Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadow of Valentia

A new Fire Emblem game is out and even though over the last year I played what was essentially 3 new Fire Emblem games – each of Fates campaigns, Birthright, Conquest, Revelation, are full games – I was still really pumped for this one.  Hold on, I mean I played 4 Fire Emblem games, because I completely blanked on Fire Emblem Heroes on my phone, though maybe that is a good thing.  The point remains that I will take all of this series that Nintendo is offering, while they are offering it, because I don’t know when it might disappear again.  Still, with the Fates trilogy being a little bit of a letdown, with its fractured storyline making each of its three campaigns feel compromised in some way, the back to basics promise of the Fire Emblem Echoes, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the famicom, sounded like a good idea.

Fire Emblem Echoes is the truest of mixed bags.  It does some things that I absolutely love, but it also does just as many things that frustrate me. On the plus side is pretty much everything outside of the specific mechanics of this take on Fire Emblem.  On the negative side are some of those mechanics. Or lack of mechanics.

It really is the best looking 3D game in the series.  I have long been a partisan of the GBA game’s beautiful 2D sprites as they dance through their attack animations.  None of the 3D games have been able to match those for looks. While they have gotten progressively better, but it wasn’t until this game that I thought that they had equaled the GBA games.  I also prefer the character designs in Echoes to any the series has had in quite some time. They feel like character designs from the era this game originated, with some slight modernization, but not the pure modern aesthetic of Fates or Awakening. The animations are also top notch, with plenty of unique animations for the game’s characters, a touch that really helps bring out the personality in some characters that could otherwise feel somewhat flat. This is just a great looking 3DS game.  I also like the return to a less comprehensive support system, with the pair up mechanic being completely gone.  I didn’t mind those pair up mechanics in Awakening or Fates. They changed the game significantly, but once I got used to how they worked it became second nature.  However, playing this game without them kind reinforces how unnecessary they are.  The strategy here just feels more pure, with your units better able to fulfill their roles.  The role of character supports is also scaled back.  A big part of the last two games has been seeing those supports for as many of your warriors as possible.  This game cuts back on the number of possible supports and makes them less important overall. They are there to flesh out the characters.  There is no marriage/child mechanic, which is more than fine.  I like that idea, and Awakening did good work with it.  But it felt forced in Fates and it really didn’t need to be added here.  If they go back to that in the future, I hope we get a full generational game, instead of a weird work around.

I have some minor complaints with parts of the game, like how one set of units seems to have uniformly dreadful growth rates or that the third person dungeons seemed unnecessary, but mostly I liked.  Still there are two things that stood out to me as flaws.  Fire Emblem Echoes mostly did a great job removing the cruft that had built up on this series, I think it went a bit too far.  While I think this is true to the original version of this game, I really felt the absence of the weapon triangle. Without that, parts of the game devolved into throwing magic users against non-magic enemies and regular fighters against the mages.  There is no nuance to it; it turned kind of simplistic. I also felt the lack of varied map and win conditions.   While Fates, Revelation especially, went overboard with the gimmick maps, something other than kill all enemies would have been appreciated here.  Just a few battles with survive or escape or capture would have helped spice things up quite a bit.  Those aren’t deal breaker problems, but they were big enough faults to keep from holding the game in the same regard as I do for the first few Fire Emblem games I played.

Last but not least is the story.  I was not a big fan of the story in any version of Fates and really haven’t loved the story of a Fire Emblem game since the Radiant duo.  Echoes is a fleshing out of an NES game’s story, but I greatly enjoyed it. Some developments are abrupt, but none are as nonsensical as most of Fates storyline was. I liked being in control of two separate armies, each with their storyline to play through but not being locked into one story or the other. I see how much this game influenced Sacred Stones, another series oddball.  I am glad this weird entry in the series got a remake and I am glad it is so much better than the remake the original Fire Emblem got for the DS.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

As soon as I finished up Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright I downloaded and started playing Conquest. After about three or four missions, I hit my limit on that unique to Fire Emblem blend of anguish, frustration and triumph and switched over to something else. I love Fire Emblem, but at a certain point I need to take some time to recharge. Coming back after that, I gained a greater appreciation for Conquest.

