Every Fire Emblem game has a legion of fans ready to defend the title with a list of defining features. It’s this attention to detail that makes it hard to crown a superlative entry, and it only makes remakes harder. Intelligent Systems had already begun to experiment with remakes through Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem. These were total overhauls, designed to give the first and third entries a guise of modernization. When remaking these older titles, it’s often hard to differentiate between a feature and a hardware limitation. Too much modernization could erase the magic of the game, while too little could leave it archaic.
This issue was especially relevant when creating Shadows of Valentia. The source material, Fire Emblem Gaiden, is famous for being the “black sheep” of the series. To make matters worse, Fates had polarized the fanbase to a seemingly irreversible state. These two factors meant that a Gaiden remake had to find the perfect balance between modernization and faithfulness. Omitting the eccentricities would make Gaiden unrecognizable to older fans, but the game’s flaws prevented it from simply being run through the 3DS engine. The end result of this dilemma would prove to be one of my favorite Fire Emblem games, and is how future remakes should be conducted.
Before discussing anything here, I recommend that you read Fire Emblem Frenzy #2 and #11. The former goes over what makes Gaiden so different, so it will help one understand this remake. The latter goes over how the previous two remakes were designed, which will be important to understand when I compare and contrast. Many of the details will be reviewed here, but reading the aforementioned articles may be beneficial.
Gaiden tells the story of Alm and Celica. The two must save Zofia from the control of Rigel. Along the way, they discover much about the competing theologies, ultimately raising questions about the responsibility of the divine. This was the first case of moral grey in Fire Emblem. Though they seem belligerent in the beginning of the story, Duma and the Rigelians have understandable desires. However, the schemes of the avaricious use those goals to corrupt the nation.
This story holds up surprisingly well, though some aspects lacked details, likely due to the NES’ capabilities. Consequently, most of the story additions were designed to fill in the missing pieces.
Like Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem, Shadows of Valentia expands and updates its cast. There are a few new heroes and villains, such as Berkut, Conrad, Fernand, and Faye. These all feel like significant additions, since their roles in the story help humanize the parties involved. Berkut’s story is especially tragic, telling the tale of a man who has everything taken from him. His pact with Duma illustrates why the god is revered by the Rigelians. Most importantly, it shows that the reveal of Alm’s secret heritage has consequences, further pushing the dark themes of the finale.
Shadows of Valentia also adds supports for most of the cast. A lack of supports hurt Shadow Dragon‘s reception, so this was an expected addition. Supports revert to the traditional style seen in GBA and Tellius Fire Emblem games. Certain characters can have conversations once they have fought near each other for long enough. Bond supports return as well, allowing some units to provide stat bonuses when near each other. Of course, to keep with the traditional style, support conversations can only occur during battle, and there is no romance aspect to it (and by extension, no child units).
The supports of Shadows of Valentia show that Intelligent Systems learned from Fates. Although there are only about 30 conversations, each has much more character development and overall quality than Fates‘ 600 ever could. This is an effective way to expand upon each character without being intrusive. Excluding child units and a romance system is symbolic to me; since Gaiden‘s original ending was conjugal for many characters, making them marry whomever you wished would ruin it. It shows that Intelligent Systems no longer feels forced to modify their vision for the sake of a specific feature, something continued to be seen in Three Houses.
The enhanced character development doesn’t just occur among party members. Shadows of Valentia also adds Memory Prisms. While these show the concatenation that led to the current state of Valentia, they provide much more development to characters who do not have the opportunity to shine in the main game. Even villains like Desaix and Slayde have time in the spotlight, giving detestable villains semi-reasonable goals.
Memory Prisms would be especially useful in a Genealogy of the Holy War remake. The game has many political events that are all connected through the Lopt Sect. A remake would benefit from additional backstory of those involved. Chagall, Travant, and countless others are great candidates for it. Perhaps a prism could be found after capturing a castle tied to the memory’s subject.
