Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia suffers from an identity crisis in almost everything it does. For example, one early dialogue exchange sees an enemy drop a surprisingly crude word apropos of nothing, and then the game subsequently wastes ~25 hours holding your hand through a comically absurd story driven entirely by the brain damaged stupidity of both lead characters. Fire Emblem Gaiden’s story has been fleshed out to a certain degree for this remake, but only the inconsequential bits seem to have received this treatment, leaving the lore at roughly the same level as the original. The end result is that the bare-bones prophecies and plot developments force relatively complex characters to act in incredibly simple-minded ways at times, flitting between being legitimate leading characters and idiots so infuriatingly dull and shortsighted that it’s a wonder they can remember to breathe. I desperately want to give this game a pass for all of its many flaws because of my long-running love for Fire Emblem and the amount of time I legitimately had fun with it (unlike the flaming trash heaps that are Fates and Heroes), but you don’t get extra points for being better than the absolute worst, and the sad truth is that this just isn’t a good enough end product.

The writing here is abysmal

Before the game showed up, I checked out some pre-release reviews and saw some writers claim that Shadows of Valentia had stellar writing. I can’t even begin to imagine what bad writing would look like to these people. Really, it’s my own fault; I’d seen people say the same things about Fates and Heroes, so at this point it’s on me for daring to hope for a competent, functional plot in a Fire Emblem game, something that hasn’t really existed since 2007 (or 2013’s Awakening, if you want to really stretch the word “functional” to its breaking point). SoV is a story told in a stunningly bad way, inheriting some of its sins from Gaiden in its laudable attempt to hit all of the same story beats, but also inventing entirely new ones that plague it throughout. The crazy thing is that a lot of the problems here are ones shared by Fates, so it’s a situation where the old game’s story was adhered to religiously, but filled in with enough poorly written original content that it’s both a bare-bones plot and one drowning in manufactured drama and contrived stupidity.

Classic FE events in modern FE tone

Fire Emblem Gaiden was before my time, sadly, with my first game in the series being the fourth entry, but I looked up some key scenes that really bothered me in SoV to see how Gaiden handled them. Surprisingly enough, the fan translation for the original handles things much better than this remake does, possessing that understated, “leave the emotion mostly implied for the player and say a lot in few words” quality that so many good older games possessed. It’s not surprising that SoV abandons this—the only modern game I can think of that’s nailed that older quality of dialogue is Undertale—but what it’s been replaced with is lengthy conversations that accomplish almost nothing and make the characters look ridiculous. The first scene that really bothered me was at the end of the second act, where main characters Celica and Alm randomly argue about whether fighting is necessary or not. This exists in Gaiden as well, but the emotions were turned up to 11 and the knob torn off for the remake, and it doesn’t even come close to being compelling. Celica is being comically hypocritical in this conversation, having made her way to Alm by slaying several full crews of pirates, and this is sadly the beginning of Celica’s decline from likable character to insufferable plot device.

I can’t get into that too much because it goes pretty deep into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Celica is quixotic to the Nth degree and prone to acting in ways that truly defy logic. One character promises that her harm at his hands would magically fix everything, and she then spends the entire rest of the game either moping about it, refusing to tell her friends about it, or continuing on with the intention of dying to fix everything even though she’s at different points recognized that said character is both completely insane and probably lying. Also, he rants a lot about destruction and miscellaneous evil stuff, but giving him power is, like, totally going to make the world a better place. Because reasons.

The disconnect between old Fire Emblem events happening in modern Fire Emblem’s skin becomes especially stark when SoV’s slavish devotion to Gaiden causes it to include identical story flubs. For example: a minor villain’s death quote spoils the big twist of Alm’s parentage (that’s sarcastic, but still). Then when the big twist comes around, it has zero impact because said villain spoiled it hours earlier. There are also several completely unnecessary and arguably patronizing bits of dialogue that offer further confirmation in case you fell victim to a sudden spell of narcolepsy the first time it blatantly spoiled itself. It’s a strange thing to be completely disconnected from late-game emotional scenes, watching something that you feel you should be a part of as the player, but that’s simply impossible to be invested in because of the incompetence of the writing.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

The hand marks of destiny aren’t only underdeveloped story-wise, but an added ego stroke lazily added in so that players could still get to play the fated-hero-of-something.

