We'll admit, we're not usually fans of remakes. Maybe it's just us, but paying full whack for the privilege of playing the exact same game all over again, only in a slightly higher resolution with a marginally smoother frame rate doesn't exactly seem worth the money. But as with everything, there are remakes, and then there are ~remakes~ - and Fire Emblem Echoes is the sort of remake we can get behind.
To tell the story of Echoes properly, we have to go back to the days of Nintendo's first home console, the NES, where in Japan in 1992, a little known turn based strategy role playing game series had just received its second instalment. Dubbed Fire Emblem Gaiden, the title received a somewhat mixed reception from critics and fans alike, due to a number of pretty hefty tweaks to the winning Fire Emblem formula. Feeling the title had been somewhat overlooked - which is likely true, as it never saw a Western release - the folks at Nintendo decided to go back and give it more than just a mere lick of paint, rebuilding the game from the ground up in the Fire Emblem Fates engine, while adding a bunch of new features that got cut from Fates too.
The story here is split into two intertwining chunks, following the adventures of young villager Alm, and warrior priestess Celica - two childhood friends who find themselves on opposing sides of a war that's engulfed the land. As battle rages on between the forces of Rigel and Zofia, it's up to you, playing alternately as Alm and Celica, to enlist troops to fight alongside you, face off against foes in countless turn based strategy battles, and slowly make your way through the game's twisting story. Regularly punctuated by spectacular anime cutscenes, the effort that's gone into bringing the story up to date alone shows what a labour of love this has been for the developers.
But while battles are usually merely a side show in most role playing games, in Fire Emblem Fates, they're arguably the main event - every bit as important as the story itself. In between the visual novel style dialogue sections, you'll regularly be dropped into brain testing strategy battles, as you test your mettle against your foes. Played from a top down perspective, the battles here will be familiar to anyone who's played a Fire Emblem game before - yet if you've been sinking the hours into the more recent 3DS releases like we have, there's plenty you'll notice that's new (and unusual) here too.
Let's start with the basics first. Often outnumbered and outgunned, each battle sees you having to test your strategic nous to outsmart, and overpower your enemy. Using a grid based system, in each turn, you'll be able to move your troops a certain number of squares, and either attack, or use an item - once you've moved/attacked with all your troops, your opponent will take their turn. Each unit is of a particular class, with each being suited to a different job - for example, mages have low health and defence, but can attack from afar; knights have uber high defence and health, and are effectively the "tanks" of your team; while mounted units have great range. So far, so turn based strategy - but a lot of the tactics we know and love from the more recent Fire Emblem games have been unceremoniously dumped for Echoes.
For starters, adjacent units no longer lend their support and attack. One of the easiest ways to win battles on the earlier games was to always ensure your troops had an ally next to them. Pressing X to bring up the total attacking range of all enemy units combined, all you had to do was position one of your strongest units - usually a knight - just inside their range, and at the start of the next turn, the enemy would come running. By plonking two of your toughest units next to each other, you ensured the enemies could only attack one - but because adjacent units would attack together, you'd fire back with two. For Fire Emblem Echoes, that tactic no longer works - so you'll have to be a bit clever with your response.
There's a few other unusual tweaks under the hood too. For starters, archers can now attack enemies even when they're on an adjacent tile - usually, they were exclusively ranged units, and couldn't fire back when enemies got up close. Perhaps more unusually, though, mages now have to spend HP (or to put it another way, take damage) in order to use their spells. Whether you're healing other units, or attacking foes, every spell a mage can do will cost them HP - although usually it's only a point or two.
What's perhaps most unusual of all are the tweaks to AI. While it's possible we simply haven't noticed it before, the enemies in Echoes seem to have a rather different set of priorities than in most Fire Emblem games. Not only will they actively seek out your weakest unit to attack (rather than, say, the one that's likely to do the most damage to them), but they also have a really strong self preservation instinct. If they take too much damage, enemies will now retreat to a healing space, or a healer, rather than simply fighting on until their inevitable demise - and with most stages having at least one healing "base" square, that's something that really changes the flow of battles. Before, ganging up to take out one unit made more sense than splitting your troops up, and only "almost" killing two, as it meant there'd be one less sword at your throat on the next turn - but now, because enemies run away, it can be just as valid a strategy to weaken everyone around you, and hope they turn tail when it's their go.
