Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (Nintendo DS) Review

By Rudy Lavaux 30.05.2010

Review for Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Nintendo DS

If it wasn't for Super Smash Bros. Melee, most Western gamers would probably still be ignorant about the Fire Emblem series. Thankfully, the Fire Emblem characters that starred in the aforementioned best-selling GameCube game, Marth and Roy, both gained such popularity among gamers that Nintendo decided to give the series a chance outside of Japan. They presented us with the latest installment at that time, Fire Emblem Rekka no Ken for the Game Boy Advance (Fire Emblem: Blazing Swords in the language of Shakespeare), known simply as Fire Emblem in our territories. However, though all following episodes released since have come to the West, we have remained complete strangers to the six other games released before Rekka no Ken, including the episodes from which Marth and Roy came in the first place. Fast forward to 2008, when Nintendo and Intelligent Systems finally brought the episode that started it all to Western territories, remade for the Nintendo DS to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Famicom.

Once upon a time, the continent of Akaneia was conquered by Medeus, lord of the dragon-kin, plunging the land's people into death and despair. A hero from the Altea region soon appeared and freed the people of the continent by slaying the Shadow Dragon, but a century later the evil returned, teamed with a sorcerer who sought to rule the world. With the evil threatening to spread into Akaneia again, the responsibility of defeating the Shadow Dragon fell upon the only remaining heir of the original hero's bloodline, the king of Altea. Wielding his ancestor's sword, Falchion, he sets out to slay the dragon once more. Meanwhile, the king's young son Prince Marth trains in fencing, waiting for his father to return from war in the neighbouring country of Gra. That is, until the day that enemy soldiers of Gra invade the castle, attempting to imprison Marth and seize the throne. Refusing to surrender, Marth fights the soldiers away from the throne room, where he meets his sister, Princess Elice. She informs Marth that their father was defeated in battle.

The castle lost to enemy forces, they are forced to escape quickly. They split up; Elice looks for their mother, while Marth goes in search of any surviving allies. The prince quickly meets with other soldiers and makes his way to the exit, fighting off enemies as he goes. As if the pressure could not get any higher, Marth's ally Cain returns from Gra's battlefield carrying the king's last words: Marth is to wield the Falchion and free Akaneia once again. Further bad news comes as the king's confidant, Malledus, appears from the castle alone in the aftermath, explaining that Elice - who he was to protect - had decided to stay behind to give Marth time to escape, knowing that he, as sole heir to Falchion, is the only hope of salvation for Akaneia. Accepting his sister's sacrifice, Marth promises to become a worthy wielder of Falchion and avenge the fallen by defeating Medeus. The group leaves for Talys, an ally island kingdom to the east, and thus Marth's quest to free Akaneia begins...

Being a 20-year-old 8-bit tactical role playing game, you might expect Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's plot to be rather thin by today's standards. Surprisingly though, even at the very start of the series, Intelligent Systems got it right. It's not quite on par with the GBA outings that we know and love, and nowhere near as convoluted as the GameCube and Wii installments, but it still manages to keep you wondering what will happen next and playing to the very end. This DS version also adds a couple of 'Prologue' chapters that serve as a tutorial, on top of expanding upon the original plot. Some 'Gaiden' ('side story' in Japanese) or secret chapters are also new and further expand the original plot (these chapters should not to be confused with Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom; they are unrelated). It does not, however, include 'Book Two' of the story, that featured in the previous enhanced remake, Fire Emblem : Monshô no Nazo on the Super Famicom. Book Two continues the story after the events of the original Famicom game, and will serve as the plot for the most recently announced Fire Emblem DS title.

The gameplay has seen some very interesting improvements. All previous Fire Emblem titles so far have relied on a D-pad or analogue stick to move a cursor around, plus buttons for actions. However, we are now on DS, so touch screen controls for giving orders to your units were to be expected. It was highly disappointing to find that pointer controls were omitted from the Wii episode; it seemed to be a no-brainer to include these controls in a tactical RPG. Shadow Dragon corrects it all, by at last allowing you to give orders faster than ever, thanks to good touch screen controls. Tap a unit, touch where you want it to go or trace its path, give it its final orders by tapping your chosen command, and there you are. Simple, and yet very efficient.

