In 2013, Nintendo released Fire Emblem Awakening in the west, a year after it had gone on sale in Japan. The series, which had been growing in popularity before then, properly exploded with that game’s release. There are numerous reasons for this, but one stands out above all others: the characters could fuck now. I’m being intentionally crude here, of course – the characters could form close bonds, friendships could bloom on and off the battlefield, and pairing up units until they hit an ‘S’ ranking would result in significant combat boosts. But make no mistake, the fact that these characters were fucking each other, then having kids who were sent off to different dimensions, coming back as adults, and then (probably) fucking each other as well was a huge part of the charm.
The characters in Fire Emblem Echoes don’t fuck, but it’s still good.
The story of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (which is not, despite what the awful name would have you believe, a teenager’s first foray into erotic werewolf fiction) follows the dual paths of Alm and Celica. These two former childhood friends each separately find themselves leading armies into battle when they are pulled into a war between their respective nations of Rigel and Zofia. It’s a standard Fire Emblem narrative, but told well, and the characters (who are now all fully voice-acted) are consistently charming. The initial chapters focus on one or the other, until a few hours in when the game opens up and lets you switch between them as you see fit. Both characters can be moved across the world map, and it’s up to you if you want to focus on one then the other or alternate between the two, although both need to complete their ‘main’ quest in each of the game’s chapters before the next set of missions will open.
It’s tempting to say that Echoes takes Fire Emblem back to basics after Fates took the framework of Awakening and bloated it until it nearly burst, but that would be misleading. Echoes is just different from the previous 3DS games, presenting the player with simple systems that still require complex strategic thought to navigate. Even playing on Hard difficulty with ‘Classic’ permadeath mode enabled (and if you’re not playing ‘Classic’ you’re not playing the version of Fire Emblem that people properly fall in love with), Echoes is a little less stressful than previous games, although not necessarily easier.
Battles are now streamlined. Magic attacks and some techniques now come with health costs, so launching your most powerful moves eats into your HP, but this is now the only stat you must keep track of. Characters can only hold one item or weapon at a time, and they don’t degrade. If you give a character a shield they’re stuck with the generic weapon of their class, which means that your units fall into specific ‘roles’ during battle even more than usual.
The biggest shake-up is Mila’s Turnwheel, a new addition to the series which makes it possible to ‘rewind’ a battle to an earlier point. You start with four rewinds, but this increases as you find and collect more ‘cogs’ scattered across the map. Now when a character dies, you can track back to the moment where you made the decision that later led to their death and take another shot at it. Alternatively, if they died from an attack that had, say, a 60% chance of landing, you might want to rewind and let that attack happen again, praying that it misses this time. The situations where you find yourself in an unwinnable situation, or reaching a point where you need to decide whether to let a character stay dead or fight harder to keep them alive, now unfurl at a slow enough pace to mitigate the sorrow and frustration Fire Emblem so often trades in. You still need to be careful and methodical, but not to the same extent you usually would.
What this means is that the hard resets, where you exit out and restart the battle to save your units, now happen on your own terms. When you exit out it’s not because the game screwed you, and you go back in hoping that it doesn’t screw you this time – you exit out in order to replan. Risky moves are now much more viable, which opens more strategic avenues than it closes off. Skirmishes often stretch on for longer, becoming more exciting in the process. As a battle of attrition breaks out on the frontline, you may need to establish a splinter group to take out the mages that are trying to flank you, or it might become the job of one unit to lure archers, their life constantly at risk. Even though the characters aren’t hooking up in this one, it’s easy to become very attached to them based on the roles they serve on the battlefield.
Echoes focuses you entirely on winning battles, rather than conquering maps or overcoming obstacles. If there’s an ally on the field, you don’t need to send a specific unit to have a chat with them – if they survive the battle, they’re yours. Enemies don’t suddenly show up in turn 6 and wipe out the pegasus knight you had foolishly allowed to hang back and chill, and there’s no fog of war. There are no chests to open, villages to warn, or anything like that – you’re just dropped onto a battlefield and asked to kill everything on it, every time.
This means that Echoes never feels like it’s trying to compete with Awakening, which remains the series highpoint. It’s that thing you like, but different enough from the one you really like that it doesn’t feel watered down. The dungeons – lifted from the NES game Fire Emblem Gaiden, of which this is technically a remake – add to this feeling. They’re an odd addition, presenting large 3D spaces where you can wander around, smash up pots, and initiate the series standard turn-based tactical grid battles by running into enemies. They’re also an interesting change of pace. Your team can grow ‘tired’ and less effective if you put them through too many battles in one trek, and the dangers of permadeath are more pronounced when you haven’t had a chance to save for a while (you can choose to flee a battle, but not until turn 3).
Fire Emblem Echoes is probably intended as a stopgap, a quick remake that is guaranteed to do well enough to justify its creation, but it never feels as cynical as all that, and I haven’t been able to put it down. While it lacks both the scale and weird interdimensional-childbirth elements of the last two Fire Emblem games on the 3DS, none of that matters on the battlefield. Alm and Celica won’t latch onto your heart in quite the same way that Chrom and Robin did, but Echoes will ruin your sleep patterns and cramp up your hands like only the best 3DS games can.