Should your strategies all go spectacularly wrong, though, there's another new feature for Echoes that can come to your rescue. Known as Mila's Turnwheel, named after the goddess in the game, this really handy new feature lets you rewind up to three full turns per battle (or more, if you collect the cogs you'll find lying around in the game's other areas). If you were on the unlucky side of a critical hit, or ended up leaving one of your troops accidentally exposed, Mila's Turnwheel lets you literally rewind time, and put everything right.
So, the battles are similar, yet different - but what about the rest of the game? Well, while Echoes packs in all the great, turn based strategy gameplay we've come to know and love, there's a lot of really unusual bits in here too. For starters, while the world map's still mostly used to hop from battle to battle to progress the story, there's now both villages and towns you can stop off and explore along the way, and dungeons you can raid, with each having its own very different style of gameplay.
In towns and cities, the game switches to an almost point and click style camera, where you're free to examine each scene in detail, chat to anyone who happens to be standing around, and move from area to area using a handy mini-town-map. Taking time out to explore is always worth it, too, as not only will you find people willing to sign up to join your budding army - but you'll often see powerful swords, shields and bows just left lying around, and can borrow them for your worthy cause.
It's the dungeons are perhaps the most unusual part of the game though, as you traipse through the muddy corridors from a third person perspective, almost like a hack and slash game, as you smash up crates, and do your best to avoid the enemies. Luckily, though, even if you do end up coming into contact with any enemies, the game will simply switch to a traditional top-down strategy battle, as you and your foe's forces face off.
While Fire Emblem may have a bit of a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for being a hard as nails game, Echoes at least tries its best to help new players in - at least to an extent. Once again, there's a choice of two difficulty levels here - Normal, intended for beginners, and Hard, for veterans/masochists, while no matter which difficulty you choose, you'll have the option between also playing on Casual or Classic, which determines what happens when your teammates fall in battle - whether they'll be miraculously healed and ready for the next fight, or whether they'll be perma-dead, never to be seen again, in traditional Fire Emblem style.
Regardless of the difficulty you choose, though, Echoes does feel like a slightly less strategic game than Fates. While the battles here still require a strategy, they don't feel quite as challenging as those found in Fates, which regularly used to try and trip you up with any number of quandaries, like narrow corridors filled with archers, or spellcasters with an incredible range that'd hit you with a spell as soon as you entered the room. But despite the relative ease of the battles, Echoes is arguably actually a little bit harder to pick up and play, as you'll first need to choose classes for each of your initial army. As mere villagers drafted to sign up for the war, none of your initial group of friends have any specialities to begin with - so one of the very first things you'll need to do is choose a class for each. Bear in mind, this is coming before you've even really played many battles, or know the difference between any of the classes - something which may make choosing a balanced team a bit of a big ask for new players. Just make sure you've got an archer, or a mage in there, and you'll be fine.
Of course, as with most modern games, no matter how good the game itself may be, you can always count on some downloadable add-ons to come along and rain on your parade - and Fire Emblem Echoes is no different. Five packs will become available over the next few weeks, with one launching alongside the game on day one. In all, buying access to the game's season pass will save you over 30% on the price of buying all the add-ons alone - yet it'll still set you back a "mere" £39.99 - or as it's otherwise known, more than the entire game itself. Perhaps more frustratingly, buying the most expensive pack will be the only way to get access to new, more powerful character classes that have seemingly been held back from the game, while the second most expensive pack will offer new insight into the story, taking place as a prologue to the main event - there, four levels (or maybe even less) will set you back nigh on £12. £12!! It should go without saying, but with prices like this, it's going to be nigh on impossible to justify buying the season pass - or any of the add-ons alone, for that matter.
Putting the Season Pass frustration to one side, though, it's safe to say that Fire Emblem Echoes is another stonking title in the 3DS's line-up - a must buy for Fire Emblem fans and anyone who's ever looked at a strategy role playing game with any interest, and one that'll have you hooked for hours. While it may not be quite as good as the recent Fates series or Fire Emblem Awakening, with writing that doesn't seem quite as sharp as normal, and characters that don't have as much character (not to mention we don't half miss the ability to marry off our troops), there's still plenty of new, interesting, and oddball features in Echoes that make this well worth picking up. As one of the 3DS's final games, it's great to see the console bowing out in style - here's hoping the inevitable Switch instalment can live up to the 3DS's genre defining Fire Emblem outings.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS