Nintendo has a habit of switching things up in sequels, and especially in the NES days that tendency resulted in some gloriously divergent sophomore installments. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link famously swapped overhead adventuring for side-scrolling action, Super Mario Bros. 2 (in the West, at least) exchanged running-and-jumping for ballistic gardening, and Fire Emblem Gaiden turned the then-young tactics series sideways by adding dungeons, towns, random battles, and all sorts of RPG trappings to its chess-like core.
Those first two examples are well known, but as a Japan-only sequel to the first Famicom Fire Emblem, Gaiden hasn’t had much of a place in the Western gaming cannon — until now. After the hugely successful Awakening and Fates showed the series is right at home on the 3DS, Nintendo has brought it full circle with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of Gaiden for the modern age. It was the last Fire Emblem on the Famicom, and now the last on the 3DS, and we can’t think of a better swansong — this is a brilliant strategy RPG that has something for everyone, from Fates and Awakening fans and old-school Fire Emblem fiends to JRPG junkies in general.
Fire Emblem Echoes starts off in the middle of a childhood love story; two young friends named Alm and Celica make a promise to stay by each others’ side, as they dream of adventure and a life beyond their Valentian village of Ram. The Valentia they know is a continent built on an uneasy truce, bisected by the dueling gods of Duma, with his highly-regimented northern kingdom of Rigel, and Mila, with her kind and carefree paradise of Zofia in the South. After a quick series of catastrophic events Alm and Celica find themselves separated, and eventually raised in different lands; you meet them again a decade or so in the future, and take control of the two heroes in turn as you direct them on their individual missions to help pull the continent out of chaos — Alm to help quell a Zofian coup, and Celica to find the goddess Mila.
Echoes’ narrative arc is engaging, snappily-paced, and sweetly character-focused; it’s also almost reassuringly straightforward after Fates’ timeline-hopping epic, and we appreciated the storybook-style approach. It helps that the characters themselves are likable and well-drawn; Alm and Celica especially are eminently appealing, but their friends and followers are likewise lovingly portrayed, and though Celica’s forces start off with quite a bit more personality than Alm’s, things even out quickly enough.
Right away, the fact that you’ll be switching between two heroes commanding two different armies will clue you into the fact that Echoes isn’t Fire Emblem as usual, but the action kicks off with an even more unexpected twist than that. When you gain control of Alm in Chapter 1, the first thing you’ll see isn’t the overhead chessboard view of an SRPG battlefield, but rather a first-person view of a charmingly pastoral village, complete with a Professor Layton-style interface for speaking to villagers; you move from scene to scene and examine the background for items and information. This is one of Echoes’ new additions, and it’s a pleasantly downtempo pastime that we really enjoyed; villages and explorable towns, shrines, and castles in this format usually bookend the traditional story battles, and go a long way towards giving Echoes more of a JRPG feel.
Outside of these point-and-click areas, you’ll move through Valentia mostly via an overhead world map, which allows you to engage enemy forces en route to your destinations of either story battles or dungeons. Once you get on the battlefield, Echoes plays similarly to past Fire Emblems and other strategy RPGs: you’ll lead your active army from a birds-eye perspective, moving units individually in turn over a gridded map and, when in range, engaging enemies in one-on-one fights. These smaller skirmishes take place straight on the map — glimpsed in glorious detail through a delightful zoom-in effect — and their outcomes can largely be predicted before you ‘confirm’ them, letting you plan out moves and try to stay a step or two ahead of the enemy. Along with melee attacks, ranged weapons and magic, characters can also use special abilities, interact with environmental objects, and take advantage of terrain to gain the upper hand.
In the main story missions victory is usually secured by besting all enemy units. Playing on Normal mode (there’s also an Easy difficulty), Echoes feels somewhere in-between the relative breeze of Fates' Birthright and the crushing desperation of Conquest, in our estimation — perhaps not the challenge the hardest of core are looking for, but it should be a nice balance for most. As in the other 3DS Fire Emblem games, there’s the option to play with perma-death on or off — ‘on’ meaning units which fall in battle won’t pop back to life afterwards — but there’s a new introduction in Echoes which also helps take a bit of sting out of unfortunate tactical decisions.
