It's hard to call yourself an RPGamer without playing a single Fire Emblem game, but somehow I managed to sneak past the series for the majority of my life. That's why at Nintendo's Fall Press Conference, the one game I knew I had to get my hands on was Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Not only because I knew it's been one of the most talked about titles around RPGamer, but because I knew it would be the perfect introduction to an age-old series that I felt like I've been missing out on for quite some time.
Being a newcomer to the series (but not to tactical RPGs in general), I opted to spend an hour working through two of the four new introductory tutorial chapters exclusive to the DS game. For newbies like myself, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the tale of young Marth as he takes over his father's shattered kingdom and seeks to rebuild and bring justice back to his once proud people. While many know Marth from the Nintendo fighter Super Smash Bros Melee/Brawl, his story was first told over 15 years ago in the very first Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Ken. Much like Final Fantasy III, this game was never brought stateside, and has only been enjoyed by those lucky enough to speak Japanese or obtain a fan translation somewhere along the Internet, making Shadow Dragon America's first true introduction to the Fire Emblem series.
"Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is shaping up to be one of the strongest SRPG's of the first half of 2009."
Since it's both a rebirth and a revision of the series' first title, Intelligent Systems has gone out of their way to make this game accessible to both newcomers and veterans alike. I naturally chose the easiest setting, but Shadow Dragon features six different difficulty levels ranging from "beginner" to "merciless"; ensuring that there will be a play mode that is perfect for everyone.
My tutorial began with young Marth receiving the news of his father's betrayal as enemy forces closed in upon Marth's once peaceful castle. The majority of the story, fight scenes, and character data all took place on the DS's top screen, while the map navigation and decision-making took place on the bottom touch screen. The first thing I noticed was that Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon can be played entirely by the touch screen or with the D-pad and buttons, or with both if you so choose. The shoulder buttons toggle between the members of your party, and characters with multiple weapons could easily switch between them with a single tap of the stylus, allowing you to quickly modify party members on the fly to inflict as much damage as possible.
After making my way outside the castle, I was able to stop off at forts and villagers' houses to obtain supplies and get a little backstory on the happenings in Marth's world. I slowly battled my way across the map and defeated the general standing atop a yellow space, signaling the end of my second chapter. Even though I only had a relatively short period of time with the game, I could tell that the translation was great and the story looked to be surprisingly deep considering the game's archaic inspiration. The touch screen controls worked great for navigating menus and selecting squads, and the battles moved along at a very brisk pace (an obvious plus for a game where 90% of your time will be spent in and out of battles).
Many of the series hallmarks I had heard about were still in tact in Shadow Dragon, including the perma-death of party members, the rock-paper-scissors damage system with the three weapon types (sword, axe, and lance), and the quick auto-fight battle system. Also available in the DS version are quick saves that suspend your game on the fly and mid-chapter save points that allow you to save your progress within a chapter in case things go awry before the end of a chapter.
Even as a newbie to the series, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon left a very positive impression on me. While other series seem to focus on making "more hardcore for the hardcore", Shadow Dragon actually took the time to hold my hand a little bit and ease me into the series. I watched a few veteran players play through some of the later battles, and it's obvious to me that the game will still please those out there looking for a steep challenge. With Wi-Fi battles, online item trading and purchasing, and over 30 total chapters to play through, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is shaping up to be one of the strongest SRPG's of the first half of 2009. Here are the latest screenshots from the press event.