IGN Review of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
The beloved Fire Emblem series finally arrives on the Nintendo DS, but instead of a new game we get a remake of the original title that started it all. No worries, though, as it was never before released here in America and it's been updated with modern features and graphics. Hardcore Fire Emblem enthusiasts may complain that it's not the deepest story in the series and the difficulty has been scaled back just a tad. But less fanboyish gamers will find one of the best turn-based strategy games on the DS. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a shining example of balanced gameplay and tight action.
This is a strategy RPG along the same lines as Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars. On grid-based battlefields, players assign commands to each of their units one at a time and then sit back while the computer takes a turn. In order to progress to the next chapter, players need to seize one particular square with Marth, the lead character. With four games in the series already released here in North America, strategy fans know what to expect by now. What Fire Emblem lacks in innovation it makes up for in polish and balance. Every battle is expertly crafted and unfolds through a slick interface. Like so many first-party Nintendo games, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is simply a joy to play.
One of the key gameplay mechanics of Fire Emblem is the rock-paper-scissors triangle where swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. This mechanic wasn't part of the original game, but was introduced later on and has been worked into this remake.
There is a lot more variety to the gameplay than your standard "defeat all the enemies" SRPG. Early on you are forced to sacrifice a unit as a diversion so your army can make its escape. Some units have special abilities that can exploit the battlefield. Thieves, for instance, can pick locks and steal treasure from area towns and castles. Moving units onto a house will allow them to converse with the locals and maybe gain some valuable insight into the current conflict. This actually is another strategic decision, since you have to sacrifice a unit's turn to get this intel. If you position the right character next to the right enemy, you might be able to convince them to turn to your side. This is a game where you can't zone out -- Fire Emblem requires your full attention.
With the English version already out in Europe, some fans have complained that the story in Shadow Dragon isn't as deep as others in the series. That may be true, but it's pretty impressive when you consider this is a story from a 1990 Famicom game. Prince Marth must flee his kingdom when his father the king is killed in battle, and Shadow Dragon follows his journey to reclaim his land. It's a perfectly engaging tale and I never found it to be lacking. Games are about gameplay, anyway.
Those who have played the original Famicom title will recognize the maps in Shadow Dragon. The same grid layouts of 1990 have been updated with contemporary graphics. Plenty of new features have been added, though. To begin with, four prologue chapters have been included at the beginning of the game, leading up to where the first got started. Some Fire Emblem features that weren't present in the original but have since become standard, like the rock-paper-scissors system, have been added.
If you are of the camp of gamers disappointed with the amount of casual software available on Nintendo's current platforms, Fire Emblem is for you. Not only do battles require a lot of strategic thinking, the series is known for being unforgiving to players' mistakes. When one of your units is defeated, it's really defeated -- you can't revive them and they won't be back after the battle is over. This might seem cruel, but it makes every decision that much more important. Often, you will restart a battle you've spent a lot of time fighting to avoid losing a valuable team member. But there will be instances when you have to let someone go. Trying to keep all of your units alive adds another layer of strategy not found in most games of this type. It's a welcome change and a reminder that Nintendo can make a hardcore game when it wants to.
True, a couple features have been added to welcome new gamers into the fold. The prologue chapters were designed to ease us into the game and teach us about the mechanics, and mid-battle save points are now available. We also are given more units than before, with new allies introduced in every chapter. But these features don't take away from the challenge, or the enjoyment. Gamers looking for a fight will find it here.
Since keeping your units alive is of the utmost importance, you'll want to keep an eye on your enemy's attack range. There is a godsend of a feature that lets you display the attack range of as many enemies as you like during your turn so you can position your units in safe areas. It's a terrific ability I wish was in more turn-based strategy games. Many let you check an enemy's attack range, but you usually can't "lock" it and go about your business while it is displayed. You can here, and it's a very welcome feature.
The game has a few appreciated Wi-Fi and multiplayer modes. Two players can skirmish locally or online, but you're only able to bring five of your fighters into battle -- just a tad disappointing. Voice chat is supported, though. Players who are struggling with the single-player game can borrow powerful units from friends or buy rare items from the online store with the money they've earned in battle.
Shadow Dragon looks very good, although not on par with some Square Enix DS offerings like Final Fantasy Tactics A2. Your units are animated well during fight scenes, and critical hits come with an extra flourish. Overall, though, the art style doesn't have a lot of personality. Characters all have that generic anime look to them.
©2009-02-16, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved