In terms of RPGs, Fire Emblem is generally recognized as one of the most solid series in the genre. While the franchise has generally relied on largely the same, unchanged gameplay with each new release, fans have stuck with the series due it’s addictive nature and deep story and character development. Shadow Dragon, a remake of the first Fire Emblem game and the first title in the series to make its way to the DS, benefits from a slew of new additions that help to streamline the gameplay experience, but suffers from a number of baffling design choices that render this remake one of the weakest in the series.
Unlike the deep and enjoyable stories of more recent Fire Emblem games, Shadow Dragon’s is about as generic as they come. The plot is a veritable checklist of RPG cliches: Determined prince? Check. Evil tyrant? Check. Dragon? Check. In a nutshell, it follows the quest of Prince Marth to retake his country and defeat the titular dragon. While other Fire Emblem games have managed to do a lot with formulaic plots, Shadow Dragon does very little. The story is a word-for-word remake of the original game. As such, the game does nothing to make players grow attached to the characters. The support system of other Fire Emblem games is sadly absent from this one. On one level it could be argued that the developers were merely trying to replicate the original experience, but on another, it comes off as very lazy. The developers redid the visuals and added in a number of new gameplay features but decided to leave out one of the most beloved mechanics that has, in the eyes of many fans, come to define the series. If the time had been taken to develop a support system for Shadow Dragon, that by itself would have done wonders to make the characters a little more personable. As it stands the majority of them, right up to the most central figures in the game, are little more than flat caricatures who feel markedly disposable.
If this were the only problem with Shadow Dragon, it might have been somewhat excusable, but it’s not. The first and most noticeable is the lack of the rescue command. While it certainly isn’t a necessity, and on one level makes the game more challenging, it’s a feature that has been standard in the series since the GBA games first made their way to our shores and its absence, again, strikes me as lazy. It might not have been there in the first game, but there is no reason a modern remake of the game shouldn’t include it. Worse than this is the subtle way in which the weapon triangle system seems not to work in the slightest. Again this is something that wasn’t present in the original, but seems to have been included to some extent in the remake. Go into battle with a swordsman against an axe fighter and the game will display your weapon as having the advantage. Unfortunately, it rarely seems to work that way. More often than not, your weapon doesn’t matter in the slightest. Axes work just fine tackling swords, swords have no problem cutting down lances, and lances are hardly trumped by axes. This ends up voiding much of the strategy that has made the series so special, and brings everything down to the level of brute force.
Surprisingly, other elements of the game are weakened by additions, as well as omissions. The new reclass feature, which allows characters to change their classes between battles, works to further wreck the things that have made the Fire Emblem games unique. One of the greatest strengths of the Fire Emblem experience has been its consistent use of the permadeath. If you let a character die, they’re gone for good. It makes every move more risky, and forces the player to value the members of their army as more than just cannon fodder. The reclass feature minimizes this experience, removing the uniqueness of individual units so that they can simply be replaced if you screw up. Moreover, the game doesn’t leave you short of troops, either. Within the first few chapters you’ll have amassed around twenty units, and even after that, fresh recruits show up at pretty regular intervals.
Other minor complaints can be filed. Arenas, where players can have their characters fight for money and experience, are rendered pretty useless. Previous titles that included them tended to make a point of matching up appropriate classes and level so that things would be even enough for your characters to stand a chance. Shadow Dragon’s version seems much more random. You’ll sometimes meet equal sparring partners, but often enough you’ll be put against an opponent who is way out your league. One can easily retreat from such battles if necessary, but in doing so you forfeit a portion of the gold you need to supply your army. If you’re only winning a third of the fights you enter, your resources dry up quickly.
For the flaws inherent in its gameplay, Shadow Dragon is still a challenging and entertaining game. The normal difficulty level might be a bit too easy for veteran fans, but the game gives you the option to start on one of the harder settings if you like. Playing on one of those difficulties, the enemy AI becomes an aggressive juggernaut that pursues you relentlessly, exploiting your weaknesses and mistakes without mercy. On this note, Shadow Dragon stays true to the hardcore nature of its sibling titles. There aren’t any battles you can breeze through, and if you’re foolish enough to leave a vulnerable unit exposed to the enemy they never fail to gang up on them. Still, it is addictive and fun.
The best thing that Shadow Dragon accomplishes is the way that it streamlines elements of the genre that have been cumbersome for years. Shadow Dragon manages to strike a fine balance between the save-less battles of the older games and the battle save mechanic that was included in the recent Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. Rather than allowing you to save at any time as that game did, Shadow Dragon places two save points on each map that the player can use to save their position. Each point can only be used once and disappears afterward. This balanced take on saving helps you to avoid having to restart a map after an hour of play, but also forces you to ration what you do. Better yet, the game streamlines combat so that you can skip the enemy’s turn or jump to the end of the battle with the click of a button. It’s nice to be able to skip things you often don’t need to waste time watching.
The biggest addition to the game is wireless play. With a Wi-Fi connection, the player can battle against a human opponent using five characters from their single-player campaign. If there is a level disparity, the player can borrow units from a friend to fight with. All in all, it’s a well-realized feature, that, like online multiplayer tends to do, enhances the value of the game. The fun of wireless play, however, doesn’t do enough to make up for the problems with the single player campaign. It’s a feature that should show up in future games, but it can’t replace what isn’t there.
The Fire Emblem games have never looked particularly pretty, so the visuals of Shadow Dragon are a pleasant surprise. Looking at the series as a whole, I can easily call this offering the best-looking game of the entire bunch. The game is full of lush, if simple, detail. Maps are gorgeously illustrated, and the tiny sprites that represent your units are much more detailed than the blocky ones of the GBA era. If there is one area of possible contention, it is the battle animations. While the visuals of the game have been improved overall, the character models might irk some for their departure from the cartoon style of the GBA games. The character models are more colorful, and partially 3D, but they are also smaller and lack any semblance of facial expression. It may all come down to personal preference, but there’s no reason the character models couldn’t be a bit bigger.
In terms of audio, Shadow Dragon is relatively unremarkable. The music and sound effects do the job, but they are generally little more than just ambiance. They build the atmosphere, but it’s nothing you’re going to max out your volume to listen to. Honestly, I eventually turned the sound off so I could hear the TV while I played. That doesn’t make it bad, but the game obviously didn’t have the benefit of the kind of score you might find in a Final Fantasy game or something similar.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon was easily one of my most anticipated games for the near future, so it pains me some to say that while it does some new things and makes a few improvements, it is a step back for the series in terms of quality, overall. The developers made changes in places that didn’t need them as much as others, and some of the changes they made weren’t exactly good. Fans of the series will likely find some enjoyment in Shadow Dragon, but overall it is probably the weakest in the series to escape Japan. It is fun, and certainly isn’t the worst SRPG available for the DS, but there are better. Overall, if you’re looking for an entry point to the series, you’d be better off tracking down one of the older GBA, Gamecube, or Wii releases.