Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review | Old is New Again

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is the latest in Nintendo’s long running turn-based strategy series. It is also a remake of the second entry that never made its way out of Japan. A solid entry that adds a few elements into the Fire Emblem mix, but may take some steps back for newer fans.

Back to a Simpler Time

All the relationship shenanigans of recent years are gone and the more ‘old school’ in-battle support conversations are one of the few ways to relate with your party members. Getting to know your fellow squadmates, it helped add depth to the world. However, the story loses some impact because you can choose if you want to recruit most party members. This means story moments actively ignore 70% of the characters you’ve grown to love. But that’s not to say the main plat isn’t good.

There are many characters who do make an impact, particularly those involved in the political intrigue that could only be born of two countries at war. Shadows of Valentia remains pretty lighthearted and cheerful despite the grave stakes, and that makes everything feel inevitable rather than hard fought. The story gets the job done, but don’t expect anything more than some light backstabbing.

Behind the war plotline are two protagonists, Alm and Celica, who may not be who they initially seem. The game knows you know this, and makes it more about how the characters themselves deal with this new information and their new roles in the world. As characters, they’re interesting in their own ways, but the supporting cast helps add to their backstories and to also turn what would have otherwise been pawns on a board into real people. Alm and Celica each have their own parties and you can (for the most part) play out their scenarios in any order.

Combat in Valentia

The bulk of the gameplay exists on large square grids. Before each fight, you can arrange your fighters and customize equipment before setting everything into motion. Each character can only move about the grid once per turn and all attacks prevent further action, regardless of movement. This is where the chess-like nature of positioning units comes in. You can freely see where enemies can move and attack and need to use this to plan not only the next turn, but to be ready for the one after that as well. Additional knowledge of magic, bow, and melee attack ranges is the other very important factor in unit placement. Shadows of Valentia almost becomes a dance, with you moving you party around in a wave to shield a healer, or to wipe out a boss.

However, the most noticeable regression is within the battles themselves. The series’ weapon triangle is noticeably absent. You won’t need to worry about sending a sword-user to take out a spear-wielder or anything like that. Instead, it’s all focused on the defense and resistance attributes. Defense is for physical attacks, while resistance is for magic. It might initially seem like a big step back strategically, but I found the changes to actually make the battles more interesting. Instead of sending a couple of swordsmen to overwhelm a group of doomed axe-users, the battles felt more like two armies actually fighting for their lives.

The maps themselves might feel a bit bland to some, as a lot of them are fields with trees and mountains spread around, but I don’t mind. The levels have a much stronger focus on survival and overcoming the odds because you can’t always rely on choke points. And when there is an exploitable strategic element, the range of magic and bows come into play as well as the enemy’s clear willingness to use anything and everything against you.

Regardless of the arena, using your wits to overcome your opponent never gets old, and Shadows of Valentia supplies that in spades. The core combat of Fire Emblem games has always been fantastic and that’s no different here. After each battle, bonus experience is doled out to all participants, ensuring lesser used fighters will at least get something. However, leveling up can only be achieved by actual battle experience.

Another key feature is the ability to turn back time during a battle. It can only be done during your turn and only when the main party member is alive (if they die, it’s an instant game over), but it can be used to rewind all the way back to the beginning. This mechanic starts with only three uses, but by the end, I had ten to use in every battle. If you’re playing the brutal Classic Mode where units permanently die, you will be using this mechanic a lot.

The weapon triangle may be gone but that doesn’t mean enemies can’t appear out of nowhere and mess you up. Or that the AI won’t smartly decide to surround a character to ensure their death. Positioning and terrain bonuses are integral to survival and Shadows of Valentia can be brutal.

Run From Your Problems

There’s a questionable mechanic in this Fire Emblem as well: retreating. You can freely explore the world map via nodes, returning to towns and dungeons whenever you want. This also lets you see where the next battle is and when to initiate it. At the beginning of the third turn of almost every battle, you can retreat. That might sound like a small thing you won’t ever use, but all defeated enemies will not be revived.

When you go back into the battle, the enemy will be at full health but weakened significantly by now being a smaller force. About halfway through Shadows of Valentia, I realized the benefits of this mechanic and started to exploit it when I felt like it.You can even take this a step further and use your last movements of the third turn to go all out by putting units into really terrible positions just to kill a specific enemy, and then retreat right after.

Beyond just traditional healing, certain white mage classes get access to offensive magic along with teleportation abilities. These abilities include dispelling Terrors, monsters that the enemy summons for reinforcements in battle. And they will summon them. A lot. There are a limited amount of enemies than can be on the field at any given point, but until that is reached, expect Terrors to be heading your way. The Terrors don’t move until the next turn but you’ll be left setting up elaborate defenses in order to weather the oncoming storm.

I can’t help but feel that lowering the difficulty but also removing retreating and limiting the time powers further would have made for a better experience. Especially deep into Celica’s campaign when Terrors rain from the sky. There are other moments in the campaign where the amount of Terrors spammed at me got insufferably obnoxious.

Arguably the most interesting new element in Shadows of Valentia are the explorable dungeons. Enemies roam about and you can choose to fight them when you want, unless they see you and give chase. The battles are smaller and faster, with your units being healed between each skirmish, but eventually they will become fatigued. This places them in a weakened state until you use an item or reach a shrine. The early dungeons are entirely forgettable, but there are some at the end that were a blast to fight through.

This is the set up and direction I want Fire Emblem to go in. Managing units in smaller battles while exploring a dungeon with bosses at the end of every floor was an incredible experience. You can’t save in dungeons and the time turning ability does not reset, meaning the earlier you use it, the fewer times you’ll have it for later on.

These dungeons become an obstacle in and of themselves. The unknown is your friend, offering treasures, safe rooms, and stat boosts. It can just as easily bring about your downfall. The battles might be smaller and more focused, but a ‘just one more room’ attitude can get you trapped in a battle you weren’t prepared for, wasting your time powers in the process. By the time you reach the end, you’ll be weighing the options: go back and save, or risk it all with fewer time resets.

It is such a shame that most of these dungeons are simple and few. The fact that I got to the end of the game and then learned how good they can be is very disappointing.

The Verdict

Shadows of Valentia is more Fire Emblem but also a change of pace. More recent fans might not like the missing romance options, weapon triangle, and battlefield changes. These are sometimes dramatic differences, but those looking for a compelling strategy game with the series’ staple excellent characters, will be pleased by what’s included as well as the new features this remake has up its sleeve. Just be ready for some enemy AI shenanigans along the way.

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