Every so often, their comes a book or movie or video game or whatever that we enjoy beyond expectation. Every character, every plot thread, every tearjerking moment is so close to perfection that it practically glows. That’s why it is all the more disappointing when it sets up a ripe thematic thread – so ripe it’s ready to burst – only to end up shriveled in its lack of execution. The game Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is one of those works for me.
A remake of an older Japan-exclusive game and released in the US on May 19, 2017, Echoes was a title that I was intently anticipating since it was announced in January 2017, so much so that I pre-orded it (something that I have only done once before with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword six years ago). For the most part, it delivered: the characters were fleshed-out and engaging, the storyline was tight and well-executed, the voice acting was beyond reproach, the gameplay had a healthy mix of old and new mechanics, and the art design and cinematics were nothing less than beautiful. I can easily include this game among my all-time favorites and I fully intend to replay it someday. This is why I found one of its thematic shortcomings all the more blatant and troubling.
Echoes beautifully set up a theme of rising above one’s station to become the hero no one expected but who was desperately needed. It established a conflict where one of the protagonists, named Alm, must overcome the prejudices that existed among nobility and peasantry alike where a backwoods self-professed warrior could come together with the princess of a ruined kingdom to save the continent of Valentia from certain destruction. And it threw it all away for the sake of a somewhat clever plot twist, completely defeating the purpose of a significant portion of Alm’s struggle up until that point. Welcome to the second installment of Narrative Nuisance: the lost theme of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia.
A Brief History of the Fire Emblem Franchise
The Fire Emblem series, developed by Intelligent Systems (also known for the Advance Wars and Paper Mario series) and published by Nintendo (who need no introduction), has been a force in the tactical role-playing video game genre since its first title Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light released on the Famicom (the Japanese NES) in 1990. With its Medieval-esque fantasy setting and engaging turn-based strategy gameplay, the series managed to sell two million units in Japan among five titles between 1990 and 2002, making it one of the most popular games at the time. However, those of us outside of Japan were barely aware the series existed until 2001; two of the series main characters, Marth and Roy, were unlockable playable characters in the hugely successful Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Nintendo Gamecube. Since then, almost every single Fire Emblem title was released to the rest of the world enjoying modest success.
Like a majority of the western world, I was introduced to Fire Emblem after my brother and I unlocked the characters Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros Melee. I had no idea what game they were from or even what their characters were like, but I was immediately hooked by their design. For lack of a better word, they were just so… cool. Each them wielded what could only be assumed to be legendary swords, wore capes (which we all know increases the coolness measure by a factor of 100), and had intricately detailed armor with plenty of blues woven in (which is naturally the color of “protagonist”). I was hooked and I wanted to know more, which I finally had the opportunity to explore the series a few years later when my brother showed me the eighth game in the series (and the second released in the US), Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones. It had everything: swords, sorcery, cool anime protagonists, vile villains, dragons, and monsters galore. And it was all neatly packaged with tactical gameplay that pushed my adolescent strategic thinking to its limits.
The series has held a special place in my heart in the years since even though my interest in the games themselves waned. It was not until last year that I found renewed joy in that cherished franchise: I decided to buy a Nintendo 3DS and one of the newer entries, Fire Emblem Awakening, during the summer of 2016. I remembered what it was that I loved about the series and so much more: for once, I was intently engaged with the storyline. Soon, I found myself analyzing Awakening and, the ones that followed, on a narrative level.
The Story and Setting of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
A long time ago on the continent of Valentia, two sibling dragon gods, named Mila and Duma, fought each other for control over the continent and the people living on it. When both realized that neither could overcome the other, they called for a truce known as the “Divine Accord”, dividing the continent between them, Duma taking the north and Mila the south. Duma’s worshipers, living in the cold, harsh, unforgiving north became strong and hearty but dour, unswayed by emotion; they founded the kingdom of Rigel and prided themselves with their military might. Mila’s worshipers founded the kingdom of Zofia and, because of the goddess’s bounty, the land became one of plentiful contentment; however, the people became greedy and corrupt and complacent.
Centuries have passed since the two kingdoms’ beginnings and the uneasy truce has lasted, though tensions were rising. The king of Zofia, Lima IV, was childless, having lost both son and daughter in an accident, and did not have an heir to throne. His chancellor, Desaix, was a cruel and cunning man and he waited for the right moment to seize the kingdom himself. In Rigel, Emperor Rudolf I was a strong but stern ruler, admired by his subjects and feared by his enemies, but he too was childless and was set to be succeeded by his nephew, a promising commander named Berkut. The smallest provocation would be enough to push the entire continent to the brink.
