Extreme difficulty and well-developed characters have always been Fire Emblem’s bedrock. The series has evolved a fair amount since its inception, eventually allowing players to play matchmaker with their characters and even let them produce children to join the battle. You won’t find these advances in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. This installment is a remake of an earlier entry, so don’t come into this one expecting it to feel like a step forward for Fire Emblem – but you can still have fun if you’re willing to put up with some frustrations.
Instead of a blank slate character, Echoes has the player take on the roles of Alm and Celica. The two children soon find themselves caught up in a war between two gods, Mila and Duma. The story shifts back and forth between adult Alm and Celica’s perspectives as they separately travel across the fantastical continent of Valentia to bring the war to an end, with you recruiting characters into each protagonist’s party and managing them.
Echoes changes a number of things that players who jumped on the series with the recent Awakening or Fates might find strange. Alongside the tried-and-true battle system, Echoes incorporates dungeon crawling and other tweaks. For example, in both Awakening and Fates, you changed a unit’s class by using an item called a Second Seal that could be earned in battle or eventually purchased from merchants. In Echoes, you have to locate a shrine in various dungeons strewed across Valentia, which makes character class changes more of a journey that you have to undertake (with its own share of dangers) instead of a couple of buttons you press. While this might sound taxing, I actually found it to be a rather engaging experience that made units’ evolutions feel appropriately epic.
Echoes’ quirks result in a Fire Emblem that’s more challenging than any of the previous entries but also more frustrating and tedious as well. The chief problem is that the only way to victory is through grinding. While Echoes still uses the strategy battle system of the last few Fire Emblems, major story battles involve almost no strategy. If you’re going up against enemies who are twice as powerful as you, you can rarely do anything about it except back out of the battle and go grind your characters in dungeons until they are strong enough to beat foes in a couple of hits. I’ve admired Fire Emblem’s deft balance of tactics and RPG mechanics in the past, so I was disappointed in how the focus on leveling up in Echoes outweighs any strategies you can devise.
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Another major hurdle is how small your army is. While the other entries have provided you with a vast amount of characters to either get to know or use as fodder in battle, the number of units in Echoes is tiny in comparison. Since you’re jumping from Alm and Celica’s perspectives, you’re also splitting your forces in half, meaning that each hero only has a handful of party members available. If you’re playing on Classic Mode, where units perish for good if they’re lost in battle, your campaign can become unwinnable due to a bad decision-making and poor saving, as every single loss has a huge effect on your party’s effectiveness. That being said, you can also choose to play the game on an easier difficulty – but you have to make that choice before you start the game. At some of the sloggy points, I wished for a difficulty toggle in the menu.
Fire Emblem fans expect difficult battles, but Echoes’ challenges are uninspired and grueling. I had to fight enemies separated from me by a pit of lava or poison, and they sniped me from afar with magic spells; I had to spend several turns getting to them, fighting off waves of minions just to get some hits in as I took environmental damage. Other levels have enemies that can take your health down to a sliver of HP, no matter how much higher your level is. A number of these battles come down to luck, with a victory or a loss being decided by a single arrow, and that’s frustrating when a loss can mean a character you’ve spent hours building up is gone forever. You have a device that lets you go back as far as you want in battle, but it can only be used seven times in a dungeon before it needs to be recharged and it can’t bring your main characters back, so it’s more of a balm than a savior.
In spite of this tediousness and ridiculous challenge, I pushed through Echoes’ time-warped frustrations because I was interested in Alm and Celica’s story, as well as some of the characters in my party. I didn’t find any of them quite as endearing as the cast of previous 3DS Fire Emblem games, but characters like the pirate-killer Saber and troubled turncoat Clive have their moments to shine. I was disappointed that I couldn’t bring any of my characters together romantically, but not as disappointed as I thought I would be because of how strong the overarching plot is and how well-written the interactions between my party members were.
To call Fire Emblem Echoes a step back for the series would probably be unfair. As a remake it works on a number of levels, showing off the series’ strange roots while also serving up an entertaining 30-hour epic fantasy. However, the brutal and dull difficulty and large amounts of necessary grinding left me feeling as frustrated as I was invested in Echoes’ offerings.