The next Fire Emblem game represents a step forward for the long-running strategy series, while ironically being a blast from the past. The upcoming Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is the first in the series to appear on the Nintendo DS; the game itself is actually a remake of the very first Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi, released way back in 1990 on the Famicom in Japan. Naturally, the translation to the DS has brought with it more than a few improvements, graphically and otherwise, but at its core, Shadow Dragon is still a Fire Emblem game, which is a very good thing.
An intricate storyline full of medieval intrigue and backstabbing is at the heart of Shadow Dragon, beginning with the hero Marth, prince of the kingdom of Altea. As the game's five-part (!) prologue unfolds, Altea is overrun by invaders--its king lies dead on the field of battle, and Marth is sent out of the kingdom to preserve the royal bloodline and, presumably, right the wrongs beset upon him by his enemies.
The game's dense plotline and big cast of characters should please fans who enjoy that kind thing; for our purposes, we were more interested in hopping into battle and testing out the always-entertaining Fire Emblem formula. You start out with a small band of warriors--essentially Marth and a few trusted lieutenants, including Jagen, a heroic paladin who is considerably more powerful than the rank-and-file soldiers you command. Characters have a set number of tiles they can move on a map, with soldiers on horseback able to move farther than those on foot.
The turn-based combat is resolved based on a number of different factors: the class and level of both combatants, the weapons they're wielding, and more. Melee attacks, for example, can be executed only when you're standing next to an enemy. On the other hand, ranged attacks from archers and soldiers with javelins can happen from several squares away.
It's in learning your soldiers' individual strengths and weaknesses that the tactical aspects of Fire Emblem come to life and the game's addictive nature is revealed. The game's translation to the DS brings with it some advantages that weren't found in the original game. For instance, while the action takes place on the lower screen (and is controlled with either the stylus and touch screen or with the buttons), the upper screen serves as a handy information dump, where you can access important statistics about the members of your party, what weapons they are carrying, and more. In a game like Fire Emblem, where a single wrong move can lead to disastrous results for your party, having that kind of information handy is invaluable.
Even with all of the data at hand, however, you're going to have to make sacrifices. Anyone who has played a Fire Emblem game knows the pain of losing a party member--especially one you've spent weeks or months leveling--in battle. Shadow Dragon won't be an exception to this rule, however--in fact, early on in the game, you're actually forced to choose one of your trusted lieutenants to pose as a decoy so Prince Marth can escape his enemies, essentially dooming the lieutenant in the process. And, as any Fire Emblem fan will tell you, in this game, death is permanent. As the game implies, sacrifice is often essential to victory.
As you progress through the game, you'll add new members to your party--some of whom have specific abilities. In the early going, you'll add an archer, a Pegasus-riding warrior, and a cleric of sorts who wields a healing staff. As you make your way through the levels, you'll also encounter friendly villagers who will offer wisdom and sometimes new weapons or cash you can use at vendors to replenish your stockpiles. Weapons (and magical items) wear out over time, so sooner or later you'll need to visit a store (or call on your caravan) to load up on new items or replace your inferior equipment with upgraded weaponry.
With the game released last summer in Japan and just before year's end in Europe, it's high time that Shadow Dragon is released in the U.S. next month. We're most curious to see how the game's wireless multiplayer (both local and via the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection by the looks of it) will work, as that should give an already deep game even more replay value. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is due for release on February 16.