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Fire Emblem has always been kind of an atypical series for Nintendo. Based upon their Wars series of strategy games, Fire Emblem fused the strategy elements of that series with elements taken from Japanese RPGs, including a medieval fantasy setting, the focus on story, and the ability to control a variety of characters who steadily grow in power over the course of the game. Since the first game’s Japan-only release in 1990, Fire Emblem has mostly stayed true to its roots. Later games do feature a growing emphasis on extraneous elements such as playing “matchmaker” for your units and getting them to marry each other and have children, but the core gameplay still consists of punishing turn-based tactical combat, with units permanently dying should they fall in battle.

Coming after games like Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia definitely stands out. It is a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, originally released only in Japan for the Famicom in 1992, and which generally has the reputation of being the “oddball” entry of the series, much like Super Mario Bros. 2 or Zelda II. In particular, it leaned more toward the “RPG” side of things, by featuring an explorable world map with towns and dungeons to traverse, all the while featuring the grid-based combat Fire Emblem is known for… except even that has some odd twists from the norm.

I’ve never played Gaiden so I can’t directly compare the remake with its original game, but the little quirks and mechanical differences between Shadows of Valentia and other Fire Emblem games make it feel like a very fresh experience. Shadows of Valentia, for better or worse, calls back to the style and tone of earlier games in the series, while playing differently from both them and newer games in the series. It also features an incredible localization and presentation, which help to elevate the fairly typical story into something that’s quite enjoyable to experience, for the most part. This may not be for everyone, but I personally consider Shadows of Valentia to be among my favorite Fire Emblem games, largely for how much it stands out from other games in the series.

Shadows of Valentia, as the title suggests, focuses on the continent of Valentia. Valentia is split in half horizontally by two neighboring kingdoms with their own respective dragon-deities; Rigel to the north (with the dragon Duma), and Zofia to the south (with the dragon Mila). After a short prologue, the story kicks off with a focus on Alm, a young commoner living in an isolated village, who aspires to achieve something more fulfilling with his life, as well as to reconnect with his close childhood friend, Celica.

The opportunity to do so presents itself, as word of an attempted coup in Zofia reaches his village. Seeing this as his chance, Alm convinces his friends in the village to join him in fighting for the rebel group, the Deliverance, both with the goal to stop the coup and restore order to Zofia, as well as to hopefully find Celica once again.

Meanwhile, Celica sets off on her own journey around the same time, to investigate Mila’s seeming disappearance, and to help bring prosperity back to the land of Zofia. Through various parts of the game, the player will switch back and forth between controlling Alm’s army or Celica’s army, and seeing both of their journeys through to the end.

The main phase of the game, which links everything else together, is the world map. The map consists of predetermined locations to pass through, with occasional branching paths, much like the world maps of Super Mario Bros. 3. Also like that Mario game, there are various enemy groups scattered across the map, blockading one’s path from one town or dungeon to the next. These are usually stationary, but later chapters of the game introduce enemy groups that freely roam the map, and can potentially initiate combat with you, which gives them a free turn to take action while you’re unprepared. Utilizing the “wait” command from the menu, and exercising patience and good planning, will help prevent you from getting caught off guard when this happens.

As part of this game’s more expansive scope, it is possible to visit towns and other non-combat areas during the game. There are multiple villagers and merchants to speak with, who occasionally offer sidequests to take on. The sidequests usually aren’t too interesting, and can be easily ignored, yet can occasionally grant you worthwhile rewards for completing them. There are no traditional shops, but there is a blacksmith in many places, who can reinforce your weapons to make them stronger. There are also countless items lying all over the place, which the player can somewhat hilariously loot with no consequence.

Aside from towns, there are also dungeons to explore. These dungeons (as well as a small handful of special areas in the game) are presented in full 3D, as you control Alm or Celica from a third-person perspective, running through hallways and encountering enemies or hidden treasure. Dungeon exploring is relatively simple, but a fun diversion to take part in. You can find items in dungeons by breaking jars and cutting grass, much like in Zelda, and you can sneak up on enemies in a dungeon and slash at them in third-person to give them a health penalty when turn-based combat starts, in a similar manner to the Trails of Cold Steel games. Permanent saves aren’t available in dungeons, unless you reach a statue of Mila to save your progress at, so item conservation and managing your units’ growing fatigue is an extra consideration in these sections.

Move over, Link. There’s a new pottery slayer in town.

Combat in Shadows of Valentia is significantly different from every other Fire Emblem game. Like other games in the series, combat is still turn-based, and you still command an army of units from different classes (including mercenaries, pegasus knights, clerics, etc.), who you need to give sound orders to in order to prevail against the enemy army. The main difference however, lies in the pacing of each battle, and the various changes that affect said pacing.

On average, one will engage in way more fights in Shadows of Valentia than in any other Fire Emblem game. While battles can often be a long, drawn-out effort in other games, Shadows of Valentia‘s battles tend to be quick and simple, to compensate for their frequency. The smaller, simpler battle maps that exist in dungeons lend themselves well to being completed in just a couple minutes each, so they don’t overstay their welcome.

