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'Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon' is a strategy role-playing game released for the Nintendo DS in 2008. The 'Fire Emblem' games have been around since the 90s in Japan but have only made its way to Europe since its sixth instalment back in 2003. 'Shadow Dragon' is in fact a remake of the very first 'Fire Emblem' game, now updated with better graphics and minor gameplay improvements for the benefits of people like me who will never master Japanese. Four years after its release I finally got round to buying and playing this game since I'm a big fan of the series but had read lukewarm reviews. But how does this game hold up after almost twenty since its initial release?
Players take control of a band of characters led by Prince Marth of Altea, whom might be familiar to some Nintendo fans as a playable character in the 'Super Smash Bros' series. Marth has been exiled from his homeland when a reawakened Dragon King, Medeus, joins forces with a malicious sorcerer named Gharnef and begin to take over the world again. Young Marth escapes Altea before its destruction, which includes leaving his father and the sacred sword needed to defeat Medeus behind to an unknown fate. Years later, Marth has been trained in the kingdom of Talys and is ready to take on Medeus himself. So he travels around the continent with his new army, going against the several armies of those allied to the Dragon King in his way.
The story is disappointingly simple. Marth just going to each place, talking about how he must defeat the enemy, talking about the war/defeating others, etc. There aren't any plot twists or emotional moments that make me care much about the war or the kingdom Marth is fighting for. The playable characters themselves are very two dimensional, and save for a few of the more important ones most of your units don't even get any dialogue when they join your party. This is a frustrating contrast from other games in the series where I cared for many of them because they had developed personalities even if they weren't crucial to the game's plot. The closest to development you get are the 'Where Are They Now?' snippets at the end of the game.
In 'Fire Emblem', you bring out a certain number of your units onto a grid-like battlefield on each chapter of the story. Each character is of a different class, all of which equip different weapons (swords, axes, lances, bows, magic tomes and staves) and have differing stats in Attack, Defence, Speed and so on. The player and the computer enemy take turns moving their characters (using either the touch screen or buttons) around the map to defeat enemies on screen, and win by defeating the boss and/or have Marth move onto the gate or throne of the map. Other things to accomplish might be to visit the shops to buy new weapons and items, collect treasures from the chests before enemy thieves do and have Marth visit villages where he might receive weapons or new characters. You have to be careful though, because if a character's HP is brought down to 0, they will die and cannot be used in battle ever again.
The strategy of the games lies in understanding each of your character's strengths and weaknesses on the battlefield and utilizing them to kill enemies without dying in the process. Marth, for example, is quite a balanced character who only equips swords, which makes him strong against axe-users and weak against lances. Merric, on the other hand, is a mage who uses magic books, but has a low defences and shouldn't be put onto your frontlines without some other strong units to protect him. Damaging and killing enemy units lets your characters gain XP and level up, allowing their stats to improve and eventually become capable of promoting to a better class.
The gameplay might sound difficult, but newcomers to the series shouldn't be alarmed. There are 5 prologue chapters which guide you how to play without overwhelming the player. The difficulty comes more in not letting the enemy (who will always have the advantage over you) overwhelm your characters, which will force you to restart the chapter so as to keep that character alive next time. There are also two save points on each chapter at different points on the map. Whilst fans of the games might find that this makes the game too easy for them, I personally found them useful for when I wanted to restart from a certain point instead of the whole chapter on account of making one wrong move (especially as each chapter takes 20-50 minutes to complete).
I had to bear in mind a lot that, as this was the first game in the 'Fire Emblem' series, 'Shadow Dragon' has a lot of features which are missing which were introduced in later games, such as the 'Support' system (creating relationships between players over turns which improve stats when they are close to one another) as well as other types of magic and their related classes. Fortunately this is something I got used to as it keeps the original game intact, although it did make me wonder why they couldn't include these additions into the remake as well.
There are a few improvements here for the whole series. Firstly, at the 'Battle Preparations' screen there is an 'Armoury' where you can not only buy basic weapons from your own shop but also improve your own weapons with the 'Forge' option. This allows you to increase/decrease attributes at a cost. I found this quite nifty to make my weapons more powerful or capable of hitting the enemy better. Furthermore you can also change a unit's class, such as making Merric the mage an archer, or thief etc., instead. However, I never used this option because I was happy with having a balance of different types of units.
The gameplay does have some disadvantages though. Firstly, almost all the units have an average of 0 (!) magic resistance, so your magic characters are easily your strongest units providing they aren't too fragile. Secondly, characters will join or have the chance to be recruited into your army in certain chapters, but many of them you will end up not using (since you can only take between 12-15 into battle). At one point I had four cavaliers (a horseriding class) and some more characters joined which included another two- why does the game think I will train them up at this point? Also, to access bonus chapters you apparently needed at least one character to die on the map (in later games the condition is usually to win in 15 turns or less). Even with the lack of character development in this game I didn't really want to kill any of my characters off and think those conditions are unfair on players who take the time to protect their units properly.
The graphics for 'Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon' are good if a bit lacking. The maps do have attention to detail in the terrain although I don't like how 'washed out' the colours are. The gallery pictures of characters are decent, but some characters look very similar to others, once again adding to their lack of personality among them. More impressive are the 3D in-battle sprites- each time your character attacks or is attacked by another they go to a close up screen where you see the two characters attacking and counterattacking. It's pretty cool to see your people hitting the enemy unit like this, especially when they do a critical hit (which is shown as a more impressive looking attack), even if sometimes it doesn't look like the weapons are actually hitting anything! Occasionally some of the 2D artwork seen on the cover makes its appearance in some of the story scenes and these look brilliant too, but sadly these are few and far between.
