After two massive entries in the series where Intelligent System crammed in as many old and new features as they could, the fifteenth Fire Emblem scales it back to a more bare bones experience.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows Of Valentia is a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden. Originally published on the Nintendo Famicom in 1992, itself a spin-off of the original Fire Emblem. This remake not only updates the technical side, but adds several features, including five new characters, skills for special weapons, weapon forging, support conversations, two new story chapters (a prologue and an endgame side story), and the chance to correct mistakes during battles thanks to Mila's Turnwheel.
The story of Fire Emblem Echoes takes place on the continent of Valentia, where two dragons rule as gods over a land split into two halves (Rigel and Zofia), by a massive dam to avoid wars. One day Rudolf, the emperor of Rigel opens hostilities and snatches away Mila, the dragon god governing Zofia.
The main characters are Alm and Celica, two close friends who are split apart after their village is attacked when they were children. Later, the two set out on their own journeys, Alm to fight Rigel's oppression and Celica to find a way to stop a drought devastating Zofia. The two reunite for one brief moment midway through the game only to be separated once more and eventually rejoin for the final battle.
Alm and Celica represent two different armies that move on a world map with paths connecting villages, castles, random battles, and dungeons. Locations might have NPCs to interact with and some will also hint at side quests, like exploring a dungeon to find a missing person, or deliver an item. In a handful of locations Alm and Celica will meet travelling merchants to swap items between them.
Dungeons are for the most part optional areas to visit that reward with treasures, some experience, and at times new units. They are explored by taking direct control of either Alm or Celica, going around smashing crates and hitting enemies to start the canonical turn-based battles with a slight advantage. During the main story dungeons are also the only places where units can change class, and this can be a bit boring: dungeons allow only ten units in a party, chosen before entering the labyrinth, and only units in the party can change class. No items are needed for changing class, only the appropriate level, but going around the world map and a dungeon just to change class makes for a lot of redundant work.
Battles in Echoes are still the core of the game and follow the typical structure of Fire Emblem games, but due to several features harkening back to Fire Emblem Gaiden the system is rather different from previous chapters. Gone are the weapon triangle and the need for units to equip weapons; instead units come with a standard unbreakable weapon, and an item slot. Mages learn new spells as they level up and cast them by sacrificing HP. Archers have a massive range advantage over other units and can now defend themselves when attacked. Terrain features give higher defensive bonuses, which in turn are bypassed by spells.
Units can carry food, rings, shields, and weapons in their item slot. Food is used to regain health in the midst of the battle, while weapons, shields, and rings bestow special skills depending on what has been equipped and their quality. These skills include passive effects like health regen and stats increases, or active skills activated by sacrificing HP in the same way that spells work. Skills can be used as long as a unit carries a particular weapon, and are unavailable, but not entirely forgotten, when switching to other tools. Weapons can also be improved in villages to unlock new skills or, in most cases, simply increase their damage, critical, and hit probabilities.
Fire Emblem Echoes features three class tiers (four with the Villager class some characters start at), although the game isn't long enough or gives enough experience to explore all of them. If you are a veteran of the series and wait for the level cap to promote units very few will see their second tier unless considerable time is spent grinding random battles; even if you do that the amount of experience given for a kill is extremely low and maxing out any unit will be a test of patience. The game balances this out with a relatively low degree of challenge (even during the endgame dungeon), that can be made even easier by equipping the correct weapons.
While some changes are welcome, not all of them are well thought. The archers' wider engagement range is definitely a plus, as would be the mages new role as glass cannons, if their fragility wasn't offset by self-healing rings or long-range healing spells available to clerics; mages also gain basic healing spells in their second tier, while clerics self-heal and heal nearby units at the start of a turn for free.
Skills, especially on steel weapons or heavier, often see their effectivness reduced or destroyed as the army grows larger and units gain levels. For example steel lances gain the Armorcrush and Tempest Lance abilities, but cavaliers are often able to attack twice surpassing a skill's damage output without spending HP. Skills coming from iron weapons or most bows are more useful, but they still lack a proper impact on what players can do.
Echoes is also a step back in map complexity from Awakening and Fates. Only a few maps offer interesting terrain, and often their features allow easy exploitation of the AI to create choke points or traps with archers. Maps are larger than previous games, but terrain features and enemy placement aren't particularly inventive, creating some lacklustre missions. Moving through maps isn't a problem as all units (even the lumbering knights and barons) have plenty of movement, but the overall impression is that Echoes is struck between two scales, unable to decide whether it wants to be a more "personal" single-unit tactical game or feature larger battles with long-range fire and far-moving units. None of the maps feature changing terrain conditions found in Fire Emblem Fates, and while this is to keep the remake in line with the original, dungeons could have used some of these improvements. The result is that Echoes feels more like a Fire Emblem from the SNES/GBA era, which is not bad per se, but considering what the series achieved in the two previous games, this feels like a missed opportunity to deliver an outstanding remake.
Other aspects of Fire Emblem Echoes surely points to what could have been just that: the story is more fleshed out thanks to new characters and support conversations; graphics are richer, with battle animations taking into account if a character has moved or not; there's a good number of pre-rendered movies and cutscenes animated with in-game graphics; and finally this is the first Fire Emblem with full voice acting. The character design is by Hidari (who worked on a number of animes and videogames, including three Atelier titles and Toukiden) and matches the settings very well, more so than Kozaki's work for Awakening and Fates. It must be mentioned that the US translation feels a bit off with two characters, Mae and Delthea, their dialogues sound a bit too modern for a fantasy game.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows Of Valentia doesn't match Awakening and Fates in overall quality and is rough around some edges, but it's still a decent entry in the series. It does feel a bit rushed, and I think the closest comparison to Echoes is The Sacred Stones: a technically well-crafted game with interesting new ideas that haven't been fully realised, something that you would still play but it won't satisfy as others would because it is known and comfortable territory.
I don't usually mention DLC, but Echoes has plenty of them. Or better, has DLC that costs almost as much as the base game. All these DLCs are extra scenarios that weren't present in the Famicom original, but their quantity and quality don't really justify their high cost. Two of these DLC maps can be used to farm money (to forge weapons) and grind experience, while the rest, even maps related to the main story, are easily forgettable. The DLCs even offers a fourth unit tier, but those will have a very hard time find their way through Echoes' normal storyline; even the endgame dungeon can be conquered by second or third tier units. Where the base game is still a chapter Fire Emblem fans will find interesting, the DLC can be easily avoided.