Fire Emblem: Shin Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Ken (Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Dates: August 7, 2008 (JP)/December 5, 2008 (EU)/Q1 2009 (NA)
It’s interesting that for all the attention both Marth and Roy got from being in Super Smash Bros. Melee, they haven’t had an appearance in any game outside of the Smash series in North America. However, due to the fervent (Read: batshit fanatical) Smash fanbase, both characters – and Brawl’s subsequent Ike, from the US released Path of Radiance – gained enough of a fanbase of their own that it raised awareness of Fire Emblem in North America to the point where the Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken – titled just Fire Emblem over here – became a successful release, gaining it’s own niche of fans, most of whom liked similar games such as Advance Wars and Shining Force. Though sales have declined recently – most notably with Radiant Dawn, a game with a hardcore difficulty and virtually no waggle stick controls on a system known for players that range from being casual to wipe-my-drool retarded – the series still enjoys a dedicated following, both for the US games released in America, and for the Japanese games, via either imports via the third market, or via fan translations.
(Before I go further, a full disclosure for our readers: I am the owner and webmaster of the Fire Emblem: Sanctuary of Strategy, one of the most prominent Fire Emblem sites and communities, and have been for the past five years. So the series is not only something I like, it’s something I deeply care about, and my site has been one of the pillars of the fandom for years. That said, I assure you that this game will be judged on it’s merits; I do not mindlessly fawn over my games)
In August, Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Shin Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Ken (shortened to what’s going to be it’s English name, Shadow Dragon, for the duration of this review), which stood as the second remake of the original Famicom title, and 11th Fire Emblem game overall. The original Fire Emblem – as well as it’s initial remake for the Super Famicom, Monshou no Nazo – have not stood up as well to the test of time as other games in the series, due to some antiquated gameplay mechanics and rather stilted dialogue. Shadow Dragon promises not only to update the original classic for modern times, but also will be the first American/European introduction to Marth outside of the Smash games.
It’s safe to say that Marth’s “debut”, when it comes over to the EU and to North America, will be a worthy addition to the Fire Emblem line, and a great update of the old games. That said, some issues have me raising questions.
The story of the game is tried-and-tested, but bear in mind that this is an almost 20 year old game; also, bear in mind that the names of characters and locations that I use could be – and in some cases, already are – different than in the official English translation (I, or someone else versed in Fire Emblem, will likely review the English/UK version as it’s own game). Marth is the son of Cornelius, who had left to fight Garnef, who aligned with the Shadow Dragon Medius in wanting world domination; Cornelius didn’t make it back, and in that time, Marth himself was forced to flee his kingdom of Aritia after the Doula Kingdom attacked, causing Marth to flee to Sheeda’s land of Talis per order of his sister Ellis, who herself was taken captive. Unique to this game is the prologue, which picks up a 14 year old Marth fighting his way out of Aritia, before he went to Talis to train for the coming fight against Garnef and Medius; the mode serves as a tutorial for the easiest difficulty mode.
To the game’s benefit, though the story is simple, and has been number-painted by subsequent games in the series, the story this time around is told a little more artfully than in either of the two previous versions of this title. There’s more lines of dialogue, and the way everything comes across between characters has been cleaned up and expanded upon; the changes between the first two games and Shadow Dragon aren’t explicit, but they’re noticeable, though it will be interesting to see if Nintendo’s always sketchy translation team cocks it up again, as they have a history of needlessly changing translations seemingly to piss off their English fans.
Unfortunately, to the game’s detriment, one of the main problems with the game in ’90 comes back this time around: there’s a noted lack of character development for 95% of the player characters. The main reason for this is that this time around, there are no support conversations to flesh out character interactions, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the game’s focused approach to the story. Outside of Marth, Princess Nina, Morodof the tactician, and arguably Sheeda, Minerva, Camus and Chiki, there is virtually no character development outside of the initial recruitment of each character, and maybe a convo or two after the fact, usually with Marth. Some characters – like the axe users under Oguma in Chapter 2, and the Wolf Brigade under Hardin in Chapter 5 – get NO lines whatsoever; not one line or mention outside of the ending and if they die. This causes a few issues; for one, it goes against the trend with this series, especially in the games seen in America, which have had good to mediocre stories, but outstanding characterization all the way around, due mainly to support conversations that made every character individual, established a set personality for every character that often went past stereotype, and most importantly, made every character crucial, and made it so that you didn’t want to lose ANYONE (more on this in gameplay description). You don’t get that feeling here, because you’re usually so detached from every character save a few that are somewhat more important to the storyline than others, and in that sense, losing a character – or missing them altogether – is not a big deal, more often than not, especially since you get so many of them. All said, due to the lack of characterization, the overall story and feel for this game falls below the other English FE games, and falls WELL below Seisen no Keifu, which has one of the deepest RPG stories, and some of the best characters, of the entire 16 bit era, in any genre.
