A Return to Form
I loved Fire Emblem Awakening. Though I've been playing games in the Fire Emblem series since its first US release on the GBA in 2003, I wouldn't have called myself a fanatic or mega fan of any sort - I enjoyed the games for what they were, but I wasn't heavily invested in them.
Awakening changed that for me by offering a great mix of new features to get more casual fans into the experience. Taking pressure away from things like permadeath and adding difficulty options allowed me to enjoy the game at my own pace and uncover the game's intricacies in further playthroughs. And while some purists weren't fans of the marriage and children mechanics of the game, I found pairing my characters up to make even stronger units to be an addicting concept.
That said, Fire Emblem Fates showed that mechanics aren't enough if a story is too weak to back them up. Where Awakening told an inspiring tale with an entertaining cast of characters, Fates split - or rather, thinly stretched - its plot across three different campaigns, weakening all of them in the process. The characters felt bland in comparison, and the game as a whole didn't sit well with me.
That's alright, however. Fire Emblem Echoes doesn't have that problem. The game presents the best of Awakening's fine-tuned gameplay with a story reminiscent of Fire Emblem on the GBA, all while adding a few new elements that mix the formula up in exciting ways.
The game tells the tale of Alm and Celica, who forge separate paths to save their nation from the threat of war. I don't want to get into the plot too much and risk spoiling things, but I've enjoyed the story thus far. This is thanks to an amazing localization, and the fact that nearly ever line in the game is voiced. I didn't think the latter would matter to me that much, but the solid voice acting helped give depth to the story, with some unexpectedly stellar performances, especially during the game's more dramatic moments. Both Alm and Celica are great protagonists and watching their relationship grow as the game progresses is part of what's kept me so engaged while playing.
The rest of the cast in the two characters' armies are just as great - Mae has stood out as a particular favorite of mine. Their relationships amongst themselves grow as pairs participate in battle together, but there's no camp to head back to for dialogue - characters speak on the field as well. The skits can be funny, and at times heartwarming in a way I wasn't expecting in a game with such a dour atmosphere, so it's worth grinding out battles to hear them all.
There are a couple of changes that makes Echoes stand apart from its predecessors. One of the more subtle is the game's presentation and color palette. Everything in Echoes is more subdued and somber, in contrast to the more bombastic Awakening. The addition of full character portraits on the bottom half of the screen is pleasing to the eye, and battles that play out on the top screen are more dynamic than ever, with animations flowing from one to the next effortlessly. It's clear that Intelligent Systems has gotten a good handle on the 3DS' software.
Less subtle? Some of the moments between Echoes' classic turn-based combat. The two most major additions are town and dungeon exploration. While in town, you explore various areas in a first person view, able to talk to villagers, recruit new units, and examine the area for new weapons and items. In dungeons, you play as either Alm or Celica in a free-roaming, third-person view, exploring caves and the like for items, and to find Goddess Statues that allow you to upgrade your characters' classes. Enemies appear on the field, and when you engage them, you find yourself in a miniature strategy battle of sorts, with few enemies and little cover.
I found that these new elements do an excellent job of mixing up the moment-to-moment aspects of Echoes' gameplay. There's a positive feedback loop that doesn't really get old. The only negative I can think of off the top of my head is that map design both in the dungeons, and regular story maps, leave much to be desired.
That said, from an overarching perspective, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is definitely worth taking a look at. If you're an old-school fan, there's a classic, waifu-less tale to enjoy and some difficult battles ahead. And if you're a newcomer or Awakening/Fates fan, there's still the relationship aspects on the field, as well as a few mechanics that make the game easier for those who want relax a bit. Check it out.
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