The lore is almost nonexistent

Both Celica and Alm have brands on their hands. As far as I can tell, this wasn’t a thing in Gaiden and was only added to hint at story developments that were already painfully obvious. Yet again we’re dealing with a game that treats its audience like they can’t follow a basic story without getting bored and wandering out into traffic. Now it’s not enough to have heroes who simply help people! No, they have to be destined heroes or else no one could possibly be interested. These brands aren’t ever explored beyond being a thing that apparently happens as part of this weird prophecy that only a few people are aware of; they’re just a half-baked way to have the main characters recognized because no one could think of a better way of handling things. It blows my mind how lazy the Fire Emblem writers have become, and while I recognize that one of the biggest points of supporting SoV is to show interest so that we can get games like Seisen no Keifu remade, I shudder at the thought of this pathetic writing ruining one of my favorite games of all time. Seriously: everyone who does the writing for these games needs to be fired.

There are a million other story-and-character things I could complain about, too. There’s a weird hermit who says some weird stuff to Alm as part of a sidequest that’s never explained, for one. Celica has her own weird little person in the form of a priestess who shares something weird her mother once said. Both are ultimately explainable, but only with some awkward leaps of logic. I do know that the game has an aggressive DLC plan, but it’s honestly becoming impossible to differentiate between content that’s awkward because it ties into later DLC and content that’s awkward because the writers would be better suited flipping burgers. Oh, and the new character! There might be more than one, but the masked guy really stands out. He’s all protective of Celica for some random reason, keeps showing up to protect her, knows a lot about her, and has the same hair color as she does. Also, Celica had a brother who probably died in a fire but no one found the body. Between Heroes and SoV, Fire Emblem is developing a bad habit of obvious masked characters that’s becoming truly embarrassing. I know that all sounds horribly spoileristic, but I promise that I’m being a hundred times more subtle than the game ever bothers to be about any of this, which is the overarching point here.

Even the translation isn’t great

There are some mixed up words and outright typos to be found here, but what really bothers me are the number of times the game’s dialogue leans on all-caps words and sentences for effect. This works for one or two characters whose depictions suggest a certain degree of constant excitability, but they’re not the only ones who randomly punctuate their sentences with capitalized words. No, it’s everyone, and this is used for effect all the time, even when a simple exclamation mark would more than suffice. The end result is that the few scenes that could have benefited from capital letters wind up lacking contrast when compared to the rest of the game’s dialogue, losing their potential oomph in the process. There are also a few moments where characters seem to say something and then immediately contradict it, and I have no idea if this is a fault of the translation or awkward writing. For example, at one point you save a character and she mentions that she was caught looking for someone, but then she magically knows exactly where he is. This kind of thing is explainable given that her capture was used as leverage against him and someone may have mentioned as much to her offscreen, but the phrasing (“I’ve been searching”) suggests ignorance regarding his whereabouts that unexpectedly gives way to a ton of incredibly detailed knowledge.

Voice acting and the bottom screen

What could voice acting and the lower 3DS screen possibly have in common, you ask? Inconsistency. The voice acting in general is okay for most characters, which is genuinely surprising given the series’ tendency for terrible voice acting (see: Radiant Dawn’s cutscenes), but not all of the game is voice acted. That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of it, of course, because characters are talking almost all of the time, but there are also some sidequest-givers who have no voice acting whatsoever. It’s also strange how there’s one type of conversation where Alm or Celica will answer back, and another type where their replies are implied rather than actually taking place. Like, in one conversation someone will say something and Alm will respond back, while in another they’ll ask something and then immediately have a second dialogue response summarizing what Alm had presumably said as though he were a silent protagonist. Strange stuff.

SoV was thrown together too fast, and you can really tell if you pay attention to the bottom screen. I obsessively make screenshots (I probably spent 10-20 hours solely on screenshots for this game, separately saving tops and bottoms in Miiverse and then gluing them together for over 1700 screenshots), so I was paying attention to the bottom screen at all times. What I noticed is that there’s no consistent rule about what’s down there and when; one conversation may display a village navigation menu on the bottom screen, while another will instead have a blurry picture of the village. Other times it’s the game’s generic brown-paper background. There’s no consistency, not even when you’re comparing the exact same types of conversations. Of course, I’m not holding this or the voice acting thing against the game because they’re ultimately minor quibbles. It’s merely worth keeping in mind to get a feel for how quickly the game was put together because it helps to explain why a lot of the game’s flaws are the way they are.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

This scene: “WE’VE ENCOUNTERED A MINOR DISAGREEMENT! GOODBYE FOREVER, YOU JERK! THIS IS NOT FORCED DRAMA AT ALL!”

The mechanics are a step back from the brink

I know it’s popular to say that Fire Emblem is defined by its mechanics more than its story, and that’s true to a certain extent, but I see no reason why we can’t demand competency in both when that’s the bar we hold other games to. Still, the mechanics in SoV go a long way toward salvaging the game, and there were moments where I was genuinely enjoying playing because of them. I’ve long been a fan of the idea of controlling two separate armies, something that worked to great effect in Radiant Dawn, and it works decently here even if it doesn’t quite reach those same heights. It’s especially interesting given the fact that the game uses a world map, something rarely seen in the series, though convenient rock slides separate both armies so that they go through separate areas rather than being able to meet or interact with the same locations and people. Act 1 sees you raising Alm’s army and going off to war. Act 2 sees you raising Celica’s army and going off to try and solve things peacefully while slaughtering countless pirates. Act 3 and beyond allows you to control both of them on the world map, visiting villages, completing sidequests, and running through dungeons at will.

There’s a whole lot of Gaiden here

Not content to simply hit all the same story beats as Gaiden, SoV also incorporates most of the same gameplay features. Gaiden is well known for having some strange gameplay quirks that don’t fall in line with what’s usually expected out of a Fire Emblem game, but they’re actually implemented surprisingly well here; things like unbreakable weapons, (most) magic damaging the caster, and increased bow range are all things that could have gone horribly awry, but somehow end up being the most memorable and enjoyable parts of the game. Granted, I hated unbreakable weapons in Fates, and I still hate it in Fates. High-level equipment inflicting severe stat penalties defeated the point of upgrading, so you never had a reason to move on to better equipment. Weapons here, on the other hand, have more reasonable penalties and much more flexibility. Even the few weapons that have terrible stat penalties can be worked around by finding and using the game’s many fountains that allow you to permanently raise a character’s stats.

Magical characters learn spells inherent to that class (clerics will always have the nosferatu spell and eventually learn the seraphim spell, for example) and character (some clerics will eventually learn warp, while others will learn summoning spell invoke, and these minor differences cause each individual unit to play a very specific role). As for physical units, they can only equip a single weapon, but most weapons have secret “arts” unlocked as they’re used. Arts are basically combat equivalents of magic, HP drain and all. As a result, most units are continually learning a stream of new skills and spells that you can play around with in combat, and weapons/stat-boosting items can be swapped freely between fights to give you a better chance against whatever specific challenge lies ahead. Add in a steady stream of new equipment and the inevitable combat arts hidden therein and you have a pretty great reason to regularly upgrade character equipment.

Mid-map supports and no children

These are ultimately minor observations, but they’re also things that made me incredibly happy. Rather than supports becoming available between chapters (of which SoV has none), ally characters have a “talk” symbol over their head when one becomes available, and you have to use up that turn moving to them and selecting the talk option from the menu. It’s the most minor of minor touches, but a return to form that I greatly appreciated nonetheless. Then there are the children, or to be more specific, the lack thereof. Gone are the creepy breeding programs that catered to the darkest corners of the internet. I’d love to say that this has strengthened the support conversations, but the only noticeable effect is the absence of the generic father/child or mother/child dialogues that had to accommodate any possible parent and thus lacked any kind of uniqueness. It may not have improved the overall writing, but it’s still far better than the alternative.

Only normal and hard

There are only two options as far as difficulty goes: normal and hard. Beyond that, you can select either classic mode with permadeath or casual mode where units come back after dying. These are the only options, and while I was surprised by the lack of any harder modes unlocking once I finished the game, all of the possible permutations of difficulty and permadeath settings were really messing with the game balance in previous entries, so the restraint is a welcome improvement.

But this game is easy

Much like the Game Boy entries, the difficulty here is practically nonexistent for most of the game. I played on hard/classic, so permadeath was on, and yet I breezed through SoV with very little resistance save for one or two weird difficulty spikes and poorly communicated/designed levels. Most of the game is trivialized by absurdly powerful magic; saints in particular become almost comically overpowered, with my early-game cleric Faye eventually soloing entire end-game maps. That’s in addition to some of them learning the warp skill that can send a character halfway across the map, and other saints can summon illusionary allies to aggro and/or distract enemies. It’s all kind of ridiculous and feels like you’re cheating somehow, yet the rare difficulty spikes practically demand these kinds of tactics, making it even odder when those very same tactics make it possible to quickly carve through later maps that one would wrongly expect to be more difficult. Overall, however, the difficulty is in a comfortable spot similar to that found in the GBA games, so this would be a decent starting point for a Fire Emblem newbie.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

When so much is unnecessarily put in all-caps, it loses its impact.