The final major plot addition is Shadows of Valentia‘s post game. In it, the group travels across the sea to Archanea to explore the rumored Thabes Labyrinth. They unearth the alchemist Forneus’ hidden work: a malovent dragon that would come to be known as Grima. This retroactively provides development for the great evil of Awakening, which notoriously lacked it. Obviously, this could only be done since Shadows of Valentia takes place in the same universe as Awakening, something not common in Fire Emblem. Still, it’s a clever way to fix something that came as a result of Awakening‘s unfocused plot. Hopefully, remakes of the Jugdral or Elibe games continue this trend of retroactive repair.
Like most early sequels, Gaiden was quite experimental. Shadows of Valentia retains Gaiden‘s traversable maps, lack of weapon durability, and extra encounters. These features appear in The Sacred Stones, Awakening, or Fates in some form, so the inclusion isn’t too jarring.
Since it predates Genealogy of the Holy War, Gaiden lacks a weapon triangle system. Naturally, it is pretermitted here as well. The remake also includes the 1-5 range archers and learn-by-level magic system. The three tier class system returns, and just like in the original game, early promotion is emphasized. Surprisingly, these don’t feel archaic, just different than the norm.
A lack of weapon durability isn’t the only aspect of the inventory system in Shadows of Valentia that is disparate to the rest of the series. Just like in Gaiden, units can hold one item, whether it be food, a shield, or a weapon. The latter two typically have special effects, while the former can heal the unit. Where Shadows of Valentia differs is in the skill system. When an item is used long enough, special skills can be learned. While some are passive, many are active, requiring HP to use. In this way, these skills are quite similar to the game’s magic. However, the skill is only in effect when the weapon is equipped. This makes almost all weapons useful; not even powerful weapons such as the Falchion can make everything obsolete.
What’s truly interesting is the fact that Three Houses seems to take inspiration from some of Gaiden‘s concepts. Archers will have 2-4 range, and magic is tied to a character’s stats, not the item they hold. While it’s hard to tell whether early promotion will be encouraged, the freedom of the promotion system seems to deviate from most of the series. It’s multi tiered as well! The skill system of Shadows of Valentia seems similar to Three Houses’ combat arts, though the latter is tied to weapon durability instead of HP. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to theorize that Shadows of Valentia was a test ground for Three Houses; Intelligent Systems could see what needed to be tweaked for the next great escapade.
Who could forget Gaiden‘s dungeons and towns? Dungeon and town exploration was quite similar to the gameplay of traditional RPGs. You could move the character around the grid based map, interacting with NPCs, finding items, and fighting enemies. In Shadows of Valentia, town exploration functions like a point and click visual novel. The player simply moves the cursor on something that can be interacted with. It’s simple, but more efficient since towns have never been very interesting. However, dungeons are now fully 3D. The player controls either Alm or Celica, who can move, destroy containers, and attack enemies. Upon attacking enemies, the traditional turn based battle returns.
This new 3D dungeon system does a great job splitting the action. Despite the sheer amount of dungeons, most felt unique visually. The eerie nature of exploration is perfectly crafted. One moment could be spent walking through dimly lit catacombs while the next is spent running from a monster emerging from the shadows. I play Fire Emblem for the strategy aspect, yet this adaption was stunning and engrossing.
Unfortunately, not all of Gaiden is easily adapted. The game’s map design is atrocious when compared to most titles. There are many open plains, barren deserts, and movement hindering swamps to traverse through. The game is notoriously unfair at times, with teleporting Witches and monster spawning Conjurors. Unfortunately, these old roots are still felt in Shadows of Valentia. Most maps were quite simple, yet they always seemed to get clogged at a single choke point. Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect all the maps to be redone, but with so many similar trudges, would much be lost?
Luckily, Intelligent Systems provided a remedy that eases the aging of the maps: Mila’s Turnwheel. Mila’s Turnwheel can be used a certain amount of times per map/dungeon to go back however many turns you wish. It can be used more as the game progresses, which is great for late game dungeons, but is a bit extreme for single maps. The Turnwheel makes unpredictable deaths a bit more manageable, since one doesn’t have to reset right away. This saved many agonizing second attempts of Shadows of Valentia‘s worst offerings. While it doesn’t fix the abominable design of many of Shadows of Valentia‘s maps, Mila’s Turnwheel certainly makes it much more palatable.
