When you think of kings, princes, knights on horseback and damsels in distress, you tend to think of Medieval England.
The legacy of King Arthur and his Round Table at Camelot pervades western culture deeper than a sword stuck in a stone. And yet, some of the more sophisticated and developed royal lineage comes from the East. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a well balanced swirl of the two worlds all packed neatly into your Nintendo DS.
You could perhaps be forgiven for not recognising the pedigree of Fire Emblem, a series for the most part only released in Japan. The game’s protagonist Marth is a staple Nintendo hero in the Land of the Rising Sun, only making brief forays into English speaking titles (some say the best Super Smash Bro: Melee character out there).
It’s a good thing, then, that Shadow Dragon is a virtually word-perfect remake of the very first Fire Emblem game, originally released on the NES in 1990. Before you turn your nose up at the prospect of playing nearly a twenty year old NES game, take in the fact that this title spawned some 10 über-successful sequels and inspired one of the GBA’s finest titles – Advance Wars.
At it’s heart, Shadow Dragon is a turn-based tactical strategy game. Through micromanagement of your rag-tag bunch of merry-men, you cross several continents on the righteous warpath. A hallmark of the Fire Emblem franchise is the permanent death of your units – lose a man to battle and he’s gone for good. The same with weapons, even your tricked-out highly modified sword will fall prey to the ravages of battle eventually. At first this can be irksome, as highly skilled characters often develop into favourites. Losing a powerful unit can demoralise you as a player and offer your remaining weaker units to the wolves. As a result of this feature, Shadow Dragon makes you develop as a leader. Fast. Cavalier commanders will find no success in rushing into battle half-cocked; success comes through careful planning and knowing the limits of your army.
Much of the satisfaction that brims from this title comes from winning a hard-fought battle with minimal casualties, bettering yourself with each play through. The replay value of this game is superb and refining your strategy can become quite addictive.
Part of the delicacy you learn to operate with in Shadow Dragon comes via the save system. Between each of the game’s 25 chapters you are afforded a save. During a chapter you are offered one ‘in map’ save, as well as a suspend for turning your DS off while you muse over strategy. Developer Intelligent Systems have implemented this design very well, save points are at a natural place within the levels and help to cement the core method of the gameplay well.
Delicacy, however, has the chance to fly right out the window when multiplayer is invoked. Shadow Dragon is the first Fire Emblem game to feature multiplayer and it’s been done fairly well. Battles with your finest units against a friend can be immensely rewarding, also allowing special units and weapons to be unlocked (via the online store). As with the single player, the network aspect of the game is solid and able to be played over and again. Watch out, though – your friends may make better generals than an AI routine. Don’t blame me if your DS snaps under the stress.
Being a rather ancient title ported to a modern console, you may ask what’s new? What value does the revamp offer over a quick blast through the original? Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS offers an additional chapter at the beginning of the game, introducing the core concepts of the game to an unfamiliar audience. For reasons of game-reviewer hubris and general ego, I decided to skip this section on first inspection.
Big mistake. The intro is well crafted and while short, gears you up for the strenuous road ahead. A simple three-way advantage system plays swords against lances against ranged weapons, making battle decisions a mix between textbook logic and gamblers luck. The DS stylus is well used in Shadow Dragon, whirling it around the touch-screen makes sending units to war a breeze. Having two screens is a real advantage for unit-micromanagement, something other developers should learn to get right. While the ‘map’ graphics are an improvement on the original, they’re hardly spectacular. To make up for this, beautiful pseudo-3D battle scenes have been added to spice up the fights. The in game music is fairly standard fare, tinny and repetitive without being ghastly.
At the end of a long stretch playing Shadow Dragon, you come away feeling one of two things. As sense of accomplishment for fighting out of a challenging situation, or frustration as your best units are turned to a pile of scrap in front of your eyes. While Shadow Dragon is exceptionally fun, it’s also tooth-grindingly hard. When I set out to write this review I had four chapters to go before I finished the game. My poor DS lay side-on, wounded from being thrown against my counter-top. And yet, I can’t stop recalculating my mistakes. I need to finish the game, and then replay on a harder difficulty. If you have a hankering for some DS based strategy, this is the game to have. You won’t regret it.