Mila’s Turnwheel is an in-game artifact which lets you turn back time, in terms of either entire turns or individual actions, effectively letting you ‘rewind’ and try out different paths if an initial strategy doesn’t work out. You can use it three times per battle (or dungeon) at the start, and extend that limit by finding cogs hidden around Valentia as you play. While perma-death-purists might balk at the impudence of rewriting fate, we loved this feature — not only because it saved our heroic hides on more than one occasion, forgoing the frustration of a half-hour redo for a quick re-calculation, but also because it helped us learn from mistakes and actually improve our strategic thinking. Dispatched a foe with your strongest unit, but realized just after that your up-and-coming villager could’ve done the trick? Rub the Turnwheel and give them their rightful time in the spotlight. Attacked an enemy from a position that left you open for retaliation? Run time back a turn and sneak in from the safe side. These are the kinds of tactical adjustments that most people wouldn’t take the time to soft-reset a whole battle for, but that you can freely avail yourself of when you’ve got a few spins of the wheel left; we loved having that freedom.
Outside of the main story battles, the other destinations you’ll find on your world map are the dungeons — a modern interpretation of Gaiden’s flagship feature back in the day. These are fantastic. They let you roam catacombs as either Alm or Celiac from a behind-the-shoulder view, as enemies roam the halls. You have full analogue control of your character with the Circle Pad and can attack with the A button; as in full-on dungeon crawlers like Shin Megami Tensei IV, slicing into the enemy first will catch them off guard, letting you start the ensuing battle with an HP advantage, while being blindsided instead will add a few extra enemies to the opposing army. The squad battles you’ll fight in dungeons are quick and not as interesting or involved as the full-on tactical story missions, but in the depths you’ll also have to deal with Fatigue — HP will fully heal after each battle, but as your units take more damage, they’ll grow weary of fighting, and will need to eat food (procured from villages) or stop by a statue of Mila to restore their energy.
Both village exploration and dungeon crawling are enjoyable in their own right, but the gameplay loop they inspire as a whole is the real standout. It’s a wonderful feeling to wander into an unfamiliar fort, speak with a few inhabitants, pick up some weapons, shields and provisions in a first-person hidden-object game, and then go use them immediately in a full-on battle, before heading into a new village to report on your work at the local tavern and start over again.
That addicting cycle is in addition to weapons forging, enjoyable point-and-click-style side-quests, searching for memory shards (which flesh out the story in anachronistic flashbacks), StreetPass card trading, and amiibo integration — which lets you summon in illusory heroes from other Fire Emblem games to help you in battle. Even without a My Castle equivalent, there’s plenty to do in Echoes, and the variety even in the main gameplay loop means progress is steady and swift.
Since battle is such an important component of most of Echoes’ gameplay patterns, one of the first things that will stand out to Fire Emblem veterans here is the maps. Most of the main missions and story battles take place on the type of intricate, puzzle-like maps we’ve come to expect from the series, and the best of these are brilliant. They feel well-designed, tightly scaled, and are (for the most part) challenging enough to require strategy without resorting to cheap tricks; you’ll have to take advantage of the environment to come out on top, and victory feels like a matter of mastery of the map as much as brute strength.
On the other end of the map spectrum, however, are the semi-random battles encountered in the dungeons. These quick fights take place on same-y, often featureless maps where the tactical elements of the battle system are more or less reduced to window dressing. They’re fun in a different way, to be sure, but it’s still a bit disappointing the maps feel so phoned-in — they could have been bite-sized tactical puzzles rather than bite-sized beat-‘em-ups. Sitting somewhere in the middle are the world map battles against zombie Terrors and intervening armies; sometimes these maps approach the strategic design heights of the main missions, and sometimes they’re large featureless plains.
One thing that really saves these less interesting maps is the addition of the ’Tactics’ system to Echoes’ toolkit. This lets you give blanket orders to all units who haven’t yet moved in the turn, advising them to charge the enemy, improvise as best they know, fall back, or gather on the leader (Alm or Celica). It may sound like a soft fix, but this hugely cuts down on the feeling of ‘turn-based marching’ that can occur on sparsely designed SRPG maps — all you need to do is move Celica (or Alm) and then have everyone else follow, rather than moving ten little chess pieces one-by-one. Tactics are also helpful in random battles when you’re much stronger than the enemy — just have everyone charge and watch for the win! — or if you know what you want to do with a few key units but are happy to let the others improvise for a turn or two — an excellent way to stave off decision paralysis.
