A Side Story No More
With the success of Fire Emblem Fates riding on their backs, even if many were left unsatisfied by the experience, Intelligent Systems went forward determined to continue this trend. The Fire Emblem renaissance had only just begun and they were determined not to disappoint yet again. With a surprise announcement at the beginning of the year it seemed the Year of Fire Emblem was about to commence. But as with any story, or video game for that matter, the starting point of their latest creations began right after their latest release. Post Fire Emblem Fates, Hitoshi Yamagami, now the series producer, was throwing around ideas for the next great entry for the franchise. At first, he thought that Nintendo’s secretive console, the Nintendo Switch, should be their next conquest. Fire Emblem felt right at home on handhelds and the added power of the console would allow the team to do new and exciting things that just weren’t possible on the 3DS. However, he needed a title to come out much sooner than the consoles release date, a title meant to act as a buffer until the Switch was ready for release. And Yamagami wanted it to release in the final quarter of 2016. Releasing a brand-new Fire Emblem title with the same polished gameplay and story in that amount of time was just… absurd. Thankfully a couple of passionate team members convinced him of a project that just might work. A remake of a long-forgotten title that had been labeled the black sheep of the entire franchise, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden. These developers wanted to combine many of the ideas that they had never gotten a chance to implement in Fates into Gaidens vastly different gameplay concepts. Gaiden had been lost to the public eye and the majority of titles from the series past had all but been forgotten by the millions of new fans brought in with their latest entries so a history lesson seemed appropriate to Yamagami. And, conveniently, it would be ready in time for the games 25th anniversary. But they needed to get started on development immediately if they were to ever hope to release the remake on time.
The months of pre-planning and decision making would have to be rushed if they ever hoped to meet the September deadline they set for themselves, a ludicrous date that they quickly retracted and revised. But this rush job came with several caveats as many of their co-workers were hard at work on Fire Emblem Heroes and the eventual Switch title that would catapult the series forward into the next generation. They couldn’t necessarily be picky with whomever worked on the project. Some were a given like series producers Masahiro Higuchi and Hitoshi Yamagami along with composers such as Takeru Kanazaki and Yasuhisa Baba. Others sought to take the project as a chance to try something new. Take the character designer. Instead of using the tried and true works of Yūsuke Kozaki, Toshiyuki Kusakihara, one of the games directors, insisted that they hire Hidari, a popular Japanese character designer. Hidari’s artwork exuded a certain charm that made characters even more endearing and he wanted to apply this to the Fire Emblem formula. Starting with Alm’s design, and going through four redesigns of it, Hidari meticulously crafted him to feel like less of a royal character then previous Fire Emblem heroes. After designing Alm he used that as a bouncing board to bring to life the rest of the cast. Kusakihara was so impressed by the artwork that he just had to add it to the game and he did so by having each character’s portrait fill up the bottom screen so Hidari’s timless designs would always be on display. His artwork gave each character a personality that they were sorely lacking in, a fact that the rest of Gaiden itself was suffering from as well. A symptom of the time, many of the key plot points and realizations were locked away in the manual and not in the game proper due to the Famicoms many limitations. A great story was hidden underneath and only needed to be unearthed for all to see. They needed someone to help lead the team. Someone with an intricate knowledge of the source material. Someone who would dedicate themselves to unveiling this hidden gem to the world.
A Sentimental Tale
That someone was Kenta Nakanishi. A relatively unknown member of Nintendo, Nakanishi had been working in the background ever since his start in 2009 first as a simple debugger then later on with Xenoblade Chronicles, helping one of the most important video games in history to get a western localization. After helping on some of the series main titles and becoming a subdirector on Fates, Nakanishi finally had the connections to speak with the driving forces behind Fire Emblem, a franchise that was near and dear to him. As a young boy, he was introduced to the series by his father, a major fan in his own right. Teaching him how to play and getting him hooked on the series, the two would play the original Shadow Dragon and Gaiden for hours on end. This time he spent with his father didn’t last unfortunately. Just around the release of Mystery of the Emblem his father passed away leaving him only with the memories of the fun times they had. Laying his father to rest with a copy of Mystery of the Emblem he continued playing the series for years to come. Later on, while sorting through his personal effects he found the two cartridges of Shadow Dragon and Gaiden that he played with his father long ago. Still containing his save data, Nakanashi reminisced about the times the two spent together, strengthening his bond with the games. He told his story to Yamagami and Higuchi and they hired him on the spot. It just felt right to them. With his vast knowledge of the series and his emotional attachment to Gaiden, Nakanishi seemed like a perfect match. He would be just one of the many interesting directors for this project as Echoes would also have multiple directors, just like Fates. Genki Yokota would return as one of the minor directors late into the development cycle, as he was busy with other projects at the time. Kusakihara, more importantly, would step up to the plate as the games general director, leading the team through their latest endeavor. He had always been intrigued by Gaiden’s unconventional gameplay, and wanted to see how a modern audience would react to such a drastic shift in mechanics, so starting out as a director on Echoes was a perfect fit for him. With directors in tow the production was a go, though, they already had a strong idea of what they wanted to do at the beginning.