It’s also disappointing that gamers playing this game won’t get a chance to see the story’s full completion. Monshou no Nazo was noteable for not only having a full remake of the original FE, but it also had a sequel, known simply as Book 2, that took the story even farther, and actually added a very interesting dynamic (without spoiling too much, you end up fighting most of the game against a very trusted ally from Book 1). Personally, I’d have given anything to have had both books remade on the same cartridge; while it’s possible that we could see Book 2 come out eventually, the precedent is set, it has been set for fifteen years, and I have to ding Nintendo slightly on that front, as they missed a golden opportunity to fully tell a great story, and therefore create the definitive Fire Emblem game on all shores.
With all of that said, this game is notable for showing all players that missed the first two iterations – young gamers, Americans and Euros – where a lot of the established norms the series is known for came from. Well rounded Lord character that starts with a Rapier, starts out weak but gets much stronger as the game goes on? Two beginning Social Knight characters with a red and green colour scheme, one fast, the other strong? Triangle attack between three Pegasus Knights? Overpowered Paladin that you start with that ends up sucking compared to other characters because he doesn’t gain stats? They all started here, and most of them are named after characters from this game; the overpowered Paladin is now commonly known as a “Jeigan” character, after the old guy in this game, and the two Social Knights in every game are called Kain and Abel characters. Shadow Dragon serves as a great lesson on the roots of the series, with some exceptions. For one, you can actually change who you start with, as canonically, there was a character that pretended to be Marth so that he and the others could escape Aritia; in this game, if you play the prologue, you can send anyone else but Marth (bye, Jeigan!), and keep the other character, Freyr, who turns out to arguably be your best Social Knight. If you lose Gordon in the beginning, you can get a replacement archer named Norn. There’s also gaiden chapters where you can get new characters, but since you have to actually be short of characters to get these modes, most people, unless they really suck, are playing a very high level game, or are trying to do this, won’t see these stages or characters. But if you do lose characters, don’t fret, because the game gives you replacement characters to fill in the blanks in each stage; if you’re four characters short of the requirement for a stage, you can get four extra characters for the stage that are temporary. It makes no sense from a story perspective, and pisses off the hardcore fans, but thankfully, the hardcore types are good enough to not have to rely on replacements, and anything that makes the series more accessible to newcomers is a welcome addition outside of core changes to the base gameplay.Fire Emblem.
So I’ve harped on the story for a few hundred words… how does the game play? Gameplay is what Fire Emblem is all about, and this game knocks it out of the park, creating a game that needs to be played by new players and old.
In most cases, Shadow Dragon is a standard tactical RPG, which is probably best compared to Shining Force; move melee units next to other units to attack, or use archers from a two block distance; magic users get to do either, and stats are measured in total damage, hit percentage, and critical rate, all of which you can see before you attack. Damage is simply offensive might (strength/magic + weapon strength) – defense/resistance, depending on whether it’s weapon or magic, with skill, luck and speed determining hit percentage, critical rate, and if anyone gets to attack twice. It’s simple, it’s effective, and has worked like a charm for years. For people that played the original Fire Emblem, the vaunted weapon triangle – introduced in Seisen no Keifu, and a staple of every game since – is introduced to this particular game for the first time. The triangle is a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors: Sword beats Axe, which beats Lance, which beats Sword. This triangle is the key to deciding who goes with you in certain stages, as having the right side of the triangle in an attack can be the difference between surviving the stage or losing a character in some cases.
As I mentioned earlier, I would get back to the whole “losing characters” thing, and for those who haven’t played Fire Emblem, it’s important to note this: death is permanent in Fire Emblem. There are no Phoenix Downs, no resurrections at a church, no resurrection spells; if someone dies, they are dead, permanently, never to return. Yes, you can use the Ohm staff in one of the last stages, but anyone that dies, unless it’s recent, is going to be useless by that time and the weapon gets one use, so for all intents and purposes, if someone dies, they are never going to return, and it’s physically impossible to bring anyone back. People that have been weaned on games such as Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics oftentimes have problems adjusting to this, but once it’s adjusted to, it makes the game a lot more intense to play, as it forces players to adjust their strategy to be a lot more defensive; players are forced to check a unit’s attack range (holdable by clicking the unit in question, like the Gamecube/Wii games; this is a GREAT addition) and possibly lure the unit out with a high defense or weapon-advantaged unit, utilize terrain advantages, and otherwise not be as reckless as they would be in other games. Furthermore, there’s no way to do stages again – no Egress spell, Shining Force fans – so there’s a limited amount of experience to go around, meaning, if you want certain characters to be useful, you have to plan your kills to maximize experience going to your lower level units. It’s not enough to walk up to someone and whack them; you need to plan to weaken a unit with a stronger unit (not too much stronger; you don’t want them getting the kill, and less EXP), then bring in the weak unit for the kill and the higher experience. Since you only get one move per character per turn, you have to ration this out so that you’re still in a position to play defense on the enemy’s turn, because the computer AI is outstanding at ganging up on one character and nickel-and-diming them to death; even if the enemy loses six units, the seventh one will get the kill, which is a great trade-off for the CPU; you’ll get through the stage, but at a price that cannot be recouped.