On the topic of difficult decisions, one of the most immediately noticeable changes from Fates and Awakening is that in Echoes, the Fire Emblem Shipping Company (est. 2012) has ceased operations; marriage and children are no longer on the table, you can’t directly control how and with whom your combatants fall in love, and there’s no pairing your soldiers up to fight as a single romantically-charged unit. That will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to many, and we did miss the romance, though vestiges of those systems remain in more platonic forms. Characters can still level up their bonds by fighting within a few spaces of eachother, and hitting certain friendship ranks (C, B, and then A) will unlock Support Conversations that show their relationship deepening, as well as bonuses in combat that activate when fighting nearby.
The Supports are just as clever and charming as they were in Awakening or Fates, so it’s always a pleasure to see how your troops are getting on on the ground — not to mention a bit of a rush, since this time you’ll need to activate the conversations in battle, rather than in the safety of the barracks! And just because your armies aren’t the endlessly configurable smorgasbords of love that they were in the earlier 3DS Fire Emblems, that’s not to say there’s no romance in Echoes; on the contrary, there are some truly touching threads of affection woven into both Support Conversations and the larger story, and it’s very well-written, as you’d expect — just not of the choose-your-own-adventure variety.
Along with courtship, combat in Echoes is also handled quite differently to previous instalments. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Weapons Triangle — a rock-paper-scissors-stye chain of weaknesses that’s been at the heart of the series for many years — is gone; or, more accurately, wasn’t there yet when Gaiden first came out on the Famicom. We’re happy that Echoes decided not to shoehorn it in, because its absence makes for an appreciably distinct combat rhythm where terrain bonuses and positioning matter a great deal more than arms; the Echoes equivalent of abusing the triangle seems to be occupying all the forts, forests, and advantageous terrain you can find, and we loved the importance that places on the surrounding geography.
Beyond the Weapons Triangle, there are lot of smaller changes with weapons that add up to a different feel. Weapons never break, for instance, and magic-users no longer require Tomes to learn and use their spells, instead learning them by leveling up and casting them at the expense of a certain amount of HP. Each character has a ‘default’ weapon perma-equipped, though you can use their single inventory spot to arm them with special weapons you might find lying around. These equippable weapons are also a primary source of Skills — units learn most Skills by fighting enough battles with certain weapons equipped. The result of these changes is that a lot of character growth is tied to time-on-the-ground fighting; in other Fire Emblem games that would necessitate grinding, but in Echoes gives an extra purposes to the quicker random battles in dungeons and on the world map. We found ourselves focusing on survival on the main story maps while using the random battles as opportunities for min-maxing and Skill-learning; a nice split that made them each feel worthwhile.
Class changes are likewise straightforward and nicely streamlined here; you can change any eligible warrior’s class at any of the many statues of Mila you find throughout your travels, with no need for Master Seals or even donations of any kind. It’s quick and easy, and we like how your super-squishy all-villager starting party encourages you to class-change right away, without worrying about maximal growth. We do have to admit, however, that the available class options do seem a tad ‘tame’ coming directly off of Fates. There are a couple dozen standbys here, from Cavaliers and Pegasus Knights to Mages, Sages, and Saints, but nothing that really stands out from the fantasy canon norm; you won’t find any Dancers, Kitsunes, Mechanists, Maids, or Butlers, and we did miss that creativity in classes when building our armies. Still, that limited focus is part of what makes Echoes feel like a thematic throwback to earlier Emblems, and it’s an aesthetic that serves it very well.
Speaking of aesthetics, as much as Echoes does differently to the other 3DS Fire Emblem titles, it still stands by the same graphical engine to great effect. The system’s standard three-tiered character representation fits Echoes especially well; units are represented variously by tiny, stylized pixel art, gorgeously colourful character portraits, and 3D models. All three of these are appealing in their own way, but there’s something magical about the mix; watching the overhead chess match of a mission zoom in to show the frantic fighting on on the ground in 3D never gets old. The animation in these one-on-one bouts is particularly impressive this time around, too; units move smoothly through the lovingly choreographed fight scenes, with the surrounding terrain often incorporated, as when fighters parry back-and-forth up flights of stairs, or slice down patches of grass winding up en route to an opponent.
