Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (2017)

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Historical context in video games is difficult to grasp.  Since so many companies are primarily interested in rehashing the past either in the form of copy/pasted emulation ports or remakes of varying quality, it means the core experience or appeal of different franchises may be lost as the game is tinkered with from one generation to the next.  Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (just Echoes moving forward) is trying to preserve video game history without losing touch with the advancements of technology.  As a player who only got into the Fire Emblem series starting with Awakening, Echoes came as a shock for the features it cuts out and streamlined combat.  One similar map to another led to quick boredom, and the vanilla heroics of deuteragonist Alm didn't thrill me.

Then, as it happens sometimes, Echoes clicked.  It wasn't because of Alm and his growing army counterattacking an evil foreign power.  Instead, protagonist Celica (and I'll argue to my grave she's the protagonist), and her small crew of dedicated fighters got to my heart.  The Celica side of Echoes is less immediately gripping as she is journeying on what amounts to a religious pilgrimage which isn't helped by the number of similar boat maps she starts out on.  But the subtle shifts of the combat system in Echoes is felt more keenly on her side than the volume of soldiers available in Alms, and the intimate focus leads to better storytelling through the maps, dialogue, and tactics needed to succeed.

One of Echoes' ongoing discussions involves class politics and whether those born into a higher station need to save the lives of those in poverty.  On Alm's side this is usually cringe-worthy, with Alm making a speech about why he needs to save a poor character that's less inspiring and more misguided in the vein of A Time to Kill.  Alm's reasoning for saving a poor character amounts to, "Imagine she's rich" and is sympathy, not empathy, and since he spends the rest of the time leading an army and reassuring the poor villagers in enemy territory that he means them no hard so long as they're not on the field of battle.  It's soft liberalism, and Alm's comments to the poor villagers recalls Hillary Clinton's subtle bigotry with respect to Muslims during 2016.

Celica runs a parallel path to Alm but in much different circumstances.  Instead of playing the role of conqueror she's playing the role of healer.  The land follows suit, making Celica's battles more treacherous than Alm's.  After a rash of uninspired boat maps that amount to holding a choke point, I encountered with a series of desert maps that forced movement to a crawl.  I couldn't rush forward and seize land like Alm, I had to carefully consider which swaths of land would provide a good defensive position to hold momentarily before going back to the slow crawl toward the objective.  The most brilliant of Celica's maps involves a poisoned terrain where I had to sacrifice the health of my strongest units to secure a position for the weaker ones.  If I played it safe, the few locations I could reach would be clogged with summoned enemies and I'd be forced to fight in the poison.

The unspoken rule of these maps is, "Progress does not come without self-sacrifice," and Celica's dialogue quietly makes this argument to everyone she comes across.  Her relationships to the fighters in her path are more built on what each character needs to do to move on from their trauma.  The most potent of these comes from my boy Valbar, who is my favorite character in the five Fire Emblem characters I've played and the embodiment of the class conflict conversation at the center of Echoes.

Valbar became a knight because he was too poor to support his family and while he was away from home bandits killed all his loved ones.  Celica meets him when he's launching a suicide mission, and initially refers to his family as living, "My family owes you as well, it's up to me to pay you back," before dialogue bonding scenes reveal their deaths and his resolve to support Celica.  Without Celica, Valbar is a suicidal knight forever locked in the trauma of his family's murders born from his low station in life, but with Celica he grows into a man who can admit his pain and find something else to fight for.  This is the heart of class struggle, striving to create a world where we're as free as possible from material needs to live out peaceful lives, and central to everything Celica does.

This is where the cut additional features from Awakening and Fates make Echoes a leaner product.  Instead of time-traveling or alternate-history shenanigans, such as a marriage and offspring system, the player is forced to work with what's directly in front of them.  In terms of storytelling this is a great shift as the work of making the world better shouldn't be left to the next generation and instead should be the work of all living people.  For the battles of Echoes, this means no space can be shared, and the territory the enemy can move into is territory that must be plugged up as there is no easy retreat for your units.  The territorial focus suits the removal of the rock/paper/scissors weapon wheel of Awakening and Fates.  Instead of worrying about what each fighter has, more weight is given to considering who they were fighting, their surroundings, and making sure each square of territory means the difference between a fighter's survival or death.

Echoes falls short in its one unique addition - dungeon exploration.  When entering a dungeon Echoes switches to a third-person dungeon crawler where I could sneak up on enemies and wack them with my sword to get an early advantage.  But the mostly identical corridors and simple layouts aren't inspiring aesthetically, and the ability to get a leg up on enemies results in the same map being used multiple times for enemies of varying degrees of health.  The fatigue system used in the dungeons, where your characters become less effective and need food to go back to full strength, is an unnecessary weight on the already easy battles given the plentiful supply of food.

Annoying as those dungeon-diving segments are, and how bland of a hero Alm is, neither detracts from the excellence of Celica's sections that drive Echoes to its conclusion.  If the two previous Fire Emblem games were more akin to chess then Echoes is more akin to go.  My troop placements needed to be considered in advance, thinking of what territory will be protected, and making sure each move into the enemy's zone of control is a carefully calculated risk.  Each tense move creates a thrilling Fire Emblem experience and with this delve into the past shows we can pay respect to the history of a game franchise while considering new ways forward.  Echoes is a superb achievement, and hopefully lays the foundation for Fire Emblem games to come.

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Posted by Andrew

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