Author’s Note: All of the “screenshots” within this review were taken using a mobile phone. It is more difficult than it should be to take screenshots on a 2DS/3DS thus I opted to use my phone to make it easier. That is why some of them appear crooked.
I must be honest with you all and say that I did not finish Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. This does not mean it is a bad game. On the contrary, it is a very good game. The problem comes from the arbitrary spike in difficulty that occurs during the final battles. I personally made it to the final fight, tried completing it several times, failed, decided it wasn’t fun anymore, and called it quits. It brings me no joy to say that I didn’t finish the game as I did really enjoy my time with it. Some may be questioning whether my review can be trusted given this fact. I can assure you, that, during my 30+ hours with the game, I have a fairly good grasp of the game and therefore believe I can offer a well-rounded opinion of it.
Let’s start with the combat. Shadows of Valentia is similar to other Fire Emblem titles in that it is a turn-based strategy game. You take your turn moving your units around on the map using a grid and then the enemy takes its turn. A big difference from the other entries in the series, however, is the fact that there is no weapons triangle (sword beats axe; axe beats lance; lance beats sword; you know, that whole thing). Instead, damage dealt is based on a character’s level and class. One similarity to other entries is that certain classes do more damage to others, i.e. archers do more damage to Pegasus knights. Since I haven’t played that many other Fire Emblem games, the lack of the weapon triangle didn’t bother me that much but I have read that many fans of the series didn’t like this omission. To each their own, I guess.
As I said before, battles essentially take place on a grid. You move units within striking distance and choose whether to attack or not. A little box is displayed on the bottom of the screen showing the projected damaged and the likelihood of your attack connecting with the enemy along with a few other stats. I will say that there is nothing more frustrating than watching one of your characters with an 80% hit chance miss both of its attacks. More on that later on though.
Character progression is, for the most part, fairly straightforward. Characters gain experience which leads to level increases which lead to class changes. When a character increases a level, its stats increase as well (attack, defense, speed, etc.). From what I can tell, these stat increases are random. One amusing aspect of the stat increase is that if only one stat increases, the character who leveled up will utter a funny one-liner. Although I was always mad when this happened, I always did enjoy the fact that the game lightened the mood with these lines.
As for class changes, the one thing I found odd about them is that they seemed to happen at random. A character could need a class change at level 15, the next one at 8, and then at 10. There really didn’t seem to be any set pattern to them. In addition, in order to complete a class change, you must take your party to a statue of Mila (one of the gods in Valentia’s world). I found this to be annoying after a while since most of the statues weren’t conveniently placed throughout the map (there are a few exceptions). Most of them were located at the end of the dungeons. There was nothing worse than changing a character’s class, leaving a dungeon, and then having another character become eligible for a class change in the next battle. In turn, I was compelled to turn around and trek back to the statue of Mila. This happened several times during my time with the game.
There are two different modes you can choose to play the game in: casual or classic. If a character dies during a battle in casual mode, then that character comes back in the next fight. In classic mode, however, permadeath removes that character from the game. I chose to play the game in classic mode as that is how most of the other entries in the series are designed. Although I chose the classic mode, I’m one of those players who will quit and restart a save if I lose a character during a battle. Thankfully, Shadows of Valentia has a feature called Mila’s Turnwheel which essentially allows the player to rewind a battle to a previous turn to undo a fatal mistake (I would sometimes stupidly leave my healer unprotected). Mila’s Turnwheel saved me a lot of time by not making me load a save every time I lost a character. Be aware, though, that you can only rewind a certain number of times. You can increase the number of times you can rewind by finding cogs for the Turnwheel. I’m a big fan of the Turnwheel and I hope Intelligent Systems keeps that feature in place for future titles.
In standard Fire Emblem fashion, you move your army along set lines on a map in between battles. I’m not completely sure if this has been in a Fire Emblem game before or not but there are two protagonists in Shadows of Valentia: Alm and Celica. Each one has their own army and, after Chapter 2, you can alternate between moving each of them. This may seem simple enough but groups of enemies spawn on the map and can move to engage Alm or Celica’s group. This forces you to strategize about which group you want to move. It was annoying sometimes since I wouldn’t be paying attention to one group and they would get attacked. Enemy placement and turn order are determined by whether or not you engaged a moving enemy group or they engaged you. I distinctly remember the time one of my groups was attacked by enemies, thus the enemy got to move first, and they proceeded to instantly kill my healer in the first attack. I had to watch helplessly as my healer was killed five separate times (since I used Mila’s Turnwheel). That was one of the rare moments when I had to reload a save. It was a really annoying experience.
