Review: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (Nintendo DS)

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: 2/16/09

For most American gamers, the first inkling of Fire Emblem they ever got came from the appearance of Roy and Marth in Super Smash Brothers Melee. After Rekka no Ken (known as simply Fire Emblem outside of Japan) was released, the cries of “Where are Roy and Marth in this game?” and “That guy has blue hair, and he’s from Fire Emblem! Therefore he must be Marth! And that red haired dude is totally Roy!” flooded message boards. Granted, Eliwood was indeed Roy’s father, and Roy did make a small cameo in the ending, so they weren’t completely off with the latter part. Now, eight years after the release of Melee and six years after Fire Emblem, those outside of Japan finally get to see Marth in his original game. Sadly, it seems unlikely Roy will get the same treatment, and I do think they should’ve released Fuuin no Tsurugi before Rekka no Ken, but I suppose we can’t have everything we want in life.

One of the first things that might stand out to people – at least those who know about the first two editions of the game – would be the localization. Something I’ve observed over and over again is that people get up in arms about any names they don’t agree with, are not exactly like the Japanese or fan established names, or otherwise just not what they think they should be. After a while, though, the fervor begins to settle down and the names are generally accepted, if not always liked, as canon. It happened with the other games, it’ll happen with this as well. Of course, this game has established fan names that have been in use for well over a decade going against it, so the acceptance part could take longer to come around. I do feel a little sorry for Sheeda/Shiida/Caeda because the localization department at Nintendo can’t seem to decide what to name her. The EU and US versions are essentially identical in terms of script and most of the names, save for a few character and chapter names. Granted, most of them aren’t significant – something like Lena/Rena is understandable considering Ls and Rs are indistinguishable in Japanese. But some normal names like Nina were not left untouched, perhaps out of some misplaced perception that the more consonants a name contains the cooler it is. I’m mystified as to why they would go through the trouble of changing those few names when there was no real reason to do so. Then again, I prefer Navarre to Nabarl, so I suppose not all of the changes were for the worse. They did keep Cain and Abel, which was a pleasant surprise considering some companies’ “Kill! Kill!” reactions to any allusions that happen to be even remotely religious. Granted, I did sigh and shake my head at some of the changes, but then I shrugged and went about my day, as working myself up into a frenzy over them would be for naught and at least the game got a release here. You can scope out the full list of name differences here.

The art for the game is nice and detailed, with some intricate lighting details in the costumes and weapons. The overall color scheme is darker than it was in the other versions of this game and the more brightly colored GBA games. There’s also some CG scenes in between chapters. The battle and map sprites have a strange prerendered look to them. While they’re animated well, they look oddly plastic and in some ways look worse than the sprites in the GBA games. The face sprites are also drawn nicely, but they lack emotion. The only discernible facial expressions are a neutral mien and a small smile, leaving them looking stiff and like talking heads, as well as lessening any emotional impact their words are supposed to have. Even the GBA sprites conveyed more emotion, and it’s perplexing why they could not fit in more expressions for each character. Granted, it’s understandable why characters that never speak beyond their recruitment conversation don’t have more face sprites, but at least the plot heavy characters – like, oh say, Marth himself – should’ve received more expressions.

The soundtrack for the game has an epic feel to it and does a good job of setting the mood. There are some familiar tracks that abide throughout the series that are rendered nicely here, such as the main theme and the recruitment theme. The boss music is among my favorites, though the other tracks are also pleasant to the ears. In terms of sound effects, you have your standard metallic clangs, clapping of hooves for mounted units, and flapping of wings for flyers. They’re unobtrusive and do their job.

