I will admit to have very little prior experience with the Fire Emblem franchise, having deliberately avoided the series due to its deep lore and extensive history. Despite this, I largely enjoyed my time with its newest entry, Shadows of Valentia, which presents a simple, but surprisingly accessible story for new fans and long-time players alike. Following childhood friends Alm and Celica as they lead separate armies to war, Shadows of Valentia features a story that feels overwhelming at first, but soon unfolds itself over the course of Alm and Celica’s journeys. The initial prologue created an intriguing, if somewhat well trodden hook, weaving a story about the intertwining destinies of the aforementioned pair as Celica goes into hiding from the Rigelian Empire, and Alm trains to become a soldier under his uncle, Mycen.
While the story itself is skilfully told through a range of gorgeous illustrations, anime-style cutscenes and narration, its inherent simplicity and reliance on common fantasy tropes was a disappointment. Being a remake of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden means that despite the stellar new graphics, newly voiced characters and great dungeon exploration segments, Shadows of Valentia still feels like a game stuck in the past. The moment Alm opened his mouth and uttered the line, “I know I’m meant for more than this,” I found myself rolling my eyes and sighing. It leans heavily on clichéd tropes, and brings with it a feeling of great familiarity, presenting a tale that does little to differentiate itself from its fellow RPG and strategy games. The essence of the story also largely reminded me of the epic JRPGs of the past, including a personal favourite of mine, Dragon Valor. The story, which largely suffers due to the game’s nature as a remake, is illustrated beautifully, however, and features some of the best graphical sequences of the 3DS system.
Shadows of Valentia is a genuinely gorgeous looking game, with animated cutscenes from Evangelion’s Studio Khara, and a range of neatly designed characters and worlds. Throughout Shadows of Valentia, you meet a variety of interesting characters, many of which may be added to your party to take part in a variety of turn-based battles. Each character is able to take on a variety of classes and new abilities, with a need for Alm to build a balanced team to lead them to victory. My favourite companion quickly became Faye, who rose from being the weakest member of my party to becoming the most valuable mage through the levelling up system. Strategy is absolutely essential to crafting the perfect team, as a range of long-range and short-range fighters are needed to defeat a variety of enemies. Careful planning, and a great deal of thought is required for even the most simple battles, as the game drops you into fairly difficult battles from the very start.
The game presents a variety of options for battles, including a casual mode where fallen characters are resurrected after battle, or classic mode, where characters that die in battle stay dead. Much more enjoyable is the former, as casual mode creates a much more enjoyable experience, and one in which difficult battles can be undertaken multiple times until victory is effectively planned for and achieved. As one unfamiliar with games of the turn-based strategy variety, having only ever experienced the style through the highly underrated Pokémon Conquest, it took some getting used to the pace and action of Shadows of Valentia’s battles. Each battle is time consuming and relatively slow, with a lot of dedication needed to position your team and set up effective formations, though there are options for quick formation and charging manoeuvres. Despite this, the battles never feel dull, as gameplay is broken up by action fuelled in-game cutscenes as your characters battle their enemies.
Throughout the game, I began to enjoy the relative calm of these turn-based battles, and I’m glad I did, as in-game progression largely relies on hours of grinding to level up your characters. Even in the opening stages, battles can be very difficult and require either intense planning, or a grinding in dungeons in order to defeat over-levelled enemies. Patience and dedication is rewarded well through these battles, as watching your party members level up and gain new class options is a genuinely enjoyable experience. What is less enjoyable is the frequency and amount of battles that players face in their journey across Valentia. Between villages and dungeons, players are likely to face off against several hordes of enemies before reaching safe harbour. Often, this means that battles begin to feel like a slog, particularly when encountering more powerful groups of enemies. I often found myself shedding allies in these sections, as my impatience to advance led to a loss of strategy as I sent my party running headlong into overly powerful enemies.
Dungeon exploration is a mechanic newly introduced in Shadows of Valentia, and it was a large part of what made the game so enjoyable for me. In order to level up characters and gain access to new rewards, dungeon exploration is essential. Breaking up the tedium of turn-based battles, each dungeon features open-world style gameplay, allowing you to discover treasure, battle enemy guards and gain the blessing of Mila, the goddess. The level of detail in these dungeons, and the beautiful open world settings are a delight, and it had me wishing that Shadows of Valentia has incorporated more of this in the overall style of the game.
In addition to these exploratory segments, players are also presented with investigative interludes as your party alights at a variety of towns and landscapes. These sections largely functioned as point-and-click adventures, as players can find various items, rescue people or engage in conversation with your party members. Ultimately, these mechanics give Shadows of Valentia a somewhat jarring feel, as it becomes equal parts an adventure/exploration/turn-based strategy/relationship building JRPG. As part of a franchise that is largely known for its turn-based strategy battles, I felt it odd that this happened to be the least enjoyable part of the game. Despite this, Shadows of Valentia pulls of its ever-shifting genre changes, and is largely held together by its strong sense of style, aesthetics and panache. For those new to the franchise, Shadows of Valentia is a strong starting point, and a brilliant update to the original Gaiden title. Returning players may be disappointed by the advancement that the game brings to the franchise, but overall, it presents an enjoyable experience with a range of worlds and enemies to conquer.
Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Dungeon exploration, strong characters, beautiful visual style, great cutscenes
Lowlights: Clichéd story, battle grinding, jarring genre mash-up
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: Out Now