The sidequests and dungeons are awful

Now that I’ve talked about some of the stuff I like, it’s time to go back to talking about why this game isn’t good enough, and there’s no better place to start than the sidequests. See, towns are little hubs made up of a few screens, and you can talk to various NPCs on these screens. A few NPCs have sidequests for you, and these are universally terrible. The very first one I found was to kill X number of bandits, this being the kind of embarrassing ancillary fluff more at home in a lazy MMORPG than here. Other sidequests don’t fare much better, usually requiring you to find a specific item or hunt down a character in an enemy-filled dungeon.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of why these sidequests are awful yet, but it’s important to first have an understanding of dungeons. These are 3D areas you freely explore, usually littered with boxes and the occasional chest. You can find new weapons, gold and silver marks used for upgrading weapons, and all kinds of food items that cure fatigue. Fatigue is a strange feature, with your characters becoming worn down as dungeons continue on and needing food to recover (or you can leave and re-enter—this feature only matters in dungeons and everyone is always 100% outside of dungeons) with their stats eventually being reduced temporarily. The only stat I ever noticed going down was HP, but then, I always had a ton of food handy since dungeons typically provide more food than your allies require. As a result, fatigue is pointless as a mechanic. However, keep in mind that there are many different types of food—this will tie back into sidequest design.

Okay, so at one point you’re tasked with finding a little girl in a dungeon. You go in there, fight all of the enemies, and find her at a shrine (which you save at in dungeons). You try to talk to the girl, but she freaks out and runs away. You leave the shrine, which is always an area transition, and the dungeon’s enemies have respawned because area transitions always respawn enemies. It’s reasonable to assume the girl is still somewhere in the dungeon because of this, but that’s actually it. She runs off and magically makes it back to her village. Quest done, get your reward. Zero depth whatsoever. All quests are terrible like this. One quest has a son go off to try and resurrect his dead dad for the sake of his mother. You find his journal and he’s dead, but then you fight your way through the dungeon and find the resurrection waters (which can be used to bring back any of your characters who died). I hadn’t lost any characters because I immediately reset the system any time someone dies out of principle, and yet there was no option to maybe bring back the son or his father. Kid’s dead, go tell his mom so she can be depressed, the end. If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s that there’s no obvious sign these quests are finished. There’s no arc, no feeling that you’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to do. Things are just randomly resolved sometimes and you have to constantly run back to the quest giver to check if you’re done yet.

Consumable items and quests

Some sidequests require certain food items. Imagine how annoying it is to use up the last of an item to ward off fatigue, only for a later quest to require it. This is doubly annoying since there’s a pretty strict item limit, so carrying too many food items can keep you from being able to pick up that shiny new sword you found. Oh, and it seems that items you get in combat can go over the limit, so eating one piece of food isn’t always enough—sometimes you have to eat 2-3 pieces before enough space has opened up. The whole thing is needlessly irritating, and doubly so when you consider that some quests require sending items to the other army via random peddlers. Each peddler can only send a single item before disappearing, though, so you can run out and find some quests impossible to complete. At least, until the game ends; you can continue playing after the ending and roam the map freely with all of your combined characters and items, and some quests can only be completed after the game is finished if you missed out on them.

One in particular involves Celica defeating X number of undead enemies at a graveyard, and the enemies stop spawning there after a certain point until the game is finished. This wouldn’t be a problem if the quest was obvious, but you have to return there after a certain point for it to show up, so it’s easily missable. I also missed another quest, this one involving finding steel lances (you can’t buy equipment in this game, so that’s probably harder than it sounds), but this one couldn’t be completed after the game was finished for some reason. The guy in question complained that I hadn’t found something he had never asked me for, then disappeared forever. Apparently some quests are time-sensitive, and there’s no indication of which is which. To anyone looking to 100% this game: good luck untangling all of this inconsistency and terrible design.

It’s like you’re expected to be psychic

At one point, you encounter pegasus knights Palla and Catria looking for their sister Est. You learn where she’s being held and race there, helping Palla and Catria fight off some random enemies in the process, and then you continue on. You save Est and race back to recruit both of the pegasus knights and bathe in their accolades, only for them to have nothing to say on the matter. This happened to me, and it was so weird that I actually reloaded a save and went looking for the sisters after I helped them. Turns out they randomly return to the harbor where they originally appeared despite presumably still searching for their sister (this makes no sense) and can be recruited from there, and saving Est with both of them present causes a special scene where they’re all happy to be reunited. As with so much else, this is designed and communicated incredibly poorly.

