Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Staff Review #2

Japan was first introduced to the exploits of Prince Marth of Altea in 1990 when Fire Emblem: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was released on the Famicom. In North America, gamers got their first look at Marth in Smash Bros. Melee, a fighting game filled to the brim with various Nintendo characters. With his subsequent appearance in Smash Bros. Brawl, gamers on this side of the world have been eager to learn more about this blue-headed prince. Fortunately, with the DS remake, fans can finally see how the series began with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.

Long ago, there was a great battle. The Shadow Dragon had his sights on conquering the world, but a hero named Anri defeated him with Falchion, the blade of light. Anri returned to his kingdom of Altea, and peace lasted for generations. But sadly, chaos would eventually break out again when Gra, a close ally of Altea, attacked in a sudden betrayal that left the king dead and Falchion stolen. Marth barely escapes and vows to get stronger so he can reclaim his country.

Protip: Strapping soldiers onto ballista bolts is usually NOT considered a very effective strategy.
Protip: Strapping soldiers onto ballista bolts is usually NOT considered a very effective strategy.

Fire Emblem is a series of TRPGs with very simple rules. There is always one or more main characters that must participate in every battle, there is a weapons triangle that resembles paper-rock-scissors, and unlike most games, death is very permanent. Considering that one misstep can result in the irreversible loss of a character, the utmost care must be used when deciding who to move where. Not only do you have to think about your target, you must consider your weapon, and most importantly, you have to check if you are within range of any other characters. In some games, characters have thousands of hit points and can literally withstand being bombarded with meteors or standing on a sun gone supernova. This is not the case in Fire Emblem; one or two landed hits is usually more than enough to fell any given soldier.

The bulk of the game takes place on various battlefields where you start on one side, there is a boss on the other, and the space in between is littered with enemies. Combat begins when characters get close enough to attack, usually one square away. Fortunately, the Battle Forecast system that was introduced in later Fire Emblem games was added, so before you attack, you’ll know how much damage will be done, the hit percentage, and the percent chance of a critical attack. Then, whoever initiates the battle strikes first, and if the other guy survives, he’ll hit back. This continues until every character on one side has made their moves, and then everyone on the opposing side makes theirs. Play goes back and forth until the boss of the stage is defeated. Then Marth can move to the square where the boss was standing and seize it to end the map. Usually this will happen when every enemy is killed, but it’s entirely possible to end maps in as few as four moves.

When you’re not trading blows on the battlefield, the rest of the game is told with high resolution sprites and copious amounts of text. Every stage is bookended with bursts of plot at the beginning and end of each chapter. For many fans, the plot progression is a highlight of the game, but unfortunately the story found in Shadow Dragon shows its age a bit. Marth is very two dimensional, and on the whole, the plot is very simple. It’s never bad, but for players that have been through the other Fire Emblem releases, it will lack some of the depth of games like Radiant Dawn and The Sacred Stones.

Another issue that directly affects the way the plot is told is the way the map is handled. In other Fire Emblem games, there is a clear map with labeled countries. For some reason, Shadow Dragon does not have one, so it can be difficult to understand where Marth is going or, more importantly, why he is going there. The story is simple enough that you can still follow things, but it makes things a bit confusing when it didn’t have to be.

No one likes being on What Not to Wear, but Stacy and Clinton definitely had their work cut out for them.
No one likes being on What Not to Wear, but Stacy and Clinton definitely had their work cut out for them.

Even though this is a remake of the original game in the series, it is not without innovations. In order to appeal to a new audience, several new features have been introduced. The first addition is save points. In previous games, chapters must be completed in one go. Since stages can take an hour or more, that makes it all the more frustrating when an unexpected critical attack kills one of your characters. Radiant Dawn allowed for saves to be made at any point, but that was scaled back to being able to make up to three permanent saves at special points on the map. The result is a nice balance that is not too difficult, yet still retains some of the challenge the series is known for.

The second major change is the ability to change the class of most characters. Some characters cannot change classes, and not every class is available to every character. You are also limited in how many characters of each class you can have at any given time, so if you dream of an army composed entirely of cavaliers or myrmidons, this feature does not grant that wish. Some characters actually play much better in another class, and there are benefits to changing classes temporarily. For example, there are stages that are not very friendly to flying units, but with a few button presses, your winged characters will be much safer on the ground. You can switch them back the next chapter with no loss in stats.