From the outset of the project the directors and producers alike had several goals they wanted to reach by the tail end of production. The most pressing, matter at hand was Gaiden itself and specifically, its difficulty. Fire Emblem Gaiden was renowned as one of the most difficult titles in the series but it wasn’t only because of your opponents on the battlefield. Character growth rates were stingy at best, offering one or two stat boosts each level and if you lose enough units you won’t even be able to finish the game. It was brutal to say the least, brutal enough that it could alienate their current fanbase if they went down that route. To alleviate these concerns, they upped the growth rates to modern standards, tweaked some things with weapon accuracy, and added in other iconic innovations like the support and skill systems. The volume-like difficulty options and the option to enable Casual Mode didn’t hurt either. The team at Intelligent Systems wanted to introduce classic Fire Emblem to a new audience and this was just the tip of the iceberg.
A Pinch Of Character, A Dash Of Personality
The story was a hard sell as it was. It had no clear theme, its characters either dominated the narrative or said only one or two lines and were instantly forgotten afterwards, and when the game switched between Celica and Alm it could be jarring to say the least. Everything just needed some clarification. Characters needed to have personalities instead of cookie cutter archetypes. A clear narrative through-line had to be developed. And everything in the manual had to be shoved into the final project. No one was going to look through that in this day in age. But what was Gaiden’s theme throughout it all? What was Shozo Kaga trying to get at back in the day? A confrontation of opposites, of differing ideologies and values between the main characters and their enemies. This dichotomy is also what made Celica and Alm’s journey’s, and in turn their respective armies, conflict with one another. Alm’s path is one of power, seeking to end the war by force. Celica, on the other hand, stands on the side of love and compassion and seeks to end the war in her own way. Everything in the story is defined by these opposing values providing a thrilling narrative in theory. With the advancements of today, though, it was all but a reality. There were just a couple things out of place though, namely a group of compelling characters to follow. Giving them more personality and a larger role in the story was one thing they could do, however, the team wanted to take it one step further and add full on voice acting to the series for the first time. This added a layer of depth that just wasn’t possible with lines of text. To truly convey tense moments, happy moments, or those that can fluctuate in emotion at a moment’s notice, voice acting was absolutely necessary.
Gaiden also had sort of an image problem ever since its release. Meaning side story in Japanese, many were confused as to what side story it was for so keeping the name as is just wasn’t going to cut it. At first, they thought about calling it New Gaiden, like New Mystery of the Emblem, however the presence of gaiden or paralogue chapters further complicated things so the idea was scraped on the spot. Still, they wanted to keep the feeling of the game being a remake. For this reason, they looked into popular Japanese naming conventions at the time such as “RE:” for remake, saido meaning once again or second time, and even just a simple G at the end of the Fire Emblem moniker. These were great concepts in their own right but they just weren’t clicking with the team’s vision for the project. Somewhere amidst their ramblings, though, they found their answer, echoes. A simple yet fitting name, it befitted the mission of their game, to have their classic titles echo back to their modern audience and let them see just how much the series has changed and how much it has remained the same over all these years. Echoes was all about honoring the Fire Emblem franchises storied past and keeping it alive for future generations, a noble goal to say the least. While the majority of people involved in the original title either left the company or pursued other interests within it, the brilliant group of individuals who inherited the franchises legacy, and this one little game in particular, were more then up to the task.
Echoes Of A Forgotten Time
But an echo is just that, an echo. While it would help the game to standout it wouldn’t help it to be seen as its own unique experience. And having the Echoes label for any future Fire Emblem remakes couldn’t hurt either. Hence Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia was born. Releasing on April 20th, 2017 and later in May for the rest of the world, the story of Fire Emblem Echoes was a much more grounded and simpler tale. Using Gaiden’s narrative as a basis, writer Sakoto Kurihara weaved a more compelling version of events, adding context and new characters in to make it all flow more fluidly. Taking place on the continent of Valentia, a land torn asunder between two gods, Milla and Duma, and two kingdoms, the harsh Rigel and lavish Zofia, the game begins with a prologue to it all, telling the fateful meeting of dual protagonists Alm and Celica years before the game proper. Various circumstances force them to part ways during their youth with only their destinies to tie them together. Years later, Alm’s homeland of Zofia has fallen to the hands of the traitorous Desaix and the Rigelian armada with only the rebel Deliverance to stop them. One of their soldiers, Lukas, visits Alm’s village begging for Alm’s grandfather Sir Mycen’s aid. Rejecting his offer outright, Alm decides to take his grandfather’s place and fight in the war himself, hoping to end the country’s strife. On a small island, east of Zofia, Celica sets out on her own mission to discover what has happened to Milla as the nation has started to wither and die a slow death. This sets the stage for the war to save Valentia with each of our protagonists trying to accomplish their own similar goals with their own convictions.