Echoes also adds a whole new dimension to the graphical presentation through its exploration sections, both in the first-person Professor Layton-style segments and the over-the-shoulder dungeons. Awakening and Fates both had inviting worlds, but never actually let players get up close outside of battle, and that freedom feels wonderful here. It’s exhilarating to get to crawl through Echoes’ dungeons not just because of the battles, but because you’re getting to roam a part of the world freely. Likewise, exploring the settlements in first-person really helps give a sense of Valentia’s architecture, natural setting, and daily life outside of the battlefield, which works wonders for world-building — Echoes has a calmer art style than Fates or Awakening, with softer colours and more of a classical fantasy feel, and being able to literally walk around in it helped us appreciate it all the more.
The stereoscopic 3D effect is also worth noting — at a time when more and more 3DS games seem to be jettisoning the feature, Echoes is a wonderful example of why it can be worth keeping the slider up. Battle scenes pop, dungeons become more immersive, transitions between the overhead map and individual skirmishes look amazing in 3D, and the explorable village scenes benefit both technically and artistically from the multiple layers. It’s perhaps most impressive in simple dialogue scenes, where you’ll have text boxes in front of character portraits, in front of a background with appreciable layers of depth of its own. And as a side-note, we love that these cutscenes now place your player character’s portrait and dialogue on the bottom screen, freeing up the top for larger views of your companions!
Those dialogue scenes are as enjoyable this time around as ever, as Echoes has been given a standout localization from 8-4, the same company responsible for Awakening. It’s characterful and fun, keeping a cohesive high-fantasy tone throughout while allowing for lots of individual voice from each character. It’s especially important in Echoes, since character designs tend to feel quite a bit closer in style than Awakening’s or Fates’ — all the playable characters in Echoes understandably seems like they could come from the same kingdom in terms of fashion — but the dialogue really does do a great job of imparting a distinctive personality on every member of your armies.
Breathing further life into the excellent localization is some top-notch vocal talent, and Echoes one-ups the series’ status quo with nearly every line voice-acted. From party members and villains to village NPCs, if someone has something to say, they’ll say it out loud, and that blanket coverage is a notable upgrade from the single-word vox-pops that accompanied minor dialogue in Awakening and Fates. It’s especially welcome in the Support Conversations, which are now fully voiced right from the start, and it’s not a case of quantity over quality — the acting is very well done, with a wide variety of deliveries, tones, and (mostly subtly performed) accents bringing a lot of character to both armies and to the larger world.
Fire Emblem’s music has been a series highlight since the start, and that tradition lives on in Echoes, with a wonderful orchestral score backing up the story. As a whole, it fits in very nicely with Fire Emblem’s staple martial-symphonic feel, but there’s also an impressive variety to the tracks you’ll hear, from playful dances accompanying childhood memories and Celtic-tinged themes in seaside villages to roaring battle marches and quiet harp reflections in temple sanctums. It also keeps in one of the 3DS games’ greatest tricks, where music swells up from light strings to add in horns and percussion for the battle theme each time a unit attacks an enemy and the camera zooms in, then settles back down as the view returns to a top-down focus — not new to Echoes, but still an incredibly satisfying marriage of music, graphics, and gameplay.
As the last Fire Emblem chapter on Nintendo’s heroic handheld, Echoes delivers a perfect swan song for the series’ 3DS days. This is a satisfying, deeply strategic adventure with an engaging, personal story and beautiful presentation, full of appealing art and lovely details that come alive as you play. But more than that, it’s also just delightfully different from its predecessors, in ways that only broaden its appeal: if you loved Awakening and Fates, this is close enough to be comfortable but with plenty of tweaks and additions to feel exciting and fresh; if you didn’t like those entries and yearn for a more ‘traditional’ Emblem experience, you’ll love Echoes’ throwbacks and unique touches; and if you’re a JRPG fan who’s never understood the appeal of the SRPG chessboard, explorable towns and dungeons make this a perfect point of entry to crossover.
Proof that the 3DS still has life left in it yet, Echoes is a phenomenal Fire Emblem and a wonderful tactical title to tuck into.