'Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon'

The Inlander | March 5, 2009
Rated Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS

Your kingdom has been stolen. Get it back.

From that flimsy premise arose the fate of young Prince Marth—a blue-haired, narrow-chinned wisp of a boy who has become popular more from his ass-kicking inclusion in the Super Smash Bros. series than from his own franchise. Yet in 1990 Marth's quest to regain control of his kingdom launched the Fire Emblem series. Now, nearly 20 years after its debut in Japan, the original has finally arrived stateside, remastered for the DS.

The basic gameplay of Fire Emblem resembles chess. A team of characters battles across a grid-marked landscape in an attempt to conquer the throne. Knights and mercenaries join archers and spell-slingers, moving turn by turn. Some characters travel fast, rushing in for the kill. Others progress slowly but attack from a distance. And plenty just plod head to head, hacking at each other with swords.

Battle is resolved with a rock-paper-scissors triangle of advantages, only in this case it's lances-axes-swords. Magic attacks are seemingly outside of the realm of this hierarchy, allowing the game's few mages to overwhelm opponents every time they're on the battlefield. (Fortunately, spells are rare and have a limited number of uses, otherwise the game would be fatally imbalanced.)

As the game progresses, the makeup of Marth's army evolves subtly. Each character is a unique individual who persists between battles, gaining new statistics as long as they survive. In theory this makes the game a hybrid of role-playing and strategy. In reality, none of the characters' growth can be controlled. I restarted a level several times just to watch a particular character evolve, and each time his statistics increased differently.

In an attempt at novelty, Shadow Dragon allows characters to change classes between battles. So a paladin can become a dracoknight, and a thief can become a curate. But this undermines much of what makes Fire Emblem unique. It robs the individuals of their personal characteristics and permits the armies to become monolithic gangs. Fire Emblem has always been about diversity and characters, and it's a shame to see the original title abandon that concept after two decades of success.

THE GOOD: Aside from their statistical growth, characters also develop during conversations that happen on the battlefield. Some characters can be converted to Marth's army when they visit with other characters, and reunions and revelations crop up when certain pairs fight near each other. It doesn’t affect the gameplay, but it's a unique form of storytelling that lends variety to the otherwise flat plot.

THE BAD: The maps are straightforward landscapes that lack strategic depth. Forests provide protection, but they grow in random patches. Bridges become chokepoints through which the enemy invariably squeezes. If Nintendo had only included a map-editor like last year's Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, I could have at least improved the game on my own time, and it would have taken me a lot less than 20 years to do it.

THE BOTTOM LINE: With solid game mechanics undercut by awkward enhancements, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is the least luminous entry in a long-burning series.

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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