The plot in Shadows of Valentia manages to be both generic but haunting in its simplicity. There are prophecies of secret royals and magical, god-blessed weapons. There’s an evil king and an evil cult that have to be stopped.
However, in a refreshing alternative to most other JRPG fare, the game doesn’t try to insult its players’ intelligence by hiding twists and turns. It expects that the average gamer will see its reveals from a mile away. The real twists and turns are all contained within its protagonists’ believable and compelling emotional reactions.
At first the peace-loving, bountiful Kingdom Zofia and the war torn, barren nation of Rigel will evoke Fates’ Hoshido and Nohr. However, appearances are deceiving this time around, and I was sufficiently pleased with the amount of depth to the story.
Gameplay and Battles
The battle system has been drastically simplified. The famed weapon triangle of Swords beat Axes, Axes beat Lances, and Lances beat Swords is not implemented here. It took my like 12 dead Pegasus Knights before I remembered that lances aren’t good against swords here.
There’s very little reclassing, too compared to Awakening and Fates. For the most part, if you get Bob the Knight, he will stay Bob the Knight until the end of his days. Unlike other entries in the series, the game doesn’t guide you on reclassing at all. It merely tells you that you can promote a character after they reach a certain level. And don’t look to enemy stats, levels, or class rank for any hints on the optimal moment.
Additionally, spells and special skills will cost varying amounts of HP. I enjoyed this added layer of strategy. By late game, I had assembled an army of killer mages who could all heal each other.
Reduced growth rates were something I did not love. I’m the type to reset for optimal level ups and stat gains, but watching Grey and Tobin gain one or two points on Luck or Skill for seven levels was just depressing. Expect every character to gain only three or four points of resistance in a given play through if they’re lucky.
Lastly I understand that enemies need a toolbox of skills the player shouldn’t be able to access, but some of the abilities that many of the magical enemies have in this game range from broken to absurdly broken. Witches can teleport anywhere on the map and take another action. Some enemies summon nigh-endless reinforcements. Others pelt you with free AOE damage. Many magical bosses don’t lose HP when they cast spells. One very annoying boss in particular only takes damage every four rounds of combat, and he can heal, AND summon hordes of monsters. I wish more of that inherent brokenness had translated to clever map design. Magical enemies are especially scary when one considers that the highest resistance growth rate in the game is a measly 8 percent.
Mila’s Turnwheel in particular stands out as a new, helpful gimmick that allows players to rewind entire actions and turns back for their benefit. No more will a critical hit out of nowhere spell the end of your run. For raising up weaker units or low turn counts, it’s invaluable. I was hesitant to use it as first as a Classic mode purist, but the shaky hit rates and random attack patterns of witches will cause even the most ardent of traditionalists to reconsider… especially if one of your characters gains resistance during a level up.
There isn’t a ton of variety in map design. You’ll almost always be routing armies of enemies. Still, special mention should go to the earlygame boss Desaix for giving players an incentive to grind a bit and try to steal his insanely broken Dracoshield.
Players of Fates and Awakening will also note the lack of a Lunatic mode. Still, there are plenty of ingame achievement medals to incentivize different playstyles and test your patience, like the Blitzkrieg medal.
Supports and Conversations
Echoes has fewer supports but this makes sense given that they are fully voiced to perfection this time. There’s also no marriage system unlike Awakening and Fates, which I actually adored. When characters talked to each other, it was a pleasant surprise rather than a predestined plot for higher stats.
I did feel that the game was missing story-centric boss conversations, unfortunately. Fire Emblem is famous for maximizing emotional payoff through special conversations between specific protagonists and villains that have wronged them. Echoes does away with this–boss lines are voiced, but always generic.
Characters with the exception of Alm and Celica who have access to a magical convoy of supplies, can only hold one item at a time. No longer can you give your knight three javelins, an axe, a sword, and a healing potion. Instead of by class, skills are also linked to weapon mastery. I found these restrictions and gimmicks refreshing and more realistic. It made me put a lot more thought into who got a cursed Shadow Sword or healing ring.
OVERWORLD and GRINDING
For the most part I enjoyed being able to choose where my character moved on the world map and being able to participate in battles at my own pace. Want to test your mettle at Fear Mountain? Or maybe you need to reclass everyone at a Shrine first.
Additionally, being able to visit locations and click on your surroundings was highly interactive and fun. Getting to invade a castle then listen to Alm’s commentary on its décor was hilarious.
Fates and Awakening both featured skirmish battles that one could use to grind for experience or rare items, and while their difficulty was wildly variable depending on game mode or RNG, they were ALWAYS optional. Echoes’ overworld either forces you into random encounters, to plan two or three missions or actions ahead to avoid them. Avoiding dungeon encounters entails memorizing their spawn points.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Celica’s actions couldn’t trigger a spawn on Alm’s side of the map and vice versa. The only way to really avoid random encounters is to be two or three saves ahead and reset until you know where and when an enemy party will drop. The game would really have benefitted from an unlockable setting or feature that would limit random encounters—something like the one in Bravely Default.
I will say that I DID enjoy having the opportunity to grind to help the entire cast of characters catch up when they fell behind, but I hated that avoiding grinding was such a chore.
Art Direction and Voice Acting
The game is BEAUTIFUL! Fire Emblem’s 3DS developers have really mastered the art of marrying cel-shaded 3D character models with anime-style cutaways and visual effects. Battles feel crisp and dynamic. Spells and finishing attacks cut through the air with fluidity and grace. At times, the art leaps between your favorite fairytale storybook and guilty pleasure shonen anime with baby doll faces and big flashy explosions. I would argue that Echoes has the most aesthetically pleasing and well-animated cutscenes of any Fire Emblem game, but their placement in the narrative feels sporadic at times. For instance, the final battle and epilogue do not come with any cutscenes, which I found rather anticlimactic.
I truly hope Echoes’ trend of fully voiced characters is here to stay. Listening to everyone’s hopes, dreams, and backstories in full, vocal detail really fleshed them out for me. Fates suffered from characters who usually had one thing about their personality that was emphasized and voiced. “I like meat!” “Yay, killing!” “I want a husband.” Stock characters do grace us in Valentia, but we really get to know them and watch them grow over the journey. Sonia, the sexy and sharp-tongued sorceress comes off as cold and callous, but listening to her sad story of being abandoned by her father at a priory with Tara Platt giving ample space and energy to each emotional beat really allowed me to see her as multidimensional rather than flat. Kyle McCarley and Erica Lindbeck in particular really carry the game as Alm and Celica through a wide, cathartic range of emotions, battle cries, and tears. Their hopes and dreams while not out of the ordinary are heartfelt and charged with intention.