dungeons filled with treasure and lurking foes. The first element – the battles – will not hold any surprises to those who went through Awakening or the Fates trilogy; the explorable locations and the dungeons, however, which were present in Gaiden but were abandoned afterwards, offer new twists to the Fire Emblem gameplay that had so far appeared on the 3DS.
Battles take place on a grid-like map where players and their foes take turns moving units around and making them engage in one-on-one confrontations whose predicted results are viewable before the skirmishes are confirmed. Through most of the way, Shadows of Valentia presents pleasant variations in its scenarios and unity deployment, which pave the way for nice strategic challenges: there are open fields; enemy armies entrenched inside fortresses; tricky bottlenecks that only allow one unity to pass at a time; terrain types that increase defensive capabilities, heal, cause damage, or reduce movement; archers and mages that can attack from a distance; healers that are very useful but extremely fragile; highly maneuverable knights and pegasus riders; powerful sorcerers that summon new units endlessly until they are taken down; and more.
Differently from Awakening and Fates, Shadows of Valentia has no weapon triangle that dictates which sorts of armaments vastly overcome others; certainly, given it is a feature that has become a staple, some are bound to miss it. Still, the fact an axe user, for example, will not easily down hordes of sword-wielding soldiers gives the game a greater degree of balance and makes battles more even. Other changes lie in how weapons no longer break, a must due to how money is rather scarce in Valentia; and that the popular system of pairing up characters in the battlefield and eventually marrying some of them – introduced by Awakening and Fates – is absent. The most interesting shift of Shadows of Valentia, perhaps, is how many of the units players will initially come into contact with and add to their army pertain to the villager class; as such, once they reach a certain level, there is a lot of freedom as to which class they will be assigned to, which allows players to build very varied armies.
The remaining elements that constitute Shadows of Valentia, and that make it stand out from more recent outings of the series, are rather uneven. The exploration of towns – where one can find healing resources that can be used during battles as well as support characters that upgrade weapons and follow recipes to create new goods – is done via a storybook-like interface that lets players move between areas, interact with the environment, and talk to villagers, and really does not add much to the game. Meanwhile, the dungeon-crawling leans towards the tedious for several reasons: firstly, because dungeons are just sets of tunnels with no showcases of clever design; secondly, because the battles that happen within them take place in very mundane fields that offer no nice strategic touches.
More aggravating, perhaps, is the fact Fire Emblem games offer a great balance between battling and story development; that is, for every battle that takes place, happenings that are relevant to the storyline occur before and after the confrontations, creating a constant sense of progress. For the battles that happen inside the dungeons, that is not the case; the enemies being faced are just faceless minions of different kinds, and beating them does not move the chains of the plot forward, which drags the game’s flow down. Moreover, later in the game when a couple of longer dungeons need to be cleared, failing in the fairly challenging battles that happen at their end means going all the way back to the beginning of the maze, which is rather frustrating.
Still, through stumbles and composing elements that could have been better implemented, Shadows of Valentia is a decent remake and a welcome addition to the 3DS’ library, even if it fails to use the received opportunity to fix some of Fire Emblem Gaiden’s shortcomings. It tells a story with a touching core via some nice animated cutscenes and almost fully voiced-over dialogues (the latter of which had not been done either by Awakening or by Fates) and punctuates it with battles whose challenge and complexity grow throughout the adventure while their engaging nature is solidly maintained all the way through.
Despite some annoyances and eventual dullness, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia succeeds in keeping the ball rolling after the giants that were Awakening and Fates. Like those, it embraces both casual gamers and a more hardcore Fire Emblem audience by providing an easier mode, where downed units come back; and a harder traditional setup, where death is permanent. Hopefully, through the newly introduced Echoes series, Nintendo will further explore the relatively vast backlog of Fire Emblem games that have yet to make it to the outside of Japan, and also give them a deeper overhaul than the one that was executed on Fire Emblem Gaiden.