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Merry Christmas!

There’s been a lot of sickness in the prince’s castle this December and the prince has had to chip in with Christmas preparations where the servants haven’t been able to so this review is a little late in coming despite the fact that I finished the game, my first replay since getting it in 2009, some days before the 25th. I will, of course, be reviewing all three of the games I got for Christmas (Donkey Kong Country Returns, Sonic Colours and Muramasa – The Demon Blade, a very Wii-oriented side-scrolly Christmas) in due course. For my first game review, however, it’s Fire Emblem – Shadow Dragon.

I came to the Fire Emblem party late. Developed by the sainted Intelligent Systems the series began on the Famicon in 1990 and created an all new genre by combining the Strategy game with the RPG to make the world’s first Strategy RPG. The first half-dozen titles were Japan exclusive and the series didn’t make its way westwards until two of its characters, Marth and Roy had made an appearence as playable combatants in the Gamecube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Finally in 2004 (in Europe at least) Fire Emblem – The Sword of Flame for the Game Boy Advance, simply titled Fire Emblem here, became the first game in the series to see release and I ignored it.

Well I didn’t ignore it exactly, I liked the art style a lot and the Smash Bros. connection engaged my interest but I didn’t buy it. In those days I didn’t have enough money to justify buying many games unless I knew I’d enjoy them and Fire Emblem was an unknown quantity to me. I didn’t get The Sacred Stones either and even when the series made an appearence on the Gamecube in Path of Radiance when precious few quality titles were being released for the platform I still wasn’t moved to make a purchase. Finally in 2008 Path of Radiance received a direct sequel in Radiant Dawn for the Wii and I finally made my long overdue Fire Emblem bow.

I’ll go into detail about my experience with Radiant Dawn when I come to review it as I plan to do some time in 2011 but for now suffice it to say that it took me a very long time to get into it. Fire Embelm is a very complex, multi-faceted game and takes dedication to master. Eventually everything clicked with me and by the time the credits rolled I was a confirmed fan of this cult series. In fact I would now go as far to say that there are only three video game series I look forward to new instalments of more now, Mario, Zelda and Metroid. So naturally when this game, a remake of the title that started it all was released for the DS in 2009 I didn’t beat around the bush about getting it.

As I said Shadow Dragon is a remake of the first game in the series and as such follows the story of Marth, the original Fire Emblem hero. Marth is the prince of the Kingdom of Altea who is forced into exile by the invading army of a previously allied nation. Marth raises an army and fights to bring peace back to the continent by defeating Medeus the Shadow Dragon, a task that requires the divine sword Falchion. The story is unfolded between missions by some extremely well-written dialogue between static pieces of very nicely drawn character art. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way but the story plays second fiddle to the massively addictive gameplay.

Battles play out on the top screen with the map on the bottom screen.

Here’s how it all works. You take control of a party of characters, each belonging to its own class, (myrmidons, cavaliers, archers, thieves, mages, fighters, knights etc.) leading them through a linear succession of quests in which you play a hyper-evolved game of chess against an opposing army with a view to completing a set objective (in this game the objective never strays from seizing a certain square on the grid which is always guarded by a boss). You and the enemy AI take turns in moving your units around the grid and engaging in battles with opponents. When you move within attacking range of an enemy you can choose to engage it whereupon you will be shown a screen that essentially predicts the outcome of the battle. You will be shown all of the relevant stats of both you and your enemy including HP (that’s RPG jargon for hit points), how much damage the two of you will do to each other, your chances of landing a hit in per cent and your chances of landing a three-times-as-powersul critical hit in per cent. The two units will only strike each other once unless one unit has a high enough speed statistic compared to the other in which case that unit can attack twice but even then battles don’t always end with one unit’s defeat.

Sound simple enough? Okay once you’ve grasped that much you need to factor in the following. Some weapon types have advantages over others (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords) and gain a slight damage boost when pitted against them. Some weapons can attack from a range of two squares meaning you can damage an enemy with an attack range of one square without reprisal. Some weapons have a massively boosted effect on certain units (bows against flying units, hammers against armoured units etc.) and can easily wipe out even powerful units in a single blow. All weapons have a limited number of uses which deplete every time you score a hit meaning you will want to be conservative with your stronger weapons which have fewer uses than weaker ones. Each unit will have an A-E grade for adaptness at the weapon(s) it is able to wield restricting the grade of weapon it can use and can only increase their grade by using the weapon type a lot. You can recruit new units by talking to them with the appropriate character instead of attacking although that will still be an option. Certain units can use staves to heal allies, warp them to another part of the map or boost their defence. Units gain experience in battle, more for achieving a kill. Units can improve their stats with certain items or upgrade to a stronger class by using a Master Seal.

