I was 12 years old when the Fire Emblem series came to North America for the first time. The seventh game in the series, simply called “Fire Emblem” at the time (now referred to as Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade), was released in 2003. At that time, Advance Wars and Paper Mario, made by Intelligent Systems, were among my favorite video games. Fire Emblem, also developed by Intelligent Systems, combined gameplay aspects of both and added a deep, compelling story with well-written, likable characters. By the time I was halfway through the game, Fire Emblem had become my all-time favorite series.
I am in the minority in the Fire Emblem fanbase: I love some but not all of the older games (I found Sacred Stones’ main protagonists and villain boring, and Radiant Dawn felt like a bad fanfiction of Path of Radiance), and I like Awakening and Fates somewhat (except Birthright). For the uninitiated, there is a rift in the fandom between those who view the success of Awakening and Fates as a fate worse than the death of the franchise, and those who can’t be bothered to even give the older games a try. There are some who seek the middle ground, like me and my good friend who draws the “Final Smash!” webcomics, but we are a rare breed.
It may have been in the hope of reuniting the fractured fanbase that Intelligent Systems produced Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, the second game in the series. Fire Emblem Gaiden is a bit like Zelda II: Adventure of Link or Super Mario Bros. 2—sequels that made a number of drastic departures from the gameplay style of the original while retaining the core essence of the series. When it was first announced, I thought it was an odd choice for a remake. Discussions of the best of the older Fire Emblem titles rarely include Gaiden, and western fans have been clamoring for remakes of games like Binding Blade (the Japan-only title starring Roy, who appears in Super Smash Bros.), Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn (two games which have become rare and expensive), and Genealogy of the Holy War (a Japan-only title reputed to have an excellently written story). Yet in spite of these factors, we now have a Gaiden remake.
I was very excited to play Echoes because Fire Emblem is still my favorite series, but I was also worried that it would be too different from what I was used to. I’ve never played Gaiden, and it’s never been on my to-do list. Truth be told, a number of specific game mechanics are very different from the Fire Emblem games I have played (for example, there is no weapon triangle), but in every way that matters, it really does feel like the series I know and love. The story is thoroughly engaging, the characters are well written and likable, and I can play it for hours without even realizing how much time has passed.
Like Awakening and Fates, Echoes has a Casual Mode where characters who fall in battle retreat and don’t die, but that’s where the similarities end. Apparently, some people get upset about the very existence of Casual Mode, but it’s never bothered me because it’s entirely optional. I still prefer Classic Mode, where characters can die permanently, but the fact that both modes are available from the start makes that a non-issue. People with high anxiety levels may not want to deal with the high stakes of Classic Mode; I find it more exciting, but I can certainly understand why others might not.
The main characters in this game are a boy named Alm and a girl called Celica. The opening cinematic shows what appears to be a premonition in which protagonist Celica is killed by a glowing white sword, and Alm wails in grief as she apparently dies in his arms. The game has full anime video cutscenes, not just cel-shaded ones like in Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn, Awakening, and Fates. The difference in the frame rate of these cutscenes compared to the gameplay is very noticeable, but that’s due to the medium of anime —not a game performance issue.
After this, the Prologue begins. It’s a flashback to Alm and Celica’s childhood, where they were inseparable friends. They notice that Alm’s left hand and Celica’s right have the same mark. A knight named Slayde arrives at their village demanding food, water, lodging, and women. When he finds some of Alm’s other friends, who are reluctant to help him, he straight-up threatens to murder them. That’s right: this time, we’re starting out with a villain who is willing to murder children. Usually, Fire Emblem games wait a little longer to introduce guys this bad, but not in Echoes. It helps to set the tone for the rest of the story. This is a crapsack world, and some people are willing to commit even the most horrible, unthinkable crimes to get ahead. Fortunately, the children are saved by the timely intervention of Alm’s grandfather, a retired knight named Mycen. But Slayde, who recognizes Celica, escapes with his life, saying he’s found “the princess who refuses to die” and needs to report that to his boss. Now that he knows Celica lives in this small village in the south of the country of Zofia, she has to leave, separating her from Alm. They share a heartfelt goodbye, and Alm promises to find her when he’s older and stronger.
Seven years later, we see Mycen training Alm in swordsmanship. Alm expresses a wish to leave the village and see what the rest of Zofia is like in spite of foreign invaders, a rise in violent crime due to food shortages and drought, and the appearance of monsters. Overall, Alm’s characterization reminds me of a non-whiny version of Luke Skywalker. Mycen, like Uncle Owen, firmly refuses Alm’s request. Then a soldier named Lukas arrives at the village looking to recruit Mycen for the Deliverance, a band of freedom fighters looking to expel the invaders from the Rigelian Empire. Mycen declines to join, but Alm insists on coming with Lukas, and his friends agree to come with him when they realize they’ll be paid.
The first part of this game has some tutorial segments— enough to help newcomers to the series, but not so much that they would irritate a seasoned player. Before leaving the village, you have the opportunity to visit a few different locations within the village to talk to people and look for items like food, weapons, and shields. This is a feature of every village and large building in the game. It’s something the series hasn’t done since the original Gaiden, and I find it kind of neat. It feels like an expanded version of the Base Conversations from Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn.
One of the first things you do is another of the things Gaiden is known for that no other Fire Emblem game has had: a real-time dungeon crawl. There are treasures and wandering enemies in dungeons, and if you run into one of these enemies, you trigger a turn-based tactical battle like normal Fire Emblem gameplay. If they come up and attack you from behind, they’ll get the first move in battle. New 3DS and Circle Pad Pro users can adjust the camera with the C stick, which is often very helpful. If you have neither of those things, you have to rely on the L and R buttons. In the deepest part of the dungeon is a statue of Zofia’s goddess, the Earth Mother Mila. These statues are the only places where characters who have leveled up enough can get promoted to a more powerful class. It’s certainly a unique way to handle Fire Emblem’s class change system, but later in the game, it gets very inconvenient.