The core mechanics are as you would expect of a Fire Emblem game. You take the reins of an army, and from this army select a number of units per mission, presented in the form of chapters. Each chapter has its own objective. It could be rallying to a point, seizing a location, wiping out the whole enemy army, or 'simply' surviving a certain number of turns. Generally in Shadow Dragon you'll be spending your time capturing locations. Some maps have a fog of war or take place at night, which reduces the viewing distance of your units, preventing you from seeing where all the enemy units are.

Screenshot for Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Nintendo DS

As in most role playing games, your units each have experience points and levels, as well as statistics that define their strengths and weaknesses. Every battle a unit takes part in earns them experience points, win or lose, though victors take away the greater spoils, of course. Units gain a level upon collecting 100 experience points, thus improving a few of their statistics.

You and your enemies take it in turns to move your units a set number of grid places on a map and give them orders (wait, attack, use an item, etc.). The terrain affects your units' behavior while they are on the move, as well as during battle. Sand, for example, slows the movement of certain units, such as horse riders. Forests give you more cover to dodge enemy hits, while castles raise your evasion and defence.

Battles commence when a unit stands on a square that is within range of an opposing unit (the range depending on what sort of weapon you are wielding) and is given an attack order. The battles themselves follow rules akin to rock/paper/scissors (the swords beat the axes, the axes beat the spears and the spears beat the swords, the magics being in a similar vein). How your hits affect the enemies, and how theirs affect your units, depends on the relations between the weapons they have equipped, their stats (a fast unit will dodge more easily, a unit with high defence may not be affected by a hit at all, etc.), and the terrain they're standing on. Weapons also break after a certain number of uses, the amount depending on the weapon itself. Usually the more powerful or deadly a weapon is, the more fragile it is.

Any improvements found in later episodes, such as the ability to carry an injured allied unit on the back of another to safety, have been left out of this remake, possibly because they could have ruined the difficulty balance without significant reworks to the missions. Shadow Dragon also suffers from stat growth rates that are occasionally horrendous; knights in heavy armour that become victim to low defence through the random nature of statistic growth, for example, are particularly frustrating. Though statistics have always been randomised in this way in Fire Emblem, it is at least refined and less annoying in later titles.

There are new unit classes in this episode. Firstly there are the Chameleons, which can usefully take the appearance of another of your units, allowing it to temporarily take on the mantle of another class. Then there are Ballisticians which, as their name suggests, use ballistae. Unlike in other titles, you don't pick up ballistae from the enemies' hands; instead they are 'carried' (as weird as it may seem, since they are huge and all...) by the Ballisticians and break after a reasonable amount of uses, like any weapon in the game.

Screenshot for Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Nintendo DS

Another new function present here is the ability to re-class your characters. At any moment between chapters you can now convert one of your units into a completely different class. There are restrictions as to what a unit can become, though. For example, your myrmidon could swap over to being a mage, but it won't be able to become a knight. Reclassifying a unit modifies its stats, losing and gaining some depending on the target class. I found that it usually ends up screwing the unit up, because the unit was trained for a specific class before and, hopefully, gained points in the stats that were relevant to its particular class. Turning a myrmidon with poor magic resistance into a mage, for example, wouldn't be a wise move, because the resistance bonus he'll gain from the re-class won't be enough to ensure its survival in battle against other mages, and he'll end up being a crappy example of the class. The re-class can be beneficial for other class changes, though, and it can be useful in situations where you really need a high level unit in a class that you have not got covered - and it's handy for one chapter in particular, if you opted to ignore a certain class.

The Fire Emblem series is well known for its difficulty. The usual rule of 'lose a unit and it's lost forever' of the series still applies. This episode, however, feels a bit easier overall, except maybe for the conditions you have to meet to get access to the new Gaiden chapters. The experience point growth rate is also rather low, compared to say...Blazing Swords; it's closer to the Famicom original on that point (and to the Japan-exclusive Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi for the GBA). What definitely makes the game significantly easier is the possibility to permanently save your game whenever you want, unlike the auto-quick save from the GBA episodes, which left little place for trial and error. It differs from Radiant Dawn in that you can't save as many times as you want during a chapter, because each save requires that one of your characters is standing on special map save point tiles which disappear once they have been used to save your game. Therefore, the number of times you're allowed to save your game during a chapter basically depends on how many of those points there are on the map, but despite this limit it still makes the game much easier. Each of the three regular save files can host two 'map saves', so it leaves plenty of room for trial and error (if your last map save put you in an irreversible dangerous situation, you can still go back to an earlier map save point).