Even the maps that main story battles take place in are rarely complex in design. The environments that each battle takes place in are usually straightforward in layout, and contrary to almost every other game, enemies here love to charge straight at your units, including the bosses of most missions. Encounters are fast and hectic, often ending in a handful of turns, and critical hits are more common to experience (both from your units and from the enemy’s units), so quick thinking and improvisation is important.

Rather than each character carrying multiple items, each unit in Shadows of Valentia can hold just one item at a time. Everyone has a method of attack by default, regardless of loadout, but can optionally equip another weapon to increase their attack stats, or equip a shield or ring to increase defense/resistance, or equip food to be able to carry a portable healing item in case of emergencies, etc.

On the surface this change in inventory may seem like a step back in complexity, but I found it worked well in execution. Based on each units’ stats, I’d make a decision regarding whether to give a shield to one unit to help them withstand damage, or give a weapon to another character to make their attacks stronger. This necessitated deciding on a general role for each unit to fill, and helps to make each unit feel like they have a specific niche they can satisfy in combat.

Magic spells also function completely differently from every other game in the series. Rather than equipping specific tomes or staves that grant a limited number of uses for a spell, any magic user can cast any spell that they’ve learned at any time. However, since there is no magic point system to keep track of, each spell costs a certain amount of hit points to cast. Simple spells like Fire cost 1 hit point to cast. More powerful spells however, such as Warp, use up an incredible 8 hit points per casting, which requires one to seriously think about how and when to use any given spell without unnecessarily putting your units in harm’s way.

Units can also now learn “Arts”, which are essentially special moves or attacks you can unlock during the course of gameplay. Like spells, they often cost hit points in order to use. Units can equip items (such as Iron Lances or Steel Bows) that can be “leveled-up”, essentially, and thus allow for a new art to be selected as long as said item is equipped. Some items like a shield will grant you the “Swap” art which lets you swap the positions of two adjacent units with each other, while a bow will unlock the “Heavy Draw” art, allowing you to make a more powerful arrow strike.

There are other assorted features that distinguish this from most other Fire Emblem games as well. The series-standard “weapon triangle” system (basically rock-paper-scissors for medieval weaponry) is absent, largely because there are no playable characters in this game who use axes. Character classes who function one way in other Fire Emblem titles also perform completely differently here, with Archers now having a much longer range than they’ve ever had in any other game, and Clerics actually learning multiple offensive spells, which lends them the ability to defend themselves in combat if need be. Other differences that exist can be picked up over the course of one’s playthrough. Suffice it to say that these design choices certainly contribute to making combat in Shadows of Valentia feel quite different from any other Fire Emblem game in existence.

This simplification and divergence from conventions does not always work perfectly, however. Unlike the last few Fire Emblem games prior to this, every character class here can only promote to one other class, with the exception of Villagers. Cavaliers always promote to Paladins, which always promote to Gold Knights, etc. Archers always promote to Snipers, which always promote to Bow Knights, etc. The same is the case with most class lines, with some classes even having as few as one extra promotion available in their line. One thing I particularly liked about recent games in the series was making my own decisions about which class to promote a unit to, so it feels limiting to not have that freedom here.

On top of that, I find it disappointing that unit classes in Shadows of Valentia are restricted by gender, especially coming after the Fates games which had no gender restrictions for each class. Villagers (essentially the lowest-tier class) of any gender can promote to a Mage or a Cavalier, but only men can become Archers, Knights, or Mercenaries, while only women can become Clerics or Pegasus Knights. On top of that, male Mages will always promote to Sages, while female Mages will always promote to Priestesses.

I imagine this gender/class restriction, along with other things like the lack of a weapon triangle, was kept for the sake of preserving the original game’s balance, so that you can’t promote all of your beginning team’s Villagers into Clerics or Pegasus Knights and break the game, but I personally wouldn’t have minded them taking some liberties with that aspect of the game’s design. As it currently is, there’s enough room for customization for said aspect to be enjoyable, but it is a step down from the past few entries in the series.

One of the few major additions to Shadows of Valentia‘s gameplay that I can personally see being carried over to future games, comes in the form of Mila’s Turnwheel. Early in the story, one will obtain this device, which lets the player rewind their turn a limited number of times during battle. Speaking as someone who tends to reload my save every time one of my units dies in other Fire Emblem games, I find Mila’s Turnwheel to be an awesome feature. It cuts down on frustration, and it can only be used a limited number of times (whose max usage is increased by finding cogs), so it can’t be abused ad infinitum. It’s also completely optional, and easy to ignore if one prefers to suck it up and live with their mistakes.