Honestly, the differences on the gameplay side between Conquest and Birthright were overblown. The lack of extra missions is a small loss; it is not like I took much advantage of that in Birthright. There are some differences, but the experiences are closer than they are different. The two biggest gameplay differences are what made Conquest the superior experience for me.

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The first is that it uses more traditional Fire Emblem character classes. Birthright threw me off with its changed up weapons and classes. Those changes were largely superficial, like calling axes clubs and the like, but it was enough to throw me off occasionally. Conquest sticking with Cavaliers and Knights instead of Samurai made everything just that much more comfortable for me. I do enjoy seeing Intelligent Systems change things up with the classes, but for a long time series veteran it was a barrier. The mixing of those different classes is what gives Fates its unique feel in the series, that the world is larger and more varied than the world of the previous games. Still, when it comes down to personal preference, I like the older stuff.

The other, more important difference is the variety of mission objectives. Birthright only has one type of mission, Rout the Enemy. You kill all the enemies on the map before they kill you. Conquest gets back to a more traditional Fire Emblem array of mission objectives. There are Kill the Boss missions, Survival missions, Escape, among others. That is where Conquest gains its complexity and maybe a slight decrease in difficulty. I might actually argue it makes things easier, having maps where a suicide run against a boss can end the whole mission rather than having to wipe out the army. Still, the variety makes for more interesting tactical decisions. Some units might be strictly better at killing enemies than others, but a survival mission adds greater importance to units that can tank, like Knights. When your only goal is to kill all the enemies, then a unit’s ability to kill becomes by far its most important skill. Having those other objectives really lets other units have a chance to shine. Of course, by the end of the game the difference is academic. Everything at that point can kill.

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Where the game falters, though, is with its characters. While their classes might be the usual, the characters that join up in Conquest are a strange lot. To me they are a not exactly appealing lot. That veneer of seediness that Nintendo’s localization team has done their paint over shines through here. These characters often seem deliberately created to appeal to certain subsections of the pervy otaku audience. From the overly suggestive, and frankly stupidly attired, Camilla, to the crassness of Nyx’s “I only look young” routine to whatever the fuck is going on with Charlotte. Even when they aren’t unsettling, the characters are just too weird for their own good. Maybe this was also true of Birthright’s cast, but since I didn’t have other ninjas or samurai to judge them against it was less noticeable, but I don’t think I’m coming out of Conquest with many additions to my list of favorite Fire Emblem characters, other than maybe the imports from Awakening.

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I still maintain that there really isn’t any sensible story related reason to side with Nohr at the choosing point, and playing Conquest hasn’t really changed that. The game jumps through some elaborate hoops to keep the player on the side of good while not disrupting his work for a murderous maniac. Neither game has an especially strong story, that is hopefully reserved for Revelations, but the one in Conquest has some truly absurd leaps of logic. Every character seems willing to acknowledge the problem of King Garon being a crazy murderer, but no one seems willing to even consider taking the steps needed to solve that problem. Or at least not the most direct one.

Still, the improvements to playability in Conquest give it a slight edge over Birthright in my book. I still think Nintendo and IS are crazy for essentially dumping three Fire Emblem games on the world at the same time, but with the video game industry slowly killing everything I love about video games, I’ll take a gift like this any way Nintendo wants to package it. Now it is time for another break before I tackle Revelations.

Fire Emblem Fates Birthright

When faced with the poorly explained choice between Fire Emblem Fates’ Birthright or Conquest versions, I went with Birthright. Given how the differences were explained, Conquest is that game the more closely fit with how I’ve played the series. I am just about as much of an old fan of Fire Emblem as exists in North America. I started with Sacred Stones, but quickly went back to play the first two GBA games, the fist using a translation patch and emulator, the only time I’ve actually completed a game that way. I’ve stuck with the series since, only failing to really enjoy the DS game. I liked Awakening, but I felt like it changed a little too much of the series core in an effort to expand the series fan base.

