Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon - Reader Review  

Marth’s Casual Revolution?
by Chip "Clix" Reimer

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20-40 Hours
+ Traditional tactical battle system
+ Great, new ideas for the series
+ Well implemented controls
- Cuts corners in plot
- Missing some modern series mechanics
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   When Marth joined the Smash Bros.. roster eight years ago, the Fire Emblem series finally left Japan with the second Game Boy Advance. However, because of the series’ late entry into foreign markets, new fans of the series never had the chance to play as Marth without importing or emulating. Fortunately, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon has arrived to remedy the dearth of Marth. Shadow Dragon is solely a remake of the NES original. The SNES remake included a sequel dubbed Book 2, with the story of Shadow Dragon dubbed Book 1. While Shadow Dragon lacks Book 2 of Marth’s legacy, the DS remake still provides a unique experience likely to entice new fans but divide the existing fan base.

   One of the main draws of the series is the traditional, tactical game play. Each chapter provides players with a new map and stronger foes. Generally, players will be able to sortie around fifteen characters and trek across the field or through the castle while doing battle with the enemy swarms. Unfortunately, “swarm” is not the best word to describe the enemy. Until some of the later maps, players will generally be facing a 1:1.5 or 1:2 ratio of player characters to enemies. While this curtails the length of the maps, the challenge suffers from the lack of overwhelming odds placed against the player on the lower difficulties. To also curtail battles, roughly two save points litter each map, but they act as one time use place holders. At the same time, the series’ quick-save feature remains in place. The traditional Fire Emblem handle on character deaths remains the same; characters that fall in battle can only be saved through restarting the battle or returning to a previous save-point.

   Like all recent Fire Emblems, combat is influenced by a weapon triangle, with the exception of bows and spells. Swords beat axes, axes beat spears, and spears beat swords. In previous Fire Emblems, the weapon triangle practically dictated combat, giving high advantages to those who followed the system and punishing players who were at a disadvantage. This time around, the triangle typical plays far less influence. Sword users, like Marth, will no longer blindly trump the axe users that comprise the majority of the beginning enemies.. The weakness of this triangle system likely stems from the first two versions’ lack of a weapon triangle. While Shadow Dragon may have a weapon triangle, veterans of the series familiar with the mechanic may find the system emasculated.

   Besides the weapon triangle, combat depends on the series’ infamous random number generator. The random number generator affects the probabilities of combat. Fortunately, the generator tends to rarely deviate from the realm of logical probability. Most attacks with 70%+ chances of hitting tend to succeed, while attacks on the lower end of probability scale rarely connect. Fortunately, both the computer and player are equally subjected to the fairness of the probabilities, so players will rarely feel like they are being cheated. At the same time, players should expect the occasional anomaly, like a 1% chance critical. Such anomalies occur most during the game’s arena challenges, where the random number generator proves to be quite cruel. Gutsy players can risk entering the arena to level up their units, but death in the arena is permanent, just like in normal combat. Those willing to place a bet on their characters’ skills will be heavily rewarded, but players must use caution when attempting to train via the arena.

   The random number generator’s most infamous role is in leveling up. Each new level nets new stat gains based on an individual character’s stat growth potentials. Some level ups can mean an increase across the board or no change at all. Since most characters only have, at most, 38 possible level ups, a wasted level can easily lead to a trashy character. There are items that can augment individual stats to make up for poor level ups, but the items are fairly rare or expensive. Fortunately, unit promotions do not fall prey to the random number generator. Unfortunately, the classes that do not promote, such as Marth’s Lord Class, miss out from the promotion bonuses. To compensate, classes that cannot be promoted have a level cap of 30, instead of 20.. The random number generator can lead to both a blessing and a curse, and no two players will typically share the exact same experience with characters because of the way stats are improved. While this helps guarantee each play through is different, the random number generator can often sour the experience.

Cliche #1: Dark Magic Overlord Cliche #1: Dark Magic Overlord

   Besides each character’s personal growths, classes also play a hand in determining which stats are prioritized. For the first time in the series, characters can change their classes before battle, with the exceptions of Lord, Thief, Manakete, Freelancer, and Ballista. Female characters can change into any of the other female jobs, but male characters are not as lucky. The class change for males is divided, thus their original job determines which set of class changes are possible. Still, the new possibilities revitalize the series’ customization options. The stats gained from one job will affect another job. Frequently switching between mage and cleric can create a statistical hybrid, allowing for improved magic attack for the cleric and improved magical resistance for the mage. The class change system alleviates many woes of losing valuable units, like healers. Even when promoted, characters can always change into new roles to maximize their potential.