The story itself isn’t overly complex, but it’s told and paced well and is more fleshed out from its previous incarnations. A prologue consisting of four chapters was added to this version. The translation also has a semi-medieval tone, which fits in with the general atmosphere of the game, but may take some a bit to get used to. You lead Marth and his army into a war to save the world from an evil entity (in this case Medeus) and bring peace to Archanea. If this sounds familiar – and it should if you’ve played other Fire Emblem games – that would be because this game set the precedent for the plot of subsequent games. This game also established every other tradition in the series: the starting speedy green knight and powerful red knight (though this was reversed in Fire Emblem), the prepromoted paladin that quickly becomes overshadowed by the less experienced (at first) units, the pegasus knight trio, and the late game low level character with amazing growths.

The support system is known both for the stat boosts it grants to the people in the support and the accompanying conversations that provide character development. However, the latter aspect is absent from this entry in the series, and it feels as though the support system is heading downhill. In Radiant Dawn, everyone could support everyone and supports could be deleted if you wanted a character to have supports with someone else. This sounds good in theory, considering how many characters there are in a given Fire Emblem and how difficult it can be to pick support partners for each character for the playthrough, but the conversations themselves consisted of fill-in-the-blank one or two liners. In this game, they’ve been omitted altogether. From just the tidbits you get when recruiting characters, there was so much potential for some interesting and compelling character dynamics. It’s rather disappointing to see the ball completely dropped in that area. In addition, there is no indication of how high support levels between characters are, so there’s no easy way to check what stat boosts the supports yield other than comparing when a character is near their support partner and when they’re not. The upside is that characters accrue support points from participating in chapters together, so you don’t have to make them stick together like flypaper the entire time. However, they do have to be within three squares of each other to reap the benefits. Hopefully this doesn’t prove to be the beginning of a trend.

Controls consist of selecting a character, then picking a spot for them to move to and/or an action for them to execute. Pressing the trigger buttons during battle lets you toggle the top screen between a status display of the unit the cursor is resting on and a minimap that also lists the number of troops on each side and the chapter objective. If you hover over an enemy while you have a character selected, you can see how they would fare going up against that enemy. This feature was introduced in Path of Radiance and proves useful many times. You can also hold down A to speed up map animations and press the Start button to skip battle animations and the enemy phase. However, I do not recommend the latter unless you’re confident none of your units are in danger since the game won’t inform you if any of them gets killed in the interim. You can use the stylus if you feel so inclined, but I found the button controls much more usable. The weapon triangle makes an appearance, with sword besting axe, axe besting lance, and lance besting sword. However, the magic triangle is absent for some reason. Unlike the later games in the series, there is no rescuing or shoving, so you do have to think extra carefully before committing to a move because should you place a unit in a precarious position, you can’t have another one rescue him/her. The computer will also gang up on any weaker units, those with a weapon disadvantage, or those low in HP, so any mistakes you make will not go unpunished.

Prior to each battle is a preparations menu wherein you can select which units you want to use in that battle and manage their inventory. You can also preview the map, see all the enemies on the field (unless there’s fog of war, which limits visibility) and swap starting unit positions. You can also buy basic weapons and forge new one in the armory. Forging can be a big help when you want to craft a batter weapon for a given unit or want to make a replica of something like a Killing Edge out of an Iron Sword. You can toggle the weapon’s attack, weight, critical rate, and accuracy. However, you can only forge one weapon per chapter, and it does cost a pretty penny depending on how much you tweak the weapon.

The objective of every chapter is to seize a given spot (usually a castle gate), indicated by a yellow square. A boss usually stands on this spot, so you likely won’t be able to complete the objective without a fight. The game will also autosave after every move you make, so even if you need to shut off the game suddenly you won’t lose any progress. The downside is that if a character dies, you’ll either have to manage without them or start over, because resetting and continuing from where you left off will only give you a replay of that character’s death. Fortunately, there are map save-points scattered around the map, so if you do need to restart you won’t have to start the entire chapter over. However, these save-points can only be used once, so choose when you use them wisely. I usually use one when I’ve established an advantageous position over the enemy and save one for just before the boss, but you may have different preferences.

