By J.J. Ulm
Though it looks every bit like a brand new entry in the series, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a remake of a much older game, and once you get to playing, it shows. The gameplay is simpler, and the lack of a waifu/husbando mechanic is likely welcome to those who thought the series jumped the shark with Awakening, but the story lacks the maturity JRPG fans have come to expect since, like, Final Fantasy IV.
To be fair, Shadows of Valentia’s original version, Fire Emblem Gaiden, was released in 1992 for the Famicom — a.k.a. the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then, it wasn’t yet tacky for an RPG to have a stock Hero’s Journey storyline, complete with a farmboy who turns out to be a hidden prince after the village he’s been living in with his not-actually-grandfather is attacked. And no one expected stories to not telegraph their every plot “twist” from the moment the relevant characters were introduced.
But the result here is a story that, especially compared to Awakening and Fates, feels shallow and immature. The hero Alm’s story runs alongside a second story focused on a girl, Celica, who is also hidden royalty, but in her case there’s not even an attempt to add suspense to her identity except from Alm’s POV. She and her closest friends know she’s a princess, and any suspense that might have been created by hiding her identity is squandered.
Though the story is trite and predictable, the gameplay is solid, and while there are some differences from the more recent games, they tend to reduce complexity rather than add it. Until Awakening, the Fire Emblem series was notoriously difficult, but Shadows of Valentia keeps the options to choose between Normal and Hard difficulty and turn off permadeath. There’s no Weapons Triangle and no weapon durability to worry about. There are Support conversations, but Support levels only provide slight stat boosts when units are near each other. While the matchmaking mechanic was a lot of what made Awakening popular enough to save the franchise (and what’s made the mobile Heroes such a moneymaking grab), it also made the game too easy once your characters started pairing off and boosting each other’s stats to unreasonable levels.
The most important thing the Support conversations in Shadows of Valentia do is provide characterization that’s otherwise lacking in a story driven by bland main characters. For one thing, it’s there you discover one of the characters, an archer named Leon, is gay, and nursing an unrequited crush on his beefy knight friend Valbar. That’s actually kind of a big deal for a Fire Emblem game, or really anything from Nintendo. Awakening’s matchmaking had no same-sex pairings, and the best Fates did was a male and a female option who were stock Evil Slutty Bisexuals. You can’t have Alm hook up with Leon, but just allowing a non-shady explicitly gay character to exist is welcome progress.
Shadows of Valentia is an absolutely solid strategy JRPG, and if you’ve played through every storyline in Fates and still long for little pixel people to move around grid battlefields, it might just do the trick. But if you’re looking for mature, suspenseful storytelling, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.