Believe it or not this dragon is on your side.

Got all that? That’s just the start. Between quests you can make preparations for the next map by choosing which units to take, where to position them on the map and what weapons and items you want each one to have in their inventory. The micromanagement you can go into is extremely detailed. Every little nuance affects the way you prepare for and make your way through each quest. It’s deep and richly rewarding. Building up your army is extremely satisfying and every facet of the structure makes for the most addictive video game experience I have ever played.

But there’s one more thing that really sets Fire Emblem apart from other similar games. If one of your units falls in battle you can never use them again. This is unusual for RPGs, most of which only have a few playable characters which almost always revive after battle and sometimes in the same battle if you resurrect them manually. Permanent character death seems to be unique to the Fire Emblem series and will dominate the way you play. You have to be cautious, keep weaker units away from enemy attack ranges, heal your party regularly and prepare for every eventuality. It can be hugely frustrating to have one of your favourite characters suddenly killed. You can switch off and reload your last save to get them back but this of course necessitates regaining lost progress. The problem is slightly alleviated by allowing you to save in mid-quest once or twice but you’ll have to be strategic about when to do even that.

Linde the mage.

So how does Shadow Dragon measure up against the rest of the series? Well, for one thing during this second playthrough I could tell it was a remake more easily than when I first played it. Since getting this I’ve tracked down the Fire Emblem games I had previously missed and having played them I can see how the series has progressed from the early days on which Shadow Dragon is based. There’s less chatting among the characters, fewer enemy units and a number of series conventions, such as support conversations and certain unit classes have fallen away. This, therefore, feels like a slightly simplified experience at times. The one new idea Shadow Dragon brings to the table is the concept of reclassing units. If you find you have too many of one class (which you will because the game throws a lot of cavaliers at you early on) or too few of another you can take an existing unit and change their class to something else entirely giving you greater powers of customisation. It’s nice to have the freedom but it’s hardly needed, plus the unit’s weapon grades are reset to minimum when you reclass. Ultimately there’s no real advantage in doing it.

Shadow Dragon is not the most layered game in the series, nor is it the longest with only 25 missions, not including gaiden chapters though this playthrough still took me 25 hours to complete. We do get a good, likeable set of characters and it’s great to finally play as Marth. Needless to say if you like Fire Emblem this should be a no-brainer. It’s a pretty ideal place to start if you want to get into the series too

Not that the retailers will help much. I bought my copy on the internet and but for several weeks after release I made a point of checking to see if I could find the game on shop shelves anywhere I went that sells games. Not once did I find a copy, even in game shops. It annoys me that mediocre minigame compilations and self-improvement titles get shelf space at the expence a quality publication like Fire Emblem – Shadow Dragon. Sure, it’s a cult series only for hardcore gamers who like RPGs and are strategically-minded but it deserves praise and much more attention.

Presentation – 8

Clean, crisp and polished with probably the best writing in the series. If you’re familiar with the series you might be able to tell it’s a remake due to a slimmer range of content but when everything looks this professional it’s nothing to take issue with.

Gameplay – 9

Devillishly addictive and highly compulsive. Get into a Fire Emblem game and you could very well find you want to do nothing else. Shadow Dragon is a typically nuanced, deep experience that rewards organisation and patience with immense satisfaction.

Graphics – 8

A clear improvement from the GBA games and a darker, more realistic approach. The 3D character sprites don’t have the same charm of past entries but the maps are much more detailed.

Sound – 7

The rousing, addictive themes the series is known for are present and correct and feels appropriate for a game about war. Sound effects are satisfying.

Difficulty – 9

A combination of good enemy AI, fine stat balance and a finite amount of experience available make even the easiest difficulty setting a real challenge. Veterans will relish the high demand on their cunning.

Longevity – 8

Not the longest in the series but still offers a massively lengthy story, with unlockable gaiden chapters, harder difficulties and real replay value.

Verdict

With deep gameplay, tremendous challenge and a high degree of polish Fire Emblem fans, particularly those lucky enough to have been with the series from the start will find Shadow Dragon a real treat. If you’ve not yet dipped a toe into the pool this is an ideal place to start. All-in-all this is one of the finest, most rewarding DS experiences.

9.1

out of 10

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