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Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (DS) artwork

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (DS) review


"Spend a few hours with any Fire Emblem game and you’ll see why the series is revered in the world of turn-based strategy games: Its emphasis on the immediate and long-term effects of death is brilliant. The knowledge that each downed soldier is down for good makes you more considerate of individual lives. Being more considerate, in turn, makes you more cautious, less reckless. You come out of a Fire Emblem game a better player than you were when you entered."



There’s a fairly manipulative and contrived instance during the prologue of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon in which protagonist Marth and his band of warriors discover that a massive battalion of heavily armored units – certainly too much for them to handle – is hot on their tail, and Marth’s supervisor steps forward and suggests that the only way for them to escape this predicament is to disguise one of their own as Marth himself and use him as a decoy to draw off the approaching force. Shortly thereafter, we’re treated to a scene in which the doomed soldier is captured by the enemy and predictably sentenced to an immediate death. Then we cut back to Marth’s group, in which everyone is safe but sulking over their loss while the devil’s advocate of a tactician hovers over Marth’s shoulder and assures him that his decision was the right one. Yeah, we get it, Nintendo. Death sucks, but sometimes you’ve got to make difficult decisions in the heat of battle. Sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice a few for many.

It’s a message this series has been adamant about since the beginning, and the lesson is more effectively grasped from personal experience on the battlefield itself, where thankfully it’s a more natural factor, and certainly less imposed. The long-running tradition of Fire Emblem is that when a character dies, he’s dead for good. No more priests performing resurrections, no more revivals when the combat is over, no more Phoenix Down awakening your fallen friends from eternal slumber. In the short term, it means we get a little two-line soliloquy that briefly shames us for allowing such harm to befall on this person. In the long term, that’s one less invaluable character you’ll carry along for the remainder of your adventure. It’s literally a game-changing event every time it happens.

The recent console Fire Emblem games truly perfected this aspect of the series, as they effectively portrayed your units as individuals. They even gave the player occasional opportunities to engage in one-on-one conversations with them that served no material purpose, but that went a long way toward making you feel more connected to these characters and the events they were wrapped up in. Characterization unfortunately isn’t one of Shadow Dragon’s strong points, as most of your units have only to deliver a couple of introductory lines before fading into the crowd. But bestowing each of these characters with names and faces works wonders to make the player feel responsible for the lives of each man and woman on the battlefield. When one of them falls, there’s this vague sense of remorse: Could I have been more careful? If I were to reset my DS and start this battle over, could I approach this situation in such a way that I reduce the body count?

This, of course, is not how Fire Emblem is meant to be played. Players learn from their mistakes, not by replaying the same chapter over and over in an effort to keep your entire team alive, but by dealing with your losses and moving forward with what you’ve got. Spend a few hours with any Fire Emblem game and you’ll see why the series is revered in the world of turn-based strategy games: Its emphasis on the immediate and long-term effects of death is brilliant. The knowledge that each downed soldier is down for good makes you more considerate of individual lives. Being more considerate, in turn, makes you more cautious, less reckless. You come out of a Fire Emblem game a better player than you were when you entered.

Couple this with enemy AI that not only constantly outnumbers you, but isn’t afraid to be ruthless and unforgiving. Enemy units will happily gang up on a character you left over-exposed to attack. They’ll merrily target your most vulnerable units, or even go straight for Marth if given the chance, possibly handing you a one-way ticket to Game Over Station as a result. With each crippling error the player makes in the heat of battle, there’s always something to be learned. You make the most of Shadow Dragon not by reloading the battle and attempting to right your wrongs, but by using these lessons to ensure that future mistakes in similar scenarios don’t happen.

Shadow Dragon is a long-overdue remake of the original Fire Emblem on Famicom, and the game’s age shows in its plot, which is somewhat thin and barely elevates itself beyond a simple means to connect one battle to the next. (The one upside of the story is that it finally, after seven years, explains the origins of that blue-haired fellow from Super Smash Bros. Melee.) On the other hand, the title is once again the product of Intelligent Systems, who know turn-based strategy better than anyone (and have been doing it longer), and whose Advance Wars games have earned heaping praise over the past near-decade. The two series bear a striking (though not altogether surprising) resemblance, as they both inspire the most complex, thought-provoking scenarios from the simplest interface and mechanics. But whereas the best course of action in Advance Wars was always to build up your funds and overpower the enemy, Fire Emblem ups the RPG elements and stresses the importance of the individual. Amazing how two seemingly identical franchises can, upon closer inspection, so greatly differ.

Battles still revolve around the classic rock-paper-scissors weapon system, where axes fall to swords, swords buckle to lances, and lances are no match for axes. Realistically, it makes no sense – but it works, perfectly balancing unit types and giving each weapon a distinction beyond generic speed and power stats. In typical Intelligent System fashion, the bottom screen is devoted to displaying a bare-bones battlefield interface that anyone could understand, while the top screen supplies a number of extremely well-animated combat scenes between individual units. Intelligent Systems games are never too flashy, but they also never need to be.

Each chapter is won by seizure, in which Marth must personally secure a designated space that is always occupied by a boss-liked commando unit. These guys are tricky: They’re decked out in the kind of heavy-duty equipment that has them looking like the Terran SCVs from StarCraft, yet they’re still able to muster up the agility to dodge Marth’s Armorslayer, and that strikes me as a little unfair. On the other end of the spectrum, since these units don’t actually move and therefore have no range beyond adjacent spaces, a hilariously effective tactic is to bring in your sage and have him chip away at the guy’s health from a safe distance. These are pretty isolated incidents, though; in nearly all other cases, the AI offered a consistently ramping challenge that never felt uneven on either side.

Maybe the one issue I’d raise with Shadow Dragon is that it lacks variety – with a game this simple, when the plot is so lacking, it takes more than introducing a few new units now and then to keep me engaged. I often found that I could only play a chapter or two at a time before I’d set my DS down and do something else, only to come back later. Then again, I did keep coming back, so take that for what it’s worth.

Rating: 8/10

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 04, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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overdrive posted March 04, 2009:

Good review. Of my many dormant projects, one is the translated Super Famicom version of this Fire Emblem game (which is an enhanced version of the Famicom one, as well as a direct sequel to it also starring Marth). Reading this review reminded me how much I generally like the style of Fire Emblem games and that at some point I should resume playing this one on that system.
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zippdementia posted March 05, 2009:

Suskie, you've done it again. If only you got big bags of money for every good review you wrote. This is pretty much a perfect review, I can't offer any criticism on what you've written. As usual, I will leave you the comment that your reviews could stand to gain a little flair, something to set them apart from the crowd (even if that crowd is relatively thin at your level of writing).
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Suskie posted March 05, 2009:

Thanks a lot for the comments. And by the way, OD, the next game I review for DS should interest you quite a bit.

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