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It makes sense that when Nintendo explained what the differences between the two versions were that I would go with Conquest. Birthright was supposed to be more like Awakening; Conquest was the throwback to the early games in the series. There was one big change that I really wanted to keep, though: the world map. I started with Sacred Stones, the first game to try an Awakening like pivot for the series, but it was too rushed and too easy to have the impact that Awakening did. Still, a lot of the changes to Awakening were tried out for the first time in Sacred Stones. While I would agree that Sacred Stones is far from the best game in the series, its changes to the series’ structure were good. As much as I want an experience like Path of Radiance, I’d rather have some of the niceties of the modern games. Still, the choice for which one to buy (first, since I am going to be playing Conquest as soon as I finish with Birthright) came down to the fact that I prefer Birthright’s White and Red color scheme to Conquest’s Black and Purple.

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Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the game. Even Birthright pulls back from the cakewalk that Awakening was. There are some big changes to the pair up mechanic that stop it from completely wrecking the game’s difficulty curve. Now combo attacks always happen unless characters are paired up. Pairing up is now a defensive maneuver. It blocks enemy combo attacks and occasionally blocks main attacks. In Awakening there was no reason not to pair up, in Fates it is a situational tool. Not pairing up allows the player to combo and press the attack, pairing stops the enemy from doing the same. It turns a broken mechanic into an interesting one.

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The other big change to the formula is that they removed weapon durability. At first I thought this would simplify the game too much; judicious use of powerful weapons was an integral part of the series. The change was worked into the game perfectly. Now even the best weapons can have significant downsides and super powerful weapons are harder to find. It makes for fewer decisions for the player, but more important ones. The new weapon system really won me over by about the midpoint of the game.

It does continue the series strong focus on characters. The plot never moves past generic fantasy fluff, but the real draw is in the support conversations between the characters that make up your army. The start in out in pretty stereotypical roles, but the strong localization work really helps flesh out the collection of stock characters. The furor over this game’s localization is equal parts annoying and amusing to me. It is annoying because people who have done excellent work are getting yelled at by idiots; it is amusing because of how impotent those idiots have proven to be. Fire Emblem Fates looked like Nintendo taking a hard turn into some otaku jerkoff bullshit and the NA version deftly smoothed out the roughest, grossest parts of it, causing a teapot tempest of man-baby outrage. When the dust settled, intelligence won out and FE Fates was the best-selling game in the series in its first month. It is always good to see good work rewarded. Far from being a problem with the game the quality of the Fire Emblem Fates localization, like with nearly every game Nintendo’s Treehouse group translates, is one of its strongest features.

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I will always miss the incredibly charming sprites from the GBA games, but Birthright is one of the strongest games in the series to date. Now it’s time to find out if its supposedly more difficult counterpart is just as good.

Now Playing in February 2016

I spent a lot of time with my 3DS in February, but not so much with either of my home consoles. It looks to be the same for the next few months with the wealth of 3DS rpgs hitting now or in the near future. I am also happily surprised with myself that I am staying on top of my SNES deep dive.

Beaten

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam – see here.

The Death and Return of Superman – see here.

Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninjas – see here.

Prince of Persia –

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I initially intended to have a full post about this game, but in the end I don’t think I actually had that much to say about the game. I wanted to like it, but it has some pretty glaring flaws. Like how the story ends completely unresolved. It actually ends up being something of a shaggy dog story, albeit one that is fun to play. Fun, but far from perfect. For about the first half of the game I thought it was suffering from some bad input lag, and then I learned how the game worked. It isn’t really an action game; it is more of a rhythm game. There are only four possible actions to take and the intricate looking platforming is just recognizing which button you need to press. The game will play out that action when it is necessary, which isn’t always immediately. Until how it works clicks it can be frustrating. When things are going well it looks great, but it really isn’t that engaging to play. It just sort of goes with minimal player input. Maybe the old Prince of Persia games were the same, but this one was somehow everything I wanted and still largely unsatisfying.

Ongoing

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright –

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I don’t want to go on too long about this game, since I am currently writing up a full blog post about it, but there are some things worth mentioning. In that post I’ll go on longer about how excellent the localization is. The fact that Treehouse’s work here has come under fire is frankly ridiculous. Nintendo excising some embarrassing otaku wankbait from their own game is not censorship, and by all reputable accounts they have done a marvelous job polishing a pretty pedestrian story. Also, there was some struggle for me to decide with version to buy, because I thought it made more sense to start with the easier game and learn this entry’s particulars than to do that with the hard one. I was always going to play both or all three, I guess. Lastly, this game is really good. The disappointing DS game seems so long ago now.