For series newbies or anyone that hasn’t played the original game in any form, this is the most accessible Fire Emblem game ever, and an outstanding place to start the series, espeically for curious Brawl fans. There are literally six levels of difficulty – the default mode with prologue, and five “hard” modes, that cut out the prologue and approach the game as if it was the original Famicom title – so gamers of every single skill level will find a place of preference; the default mode with the prologue is fairly easy – almost Sacred Stones easy – whereas five-star difficulty is VERY hard; not quite Thracia or Radiant Dawn hard, but an outstanding challenge nonetheless. In terms of playability, this is probably the most “playable” game in the series, between the ease of use, the ability to skip animations, and even the ability to skip enemy turns (which I do not recommend, as it does not stop to show you if anyone died on your end).
For people that beat this game in either form on either the Famicom or Super Famicom, there’s also a lot to see here, as the weapon triangle, readjusted growths and updated stat caps change the balance of the game completely. In this version, the triangle gives a bigger advantage to axe users – a class that couldn’t promote in either of the previous games, and also couldn’t hit anything due to poor skill and heavier weapons – which immediately puts all four primary axe uses in play, and makes useful units out of Barts and Davos. Furthermore, unlike the last games – where all of the caps were at 20 for all stats – a character’s class after promotion (via the use of a Master Seal, between levels 10 and 20, preferably at 20 for max stat gain) determines their stats, and this makes certain characters like Sheeda and some of the axe users much more useful than they were in previous games; before, they’d cap their top stats before promotion and not gain anything on level up for the rest of the game, creating an unbalanced character (stat gains are done by a random number generator, which takes growth percentages and gives out stat gains upon level-up; it’s possible to have a level-up where every stat is gained, and it’s also possible to have a level-up that turns out to be a complete dud), whereas now, a super fast character such as Sheeda can have a cap of 30, and hit it, improving balance greatly.
That said, all Fire Emblem games fall victim to poor balance, and I believe this is intentional; some characters are simply more important than others, and therefore will have a statistical advantage, whereas others just don’t cut mustard; it could take one or two playthroughs, or a trip to FESS, Serene’s Forest or GameFAQs, to learn which characters to use and which ones to leave rotting on the bench. One thing all FE games like to do is to give the player a weak character later in the game – sort of an anti-Jeigan – that turns out to be incredible with proper training. Fire Emblem (US) had Nino, Sacred Stones had the pupils, and Path of Radiance had Astrid and Elincia, whereas this game has Katua and Est; in all cases noted above, the characters need to be coddled initially, until they turn into killing machines. But with all of that said, the blunt fact of the matter is that some characters are out-and-out useless, whereas a few, with proper care, are going to be able to rip through anything (PROTIP: Meric, Linda, Katua, Caesar, Chiki. There you go, the Quintuplet of Death). In addition to that, some classes are more useful than others; Pegasus Knights seem to be really, really overpowered in this game, as are magic users (due to melee units never having magic resistance), and healers gain experience so fast that it’s entirely possible to have two or three at a time sitting around, waiting for promotion, whereas Archers and Commandos are all but useless. If you’re looking for meticulous balance between character classes and total flexibility in how you want to approach the game, chances are good this isn’t where you want to look, especially with how broken magic is overall.
Another change that really throws everything for a loop is the Class Swap feature, which is a series first. After the first few stages, you’re able to swap any character in the game – outside of Marth, the thieves, and Manaketes – to be another class, provided you don’t have too many of one class already, meaning you can’t load up a party that has twelve Pegasus Knights. Think your character sucks in their current class? Just want to try something different? Switch their class; you can even make magic users out of melee units! Each character has their own growth rates to go along with the rates of the class they’re in, so you can, theoretically, change a melee unit to a magic unit or vice versa and get lucky enough with the random number generator to make them a decent unit, though every character will be stronger in their native classes, with few exceptions. This is a GREAT addition that makes the game almost infinitely replayable, and even turned out useful for me; I turned Sheeda into a Swordmaster after promotion, and despite her relatively low sword level, she was a damn good one. I know a lot of hardcore fans froth at the mouth over the mere idea of class changing, but trust me; give it a chance, and it will turn out to be a great mechanic.
