If you’ve played Super Smash Brothers Brawl and wondered just who the hell this Marth guy was, you weren’t alone. Marth was the lead protagonist in the Famicom title, Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Ken, which hadn’t previously been released this side of the Pacific until the recent release of its remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the Nintendo DS.
As fate and genealogy would have it, Marth is the prince of the kingdom of Altea, which at the start of his adventure had come under attack from the evil forces of Dolhr. Soon thereafter, he realizes his duty to Altea is to lead its forces in battle and reclaim the glory of his kingdom. Though his rag-tag group of followers is initially small, throughout his adventure, he meets new friends and foes, and even meets a few who are both. The growth of his army in the story complements the game-play; new character types are slowly introduced, giving players time to become acclimated to the strengths, weaknesses, and particular quirks of them at a comfortable paces.
Shadow Dragon, like other games in the franchise, is a turn-based strategy role-playing adventure. In many ways, it’s comparable to the much-acclaimed Advance Wars series in that they both feature grid-based battlefields and rich stories. I personally prefer the knights, mages, dragons, and general fantasy setting to the mechanical warfare of Advance Wars, so for me Fire Emblem wins in that department.
Gamers desiring action over story would do well to stay away from Fire Emblem. The narrative of Marth’s rise to leadership is as heavy and heated as the actual battle found in the game. Each chapter is preceded and followed by comic-style scenes that advance the plot, setting up the next stage and the characters in it. During battle, similar cut scenes are used for in-battle smack-talk between fighters and when talking to new characters. Sometimes characters that seem evil might be willing to change their ways and join you – but you won’t know that without paying attention to the various people whose homes you can visit while on the battlefield. It’s therefore very important not only to explore each chapter’s map, but to also pay attention when doing so. In other words, players who choose to opt out of reading the game’s story will be doing themselves a great disservice.
One thing I find unique to the Fire Emblem series is the concept of death adhered to in the games. Marth, being the leader, is the most important character to keep alive. When he dies, the game ends. Everyone else in his party can die and the game will go on. In fact, the game will go on, without them. Once a character dies in battle, they are gone for the remainder of the game. In some cases, characters will have to be sacrificed so that the game’s story can progress. It’s not easy choosing who to say good-bye to, especially since over the course of the adventure it’s surprisingly easy to grow fond of them. Sometimes this is because of their battle prowess, but on a more superficial level, it stings to let go of someone who just looks awesome. The fact that the character art is exactly what one might expect of an anime-style strategy game doesn’t make them any less impressive. Marth’s company consists of battle-weary veterans with rugged looks to the customary androgynous pretty boys and cute girls. Even the uglier characters still look cool.
Shadow Dragon isn’t a game where you can just run into a battle to vanquish your opponents. Doing so will get you mercilessly killed. The emphasis on tactical thinking could not be greater. A strategy I’ve developed in my experience with the series is to arrange the army into formations, with different character types occupying different parts of the formation (knights up front, since they can take more damage, archers behind them, as they have longer attack ranges, etc.).
Each player turn consists of movement and action. Each character is moved one at a time. After moving a character, depending on which square it occupies, you can choose to attack an enemy or you can have your character visit a home. Other actions units can perform include trading items with nearby teammates, using an item, talking, or seizing a control point. Once the option to attack is selected and confirmed, the top screen displays the battle in close-up animation, showcasing more detailed (but still somewhat fuzzy) 3D character models that take turns poking at each other with their weapons. This visual exchange is short, but there are many throughout each battle.
In battle, it takes many kinds of soldier classes for one to come out victorious. In Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Lord Marth has command of several types including (but not limited to) Cavaliers, Paladins, Knights, Pegasus Knights, Generals, Archers, Mages, Mercenaries, Heroes, and Pirates. While some units are obviously stronger than others, it’s best to make sure everyone on the battlefield participates in each Chapter so that they can all level up. There’s nothing worse than making your brave Paladin do all the work only to have him play babysitter to everyone else later in the game. It’s cool to have your favourite, but don’t make the teammates you would have picked last feel left out – there’s a role to be played by everyone, even if it is just that of a pawn.
Expanding upon the strengths and weaknesses of unit types is the strengths and weaknesses of weapon types. The three main classes of weapon are sword, lance, and axe. Each weapon is good for only so many strikes, and then it breaks. The more you play, the stronger weapons you will come across. Each class of weapon comes in different varieties, which further complicates its effectiveness in battle. For example, a heavier sword will cause more damage per strike, but its weight will come into play, especially against faster opponents. Engaging in battle first involves being in attack range. The next step is to decide which enemy to attack, and with which weapon the selected character is currently holding. Before committing to an attack, a battle forecast interface pops up to show which character has the upper hand. This allows for some additional tactics to come into play, such as opting out of the battle or changing the character’s approach altogether.
The various unit types and their weapons are only half the battle dynamic. Geography plays a vital part in how troops move and behave. Key points on maps have different attributes. In addition to different terrain, structures provide tactical benefit. Visiting a home and talking to its occupant can get you key information pertaining to the current battle, including tips on which enemies can be lured over to your side of the skirmish. Citadels will slowly heal whichever character ends its turn at them. Some maps have save points throughout the map; since battles can take a long time, they’re helpful (although there is always the option to suspend a battle and go back to it later). Shops, as you might have been able to guess, allow players to purchase weapons and other items useful in battle. If you happen to pick up an enemy’s useless weapon, or have one that you will soon no longer need, you can sell it at a shop and put the money towards more upgrades.
Apart from the story mode, Shadow Dragon includes a battle-only mode via local wireless or the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Before jumping into battle, you can choose your squad from an existing save game slot. Be forewarned: People playing this game online do not mess around! Those not in the competitive spirit can use the multiplayer mode to loan units to friends.
The game’s musical score is stereotypically grandiose and triumphant given the genre and attention to visual detail in the character designs. In cut scenes featuring the enemy, the music takes on a more synth approach in sustaining its rhythm. Musical cues change depending on which side’s turn it currently is. During the player phase, a looping heroic fanfare somewhat reminiscent of the Pokémon theme is played. When the enemy is on the march, the tune fades out to make way for a more sinister refrain. During the short attack phases of game-play, a shorter and more upbeat, bassy, drum-heavy loop is played. Character deaths are accompanied by slow flourishes.
Controlling units in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon couldn’t be easier. Since the battle map is on the touch screen, selecting and moving characters is a breeze. The same can be said for the game’s menu system. The only time I had trouble figuring anything out was when trading items between two characters. Rather than display an “ok” option to complete the trade, one must click on the only option available: “cancel,” which is counterintuitive as it implies that the item trade would be cancelled. The top screen is full of helpful character stats, but to be honest, I rarely found myself using it other than to check out character art and to read the story between levels and during mid-battle chats.
Having been a fan of the Fire Emblem series since Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance on the GameCube, I found that Shadow Dragon captures the spirit of the franchise well. It’s not a game I’d play too often because it does require a lot of attention and because chapters, especially later ones, take long to play out. Overall, however, it’s a solid strategy title and a great and welcome addition to my DS library.