   Along with the class change system, Shadow Dragon introduces a new, controversial spin on the way to play Fire Emblem. Because character deaths are permanent, part of the difficult with previous Fire Emblem games was to avoid losing characters.. The series’ neurotic habits are completely shattered by Shadow Dragon’s twist. Unlike anytime before, Shadow Dragon rewards players for not recruiting or benching every possible character. By keeping only a party of fifteen characters, the player can unlock four gaiden chapters throughout the game, netting new, powerful characters. A fifth gaiden chapter offers a reward and slightly altered endgame if players forsake one of the best units and the best weapon. The changes may disturb perfectionists, but there is a level of uncanny appeal to tossing away useless characters. Sadists will likely enjoy this twisted new idea, and new players will likely enjoy the system’s forgiveness to “newbie” mistakes.

   With both new, radical changes, veterans may fear Shadow Dragon lacks any challenge. Fortunately, six degrees of challenge are offered to the player from the get-go. Those looking for a real, gritty war can challenge the higher levels of the Hard Mode. At the same time, more casual players and new fans can enjoy the game without being scared away by swearing-difficulty. However, an artificial difficult is caused by the lack of the Rescue command seen in recent titles. Sturdier units and mounted units can no longer save weaker units in precarious situations. Compounded with the general lack of resistance for physical units and the increased accuracy for most attacks, cat and mouse tactics prevail throughout the game. Since all maps are cleared by Marth seizing the boss’s “throne,” all battles tend to provide the same challenge with little variety.

   Despite being a remake of a NES game, Shadow Dragon handles incredibly well on the DS. The system supports both stylus control and button control. Both options work fluidly, and the buttons provide several handy short cuts. The X button can display all enemies’ attack ranges, helping players decide where to move their units. Individual enemy units can be highlight as well with the A button, so plays no longer have to count spaces to determine the enemy’s range unlike the GBA Fire Emblems. Holding the L button can skip attack animations, and the R button toggles between a stat screen on the top screen and a map detailing where all types of units are positioned as well as any highlighted ranges. The quick and easy shortcuts greatly help the flow of battle.

Cliché #2: Beautiful Princess Ally Cliché #2: Beautiful Princess Ally

   Visually, Shadow Dragon sports a new coat of paint. The original Fire Emblems featured early 1990’s manga art styles for the character art. As the series progressed, the flashy, bright art style evolved with the times. However, Shadow Dragon takes a sharp turn away from the peppy anime style and explores a more noir style. While still following an anime style, the character art work and maps feel far darker. The art looks rougher around the edges and more sketched. While the characters remain colorful, they look fitting for a war game. While fans of the styles used since the 6th entry may be turned off by the new style, the style works well for the series. Unfortunately, the style is not fully realized in the game. Character animations in battle remain fluid, but each character looks exactly like another, likely because of the possibilities created by the class change system. Each character battle avatar and each map avatar blend together for the same class, and this can cause some minor confusion when trying to keep up with which cavalier is which. While beautiful, the art is fairly under utilized.

   Unfortunately, the rest of the remake bares few differences from the original. While the audio has been updated, the tracks are still the same. However, the story takes the biggest blow from the lack of innovation. The 8-bit era plot lacks depth. Marth’s quest to reclaim his kingdom has not seen much change. The only noticeable addition comes from the Prologue added into the Normal difficulty setting. The story itself is fine, but the stilted characters weaken a lot of the impact. Part of the problem with the characters comes from the lack of a support system, so to speak. While invisible “support” bonuses exist for characters adjacent to one another for long periods of time, the supports offer no scripted dialogues between the characters. As such, the characters come off as “faceless,” which is ironic given the homogenous nature of the sprites. While the developers did not want to change the plot, not adding character personalities and backgrounds hurts the story’s presentation. Still, even with its lack of a soul at times, the script is charming. The localization of the script surpasses all previous localized scripts for the series. The script has some wit to it, and the diction fits the setting, much like the art. While it is not the game’s highlight, the story still can carry some weight with its warm localization.

   Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon will take most players roughly 20-40 hours, depending on how much time the players spend on each map. Veterans may speed through the game in less than 20 hours. Training in the occasional arena and restarting maps from the beginning or from one of the save point can add extra time into the game’s longevity, though the latter is not counted in the game’s clock. The game is also one of the few Fire Emblems with more replay value, thanks to the class changing system and multiple difficulty levels. Even with the absence of Book 2, Shadow Dragon provides more than enough content for a handheld title.

   While Shadow Dragon is a remake of the original, the title is very revolutionary for the series. Unfortunately, some of the radical changes do not hide the half-baked nature of the remake. The plot and cast remains very static, and the exclusion of the Rescue command and the lackluster weapon triangle hold back some of the combat aspects. While the new ideas are plentiful, the over all project feels like it is less than it could be. Nevertheless, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is still very fun, and, because of its forgiving nature, this is the best place to jump into the Fire Emblem series. Veterans may feel uncomfortable with the new additions, but the game pulls off the new ideas with an enticing brilliance. Too bad the rest of the game cannot say the same thing. If anyone ever wanted to experience the legend of Marth, Shadow Dragon is the game to pick up.

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