I’ve mentioned the lack of support conversations in this game; what I haven’t mentioned is that there is still a support system, that works very similar to the one in Path of Radiance, where characters gain support points with compatible characters anytime they start a stage together (complete list is here. Unfortunately, I never received any notification whatsoever that a support level went up, and I KNOW I had enough stages to hit “A” between Marth and Sheeda at the very least. Therefore, you basically have to find out if a support is active by comparing attack stats when around certain characters. I didn’t pay attention to support bonuses once through any playthrough of this game, though to be fair, I have not gotten far on five-star yet.
Finally, in terms of additions, the last big addition this game has is online functionality, for versus games, and an online store. They are great ideas, and the store is something interesting to try, but as they’re currently constructed, they are abject and near-complete failures.
Online versus mode is very bare-bones; it’s just a map, one army vs. another, and you can take your one-player members online against other players; there’s almost no difference between online mode in this game and multiplayer mode in other Game Boy games, other than the WiFi support. There’s one change, and that’s the winning party getting cards that can be used to increase statistics in future battles; in the long run, it reeks of “who gives a crap”, and the entire thing feels pasted on. There is the ability to “lend” your characters to other people to have them trained in that person’s game; this isn’t something I’ve been able to test out, but it sounds like a novel idea, like Pokemon for loaners.
The online store is a good idea on paper; you can go online at any time to buy weapons and armour (which will not be hard; depending on your level of arena abuse, you will have a tonne of gold near the end), but on certain days, there are deals on bigger, more useful weapons and items that are set up on a schedule; the full list of possibilities is here.
Normally, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem; it’s pretty stupid to set up a schedule to get certain items, but I can see people liking that. There’s one item that absolutely kills this mode, though: the Elysian Whip. There’s an item that promotes Pegasus Knights to Falcon Knights (instead of the more power-based Dragon Knights), and it’s advantageous for units like Sheeda and Est, who obliterate the lower speed caps on Dragon Knights. Unfortunately, you can’t get Elysian Whips anywhere but online, and only on certain days, meaning you have to set up your schedule literally around getting that item; if you’re like me, that doesn’t use wireless at home, you’re stuck having to go to Starbucks to get what you need, or any other public WiFi spot. This will obviously affect some people more than others, depending on how their game is going and if they use flying units, but for me, it was a huge problem that caused me to class-change a unit I didn’t want to class change. I’m hoping this is rectified in time for the American release, but I doubt it.
Aesthetically, the game is a mixed bag, with mostly good, caramel filled candy mixed in with a few rocks. The game’s graphics are a bit inconsistent; the majority of the game is spent looking at either a static, 2D map, or watching character art “talk” to other pieces of character art, with absolutely no emotional range whatsoever; it’s just like other Fire Emblem games, but it’s a little bit understated for 2008. There’s also battle animations, which have a plastic, over-rendered look to them; I think they look worse than the GBA games’ battle scenes, and usually skip them. Thankfully, the actual character art looks amazing; it’s got a brushed, yet detailed look to it that was off-putting at first to someone like me, who grew up on the anime look of Monshou no Nazo, but I adjusted quickly; as it stands, the art of this game is a major, unequivocal plus among a sea of minor minuses. When it comes to audio, Shadow Dragon knocks the ball out of the park with a beautiful score that is dramatically improved from the midi blips of the Famicom and the muffled tunes on the Super Famicom; the game almost has an operatic, dramatic feel to it in a lot of places, and the quality ranks close to Seisen no Keifu; I still think the soundtrack in the latter game is better, but the race is close.
Control and Gameplay: Great
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
There’s three types of people that would be interested in this game when it comes out in the UK on December 5th and North America in 2009, so I feel like I have to address them all separately:
* Not a fan of strategy games, but knows Marth from Brawl: pass. I don’t care how good you are with Ike and Marth in Brawl, this game – and all other Fire Emblem games – will frustrate the hell out of you, and this game likely won’t change your mind on the genre.
* Hardcore FE fan, including those that played or beat any prior version: Jump in, because this game is different enough from prior versions to justify the purchase. You might not like some of the changes, but go in with an open mind and the light bulb will show above your head after awhile.
* Curious about Fire Emblem, and likes other tactical games – This is absolutely the best introduction to the series I’ve seen. It has a very flexible difficulty level, enough characters to help you absorb mistakes with almost no problems, and best of all, chances are good you’re going to not care about a lot of the problems a hardcore, big name fan like myself had. If you don’t care about the simpleton graphics or mediocre story, definitely give it a spin.