Unlike Awakening and Fates, Echoes has a much simpler plot structure with a clear distinction between good and evil. Sometimes the lines between each blur on the side of our heroes but, for the most part, their opponents are evil to a cartoonish degree, save a few. One of those few is a new character named Lord Berkut, who’s narrative arc proves to be one of the most compelling in Fire Emblem history. No villain in this new age of Fire Emblem has even come close. But if the villains were getting an upgrade surely the supporting cast was getting one too, right? Well, for starters, Echoes actually had a supporting cast. Characters that in the original Fire Emblem Gaiden had only one or two lines now had fully embellished personalities and roles to play alongside Alm and Celica. Take the humble villagers, Gray, Tobin, and Kliff. In Gaiden, nearly all of them looked virtually identical to one another and never said a word after the first level. In Echoes, all of them have very different looks, personalities, and aspirations with even a fourth villager named Faye being added in whose personality was “interesting” to say the least. These, and more, rounded out the cast on both sides making for some of the most intriguing characters in all of Fire Emblem, with some of the best voice acting in all of gaming, thanks to the localization work done by Team 8-4 in the western release, which made each sound real and believable… for fantasy characters at least.
Realism In High Fantasy
Speaking of realism, that was one of the main goals of the designers from the very beginning of the project. You see Gaiden wasn’t the supposed “black sheep” of the franchise for nothing; many of its mechanics were unique to itself. While maintaining many of the tactical elements introduced in the Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, it introduced many elements that were more akin to an ordinary RPG than anything else. Explorable towns and dungeons, a world map, and many other elements differentiated Gaiden from the rest of its kin for years to come, and Kusakihara and Nakanishi wanted to honor this in any way they could. So out went the weapon triangle that the franchise had clung to for over a decade, in came a fully fleshed out support system which was actually introduced in Gaiden in a very small way, and what stayed lent a more realistic atmosphere to the battlefield. Instead of relying on weapon advantages you instead rely on terrain and what would make sense in a medieval setting. Heavily armored knights block arrows left and right yet have a fatal weakness to magic which blows right through them. Hiding an archer or a swordsman in the forest makes them harder to hit while moving through it is a more arduous affair then running across the plains. Each class, ally, or opponent has their own obvious advantages and disadvantages that can be deduced through simple observation with terrain being the focal point of it all. Every decision was a choice that has some type of downside to it. For example, instead of being able to hold multiple items at a time, each unit can only hold one. These items can range from a healing item to a unique sword or bow. The weaponry you wield determines the strength of a unit’s attack, usually coming with a downside or two to balance things out. Using them enough draws out their potential and enables powerful arts to be unleashed upon your foes or, if wielding a magic ring or mighty shield, several tactical and defense options. But these, and more, also come with their own price to pay as all, including spells, drain a unit’s health; inviting a sort of risk/reward system to the game. Even though many of these mechanics had been designed decades ago, their additions made combat feel fresh for a change, a welcome difference from the rock-paper-scissors battles of old and one that invited a stronger strategic element that the series lacked at times.
Still, these weren’t the only important reinventions of Gaidens tried and true mechanics. Milla’s Turnwheel was thrown in as a sort of stopgap between turning on Casual Mode and going full on Classic Fire Emblem with the permeant death that it entails. If you made a simple error in your tactics or became completely overwhelmed before you even knew it, Milla’s Turnwheel would fix that letting you tweak whatever you needed to achieve victory without the agony of restarting it all over again. Towns became an essential stopping point on your adventure, allowing you to recruit new allies, take on side quests, and even forge your weaponry into adept implementations of death. There was even a light bit of exploration strewn throughout these locales with hidden and essential items hiding in plain sight. Exploration was also the key to another one of Gaiden’s, and now Echoes’, gameplay, dungeons. Ranging from intricate to simple and easy going, dungeons were the most immaculate additions to the Fire Emblem formula. Based on what the free roaming in Fire Emblem Fates was originally intended to be, these labyrinthine efforts are the most technically impressive of all of Echoes’ feats. Controlling fully three dimensional representations of Celica and Alm, players delve deep into these dungeons, searching for hidden treasure and enemies within. With a simple swing of a sword players are thrown into a classic Fire Emblem battle with all the bells and whistles contain within. The dungeons themselves were just the icing on top of the cake. However, Echoes wasn’t one to just honor the past of its original creator. It was a celebration of all of Fire Emblem after all so, of course, other features from past titles made it in. A surprising addition from Thracia 776, fatigue makes a comeback in a big way, forcing units to take a breather within dungeons and every so often during a chapter. Supports also resembled past Fire Emblem games with less supports being available between each character, the child system being thrown out entirely, and everything being a lot less lovey dovey. Instead, supports focused on further emphasizing each character’s uniqueness from one another with everything coming as less manufactured compared to past games.