Our story revolves around two childhood friends, Alm and Celica. They both grew up together in a small village under the care of a retired knight named Mycen, Alm’s grandfather, where they bonded over similar birthmarks they had on their hands, Alm on his left and Celica on her right, among other things. One fateful day, Alm, Celica, and their friends encountered a band of knights led by one named Slayde; as his name suggests, Slayde wasn’t a noble and honorable knight. He threatened the children with death or worse if they did not give he and his men food and shelter, reveling in his cruelty. Through timely intervention from Mycen, the knights were driven off; however, Slayde recognized something that was peculiarly familiar about Celica and he was unable to forget her distinct red hair and mark on her right hand. Mycen, knowing the danger Celica was now in, quickly had her taken away somewhere safer, not explaining to anyone why she had to go away. Alm, catching them before Celica left, promised to her that one day they would meet again.
Years later, when Alm was seventeen years old, another knight came to his village, this time looking to talk with Mycen, hoping to recruit him for a resistance movement called the Deliverance. The chancellor had taken over the kingdom and was plunging it into chaos, with Rigelian soldiers pouring in to assist the coup; the Deliverance, composed of knights and commoners alike who opposed Desaix, sought to restore order back to Zofia and liberate the kingdom from tyranny. Mycen flatly refused; as Lukas was about to leave the village, Alm offered to join in his grandfather’s stead. Alm’s friends join, as well, and the group makes their way to the Deliverance’s hideout.
After securing several victories over Desaix’s forces, the Deliverance’s leader, a knight named Clive, decided to turn over the leadership to Alm; because he was the grandson of Mycen, a well-liked knight and great general, Clive believed that the Deliverance would be able to better rally behind Alm than they would ever with Clive. This move was not without resistance; Clive’s right-hand man and friend, another knight named Fernand, opposed his companions decision, objecting to the prospect of being led by some low-born commoner. He believed Alm was inherently inferior, potentially treacherous, and ultimately disastrous to the Deliverance’s cause. Clive refused to back down, causing Fernand to leave the group as he was unable to stomach being led by a commoner. This loss stung Alm deeply but it reinforced his resolve to do right by the Deliverance and the whole of Zofia. Through Alm’s inspired leadership, the Deliverance managed to liberate the capital from Desaix; Alm was hailed as the kingdom’s hero, much to his surprise but Clive’s delight.
Miles away, we find Celica is a priestess of Mila in the priory of the island Novis; it’s here we discover, as an audience, that she is actually the princess of Zofia, presumed dead but spirited away by Mycen to be raised in secret. She was relocated to Novis after Slayde figured out that she was the missing princess and true heir to the throne. She and her retainers Bowie and Mae, concerned about the kingdom’s food shortage and barren lands, were given a task from the abbot: go to the Great Temple of Mila on the mainland and petition the goddess for her aid. After overthrowing pirate kings and having close run-ins with militant magical followers of Duma and beasts known as Necrodragons, they disembarked at Zofia capital, newly liberated by the Deliverance and their dashing hero-leader, Alm. Celica, knowing that this hero has to be her friend from years ago, immediately sought him out and found him on the balcony of the castle, both overjoyed to finally see each other again.
The two excitedly exchanged stories of their adventures, each shocked by what the other had experienced. Celica, however, questioned why Alm had to lead the Deliverance.
Celica: “But why do YOU have to lead this rebellion? Mycen’s grandson or no, you’re neither knight nor noble. So why make yourself a target like this?!”
Alm, visibly upset by that comment, responded: “Nrgh… If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was speaking to a blue blood. My station doesn’t matter, Celica. I’m here because I was called. I have a duty to perform, and I’ll perform it. No more, and no less.”
The conversation devolved after that: Alm blamed the late king Lima IV for all that had happened to which Celica, in anger, shouted at Alm that he should just be king if he thinks it’s such an easy job. Alm tried to recruit her to help find the missing princess, to which Celica proclaimed that the royal family was dead. With that, she left her childhood friend behind, bewildered and saddened by what had transpired.
This scene is nothing short of brilliant. We get a clear picture that even after all this time Alm and Celica are as close as ever and that they still deeply care for each other. We also see their own prejudices come out: Celica, subconsciously, believes that Alm can’t be the leader of the Deliverance because he is not of noble stock while Alm, in no uncertain terms, blames the whole situation on King Lima IV, Celica’s father unbeknownst to him. Celica doesn’t know or understand the discrimination and setbacks Alm has experienced because he is not noble; he has a chip on his shoulder from the barbed words of Fernand and others and desperately wants to prove himself worthy of the task given to him. Meanwhile, Alm has no clue what Celica has been through by being on the run, never able to see her family again or even be her true self, nor does he know the burdens of royalty. In other words, Alm, as a commoner, does not fully understand the responsibility placed on the nobility and royalty to lead and be pillars of society while Celica, a princess also raised in isolation as a priestess, can’t imagine the resentment that the nobility can hold toward the peasantry nor the discrimination meted out by them. In a scene, the game has set up a theme of two disparate elements coming together to also unite the continent they share, which has been divided itself by its own disparate elements: their irreconcilable and feuding sibling deities, Mila and Duma. Furthermore, the game reinforces this theme by having the player control their two armies separately with the assumption that they will join forces at the end in order to resolve the conflict. By a simple gameplay mechanic, Fire Emblem Echoes fulfilled the story narratively and thematically.
Too bad the they messed everything up with a plot twist. As a warning, spoilers for Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Proceed only if you have played the game or don’t care about spoilers in any way, shape, or form.
The Opportunity Missed
Alm and the Deliverance, after they killed Desaix and drove out Rigel from Zofia, invaded Rigel themselves with the intent of overthrowing Emperor Rudolf and the Duma Faithful, hopefully bringing peace to Valentia. Celica and her band, after they liberated the Temple of Mila from the Duma Faithful, discovered that the goddess had been kidnapped by Rudolf and his army; the land, without Mila, had fallen into greater disarray and so, with great resolve, Celica revealed herself to be the princess and devoted herself to rescuing Mila, crossing into Rigel with her army.
After countless victories, Alm and his army were poised to take Rigel Castle, the last bastion of the empire and where Rudolf intended to make his last stand. In a climactic battle, Alm faced down Rudolf and struck the emperor down, ending the battle in a single stroke. With his dying breaths, Rudolf’s voice became affectionate, telling Alm that he was proud of him. Alm, puzzled, demanded to know why. That’s when Rudolf finally told him the truth: that Alm was his son and heir and, moreover, he would ascend the throne as new emperor of Rigel. Not only was he a secret royal, but he and Celica were the “Children of Fate”, destined to put Mila and Duma to rest and restore Valentia.
This was the moment of disappointment for me. Not only was Alm a secret royal who would inherit the throne, he was also the chosen one with the other secret royal. All the previous development, with Alm having to prove himself worthy as leader of the Deliverance despite his commoner background, was thrown out the window. As I previously stated, the “rightful heir” trope suggests that their exists a moral superiority in those who are supposed to be the true king or queen; so, because Alm is now royalty, his efforts and leadership have been justified because he was destined to lead all along and any distrust and hatred felt toward him because of his status was all a misunderstanding.
Alm’s secret heritage was hinted at earlier in the game. After they stormed Desaix’s castle, one of Alm’s friends, Tobin, found a sword the chancellor had stolen from Zofia Castle. It was a gift from the Rigelian royal family to their Zofian counterpart; supposedly, only those of royal blood could lift it. Tobin tried to lift it but was unable to, stating it was the heaviest thing he ever tried to lift. Alm, however, picked it up with no effort whatsoever. They all dismissed that the story surrounding the sword must only be that, since Alm was clearly a commoner.
The sword could have been the perfect mechanic to illustrate that Alm’s “royalty”, so to speak, did not come from his blood but from his character and that was what allowed him to lift the sword. Throughout the game, Alm had proven himself to be a bright, optimistic, kind, and noble warrior, far exceeding his peers in his feats on and off the battlefield. He had proven himself, through his exploits, to be a great leader, worthy to be king and to stand with Celica as an equal, herself displaying similar acts of kindness and heroism. Their reunion, then, would be all the more powerful. Alm, a commoner from a tiny village, rose up with his friends and the Deliverance to liberate Zofia and the Empire; Celica, a runaway princess, confronting the Duma Faithful to put an end to the suffering experienced by the common people. Their roles were reversed, understanding each other’s burdens and plights. When they then come together to stand against Duma, their bond would be all the more powerful because they finally understood where the other was coming from when they had their argument on the balcony so long ago. They would be better able to forgive and to move forward uniting the whole of Valentia as the kind and just rulers the people, commoner and noble alike, finally deserved.
The Fire Emblem games, Shadows of Valentia in particular, have a lot of promise to explore these themes of noble vs commoner, perceived destiny and creating one’s own, what is believed to be exclusive rights and what is supposed to be the right for all; its pseudo-Medieval setting provides the perfect backdrop and contrast for these themes. Unfortunately, like many other Medieval fantasy stories, it finds itself constrained within the conventions established by a society that had disappeared centuries ago, perpetuating ideas and beliefs that have no bearing on the modern world. Our heritage, noble or no, does not determine our worth nor does it make one superior to the other. Instead, we inadvertently spread the notion that only those of noble or royal blood can truly be righteous enough to become the heroes and leaders we need.