Maybe this is a weird take, but I love the glorious piece of trash known as the Nintendo 3DS. Sure, the graphics were terrible and the 3D gimmick was very tacked on, but the system had a fantastic library of JRPGs, visual novels, and remakes of beloved classics. Towards the end of its life cycle in 2017, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems dropped a gem of a game that fits all three categories: Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. This game is a remake of the obscure Fire Emblem Gaiden, released only in Japan for the NES in 1992, and brings the charming old school story and gameplay to a worldwide audience. Yes, I know I’ve gushed about FE so much already. But Echoes is probably my favorite game in the entire series – although I would not recommend it to anyone new to tactical RPGs.
The original Gaiden was a weird game, by the series’ conventions. While the core battle system is the same as every Fire Emblem – moving around units, flanking enemies, and cleaning up with your overpowered Pegasus Knights – the rest of the game plays more like a traditional JRPG. Instead of marching directly from one chapter to the next, you have an expansive world map full of towns and dungeons to explore. Combat is smaller in scale, focusing on quick skirmishes rather than the hour-long setpiece battles that the series is known for. And the map design is more experimental: sure, you have your obligatory plains, mountains, and castle raids, but you’ll also be storming enemy pirate ships, spelunking through a zombie dragon’s lair, and fending off undead creepy-crawlies in a poisonous swamp. These changes may not work for everyone, especially if you’re used to the more conventional map designs of other games. But they help the game feel unique, even almost 30 years after its original release, and immerse the player more deeply into Echoes’ fantastic story and characters.
It was actually Gaiden that introduced one of the hallmarks of modern FE games: a story with multiple paths. It follows the tales of poor farm boy Alm and displaced noble Celica, as they fight to liberate their homeland of Zofia from the oppressive Rigelian Empire. Our two heroes are childhood friends separated by the war, and their disparate paths lead to conflicting worldviews. While Alm’s hardscrabble upbringing drives him to take the empire head-on, Celica wishes to end the cycle of violence and reform the continent of Valentia from within. Their headstrong personalities clash throughout the adventure, making for an intriguing and complicated romance. Celica in particular is one of my favorite FE characters, a warrior maiden who excels at swordplay and offensive magic. I’d argue that Echoes has the best writing in the series, even if it’s basically Star Wars with more dragons and shit.
The entire script has been given a dramatic overhaul from the original Gaiden, and this is most apparent in its supporting cast. While party members like Tobin and Mae originally had, like, one line each, here they are vital friends to Alm and Celica respectively. You can talk to each party member outside of battle and hear their thoughts on recent events, so everyone feels important (if not always essential). There’s even a new villain, Berkut, a dark foil to Alm who slowly succumbs to his own bloodlust. His arc is so compelling that I didn’t even realize he wasn’t a part of the original game until doing research for this review!
Echoes is a love letter to the original Gaiden, with all the polish and panache of a modern JRPG classic. Even being locked to the underpowered 3DS, it’s probably the best looking and sounding game on the system. Character portraits are lovingly drawn, and the revamped designs bring out each fighter’s unique personality. The anime cutscenes, created by Studio Khara (Rebuild of Evangelion) look phenomenal, even if they can get a bit grainy on the low-res screen. It’s also the first game with full voice acting, with many Three Houses actors making their series debut here. And the soundtrack is god-tier, combining the original’s earwormy chiptune melodies with dramatic orchestral flair. “With Mila’s Divine Protection”, Celica’s battle theme, is my go-to track for Smash – and considering how many awesome FE tunes there are, that’s saying something.
So what’s the caveat? Why is Echoes still considered a niche title, even when Fire Emblem itself is more popular than ever? Well, as great as it is, Echoes is still very much a remake of a NES game, made when the dev team was still finding their footing with the series as a whole. The game’s map designs lack the sharp focus of its 3DS contemporaries, Fire Emblem Awakening and Fates. Some quests can be frustratingly obtuse without a guide. There are a lot of magic-based enemies who love bullshit like summoning hordes of zombies every turn or warping all over the map to snipe your poor armored knight guarding the rear. And while the dungeons are a great addition overall, there’s one late-game dungeon that’s just an endless staircase with high-level gargoyles everywhere. None of the battles are overwhelming, even on Hard mode, and fortunately you can rewind turns if you accidentally lose a unit. But all these things combined can make the back half of Echoes feel like a slog, right as the story really hits its stride.
But isn’t that how it is with these kinds of games? I love Fire Emblem, even if it drives me up the wall sometimes. Echoes may have a few low points, but those are greatly eclipsed by its soaring highs. The game has a bit of a bad rap in the fandom these days, so I wanted to talk about what makes it special to me. In a way, Echoes is a microcosm for the 3DS as a whole. It was a weird experiment from Nintendo that probably didn’t pan out in the way they wanted, but it did give us some bona fide gems along the way. Now the 3DS is truly dead, and the handheld gaming world has been subsumed by mobile phones and hybrid consoles like the Switch and Steam Deck. But even if it’s a little rough around the edges, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that beautiful piece of garbage.
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