In preparation for the upcoming release of Fire Emblem: Awakening (which looks just…phenomenal), fellow author Pete Thomas convinced me to revisit Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for my DS. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a pretty loyal Fire Emblem fan since Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector brought the series to America with the seventh installment, but for some reason I never finished Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.
I find this happens a lot when I’m a fan of a series: a new game is coming out and I just can’t wait to play it, so I’ll go back to some unbeaten chapter in the saga. In this instance, I was quite wary, remembering having some sort of frustration about the game, though I couldn’t remember why exactly.
And for the first few levels I still couldn’t remember. I was leveling up and watching enemies fall in typical FE fashion. Granted, there are a couple of things that I still find off-putting. Something about the way they animated this game just doesn’t gel with the rest of the series. The portraits have a more rounded effect, instead of relying on the gorgeous flat art from previous installments. Their dead-behind-the-eyes facial “expressions” just creep me out, and the lack of any customization between the units left me wanting more. It was small things before, but seeing that one of my cavaliers had red hair while the other had green was a nice touch, even if the rest of them looked the same. Not to mention that my last exposure to the series was Radiant Dawn (preceded by Path of Radiance), which both have just absolutely stunning graphics that Shadow Dragon could not hope to compete with.
That being said, I was having a grand time, recruiting units, leveling up key characters, taking out the bad guys. I couldn’t remember what it was that had made me leave this game so many months ago without beating it.
Then I lost a character. I restarted the chapter, and lost a different character. I restarted again, and the first character went falling to his doom again.
I remembered. It’s not that the game has an unforgiving difficulty level. It really is rather accessible, especially given the two difficulty options up front which gives you a chance to level up some of your first characters before diving in. What makes this game different is that, unlike later games in the series, the characters aren’t the focus. There’s a big split among FE fans: If a character dies, do you restart the chapter to save him or her, or do you deal with the loss and move on? I’ve always been in the former camp, wanting to make it to the final credits with a full cast. However, being based on the first game in the series, Shadow Dragon has some significant differences.
There are 50 recruitable characters in only 25 chapters. For completionists like myself, that means putting a significant amount of effort into recruiting these characters and then, often, having to leave them on your bench because they’re just not good. I’m on Chapter 6 of my new game file and I already have seven cavaliers. The only reason I can see for leaving so many of the same class in the game is the simple idea that you’re not really meant to be fighting that hard to keep everyone alive. Frey’s dead? Here’s Matthis. Matthis died too? Here’s Hardin.
What’s more is because there are so many new faces thrown into each chapter, there isn’t enough time for any characterization beyond Marth and a couple of supporting characters. Add onto that a somewhat winding storyline that is already running a little stagnant 6 chapters in and dialogue that just keeps going, along with a localization that sounds like a sad attempt at old English, and you’ve got a reason to be ready for something new.
That said, I’m having fun. Fire Emblem is Fire Emblem. Like many series, it’s not how they revolutionize their next game that really makes a difference, it’s how they polish and refresh what is core to the series. Unfortunately for Shadow Dragon, it is dated and takes a step slightly backwards from the last installments in the series. I’m still going to play through (7 years after meeting Marth in Super Smash Bros Melee, I need to find out how his story goes) and I’m still going to have fun, even though I’m furious at this new recruit throwing himself on my sword over and over so I can’t make him join my team and even though I keep having characters level up without a single stat change (seriously, happened to 3 characters in a ROW).
More importantly, playing through Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon has solidified for me just how pumped I am to dive into Fire Emblem: Awakening when I get my hands on it in a couple of days.