Gameplay irritations

The final few dungeons are awful, a bunch of lengthy mazes with not enough save points and too many identical corridors. Beyond that, the final dungeon has riddles that are poorly communicated and designed. For example, there’s a room with four teleporters. Only one goes to the next area, though, and the hint is something about a lion’s tail. There’s a symbol of a lion on the floor, but its tail could be intuited to point at either of two teleporters depending on whether you take it to mean the overall direction or the direction the tip is pointed in. I chose the latter and got sent back with all enemies respawned, and while these kinds of stupid riddles are rare, they were ubiquitous enough at the end to really get under my skin.

Then there are witches. First, though, a story: there’s this archer named Python, and he’s the bane of my existence because he has a terrible resistance stat. I could never manage to get him leveled up, either, so he mostly sat out of enemy range in case I needed a light hit to put down an enemy. Then levels with witches started appearing, and witches have a ridiculous ability to teleport anywhere on the map without it consuming their movement or attack for that turn. This isn’t reflected in the purple danger grid, either, so there were a bunch of times when I tried to bring Python, only to have him unexpectedly one-shotted by a witch. Every time I ended a turn and a character died, odds were it was Python. I despise Python.

Ahem. As cheap as teleporting witches can be, however, there are two bosses who can one-up them as far as patently unfair ridiculousness goes. Both have the ability to use a magical ability with a 1-turn windup that does 8-18 damage to every character on the entire map regardless of where they are, and surely we can all agree that having to rush a map because a boss can kill or maim everyone at will is perhaps not designed as ideally as it potentially could be, yes? There’s also another boss who comes with a gimmick, that being that he can only be damaged on every fourth attack against him. Not only is this communicated incredibly poorly, but any reliance you have on summoned illusionary allies can make it easy to lose count. Oh, and if you hit the start button and skipped the whole phase, then you have to wait for an attack to land, then plan for four moves after that. That’s not even the most annoying part of this particular boss; he’s the boss of a map that claims the goal is to “rout the enemy.” This is a lie; the more realistic goal of this map is to survive six turns, then clean up any remaining enemies. Unless you went onto a wiki, lasting six turns is really the only realistic way of getting through this map.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Yeah, yeah, we both know that I did it. No need to be passive-aggressive about it.

Summon-offs and the turnwheel

Allies being able to summon groups of illusionary allies might seem like it’s hugely balanced in your favor, but enemies quickly show up who can summon groups of enemies in much the same way, and often in greater numbers. The end result of this is that several levels become summon-offs where you and the enemy sit around watching summons beat the crap out of each other while hoping for a lucky crit to open a path for your actual characters to move forward. These are the most tedious maps in the entire game, with casters often being protected by archers to ensure that you can’t have one of your aerial units fly in and take them out, and calling it a “slog” would be a massive understatement.

Finally, there’s the turnwheel. You obtain this fairly early, and its function appears to be rewinding time. If you lose a character, you can always rewind (provided the character wasn’t one of the main ones whose death causes a game over) and try again. To be perfectly honest, this felt like cheating and I wanted to get through the game without relying on it at all. Then I had the final boss all set up for a final strike, with Alm equipped with the only weapon that can finish it off, but he wasn’t going to do enough damage unless he landed a critical hit. I moved another character into danger to whittle its life down a bit, but she got a critical hit and since her attack would have finished the boss off, her attack was nullified entirely thanks to some obscure skill. Recognizing that I’d have to do the entire annoying final map all over again if I ended the turn with so many characters in a vulnerable spot, I finally relented and turned back time to before her attack. Attacking with Alm instead, he landed a critical hit and I beat the game. It still felt like cheating, but the game cheated me by nullifying the magic attack beforehand, so I figure we’re square. Fortunately, the rest of the game was easy to beat without having to turn back time, hence my earlier statement that it’s a bit on the easier side.

This game crashed on me

You wouldn’t expect this kind of thing out of a first-party Nintendo game, but SoV actually crashed on my 2DS. You can’t screenshot such errors for obvious reasons, but I took a picture with my phone because it was so surprising. This was the point at which I was certain that SoV was rushed out the door too soon before it could be polished to the extent that most first-party Nintendo games are. Not okay.

The music is great, the art is okay

Musically, there’s not quite as much variation as I expected going in, but the tracks that are there are almost all winners. I have a special place in my heart for the overworld map music, which changes every act and is simply fantastic for each. The graphics, on the other hand, are about where the other games in the series are. There’s a lot of cutscene art, but it varies wildly in quality from blurry and ugly to sharp and defined. Some of the new character art for these older characters makes them look bizarrely indistinct (I can’t even count the number of times I confused Clive with Zeke or vice versa), as well, and while the rare 3D models are mostly pretty decent-looking, there are camera angles that should have never made it into the final game because of how they make the characters look.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

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