Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon review

April 24, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Posted in DS Review, Game Review | Leave a comment
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European gamers have only recently been able to get their hands on Nintendo’s strategy RPG series. This is a remake of the very first game, exclusively on Nintendo DS.

Title: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon

Format: DS

Developed by: Intelligent Systems

Published by: Nintendo

Genre: Strategy

Despite coming from one of Nintendo’s most consistently highly rated internal studios (Intelligent Systems) and plugging one of their biggest genre gaps (the strategy RPG), the Fire Emblem series never seems to get the support it deserves from the Japanese gaming giant. The only positive step in the last few years has been the long overdue western debut, and that was only due to Marth and Roy’s unexpected popularity in Smash Bros Melee. With a bigger budget and some marketing (any marketing) it could be a jewel in their already gleaming crown and one that could help attract some of those hardcore gamers that jumped ship after the Wii took Nintendo down the mainstream road.

Instead the series continues to be treated like a deformed child locked away in the loft, kept out of view and not even allowed to come down when the family’s over for a Sunday roast. Even the most dedicated Nintendo fan would be forgiven for wondering if the latest title, Shadow Dragon, had actually been released in the UK, such is the lack of any marketing push and available stock. But it has been released and the dozen or so people who actually managed to find a copy will be more than happy with the latest offering.

For those who have yet to be exposed to the Fire Emblem series, the most simplistic way to describe it would be Advance Wars with medieval knights and RPG undertones. This however belies the depth of what is still one of the best strategy series available. Each new entry has slowly added new features but the core gameplay has mostly remained the same from day one: each unit has a set movement and attack range, choose to fight an enemy unit and you’ll be whisked away to a quick battle scene, win and your unit will get experience points, lose and they’ll be lost forever. This last bit is probably the series’ signature mark and the reason the games can be frustratingly difficult at times, with reset buttons in constant use. It’s certainly a brave feature but can really test the patient of the calmest of gamers when a simple mistake at the end of an hour-long campaign can result in the permanent loss of a character that you’d grown to love and invested many hours levelling up.

The series’ DS debut is a redux of the very first NES game, starring afore-mentioned Smash Bros alumni Marth and featuring a full makeover. The character art and the levels look great on the small screen, but the impressive battle animations are worth a mention. As is the soundtrack, which is one of the best of the series.

Intelligent Systems have also integrated some of the newer features that have shaped the series in recent titles. Units get an attack boost depending on their equipped weapon and can have their class changed (which is very handy if you suddenly find yourself short of a particular type of fighter). Brand new save points are liberally spread across levels which can be a godsend if you can’t commit to the 45 minutes or more needed to finish a single level. Sadly the skits and support conversations that played between battles on the more recent titles are missing and this accentuates one of the big problems with this remake.

The 15-year-old plot was unlikely to stand the test of time as well as the gameplay – hero Marth battles a rival country to regain the throne of his Kingdom and avenge the death of his Father. The brand new prologue fills in some of the original’s gaps but the lack of character development outside the two main characters is very disappointing. By the end of the game you could be forgiven for wondering just why you should care for Marth and his battle hardened ensemble. Including the skits would have gone some way to flesh out the plot.

Another negative is the extreme difficulty level, which again could have been eased by one of the newer features. Unlike the GBA, GameCube and Wii games you don’t get the chance to dole out bonus experience points gained after battle to the units you wanted to concentrate on upgrading. In a way this isn’t a bad thing as the temptation to rely on a heavily armed ‘tank’ unit is no longer there, but it also means you will lose key units a lot more often. Levels aren’t especially quick or easy to get through so if you do lose someone you’d rather keep you’ll be faced with the agonising decision of whether to hit the reset button or leave it alone and soldier on.

The game takes a minimum of 25 hours to get through but factoring in the inevitable resets on a first run can push your actual playtime to nearer 40 hours. But even with the often-tortuous difficulty this still remains a compelling game. The length of the single player campaign and the online battle modes, which are a first for the series, mean that Shadow Dragon will remain in your DS for a good few months.

It’s not the best title for newcomers (who should try Path of Radiance on GameCube or Sacred Stones on GBA if they want an easier route into the series), but veterans of FE or strategy games in general should consider this a definite purchase.

7/10

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