Shadows of Valentia is the latest installment in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem franchise. A remake of the 1992 game Fire Emblem Gaiden, Shadows of Valentia is a welcome addition to the Fire Emblem library.
I have loved Fire Emblem since Path of Radiance for the GameCube. However, Fire Emblem has not evolved much beyond its formulaic approach, dating back to 1991. If it ain’t broke, right? Well, Shadows of Valentia has discarded much of the old formula. Instead, it mixes things up by giving you significantly more choices. Thus, your choices directly affect the game much more than in prior Fire Emblem games. This gives every decision weighty impact, and this is Shadows of Valentia‘s greatest strength.
Remember the weapons triangle? Gone. Now all melee fighters are on an equal playing field. Remember how archers could not fight in close quarters? Thing of the past. Remember how every engagement was a separate chapter? Now you have an overland map like in Sacred Stones or Awakening. You move your parties around on the map and enemies may pursue you to start a fight or you can take the fight to them. These changes are a welcome update to a very old formula. While there was nothing wrong with the formula, these changes turn Fire Emblem on its head. Choosing to go one way may cut you off elsewhere but open up the chance to recruit a new party member. Timing is very important. You have to choose wisely where you want to go and when.
This is also one of the most open Fire Emblem games. Some parts of the game are reminiscent of other Nintendo-published franchises. Specifically, there are times when you can walk around and interact with people and surroundings like in the investigative sections of Ace Attorney. At other times, you get to wander through caves like you’re dungeon-crawling in The Legend of Zelda. There’s even one such section called the Lost Treescape, in case you need an obvious reference.
Most of Shadows of Valentia‘s charm lies in its presentation. It’s the first fully voice acted Fire Emblem in English and the acting is phenomenal. You really get to feel the sarcastic frustration of Boey, Mae’s hyperactive girliness, Saber’s tough guy attitude, and Catria’s dour outlook in the way the actors perform. It’s fun to see characters come so very much to life, and because of that, you feel engaged in their plight. You want to see them succeed, and that’s what draws you into the game.
The game’s music, as ever, is outstanding. The presence of the overworld map gives a lot of tactical flexibility to your choices in battle. Engaging art catches your eye. Skills tied to your weapons allows you to develop your characters the way you want them. Some characters can even become whatever class you want. Branching paths allow you to pursue alternate objectives. These objectives may be tougher, but they yield bonuses like additional characters or better armaments. Overall, many cool features exist to allow you to play the game how you want it.
The biggest problem – and it is a big one – is the map design. In their quest to remake Fire Emblem Gaiden, the developers gave a stunning amount of attention to fidelity to the original game. This works both for and against Shadows of Valentia. You see, no one would really consider Gaiden‘s maps to be good. Excessive size and cumbersome, intentionally frustrating layouts plague the map design in Gaiden. The developers recreated all of that extraordinarily miserable map design in glorious 3D for us. This results in absurdly long battles as you cautiously try to grind your way through grueling gauntlets.
A related problem is the addition of a fatigue system, like in Fire Emblem: Thracia 776. If a character gets too fatigued in battle, his/her HP is lowered significantly in the next battle. Since fatigue accumulates with every action a character takes, you can easily see how the game can constantly punish you. Moreover, most Fire Emblem games allow characters to take no damage when their defense is higher than their opponent’s attack power. Shadows of Valentia always allows an attacker to do one hit point of damage if he hits, even if his attack is less than the opponent’s defense. This potentially means your units can be whittled down by merciless attrition. The game does a lot to tie one arm behind your back past the halfway point between vicious maps, constantly respawning enemies, and a certain sense that the game never quite wants to play fair. These things drag down what is otherwise an enjoyable experience.
As a whole, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is good. I have a hard time saying that any Fire Emblem game is not worthwhile, but if I did, Fire Emblem Fates would be at the top of that list. Shadows of Valentia is enjoyable. If you are a veteran Fire Emblem fan, this will be a fun twist on what you know and love. If you are new to Fire Emblem, there are better entry points to the series than this. It’s a good game, but don’t purchase it for full price right now. Valentia can wait to be saved once its cost comes down a bit.