As a mechanic whose purpose is to increase the accessibility of Fire Emblem‘s gameplay for more casual players, Mila’s Turnwheel is mostly good. However, if either Alm or Celica die in combat, then the game immediately ends and kicks you back to the title screen, with no opportunity to use Mila’s Turnwheel. This is supremely frustrating, particularly if you’re in the middle of a long dungeon… like the final post-game dungeon, which is a whopping ten floors long. What would have been much nicer to see is if (since Alm and Celica are both important to the story) either of them were to die in combat, I wish the game would have automatically initiated Mila’s Turnwheel, forcing you to rewind to a previous part of battle (provided you have the cog to spare). This would have cut down on unneeded frustration, so it’s disappointing that the game doesn’t do something like this.

Mila’s Turnwheel in action.

The gameplay in Shadows of Valentia is a curious thing, indeed. Yet aside from that, there’s also the game’s story and presentation to consider. Fortunately, the presentation of this game is a monumental step forward from every previous game in the series, bar none.

Graphically, this makes the 3DS sing. Battle animations are gorgeously detailed, with characters shown actually running up to each other before swinging their weapons, making combat appear much more immersive and exciting. The music is also incredible; the Limited Edition of Shadows of Valentia includes a music CD with both the original Gaiden versions of songs and their remade orchestral Shadows of Valentia versions, and it’s amazing to hear how much the original tracks were enhanced here.

The most significant addition is the incorporation of voice acting (beyond the short clips of dialogue featured in the last couple games). Every single line in the main story is fully voiced in English, and even much of the supplementary dialogue you receive from the villagers you speak to, or experience during the game’s support conversations, are all voiced.

This can make or break a game depending on how capable the voice acting is, so it is wonderful that the English dub in Shadows of Valentia is so good. The voice acting is incredibly well performed and directed. The dialogue and delivery flow naturally. All of the main cast turn in great performances, but I especially have to give notice to Ian Sinclair’s performance as the Rigelian Emperor’s nephew Lord Berkut. He absolutely knocks it out of the park with his incredible delivery in every scene he’s in.

In general, the English localization is great. The story is paced well, and the characters (with admittedly the exception of some of the less-important bad guys) generally feel like real, believable people rather than flat caricatures. This is a significant shift from the past few Fire Emblem games, which featured controllable characters who often had fairly outlandish and exaggerated personalities and quirks. Even characters in this game who might potentially be described by one as fitting a certain archetype (the flirt, the snobbish friend, etc.) are more dynamic than said one-word descriptions would give them credit for. 8-4’s localization for this just might possibly be my favorite localization of an originally non-English game I’ve ever experienced.

That said, Shadows of Valentia feels like the writers took the framework of a fairly simple story, and expanded upon it quite a bit. It largely works, but then there are certain moments in the later acts of the story that felt contrived to me – as if they were ordained to happen, regardless of how much or how little sense they might make in context.

In addition, the story has kind of an over-reliance on certain tropes that some might view as tiring; you could make a drinking game based on how many times a damsel-in-distress needs to be rescued here, for instance. Certain aspects of the main story really made me cringe, and one particular plot point late in the game seemed to essentially undermine one of the main themes of the entire story.

At the same time, the moment-to-moment dialogue is so good, and most characters remain likable throughout the low points, resulting in the story’s weaker aspects not necessarily ruining the experience… but kind of dulling it, nonetheless. Overall, the main story in Shadows of Valentia is more consistent in quality than that of Awakening or Fates, but still leaves room for improvement.

All things considered, should you pick this up? For the most part, despite my misgivings with certain aspects of its story, I consider this to be incredible. It is my second-favorite Fire Emblem game I’ve played, after Path of Radiance for the Gamecube. In some ways, the return to conventions from Fire Emblem‘s past feels quite refreshing, and the particular design quirks of this game’s take on combat are even moreso a novel experience.

If your main interest in the series has to do with its gameplay, you may appreciate the fresh take on combat, though if intricate map designs and objectives are your thing, I’d recommend playing Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest instead. Also, if you really love the self-insert romantic matchmaking silliness of Awakening or Fates (and I say that with love), you may find its absence from Shadows of Valentia to be disappointing.

If you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before, this certainly isn’t a bad way to begin the series, though I’d add the caveat that playing other games later on might throw you off, due to how different they are from Shadows of Valentia. As far as I’m concerned, this is a wonderful send-off for the Fire Emblem series on the 3DS. I cannot wait to see what direction the series takes from here.

One last note: I haven’t tried any of the DLC, but I did pick up the Alm & Celica amiibo figurines, and tried out their respective unique dungeons. They’re both basically just a set of five battles each, that increase sharply in difficulty with each successive battle. I tried them right after finishing Act 3, and they seemed designed fairly well enough to where they were pretty challenging, yet not unbeatable with the right loadout/tactics. You can take either Alm’s team or Celica’s team into both dungeons; I opted to have Alm go into Duma’s Ordeals, and Celica take on Mila’s Ordeals. Duma’s Ordeals seemed significantly harder to me, though that could have just been due to the fact I grinded more with Celica than I did with Alm. Ultimately, if you were already planning on getting the amiibos for collecting’s sake, the dungeons are worth a try, but they’re very short and simple, and definitely not worth buying just for the sake of playing through them.