One thing the Fire Emblem series is (in)famous for if any of your units perish, they do not come back to life for the rest of the game. Granted, late in the game you receive an Aum staff that can revive a unit, but that staff has only one use and only one character can use it, so you still need to exercise caution with any units you don’t want to lose. Ironically enough, the game actually rewards you for losing units by making side chapters and certain characters accessible only through having below a given number of units. If you don’t have enough units to deploy in a battle, the game will provide you with filler units. This is an unusual departure from the rest of the series, as the other games have no such features and thus have conditioned a lot of players into resetting if a character dies. Despite knowing all this, I do still reset if a character dies because I’m compulsive about keeping every last character alive. The map savepoints do make this easier, but reloading does still begin to get a bit tedious after a while.

Another notorious part would be the RNG, which determines everything from whether that attack lands to your characters’ stats. It can either be your best friend or your bitterest foe, and that changes more often than the weather. Seeing all those lovely green arrows next to a character’s stats upon a level gain does produce warm fuzzy feelings, but there can also be levelups wherein no such arrows appear. On the same token, it’s gratifying to land a critical in spite of the odds being in the single digits, but of course it doesn’t feel nearly as nice having it happen to the enemy when they’re attacking you. Yes, strategy and using your head before making moves is vital, but luck is always a factor as well. It can be frustrating to have to start over because of one unlucky roll of the dice, but it really is a double edged sword that can sometimes work in your favor.

Those who liked the promotion branches in Sacred Stones should be pleased with the class swap system put into place in this game. Any character can change into any class that are the same hierarchy, meaning that unpromoted units can only class change into other unpromoted classes. Same goes for promoted units and promoted classes. However, Lords, Thieves, Ballisticians, Chameleons and Manaketes cannot be reclassed. There is also a limit for how many of each class you can have in your army, so you can’t, say, have a whole army of Paladins, though the game throws enough Paladins at you that you could practically have said army without reclassing anyone if such an army happens to fit your playing style or preferences. Of course, some units are better suited for some classes better than others and tend to thrive more in their innate classes. Growth rates also change depending on what class a unit is.

With five difficulty levels, anyone could find a fit for their particular skill level, whether they happen to be Fire Emblem veterans or new to the series. The class swap system leaves a lot of room for experimentation with putting various units into different classes and seeing what works best. There is a caveat: while you do get plenty of characters to choose from, a good number of them will usually turn out wholly ineffective in combat, which sort of defeats the purpose of having such a large army. You could try to get through the game on the five star setting with such units, but it’s questionable how far such an endeavor would progress. At the very least, it would probably make for a good challenge if you’re feeling up to it. The lack of redeeming qualities in a lot of the characters can lead to the same characters generally considered good being used over and over again in both the single player campaign and during Wi-Fi battles, which can get boring after a while. Then again, every game has its popular characters that see a ton of usage, so that’s not something exclusive to this game.

Shadow Dragon is the first in the series to have online capabilities, and the multiplayer mode has received some improvements. For starters, you can actually move your units around a map instead of selecting a unit and having them face off against another opponent arena style. Multiplayer is also no longer limited to local, as there is also Wi-Fi. In Wi-Fi battles, you create a squad of five units to pit against other squads. You can select from six maps (or have the game pick one randomly), turn fog of war on or off, choose a limit for the number of turns the battle can go on, the amount of time each person has for a turn, toggle cards effects on or off, and whether units level up based on the opponent’s skill. To win, you can either wipe out your opponent completely (which would probably be the more satisfying way to win) or ensure the color of the castle’s flag is your army’s color by the end of the battle. You can partake in practice battles before fighting a human opponent wherein you face off against a mirror of your squad, right down to reversed face sprites. Winning these battles nets you a card, which can only be used in multiplayer battles, that confers various effects, such as stat boosts and negating certain bonuses.

If you feel the need to use them, you can have another player provide you with loan units or download them from Wi-Fi, which replace the character with the same name. They stay in the loaner’s game, and the loan units gain experience for the original unit. If you’re feeling particularly proud of any given unit, you can upload them on the Wi-Fi server for others to use as a loan unit. You can delete the loan unit at any time if you’d prefer to have your original unit back. Up to ten loan units can be stored at a given time.

There’s also the online shop, which offers a variety of weapons. Its offerings vary depending on the time of the month. It can be rather handy if you need better weapons but aren’t in a chapter containing a shop. However, the fact that promotional item, the Elysian Whip, is only available via the online shop (and only during days ending in 1) is a huge black mark against it. I do wonder why the developers decided to make a promotion item available only through the online shop and not even allow the player to buy them in a secret shop. I had hoped that would be fixed for the US version, but alas, it was not to be. You could technically still promote the units that use Elysian Whips (your flyers) with Master Seals, but the precludes a class those units would thrive in. Of course, if you don’t happen to use those units in the first place or would rather use them in another class, it’s a moot point. But it’s still a needless and arbitrary limitation.

Given that this is a remake of a nineteen year old game, there’s not much room for originality. That being said, there’s enough new content and features that this feels like a new game. This was also the seminal game for the rest of the series, so it gets points for that. Some features seem half implemented, such as the supports with no support conversations or any indication of current support level between characters, the inclusion of the weapon triangle but not magic triangle, and no rescuing or shoving. Most of all, only half the game was remade (the Super Famicom version appended a second part to the original), likely because the developers want to cash in on selling the two parts separately instead of putting them together into one package. Having multiplayer and other online capabilities in a Fire Emblem game is great, but those features don’t feel quite polished yet.

Fire Emblem fans and fans of SRPGs in general should enjoy this. The fact that Marth is indeed in this game should help move copies, especially considering he made a reprisal in Brawl. But for those who have never touched an SRPG and are only interested because they recognize Marth will likely end up implanting their DS into the nearest wall or becoming bored very quickly.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Incredible
Balance: Poor
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

Short Attention Span Summary:
Shadow Dragon is a nicely updated remake and a worthy addition to the series. Even if you’ve played the previous two incarnations of this game, it’s still worth your while to pick this up since so much was added to this edition, even if some of the new features feel half implemented. Those who like strategy games will find plenty to like here. But those used to more action oriented games will probably want to look elsewhere. Hopefully this game does well enough for the second half of the Super Famicom version to receive the same treatment as this game.



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3 responses to “Review: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (Nintendo DS)”

  1. Christopher Bowen Avatar

    Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll moan and foam my mouth about the localization of the names in your stead! Lord knows I’ve done it enough as is. ^__^

  2. Gladys Avatar

    I really don’t understand why people get so up in arms about localization of names, as you stated things like Lena/Rena are reasonable and Navarre/Nabar is pushing it a little. You should really throw a fit if Marth’s name gets changed to something like Matthew (or any other character’s name gets butchered in that extreme way).

    The only thing that this game really threw me off with is the decision to not have any rescuing or shoving. Lord knows I’ve restarted my game furiously because of that.

  3. Anderic Avatar

    half implimented sounds about right. the weapon forging system should have reset the weapon durability or possibly had a way of adjusting the durability as well. Forge option should in my opinion credit some cost back to the player for undesirable weapon adjustments.

    i did miss the rescue feature.

    I also missed the Recruit class, where you could gain them 5 levels and then they get a normal base class.

    and i suppose i would feel a bit more interested in characters if there were support convos as opposed to basing initial interest on stats and asthetic.

    the reclass was a nice change, i turned Lena into a mage off the bat as i already had moulder as a healer. however if i can change that i would have also liked to have changed a few other things around too, like the name ogma (yuck). or some of the character portraits so that they resemble someone of the appropriate gender, or at least someone who looks halfway cool.

    I also missed Player Character units having their own color scheme. these orange-peachy colored paladins are fail against Seth or Franz colors.

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