Alm and company make their way toward the royal castle and meet up with the rest of the Deliverance, which includes both nobles and commoners. Due to tensions between the social classes, Alm—raised as a commoner, and being the grandson of a famed knight whom the nobles respect—is called upon to serve as the leader of the Deliverance. He successfully leads them to victory over the Rigelian forces occupying the royal castle in central Zofia.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away (or at least a fair distance), Celica has a nightmare about Alm dueling the Rigelian Emperor. In her nightmare, Alm says that the Emperor took everything he ever loved, including Celica herself. After she wakes up, Celica comes to the conclusion that all of the bad things that have been happening lately indicate that there’s something wrong with the Earth Mother Mila. She sets off for the Temple of Mila, a long distance away, with an entourage of individuals who have dedicated their lives to keeping her safe. Her goal is to find out what’s happened to Mila and figure out if there’s anything she can do to help. She lives on an island southeast of Zofia called Novis, and the temple is at the northeastern corner of Zofia, so it’s a long journey across the sea.
On her way to Novis Greatport, she and her magic-wielding friends have to pass through a cemetery, where the dead have recently been rising as zombies. Terrain effects in Echoes are huge (standing on a grave, for example, gives +60 Avoid), but magic ignores them. So if you have to take on an enemy who’s benefiting from defensive cover, just send in a Mage. Be careful with your mages, though, because casting magic in Echoes costs HP. It sounds like a huge pain in the ass, but it really isn’t that bad. Magic is generally a little bit overpowered in Fire Emblem anyway. This would be especially true in Echoes, where you don’t need tomes to cast spells. Instead, Mages start out knowing one or two spells and learn more as they level up.
In order to help her cross the pirate-infested sea, Celica secures the services of a gruff mercenary called Saber by bribing him with a golden dagger. This becomes his equipped item when he first joins you, but strangely, you’re free to take it back immediately without any repercussions. Each character can carry one item; if your character isn’t carrying a specific weapon, they’ll just use an ordinary weapon in battle. Equippable weapons enable characters wielding them to learn Arts, which are sort of like spells for non-magic users, and also resemble standard Fire Emblem Skills. In addition to weapons, any character can equip a shield to boost their defense. An Iron weapon or a Leather Shield won’t lower your Speed, but heavier items like Steel weapons or Iron Shields will impose a small Speed penalty. The bonus to either Attack or Defense is much bigger, though, so it’s usually worth it.
When she reaches Zofia Harbor, just east of the royal castle, Celica hears of Alm’s exploits and goes to meet him there. Their emotional reunion is soured by an argument where Celica tries to convince Alm not to fight for the Deliverance anymore. Alm, however, insists on continuing to fight—Rigelian forces still occupy northern Zofia. Alm intends to drive them out, and he doesn’t understand why Celica won’t support his decision. They part ways once again, and soon after, landslides on the only paths through the mountains prevent either of them from joining up with the other again.
At this point, you can choose to move either Celica’s army or Alm’s along the world map at any time, but they can’t interact with each other. Sometimes, after you make a move, an enemy will make a move of their own. If they get the drop on you, they get the first move in the resulting battle. It helps to try to keep your inactive army in a solid defensive position—you really don’t want to get ambushed out in the open. Enemies can actually kill one or two of your characters on the first turn if they ambush you in a vulnerable location, so you’ll need to exercise caution.
One thing that irritates me at this point in the game is that enemies respawn endlessly in certain locations, and every time you pass through those locations, you have to fight them again, even if your whole army is massively stronger than they are. When the level difference is that big, they’re not even good for grinding experience—it’s just a waste of time. Fortunately, battles like that can last as little as two minutes, so it’s really only a minor annoyance. But each one adds up, and when you have to go to a shrine of Mila every time you want to promote someone, you end up in a lot of these pointless battles. It would’ve been nice to have something like Paper Mario’s Bump Attack badge, which would let you instantly beat any enemy you bumped into if they were so much weaker that they wouldn’t give you any Star Points (that game’s version of experience points).
A lot of the playable characters in this game are fairly weak, don’t level up quickly, and don’t gain much from leveling. Fortunately, most of your enemies aren’t that strong, either. Among the internationally released Fire Emblem games, Radiant Dawn’s Dawn Brigade is infamously weak, but they could curb-stomp most of the characters in Echoes. However, I still liked Echoes’ characters more than the Dawn Brigade (with the exception of Faye, whose unhealthy obsession with Alm grew tiresome quickly). The reason is simple: Support conversations. After two compatible characters battle near each other often enough, they can have a conversation. After that conversation, they gain bonuses whenever they’re near each other on the battlefield. Radiant Dawn didn’t have proper Support conversations, unlike most other games since Binding Blade, and Echoes does. Unlike in Awakening and Fates, the maximum support level is A, not S. Your characters aren’t getting married and having kids in the middle of a war.
These Support conversations, along with the main story dialogue, are fully voiced. Not just two- or three-word voice grunts, like in Awakening—every word. Some minor NPCs don’t have voices, but all of the playable characters, villains, and semi-important NPCs do. The quality of the voice acting is remarkable, and it really helps to make the dialogue more engaging. I think my favorite voice is that of Mae, one of Celica’s friends. She’s so sassy and peppy! I love it!
I’ve put over 17 hours into the game so far, and I can’t wait to play more. This game is absolutely worthy of being another entry in the Fire Emblem series. It’s not dethroning Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance as my favorite game in the series (and my favorite video game, period), but I’d easily place it above Sacred Stones, Radiant Dawn, Awakening, and Fates.