The game still has the local multiplayer mode, but what you really want to try out is the new online mode that lets you battle against friends or anyone through the Internet. Both multiplayer modes play identically. Battles are fought with squads made up of five characters selected from your save files. Multiplayer matches take place on one of six different multiplayer maps, chosen at random, which may or may not feature obstacles such as fog of war - also random. The goal is simply to destroy the opponent's team. Another nice twist is that, when battling against friends, there's voice chat. Neat! When trying to battle against strangers, though, get ready for a long wait before finally finding an opponent.

A strange online feature - which I admit I have not had the opportunity to test - is the 'loan' option. Simply put, it lets you 'loan' some of your units to your friends, or use units that your friends have loaned to you. You upload the units you want to make available for your friends (those that you have exchanged friend codes with), or download units from your friends' catalogue, and you can then use them in one of your own save files. It could be interesting to see how your pals have trained their units differently. The twist is that if you borrow a character, restrictions are placed upon your team options. If you take a Marth, for example, your own Marth won't be available for battle for as long as the loaned one is in your team. You can't have the same character in use twice. The final addition to the online mode is an online shop that lets you buy items. It acts just like a regular shop in the game except what it has to offer is updated daily.

While Shadow Dragon is in 2D like the other handheld Fire Emblem titles, the graphical upgrade since the Game Boy Advance is immediately noticeable. The maps are more detailed, the tiles benefiting from an increased pixel count; 24x24, instead of the 16x16 found in previous 2D iterations. The map character sprites also benefit from this. One of the complaints about the GBA episodes was that the low-resolution and small size of the screen made it hard to distinguish some units from the others, especially on first model GBAs, which didn't have backlit screens. Now that the sprites are of a higher resolution, and all DS models are equipped with clearer screens, that issue is no more. The dual screen aspect of the DS is also put to great use, with the top screen used to display all information about the current chapter, the map, and the selected terrain or units, keeping the bottom screen clear for all the action.

The sprites in battle, though, look significantly different. They now look like pre-rendered CG models, not unlike the technique used in Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG. The animation is ultra smooth. What I don't like, though, are the models themselves. This might be a very subjective opinion, but I think they look like plastic, and because the backgrounds do not use the same modeling technique they do not blend so well into the overall picture. I prefer the old lower resolution 2D sprites from the GBA, which had already amazingly fluid animations. The critical hit sequences are not as spectacular as their GBA counterparts, either.

Screenshot for Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Nintendo DS

On a similar note, I don't like the character art as much as I did on the GBA, and far less than the latest home console episodes. The tiny mugshots of the original Famicom version may even look better, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, they look good in this DS remake, but I am used to seeing better from the series. It's even more disappointing with the knowledge that the character illustrations were drawn by manga master Masamune Shirow, of Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell fame.

The music in this game is great. By now we're used to hearing tracks from older episodes reappearing in later Fire Emblems. Here, it's the reverse situation. We finally get to hear where some of our favorite Fire Emblem tracks came from in the first place. Music in the series has always made the adventure feel epic, and Shadow Dragon is no exception. Taking advantage of the DS sound chip, it sounds even better than the Game Boy Advance titles which, despite its poor sound quality in some games, already had great Fire Emblem soundtracks. The sound effects are better too.

Overall, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is good, but it lacks some of the things that make the latest Fire Emblem titles so great. Expecting it to be on the level as Wii's Radiant Dawn would be unreasonable, but I expected it to be at least on par with the Game Boy Advance titles. It does not match up to GBA efforts for reasons mentioned above, but some improvements - touch screen controls, use of the dual screen and the online modes - are awesome additions to the series.

Screenshot for Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Nintendo DS

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is another quality addition to the series, but it doesn't feel as good as the latest installments because it lacks refinements made to the formula. It also panders to newcomers too much, ditching one of the elements that make the series so enjoyable to its hardcore fans in the process: the difficulty. Some new elements feel forced into the game to make it feel fresh and more accessible. Despite any disappointments, it's still a true Fire Emblem, and it remains a very good experience overall. It's an absolute must-have for any hardcore fans of the series that want to dive into the origins of the saga and discover the story behind Super Smash Bros. star Marth.


Intelligent Systems







C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10 (31 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


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