Shadow Dragon also has two new features to help newer players. There are a handful of gaiden missions that are accessed by meeting certain requirements, usually having fewer than 15 units. Not only do these allow for more experience to be gained, but each yields a powerful character to help the party meet the challenges ahead.

The other way the developers have tried to make things easier is by allowing loan characters. By using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, units can be transferred from a friend’s game into yours. Purists will not use this feature, but for newcomers, having a powerful knight to save the day could mean the difference between victory and yet another failure.

Graphically, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon performs satisfactorily. The sprites used outside of battle are very detailed and pretty, but the battle animations are only a small step up from the GBA offerings. For some games, this would be a much stronger negative, but in all honesty, the battle graphics could be replaced with stick figures so long as the visuals are pretty between chapters.

Unfortunately, the game’s music drops the ball a bit. None of the songs are bad, but few are memorable. There are some good songs, but you’ll get so used to hearing them that they get repetitive by the end. The biggest offenders are the songs that play when a new character joins the group and the song that is heard when the map is cleared of enemies. You’ll be hearing these songs a lot. For Smash Bros. fans, it can be exciting to hear the new character song the first time, but units join up so frequently that it loses its charm quickly.

Little known fact: Grabbing a hero's cape can completely prevent him from being able to hit you.
Little known fact: Grabbing a hero’s cape can completely prevent him from being able to hit you.

As mentioned before, the Fire Emblem series is known for its difficulty. In order to make the game more accessible to both new and experienced players, there are six levels of difficulty. The easiest setting includes a four-stage prologue that serves as a tutorial of sorts. The maps are fun enough, but at the end, a character must be sacrificed to continue with the story. For many die-hard fans, this will not be acceptable.

The five harder settings have their own issues. Without the prologue map, Marth is dumped on the first numbered stage with no healing items and at level one. This can make the first map the hardest in the game. The hard settings also change the way enemy reinforcements are handled. In most Fire Emblem games, reinforcements join the enemy periodically at the end of the opposition’s turn. This is not the case on anything but the easiest setting. Instead reinforcements will appear out of thin air at the start of the enemy’s turn, thus getting to move and attack immediately. Take into account that one or two hits is all it takes to kill most characters, and this can be extremely frustrating. It might not be a big issue if reinforcements came only a couple times on each map, but for many stages, new soldiers will join the enemy every turn for several turns.

Completing the game will take anywhere from 20-40 hours, even though the game clock will show closer to 25. This is because players will most likely restart chapters several times as your units get killed. There is another reason some players will inevitably restart battles. Fire Emblem games have a maximum level of 40, which is easily attained with proper strategy. When characters level up, each stats such as strength and defense will sometimes increase by one. Each character has intrinsic growth rates for each stat, but far too often, characters will gain nothing for going up in level. This is almost as frustrating as having a character die, and hopefully it will not happen in subsequent games.

There are two other additions that greatly enhance the experience that need to be mentioned. The first seems minor, but it’s actually an innovation that fans will greatly appreciate. Weapons in Fire Emblem do not last forever. After a certain number of uses, all weapons mysteriously break. In past games, players will have their convoy filled with nearly broken weapons, but Shadow Dragon allows identical weapons to be merged and their remaining uses are added together. So now, that silver sword with four uses left actually has a purpose if you happen to have another one that has already been used a little. Not only does it prevent you from having to waste space in characters’ inventories, it also saves some money as you will not have to purchase quite so many weapons.

The other new addition is by far the most fun. For the first time ever, Shadow Dragon allows for Wi-Fi battles. Teams of five can be matched against friends’ teams or even random opponents. Not only does this give insight into what characters other players used, but it gives you a chance to fight more intelligent foes. In the story missions, most enemies will attack as soon as you are in their attack range, even if they can do zero damage. Now, you actually have to think about battles. The only problem is that there is no balancing option for online matches, but it’s still a blast. With a little tweaking, this could be even better for future installments.

In the end, even though the story is lacking compared to other entries in the series, the core gameplay is there. It is as fun as ever watching weak soldiers become powerhouses capable of taking on entire waves of enemies. Add in the online battles, and it’s a treat for experienced players while newer players can be eased into the series with its gaiden missions and loan characters. It’s not the best the series has to offer, but it’s still good enough that it’s worth playing, an impressive feat for game that is over 18 years old.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.