This Fire Burns Bright
With the release of two unique Advance Wars titles, several Age of Empires games, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, and numerous other similar efforts, handheld strategy gamers haven’t had too much to complain about. However, they’ve been clamoring for one franchise in particular to finally make its way to the DS. Indeed, an entry in the Fire Emblem series on Nintendo’s dual-screen portable has been long overdue. Now that the excruciating wait for Fire Emblem fans is over, rest assured that your patience has paid off.
It’s undeniable that a completely new Fire Emblem game for the series’ DS debut would have been ideal, but a totally overhauled remake of the very first Famicom title that kicked off the immensely popular strategy RPG series in Japan is the next best thing. As you might expect from an update on the game that started it all, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon doesn’t reinvent the formula that fans have grown to love. Instead, it hones the gameplay to a fine point. It seems Intelligent Systems made its focus on Shadow Dragon all about refining and improving the core Fire Emblem experience, and that’s a good thing.
Super Smash Bros. addicts who’ve been wondering about Marth finally get the chance to dig a bit deeper into his back story. The epic plot picks up as the Archanean kingdom falls under attack by malevolent invaders following the resurrection of Medeus, a dark dragon slain a century prior by a hero wielding the sacred falchion sword. When the Archanean king (a descendant of the original sword wielding hero) is slain in the assault, his son Marth is the last person in the royal bloodline capable of wielding the mystical sword to re-slay the shadow dragon. The young prince is forced to flee his kingdom for a short time in order to bolster his forces. Shadow Dragon’s story follows Marth as he assembles a band of trustworthy warriors to retake the kingdom, slay the dark forces at work behind-the-scenes, and eventually return peace to the land. The tale may not pack quite as much of a punch as the stories found in later entries in the series, but it’s held up amazingly well over time and is definitely engaging enough to hold most folks’ attention.
Much like some of the other titles mentioned above, Shadow Dragon is a fantasy turn-based strategy game with substantive RPG elements. In each chapter, Marth and his small fluctuating army will do battle with all manner of foes across expansive, grid-based maps. During your turn, you can move each character on the map a set distance, trade items, attack foes within range, heal, and engage in other actions, before giving the enemy a shot. Individual units gain experience in battle and level up, making them more powerful and allowing use of better weapons. New units can also be recruited from among the enemy ranks along the way at regular intervals to make up for the inevitably painful loss of characters. Between missions, you can survey the upcoming battlefield and equip and manage your troops. A few newer features let you change the classes of some units, purchase basic gear, and make other strategic preparations.
In battle, each combatant is given the opportunity to deliver damage. Rather than just bashing away at any enemy with anything handy, the weapon and magic battle systems are ruled by a rock-scissors-paper relationship that allows for greater strategy in planning your offensive and defensive tactics. Axes, for example, are extremely effective against lances, swords will clobber axes on most occasions, and lances are strong against swords. Other unit-specific factors also come into play. Anyone who’s already played past Fire Emblem games will find little has changed with the core gameplay and mechanics, but numerous subtle changes make Shadow Dragon far more accessible than the GBA titles.
The addition of stylus controls is one of the better improvements. They don’t feel tacked on at all, and everything from moving units, navigating small inventory menus, and attacking is all very smoothly implemented. Everything can also be done just as easily with the standard D-Pad and button presses. Other small touches – like being able to easily tap a single button just before attacking to quickly cycle back and forth between the impact using different weapons in a units inventory – are simply wonderful.
Having a second screen makes processing all the voluminous amounts of unit information and map layout so much easier. The R button lets you cycle between an individual unit’s portrait and critical stats and mini-readout. This keeps the touch screen from getting too cluttered, and you won’t have to give up your view of the battlefield to get a closer look at important stats. Visually, Shadow Dragon has a somber appearance that’s more akin to the Game Cube and Wii Fire Emblem titles than the GBA games. The small unit sprites are nicely cel-shaded, reasonably detailed, and are quite animated. The graphics certainly don’t push the DS hardware particularly hard, but they’re a marked improvement over past handheld titles in the series.
While Shadow Dragon is indeed a game for hardcore-minded players, some elements have been adjusted to make the game palatable to a broader audience without sacrificing anything crucial. Speaking of sacrifice, units that die on the battlefield are still lost permanently, and the horror that will grip you when a favorite or powerful character is mercilessly cut down in battle is as potent as ever.
To balance this out, new units can be recruited at almost every mission, so you shouldn’t find your army lacking in numbers even with a reasonable number of deaths. It’s still a bitter pill to swallow. Four optional prologue missions added to the front end of the game serve as a tutorial and even introduce the concept of sacrificing units early on to help lessen the blow. A new save system that allows you to create a sub-save point within a particular map when you reach a set location makes things less frustrating. Of course, if the normal gameplay settings seem too easy, Fire Emblem vets can always fire up difficult mode, which boasts enemies that are up to five times stronger.
Online battles over the Nintendo WFC let you hand pick a five-member party from your current units available in the main game and pit them against friends or strangers in short matches set across small battlefields. The action flows the same as normal battles, though fog of war is implemented and matches only last 10 turns – the goal is to hold a single fortress by the end of the game or wipe your opponents out before time runs out. A five-minute limit is imposed for each turn a player takes to keep things from lagging. The online combat and other local wireless multiplayer features enhance the main game and provide some added replay value.
Overall, the game is an excellent DS debut and offers a solid introduction point to the series for new players. It refines and fine-tunes the gameplay to provide a largely enjoyable strategy adventure. The only major complaint is the game doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, aside from changes made to properly utilize the DS hardware. This would be more of an issue, if it wasn’t an updated remake. As it stands, this Shadow Dragon is a great start. We want to see more next time around.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
The cel-shaded sprites are awesome, and map artwork is a big improvement. 4.7 Control
The well-implemented stylus controls are a perfect addition to the old-school control methods. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack has a nice epic feel, even if the audio isn’t a particularly high point of this package. 4.5
An excellent quest with just enough new goodies to keep things feeling fresh. Local and online multiplayer options are a great addition.
4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.