Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon

   09/12/2008 at 20:02       Richard Horne       2 COMMENTS.
Fire Emblem on the GameBoy Advance was the first strategy RPG I ever played. Hell, even to this day it's the nearest I'll ever get to playing an RPG proper. I still vividly remember playing it every night for about three months, before bed. My GBA became a permanent fixture on the side of my bed or in the bathroom. It was the perfect game to play in snippets, in short sharp bursts, and its brilliantly implemented save system meant as soon as I started to drift off to sleep or had finished curling one out - sorry too much information - I could hit the save button and then carry on again the next day exactly where I left off. So guess what I've been up to for the last 3 nights in a row?

Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon is the first Fire Emblem game on DS and its much delayed release was quite surprising, especially considering the relative speed its fabled developer - Nintendo second party Intelligent Systems - churned out the first DS incarnation of FE's other strategy RPG stable mate, Advance Wars - incidentally the only other strategy RPG I've ever played. But has the wait been worth it? Well in short, yes and no.

Yes because it's instantly familiar, with its perfectly tuned rock-paper-scissors triumvirate of sword-beats-axe-beats-lance-beats-sword mechanics firmly in tact. Yes because it features a likeable and varied roster of characters with Smash Bros.' Marth the lead. And yes because it's still intrinsically brilliant, tactical and an intelligent game that requires you to think on your feet while strictly following the Fire Emblem template to the letter.

But then there's also a resounding no because well, if I'm being brutally honest, it's just another bloody Fire Emblem game shoe-horned onto a little biddy DS cartridge. A game that could quite easily have been made for the GBA, a game whose graphics really wouldn't have troubled the DS's older brother in the slightest. And there's very little added benefit to having two screens - the top screen simply displays the stats of whoever you've got selected - and the touch screen controls bring nothing to the game, as, if you're anything like me, you'll soon be playing using the D-Pad and face buttons.

However, before I'm seen to be dismissing the game completely, I should hasten to add that at this point in my time it, I've barely even scratched the surface of the single player campaign, and so if it does have any new tricks up its sleeve, it's yet to reveal them. And, it would also be remiss of me not to bring to your attention the fact that the game now features online multiplayer over Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection - an addition that could potentially add tens of hours to what is already a title jam-packed with more longevity than most fully fledged console titles.

If I had a full-time editor at AATG, he'd probably be telling me right now that I've just blown my proverbial load and written this piece's conclusion in the introduction, and he'd probably be right. But the thing is, if you've played any of the previous Fire Emblem titles, then you already know full well whether or not you'll like this game. As for me personally, I'm still actually undecided, because for as much as I played the first two to death, much like many other games out at the moment (Guitar Hero/Rock Band/Tiger Woods) I'm not sure I want to go through it all over again. I feel like I've done this before, numerous times. And that's probably the most important question you need to ask yourself. Are you ready to go through it all again?

If however, you do happen to be completely new to the series then I'm no doubt already on the verge of losing your attention as you're wondering what the hell is going on. Time to reel you back in then!

Fire Emblem is a turned based strategy game, identical in almost every way to Advance Wars, only instead of being set in a distant, dystopian, war-torn future, it's set in the medieval past. And so instead of tanks, bikes, rockets and recon units, Fire Emblem features knights, cavaliers, paladins, archers and swordsmen. Each level or scenario is played out on a flat two dimensional map overlayed by a grid that dictates your range of movement, with each turn allowing you to move each unit the requisite number of squares. Units can trade weapons and items between each other and attack other enemy units when within range. Each respective unit and his or her weapons have various hit points and defensive points and there's all manner of statistics that can be analysed to determine your chances of success.

It all sounds so sterile, complicated and dull on paper, but yet Fire Emblem somehow manages to be both utterly compelling and hugely addictive with that age old "just one more turn" adage quite literally, ringing true.

The one thing most people remember about the original games is the relationships you develop with your characters, each of whom is an actual rounded and fully fledged character instead of just a faceless grunt ala Advance Wars. And that particular facet is still very much in play. Knowing that when one of your main protagonists gets killed, they're genuinely dead and will not rejoin your party once you reach the next save point or somehow magically revive them, completely changes the way you approach the game and leads you strategise and co-ordinate your units much more efficiently and effectively than you would do in AW. This probably therefore makes FE a purer strategy title than AW and effectively means you can't just 'turtle up' in your base and build up an army before storming your enemy. In fact there's no army building at all in FE, instead you have the ability to recruit further party members as you progress through the story. The fact that you can also then swap and change your group before each level starts also adds extra layers to the game as you constantly balance trying to level them all up equally. Every character gains experience battle during their encounters so it's often in your best interests to thrust your lesser characters face first into the heat of the battle.

Every fight, again similarly to Advance Wars, presents you with a cutesy battle animation of each unit type performing their attacks, with certain characters adding their own little neat flourishes. And this is a feature you can disable to in order to speed up the game, but I've always liked it and actually played the previous two games to completion with this animation always turned on. A fact that will probably amaze the hardcore Fire Emblem players among you.

And while I earlier criticised the game's graphics for being comparable with the GBA's, they are actually very competent and perfectly suited to this type of game. Adding 3d character models and maps, like Intelligent Systems had to do with the GameCube and Wii versions of the game doesn't necessarily always add to the charm of the experience, and in fact, the old Mode-7 2d maps present in the DS version actually ignited a nostalgic fire in my heart.

And you know what? The more I describe the game, the more I'm realising how much I do actually like it, a feeling you might not have necessarily garnered from my 'introclusion'. But I guess it's hard to shake off that initial disappointment of the game feeling exactly like the previous two.

So, to conclude again, if you've never played Fire Emblem, if you loved Advance Wars or Disgaea or any of those other strategy RPGs that I've never played, then you will undoubtedly love Fire Emblem. Sure, you can play the GameCube or Wii versions from the comfort of your sofa and on a big TV but this is the quintessential handheld game, and, as demonstrated by my own unique methods of enjoying the game, will keep you entertained for weeks.

If I had to give the game a score out of ten based on my early play time with it, it would easily be worthy of a high 8, but I'll reserve my final judgement until I've made more progress in the game's intriguing story and fully tested the online multiplayer.
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