Codename STEAM – see here. This one is likely going on the shelf for a while, because my 3DS looks to be pretty busy for the next few months.

Final Fantasy Explorers –

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This has all the ingredients of something I would really like. I’m a big fan of Monster Hunter and of the Crystal Chronicles games, both of which have similarities to this. And while I didn’t play this enough to give it a fair and complete judgement, through the first three hours it just feels sloppy. The Final Fantasy nostalgia does not appear to have been applied with much though, it’s just kind of there. It’s got the names and the look, but not the feel of Final Fantasy. The gameplay is structured like MH, but it is loose and unsatisfying. The bosses don’t feel like dangerous obstacles to overcome, but inert damage sponges that just take way too long to kill. I might have more to say if I ever find more time to play this, but it has been put at the bottom of a very long list.

Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations – I played through the first two cases of this Phoenix Wright finale. It has just as much verve and energy as I remembered. I really need to go reread what I said about the first two games, but this one really starts with a bang. The first case is especially tight, introducing this game’s central players while also quickly teaching new players how to play the game. I’ve actually forgotten most of the details of these cases, so it is almost like experiencing them for the first time again. On an unrelated note, I hope a miracle occurs and we get the Sherlock Ace Attorney game. It seems unlikely, but a man can dream.

Lufia and the Fortress of Doom – The more I play this the less I feel like it was something I missed back in the day. I don’t want to damn it, especially when I am only through the first quarter or so of the game, but so far there is little here to recommend this game over any of the classic SNES JRPGs. It seems to be the very definition of a by the books jrpg, like a Dragon Quest game with the charm drained out of it. It still isn’t quite bad, but spectacularly unspectacular.

Yakuza 5 – I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but already system improvements from the previous PS3 games are evident. It also does the smart thing and starts the player as Kazuma. I like splitting the game up among a handful of protagonists, but Yakuza 4 kept Kazuma out of it for way too long. I’ve barely played this enough to get a handle on the what the game is going to be about, but this series never disappoints.

Upcoming

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – I’ve got this on preorder, but I just played the game last year, so I might not be that quick to jump into it. Damn that amazon prime preorder discount. Still, I am pretty excited to argue with people about Zelda after this release and some games’ reputations shift. (I’ll still be repping Skyward Sword as one of the top games in the series) The WiiU has quietly become quite the Zelda playing machine. If only it had downloadable versions of the DS games.

Return to Popolocrois – Again with the Amazon Prime discount. I played through most of the PSP Popolocrois game and found it charming if dated. This one, which is a Harvest Moon Story of Seasons crossover game, looks to keep the charm and hopefully lose some of the oldness. It does have the misfortune to come out in the midst of a deluge of 3DS RPGs of sorts, having to compete with the likes of FE Fates, Bravely Second, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam and Hyrule Warriors. Not all of those are straight RPGs (and it’s probably really stretching to include Hyrule Warriors) but it does make for some pretty crowded territory for Popolocrois. I hope it finds an audience.

Fire Emblem Fates Conquest & Revelations – There are two more paths in this game. The first one already took me about 40 hours to beat; I can’t wait to spend another 80 with it. I took the easy path first, which was good because it took me a long time to grasp the changed pair up mechanic.

Mega Man Legacy Collection – I’m not intending to spend a lot of time playing this, I mostly bought to support a worthy venture. This is how more people should do classic game compilations. I am happy to have a near pixel perfect version of some of the best games ever to play on the go.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I picked this up on a PSN sale. It looks great. I don’t know if I’ll actually have time to get to it, but hope springs eternal.

Super Mario RPG – This is the next game for my SNES project, after I finish with Lufia. Then I’ll be forced to get into the shooters before coming back for some more RPGs. This is probably the most well-known game I’m playing for this SNES celebration, but somehow I’ve never found the time to put much time into it.