Saturday, December 7, 2019

Deep Look - Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Fire Emblem Echoes cover.png

Strong Shadows, Little Light

While the franchise has existed since the eight-bit era of video gaming, the Intelligent Systems-developed and Nintendo-published Fire Emblem series wouldn’t see the light of day outside Japan until the company released its Game Boy Advance system worldwide, and since then, it has garnered acclaim to the point where it’s oftentimes impossible to find legitimate criticism amongst mainstream reviewers. When a remake of the franchise’s very first game, given the English subtitle Shadow Dragon, saw its release, I saw this as an opportunity to dive into the series, thinking the rerelease would deliver the experience promised by the posh pieces the series has received since its worldwide releases.

Unfortunately, Shadow Dragon proved one of the very first games I couldn’t complete, given its lack of opportunities to grind to make the endgame easier, and I wouldn’t see its ending until a year or so later, but just barely so. I would swear off the series until the Nintendo 3DS entry Awakening added a casual mode that made optional one of the series’ key gameplay mechanics, the permanent death of allies, and it got me reinterested in the franchise. I enjoyed all three flavors of the following franchise release, Fates, and would pick up the final 3DS entry, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a loose remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom.

As with localized Fire Emblem games Awakening and beyond, Echoes allows players to make the permanent death of allies optional with an alleged “Casual” mode. The game divides playtime between primary protagonists Alm and Celica, each having their own set of allies with whom to participate in combat. Fights themselves mostly follow the same rules as in prior Fire Emblems, the player positioning their characters prior to combat before commencing, with the occasional option to retreat from the battle back to the overworld where each character is should players not think themselves up to combat at the time.

As in past entries, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, players able to move their characters across the map, able to attack foes when in range of being able to do so. One useful feature inherited from previous games is the ability to bring up a “danger zone” that shows where the player can advance their party without fear of reprisal from the enemy. When the player’s characters or the enemy do engage one another, they exchange attacks, with certain classes gaining the upper hand against others with extra assaults.

Gone from previous games is the ballyhooed “weapon triangle,” with characters, once they’ve acquired enough experience proportional to their levels, able to change classes, in which case they reset to level one to restart the process, with multiple class advancements possible. Mercifully, players can still see a forecast of mutual damage before deciding to attack enemies, although many times, especially late into the game, the random number gods can be fairly cruel, with a high miss rate, especially inconvenient against boss units that can slaughter characters in one hit. Moreover, in the last battle of the fifth act, while the game does give a “forecast” of damage versus specific major foes, they can hit the player’s attacking character first without any reprisal whatsoever.

Echoes can be downright unplayable with full attack animations and actions taken by the enemy turned on, potentially adding hours of superfluous playtime. In the last battle of the fifth act, even with animations turned off, the player must fully sit through actions that the final boss unit takes. As with most Japanese tactical RPGs, losing a battle results in wasted playtime, with no experience obtained retained and the mentioned final battle of act five being incredibly cheap with multiple cheating boss units. Moreover, the game only has three save slots, with the endgame of act five being a lengthy point of no return, and I had the special misfortune of overwriting the save slot I used for said portion before the mentioned difficult battle, resulting in my efforts being all for nothing.

One of the main differences from other entries of the Fire Emblem franchise is that there are multiple explorable dungeons with visible enemies that trigger tactical battles when contacted, although the player can slash a foe with the controlled character’s sort to shave only slight damage from all encountered foes, which is rarely critical. If enemies surprise the player’s party, they receive their phase first, though mercifully, the foes are almost always out of attack range. Regardless, an “instant victory” akin to Earthbound would have been preferable, and given the awful dash system, where the player can only list slightly left or right, these encounters are difficult to avoid.

Winning battles nets all characters that survived some experience, but unfortunately, they cap at ninety-nine points, and players must level their units within the battles themselves. Moreover, the player can only take up to ten units within a dungeon, in contrast to battles outside where all their allies actively participate, and after some time, characters become fatigued, in which case their HP decreases in battle, although this is recoverable at shrines where the player can donate a largely-useless consumable item to a goddess statue to recover. Players can record their progress in rooms with said statues, although some parts of the final dungeon have long enemy-infested stretches without save opportunities before fights with cheap boss units.

One improvement from previous games, however, is that weapons no longer have limited use, and through repeated usage unlock arts for each character, but these are rarely critical. In towns, players can improve armaments through the expenditure of silver and gold coins, although this feature is unavailable in the dreaded point of no return, and at times money is generally hard to come by. Another feature is the Turnwheel where the player can turn back time a few turns to undo things such as unit death. However, this mechanic has a “use it or lose it” implementation, with no chance to utilize it if either Alm or Celica dies.

In the end, the aforementioned negative elements hamper what could have potentially been solid gameplay, with the endgame of the fifth act in particular spoiling the preceding part of the game, which otherwise proves solid until then. The “all or nothing” system of battle also makes the game more inaccessible to casual players seeking to avert a frustrating experience, in contrast to tactical titles such as the Shining Force games more generous in this regard. I couldn’t imagine how much of a nightmare the game would have been to play with permanent death enabled, and overall the gameplay is a step down from Echoes’ more forgiving precursors.

Control doesn’t fare any better, although there are some bright spots such as a general linear structure and general difficulty of getting lost. However, the dungeons don’t mesh well with the gameplay, and the last of act five in particular can be borderline impossible to clear without referencing the internet. While dungeons do have maps, additionally, the player can’t open them up to view them fully, not even with the touchscreen. As seems to be the case with many Japanese RPGs, moreover, the game only allows players to view playtime within the save screen, and after saving, the interface exits, forcing them to bring it back up to see how much time they’ve logged. In the end, interaction is middling.

The storyline also falters significantly, lending the impression that its writers watched a little too much Star Wars, given the focus on an “evil empire,” a rebel group hilariously named “the Deliverance,” and twists filched straight from the fabled science-fiction franchise. Some of the backstory, however, is actually somewhat passable, although upon noticing the derivative disposition of the plotline, I rolled my eyes and lost interest a few hours in. The translation is largely adequate, aside from the terrible names such as Alm, Celica, Boey, the aforementioned Deliverance, and so forth, not to mention a mixture of faux old-world speak and contemporary expressions.

Much of the music is actually pretty good, if unmemorable, but the English voice acting is simply terrible, with unconvincing grunts, moans, and other irritating onomatopoeia that plagues the dialogue.

The graphics are fine, with okay use of the system’s three-dimensional capabilities, but pretty much nothing to write home about.

In conclusion, I desperately attempted to like Fire Emblem Echoes, but it just didn’t love me in return, given many foibles with its gameplay, particularly the annoying endgame and potential for a nightmarish experience on higher difficulty settings. It does have some redeeming aspects, particularly with regards to its musical and visual presentation, but the voice acting really mars the aural element. Having liked Awakening and the three iterations of Fates, I expected a better experience, and will without hesitation avoid anything else Intelligent Systems produces in the future. As far as I’m concerned, Fire Emblem is dead to me…again.


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