Above all else, what truly helps Echoes to go one step beyond its predecessors is its lovingly craft score. Just like everything else, many of the tracks were present in Gaiden decades ago and have since become iconic in their own right, leaving a lasting impression on the gaming sphere more so than the game itself. Yuka Tsujiyoko’s work on the title had been known to people who had never even heard of Gaiden so taking up such a monumental task was difficult to say the least. However, veteran composers Takeru Kanazaki and Yasuhisa Baba were more than up to the challenge. Kanazaki would compose the majority of the game, with Baba and fellow Intelligent Systems sound designer Shoh Murakami picking up the slack. Also on hand was Takafumi Wada, an anime composer famous for composing the soundtracks to The Seven Deadly Sins, Seraph of the End, and others, who’d lend his own “unique” style to the editing and mixing process. Together they’d compose an excellent homage to Gaiden, turning simple 8-bit tracks into fully featured epics rivaling many themes from the series past and more.
Fire Emblem’s cinematic qualities were also drastically increased. The cinematic design team led by Kusakihara sought to add to and tweak the battle camera that had become a staple of the series since Fire Emblem Awakening. Gone were the obtuse first-person view and menagerie of other angles and its place was a more fluid and robust experience. The team implemented actual fight choreography for once with characters dynamically entering each battle in their own personable way and battling it out with their foes in an entertaining sort of manner. Battles could not only be sped up to quickly move through each turn but slowed down and zoomed in on to take in the action. When first introduced in Fire Emblem Awakening, this new fighting style was meant to be an elegant dance with death, and while it showed promise for many years it finally came into its own with Echoes. The in-game cinematics’ weren’t the only ones stepping up their game, however. Instead of using the exquisite and breathtaking works of Studio Anima to tell their tale, Intelligent Systems decided to work with Studio Khara, an animation house founded by Hideaki Anno, a famous for his seminal masterpiece Neon Genesis Evangelion. Known for their work on the revitalization of his classic series and in-between animation on several well-known anime, on the surface it was confusing why they would go with such a studio that uses a combination of 2D and slightly choppy 3D animation over the fluidity that Anima was renowned for. It is unknown why they decided to change studios, however, this choice allowed them to implement longer and more in-depth cutscenes then were possible with Anima. The results speak for themselves though.
A Resounding Success
But what were the results for the game itself? How did it compare to Fire Emblem’s past? Was it the title fans has been waiting for over half a decade for? Or, rather, was it too different from the Fire Emblem fans had come to expect. Selling only 131,668 copies in its opening week, under half the amount Fates ended up selling, financially Echoes wasn’t selling as much as the past two entries but this was to be expected as it was a remake. The missing dating sim esque elements may have hurt it a bit too. Critically too it also fell in the face of its past entries with many baffled by the changes to the series formula. But who cares about those people? Fire Emblem Echoes wasn’t truly meant for them. It was a game made by fans, for fans. Everything they had asked for from the removal of Phoenix Mode to the change in gameplay mechanics was done in part to celebrate the Fire Emblem faithful that had stayed with the franchise throughout the years. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia was a return to the franchise’s roots, to a simpler time when battles were simple yet complex and stories were straightforward yet intricate. However, the conveniences and reinventions of modern times propelled a story as elementary as Gaiden’s into something more thought provoking, captivating, and riveting, so much so that it might as well be its own original title. Fire Emblem Echoes was only meant to echo back to previous installments. Instead, it is reverberating into the future, with its impact yet unknown. Fire Emblem is at a precarious point in its lifetime where it has finally achieved what it set out to do with Awakening all those years ago yet has the chance of falling from grace and losing all that they have accomplished. But they’ve seen worse. And to think, the ones who would save the franchise and propel it to even greater heights were fans just like us decades ago whose echoes have now been heard.