|System: DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Intelligent Sys.||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Nintendo||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Feb. 17, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-2||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
With the release of two unique Advance Wars titles, several Age of Empires games, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, and numerous other similar efforts, handheld strategy gamers haven't had too much to complain about. However, they've been clamoring for one franchise in particular to finally make its way to the DS. Indeed, an entry in the Fire Emblem series on Nintendo's dual-screen portable has been long overdue. Now that the excruciating wait for Fire Emblem fans is over, rest assured that your patience has paid off.
It's undeniable that a completely new Fire Emblem game for the series' DS debut would have been ideal, but a totally overhauled remake of the very first Famicom title that kicked off the immensely popular strategy RPG series in Japan is the next best thing. As you might expect from an update on the game that started it all, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon doesn't reinvent the formula that fans have grown to love. Instead, it hones the gameplay to a fine point. It seems Intelligent Systems made its focus on Shadow Dragon all about refining and improving the core Fire Emblem experience, and that's a good thing.
Super Smash Bros. addicts who've been wondering about Marth finally get the chance to dig a bit deeper into his back story. The epic plot picks up as the Archanean kingdom falls under attack by malevolent invaders following the resurrection of Medeus, a dark dragon slain a century prior by a hero wielding the sacred falchion sword. When the Archanean king (a descendant of the original sword wielding hero) is slain in the assault, his son Marth is the last person in the royal bloodline capable of wielding the mystical sword to re-slay the shadow dragon. The young prince is forced to flee his kingdom for a short time in order to bolster his forces. Shadow Dragon's story follows Marth as he assembles a band of trustworthy warriors to retake the kingdom, slay the dark forces at work behind-the-scenes, and eventually return peace to the land. The tale may not pack quite as much of a punch as the stories found in later entries in the series, but it's held up amazingly well over time and is definitely engaging enough to hold most folks' attention.
Much like some of the other titles mentioned above, Shadow Dragon is a fantasy turn-based strategy game with substantive RPG elements. In each chapter, Marth and his small fluctuating army will do battle with all manner of foes across expansive, grid-based maps. During your turn, you can move each character on the map a set distance, trade items, attack foes within range, heal, and engage in other actions, before giving the enemy a shot. Individual units gain experience in battle and level up, making them more powerful and allowing use of better weapons. New units can also be recruited from among the enemy ranks along the way at regular intervals to make up for the inevitably painful loss of characters. Between missions, you can survey the upcoming battlefield and equip and manage your troops. A few newer features let you change the classes of some units, purchase basic gear, and make other strategic preparations.
In battle, each combatant is given the opportunity to deliver damage. Rather than just bashing away at any enemy with anything handy, the weapon and magic battle systems are ruled by a rock-scissors-paper relationship that allows for greater strategy in planning your offensive and defensive tactics. Axes, for example, are extremely effective against lances, swords will clobber axes on most occasions, and lances are strong against swords. Other unit-specific factors also come into play. Anyone who's already played past Fire Emblem games will find little has changed with the core gameplay and mechanics, but numerous subtle changes make Shadow Dragon far more accessible than the GBA titles.
The addition of stylus controls is one of the better improvements. They don't feel tacked on at all, and everything from moving units, navigating small inventory menus, and attacking is all very smoothly implemented. Everything can also be done just as easily with the standard D-Pad and button presses. Other small touches - like being able to easily tap a single button just before attacking to quickly cycle back and forth between the impact using different weapons in a units inventory - are simply wonderful.
Having a second screen makes processing all the voluminous amounts of unit information and map layout so much easier. The R button lets you cycle between an individual unit's portrait and critical stats and mini-readout. This keeps the touch screen from getting too cluttered, and you won't have to give up your view of the battlefield to get a closer look at important stats. Visually, Shadow Dragon has a somber appearance that's more akin to the Game Cube and Wii Fire Emblem titles than the GBA games. The small unit sprites are nicely cel-shaded, reasonably detailed, and are quite animated. The graphics certainly don't push the DS hardware particularly hard, but they're a marked improvement over past handheld titles in the series.