To be honest, most of this time I had this game on mute. When I did play with sound though I found the background music to be fitting to the chapters or situation, but nothing really memorable save the epic opening theme (which is in every 'Fire Emblem' game anyway).
Beating the game once unlocks the Sound Room under the 'Extras' Menu, where you can listen to the different music themes of the game at your leisure. There is also the 'Events Recap' selection where you can re-watch events within the story, such as recruiting a character or dialogue at the start of a battle, providing you actually accessed them. Since you have to do different things to unlock certain scenes, this does provide some longevity if you play through the game again to get scenes you might have missed.
There are multiplayer options, either by playing wirelessly against another person's DS or online via Nintendo Wi-Fi. I have been unable to try neither of these because my DS Lite isn't compatible with Nintendo Wi-Fi and I don't know anybody else with this game (don't judge me!) to try the Wireless. However, considering customization and characters are limited in 'Fire Emblem',I doubt that multiplayer is worth it. But that's just my opinion.
'Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon' left me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand it is a challenging game with solid gameplay very much unchanged from other entries in the series, which will please fans. There are 26 chapters to battle through which I completed in about 18 hours, which I think is good for a handheld game. There is also a 'Hard Mode' for those who want a real challenge (but I found 'Normal' difficult enough for me!).
Sadly, this game seems to be stuck in the past, as it lacks a good story, decent characterization and more useful updates to gameplay. If you're a fan of the series, then I'd be wary of this game because it's missing many things that make the later 'Fire Emblem' instalments so enjoyable; however, I do recommend it more to newcomers to this genre of gaming as they shouldn't be as disappointed.
The price of Fire Emblem varies as the game is quite rare. I purchased my copy off an eBay auction for £20, but I've seen places sell it for as high as £60, so shop around!
(Review also on Ciao under the username Anti_W)
Fire Emblem is a series of strategy RPGs created by Intelligent Systems who are probably best known here in Europe for developing the Advance Wars games. The Fire Emblem franchise has been around since 1990 although most of the games have not been released outside of Japan. As far as I know, Fire Emblem 7 on the Gameboy Advance was the first game from the series to get a European release back in 2004.
The good news for fans of the series is that remakes of the older games are now being made. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on the Nintendo DS is one such example, giving players in Europe the chance to play the original Fire Emblem which first appeared on the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System.) You get to see how it all began with the benefit of nicer graphics and some new features which were not present in the NES version.
Players take control of Prince Marth who sets off to liberate the kingdom of Archanea that has been taken over by Medeus king of the dragonkin and an evil sorcerer named Gharnerf. At the beginning of each chapter you get some text explaining how Marth's campaign is going and why he is about to battle an enemy force, but it's nothing too interesting. As Shadow Dragon is based off an old game you can forgive the basic plot. Back then games were rather limited when it came to story... nothing like the epic sagas we are used to these days (e.g Metal Gear Solid 4.)
Budding generals out there will get twenty five chapters to tackle. Each encounter takes place on a map with the player and the enemy force taking turns to move their units. Soldiers that attack an enemy or cast a spell earn a certain number of experience points. Once they earn one hundred experience points they level up which increases their stats making them more effective. Depending on the unit they have a level cap of twenty or thirty. Some units can however be promoted once they reach level ten. Promoted units will get a boost to their statistics and the ability to wield different weapons.
To succeed players have to use their troops to the best of their abilities. Archers for example are effective against flying units, but cannot fight at melee range so how you position them is important. Casters tend to dish out lots of damage, but are easy to kill due to their lack of armour and therefore need to be protected. Paladins can travel large distances on their horses, but struggle to get past terrain with trees or mountains. Players also have to keep an eye on their arsenal. Weapon durability drops each time a unit attacks and eventually a weapon will break. In between chapters you can buy weak iron weapons at the armoury or stronger equipment at the vendors located on certain maps.
One thing some players may find frustrating about the Fire Emblem games is that any units that die will be lost forever. This is much harsher than other games were defeated troops disappear from the current map, but get revived at the end of the battle to be used in later levels. If you make a mistake and lose an especially powerful unit it may be advisable to restart the mission. Thankfully Shadow Dragon introduces save points on each map. By using these you won't have to restart from the very beginning of the battle should you make a blunder. This can save a lot of time as some of the later chapters can be lengthy.
Another neat feature Shadow Dragon introduces is the ability the reclass units. Although I personally did not use the feature, I can see how it would appeal to some players. If you do not like a certain character because he is a class you do not normally use you can change them to something else. Other players may like a balanced army so if they have many units of a certain class they can use the reclass function to change some characters to fill in a different role.
One thing I miss in this game are support conversations. In later Fire Emblem games you can have units increase their friendship with their allies which unlocks support conversations. These give each unit a small bonus and triggers a cut scene. I found these to be entertaining. Some were funny, others revealed back-story about the unit in question or gave them a different ending during the game's epilogue.
Support conversations are nice as they help the player become more attached to their troops. It also adds to the replay value of the game as many players enjoy unlocking all of the support conversations. Unfortunately support conversations are not present in this game so I found myself caring very little when people died as they had no character. There is also little point in replaying the game once you beat it unless you enjoy a challenge and want to go through the whole thing again on a harder difficulty.
As far as Fire Emblem games go I would have to say that this is the one I have enjoyed playing the least. Don't get me wrong, it is still a good game and Fire Emblem fans should purchase it. Veterans of the series who have played the newer games will however miss some of the gameplay improvements the new titles have which are absent in this remake. If anything I think pure war game fans may like this game more than a strategy RPG player as it concentrates mostly on the battles and less on RPG elements such as story.
Review originally posted on Ciao (August 2010)