Interestingly, Mila’s Turnwheel returns in Three Houses in the form of Divine Pulse. Admittedly, this is a bit concerning, especially in conjunction with previews stating early game maps are generally open fields. Hopefully, Divine Pulse isn’t an excuse for poor map design. Looking forward, I think Mila’s Turnwheel should return in some form in future remakes, especially the Genealogy one. The large maps of Genealogy of the Holy War create many unpredictable story events, which can decimate Sigurd’s party during a blind run. As is the case in Shadows of Valentia, this system won’t cure the problem entirely, but would help keep the remake faithful yet fair.
It’s quite evident that Shadows of Valentia didn’t receive much “modernization”. The main features that it borrows from the latest Fire Emblem games are Supports, the forge system, and Casual mode. Pair Up, Reclassing, and the Avatar unit were not present. This feels quite different from Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem. Those games fully embraced the modern era, including many features to avoid being antiquated. I think that is partially due to the fact that they preceded Awakening, so “radical” features such as Pair Up had not been introduced. This contrast might also be heightened by the fact that Gaiden is innately different from the rest of the series.
If Intelligent Systems continues to remake Fire Emblem games, I think they should aim to be faithful. The games preceding The Binding Blade all were unique in some way, but that’s usually why they are so beloved. Since Three Houses is taking a moderate approach to the balance of new and old, I think this is possible. After a game such as Fates, Shadows of Valentia felt like a step backwards to some, ultimately hurting reception from media and newer fans. If future Fire Emblem games continue to shift emphasis back to the gameplay, faithful remakes will become feasible.
Unfortunately, one particular aspect of modernization touched Shadows of Valentia: DLC. There are five sets of DLC. Two are the typical resource booster maps, one contains a new set of “overclasses”, another offers a new prequel story, and the final ties in characters from the Cipher card game. The first pack is redundant; it’s essentially the second pack with worse equipment. The second pack is fairly standard for Fire Emblem DLC, simply making resources easier to attain. The third DLC pack is where the egregious practices begin to show. Each “map” in this pack is essentially just a room containing a shrine that allows the player to access a fourth level for a class line. There is no exploration involved, you’re simply given the class once a unit is strong enough. I’d understand locking it behind DLC if there was some sort of challenge in each shrine, but in its current state, charging for these classes is rapacious. The fourth set of DLC is rather fair. It offers a new prologue involving Clive, Fernand, and the forming of the Deliverance. My main complaint is the fact that some support conversations and Memory Prisms are locked behind it. These help develop Fernand in particular, so it’s a shame that they weren’t available normally. The final DLC is rather underwhelming, especially since Cipher isn’t available outside Japan. Completing the two maps unlocks four of Cipher’s original characters. There’s no reason for it to exist, but if one enjoys Cipher, I suppose it’s a nice addition.
There are two main problems with the DLC. The first is the fact that it doesn’t provide anything substantial. Almost everything feels like extra content that was cut out since it wasn’t part of Gaiden. Awakening‘s DLC added substantial new goals to work towards, making the poor quality of this DLC especially noticeable. This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the second problem: the price. This DLC costs more than the base game. For that price, I expect a significant addition that takes numerous hours to complete, not content that could have been in the post game alongside Thabes Labyrinth.
However, there is a silver lining: the negative backlash towards this DLC was seemingly heard. Three Houses‘ DLC is only $25 and will be released over the next 9 months. Considering the quality of Switch DLC, I have high hopes for the final story expansion slated for April 2020. I’m glad to see that Intelligent Systems has become more considerate of their business practices, even if it cost Shadows of Valentia.
One aspect that can not be overstated is how great the visuals are. The animations express far more character than those of Awakening or Fates. The environments have more detail than before, especially in the many dungeons. The animated cutscenes are quite vibrant, even if they seem a bit choppy at times. The soundtrack present is also stellar. The 8 Bit melodies of Gaiden have been beautifully adapted to an orchestral score. It is among the best of the series, even if Gaiden‘s shorter OST made some themes a bit overplayed.
Shadows of Valentia showed that Intelligent Systems listens. The company was no longer compelled to include unnecessary features, even if it would displease some fans. A few new additions kept the game faithful to Gaiden without being too tedious. This more moderate take on the series will likely be continued in Three Houses, finally repairing the rift opened in 2012. The future looks bright for Fire Emblem.