Another new aspect in Shadows of Valentia not found in prior entries is the explorable 3D dungeons. In these dungeons, you can take 10 of your characters with you to fight enemies, collect items, use sacred springs to boost a character’s stats, and to visit the Mila statue that is inevitably in there somewhere. While exploring, the enemies you can fight appear on the map and you can swing your sword to hit them and knock a few health points off of them for the fight (this is similar to the latest Dragon Quest games). On the flip side, if enemies sneak up on you, then they get to take their turn first in the battle. In addition, if one of your characters takes a lot of damage during the battles in a dungeon, then they can become fatigued and have reduced health and stats for the rest of the dungeon (this gets old really quickly during the dungeons in the late game). Personally, I felt like the 3D dungeons didn’t add much to the game besides making it that much more difficult to get a character’s class changed. This is because the Mila statues were usually placed at the end of a dungeon. The loot, for the most part, found in the dungeons also wasn’t very good so the dungeons really seemed a prototype for future games more than anything else.
Although I enjoyed the battles (right up until the end, that is), I believe the story is the real star of the show. The main story follows the trials and travails of Alm and Celica, two people born with an identical mark on their hands. You follow both as they try to discover who they are and what their place in the world is. They both have feelings for each other but each one disapproves of the other’s actions. Their tumultuous love story is set against the backdrop of war between the Rigelian Empire and the kingdom of Zofia which itself takes place in the shadow of the struggle between the two gods of Valentia: Duma and Mila. The whole tale is full of mystery, love, loss, court intrigue, and conflict. It kept me interested throughout the whole 30 or so hours I played and I think it was paced very well for a story of its length. The one thing I really liked about it was the sense of unease I felt as my characters travelled further north all the while getting closer to their goals. The soundtrack helps in this regard as the background music and battle music all get more epic as you approach the end of the game.
In addition, the main story is also complemented by the subplots of the side characters. In true Fire Emblem fashion, Shadows of Valentia features an ensemble cast of entertaining characters who all have their own personalities, goals, and backgrounds. You can get to know them by talking to them in towns or dungeons and by utilizing a special talk feature that pops up mid-battle. It helps that all of them are brought to life by terrific voice acting. Even the villain side characters were well-written and presented (Berkut’s slide into madness, in particular, was a sight to behold). There are usually one or two side characters in every game that get on my nerves but I can’t really think of one in Shadows of Valentia. Each and every one (both allied and opposed) complemented the story in their own way and their memorable interactions with each other made the story a joy to discover.
And now we come to my biggest problem with the game: the difficulty. If I didn’t upset fans of the series with my opening paragraph, then I probably will now. The difficulty seems to vary wildly from fight to fight throughout the game, particularly in the later stages. There will be battles where you mow down your enemies with ease and you feel unstoppable and then you’ll get steamrolled in the fight right after it. There will be fights with enemies called cantors who summon waves of enemies and you will literally have to fight for every single tile on the map in order to win. These fights were the most difficult ones I faced while playing. These individual battles really tested my skill and the teams I had built. The upside is that my team could recover after these battles. For the final two fights, however, there is no opportunity to recover.
The last two fights of the game are, in my opinion, ridiculous. The two fights take place within a single dungeon. If you recall from further up this piece, characters can become fatigued in dungeons. Since these two battles are in a dungeon, there is a good chance your characters will take a lot of damage (and they sure will) and thus be fatigued. To my knowledge, there is no way to cure fatigue except to exit a dungeon (which you can’t do at that stage of the game) or find a sacred spring (which isn’t present in that dungeon). This is compounded by the fact that the two battles are against high level enemies and suddenly everyone in Alm and Celica’s groups can’t hit the broad side of a barn during them. I can’t prove it but it seems to me that the hit percentage is heavily skewed towards the enemies. When three of my characters’ attacks that have an 80% hit chance all miss, I get suspicious that something is amiss.
As I said before, I don’t like losing characters but I sacrificed one of them (I’m sorry, Lukas!) just so I could move on with the story. I entered the final battle with half my characters fatigued and no cogs left in Mila’s Turnwheel (because the cogs don’t reset after every battle in a dungeon like they do after battles outside of one). I tried five times to complete the final battle but I gave up since it wasn’t fun to me anymore. It didn’t help matters when I looked up strategies for the battle and I saw a thread discussing how it was easier if you use Amiibo. Another reason I quit is because I had saved my game right before entering the final fight and so now I’m stuck with that save. I guess I should have had multiple saves. It wasn’t worth my time to keep trying to win a lost cause so I decided to write this review instead. I hope you (and Lukas) can forgive me.
When taken as a whole, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a good game. It takes the mechanics you’d expect from a Fire Emblem title and puts a few twists on the formula like 3D dungeons, no weapons triangle, and the timesaving Mila’s Turnwheel. The story and characters are great throughout the whole experience while the combat is also engaging and fun. That is, until the final chapter rolls around. Then the difficulty shoots through the roof and it becomes an unsatisfying and frustrating slog. I do hope to truly finish the game one day but I don’t foresee that being anytime soon. It is a real shame but there it is. Although the final fight put a damper on the whole experience, I still recommend that people try Shadows of Valentia as it will feel both familiar and foreign to fans (and newcomers) of the series.
Final Score: 7/10
Thanks for reading!