I want to preface this review by saying this is the first Fire Emblem game I've played and completed in full since I beat Fire Emblem Awakening 3 and a half years ago. (I played a little bit of Echoes but only got a few hours in, and I got 60% through the Blue Lions route of Three Houses and dropped it because the game was just too ridiculously long and had a very tedious and overly drawn out gameplay loop).
I've played a good amount of the FE games up to now and consider myself a veteran of the series, and when I played this game, I thought it'd be just another standard FE experience (okay story, decent cast, and all right gameplay), and in some ways it is, but this game honestly surprised me in a number of ways I wasn't expecting. I think it's very underrated in the fanbase and deserves a lot more love, and I'll explain why.
First I'll start by discussing the story. I know the biggest point of contention with this game's story is the new story content, specifically the addition of the Avatar named Chris, along with Katarina and her subplot. I know most people go on about how Chris steals Marth and Jagen's thunder they had in the original narrative and think Katarina's subplot is just filler, but I want to echo some sentiments that Qlip (another reviewer on this site) said in regards to these criticisms.
A common example used to show Chris monopolizing Marth and Jagen's importance is during Chapter 3 when he challenges Lang's authority. This prompts Marth to apologize for his outburst, which shows that Chris doesn't dictate Marth's emotions, and that he's also as capable as a leader as ever, believing first in diplomacy and stepping up for what he believes in when things get too out of hand. Meanwhile, Jagen still challenges Lang, just like in the original game, causing him to flee from the scene.
The thing people fail to acknowledge is that Chris, while a main focus, does not steal the spotlight from Marth, this is still Marth's story and he leads the charge of his army to fight against the new threats plaguing Archanea. Chris is merely there to support him. This isn't like Awakening where Robin (the avatar) basically becomes the main character halfway through the story and steals a lot of spotlight from Chrom.
Another important point to consider is that, in the original Mystery of the Emblem, Marth gets a lot of Archanea's lore and history infodumped to him throughout the game, even though a lot of it is stuff he should already know as the ruler of the continent who had to study all this history for a nation he is going to rule, and would likely also want to know the story behind his ancestors and their reigns. It makes a lot more sense for Chris to be the one told these things given his rural upbringing in a secluded village by his grandfather who didn't teach him these things. Marth obviously doesn't know some things regarding the nature of the dragons and their goals, as well as Naga's and Medeus's plans, so he's still infodumped on these things in the cutscenes which makes sense. It also just makes sense for Chris to be getting more supports with the cast than Marth, given Marth is already well-acquainted with most of his army as of the previous game, while Chris is a new character who can learn a lot from these pre-established characters and see new sides to them that Marth would already know. In short, I disagree hard with people saying the Avatar is bad for the story, if anything I think his inclusion makes a lot of sense.
As for why I think Katarina's additions to the story also work really well thematically and narratively, I have to talk about New Mystery's story as a whole, which will include spoilers, so skip this section if you wish to avoid being spoiled.
To me, the main theme of this game is really about love in many forms; the sting of unrequited love, faked love via manipulation and abuse, friendship, romantic love, and unconditional/pure love in general. We see this many times throughout the game, such as Hardin being corrupted by his bitterness toward not having his love reciprocated by Princess Nyna, Marth and how much the bonds he makes with his friends pushes him forward and helps him become the beacon of light the world needs, Minerva and her struggle to reconnect with her brother Michalis, etc.
Katarina's subplot ties into the story very seamlessly, as she and Chris start off in the prologue of the story as knights in training who become very close friends along with the rest of the trainees, and we grow attached to them and their relationship. (The prologue in general captures a really nice calm before the storm buildup that helps flesh out and get us attached to the new characters at a solid pace that doesn't take too long but does enough to justify their place in the story.)
Sadly, at the end of the prologue, Katarina "reveals her true colors" as an assassin trying to kill Marth and betrays Chris, leaving the party. We learn throughout the rest of the game that she's been manipulated and raised as an assassin by a warped Bishop who is working for Gharnef, and was pushed onto the wrong side through no fault of her own. Even so, she still clings hard to this twisted love for her adopted sister and adopted mother because she doesn't want to be alone and has nothing else to live for, even though she knows deep down it's wrong, and it's hard to blame her. But of course, it's Chris's unconditional love and friendship with her that comes from a genuine place of caring that saves her, and gets her to come to the right side in the end. I teared up a little seeing her reunite with Chris, her main music theme called "Puppets Don't Cry" is really moving.
The last thing I'll say on the story front is that I love how the final map perfectly encapsulates the theme of love that New Mystery embodies so perfectly. The final map is a very difficult trek down a wide corridor filled with a literal army of dragons who are surrounding and protecting Medeus. The only real way to beat this map without letting anyone die is to have everyone fighting literally shoulder to shoulder to form a moving wall of soldiers, so they wall out the dragons and slowly advance toward Medeus as a turtle pack against what would normally seem like an insurmountable foe. When you reach Medeus, you find he's being protected by 4 Clerics, who are characters all close to the main leads of the story (Elise being Marth's sister and Merric's love interest, Lena being Julian's lover, Nyna being totally not Camus's love interest, and Maria being Minerva and Michalis's sister they want to save), except they're being brainwashed by Medeus into helping him and becoming sacrifices for his resurrection. Naturally, it's only through the characters closest to them reaching out to them and fighting tooth and nail to break them free from this brainwashing that saves them from their horrible fate, and gives Marth the opening he needs to slay Medeus once and for all. (Naturally I used the three focal characters of the story to defeat the final boss, I had Chris who I made a mage pincer Medeus with Starlight from the right side, Katarina pincer him from the left with Hellfire, and sent Marth in from the front to finish him off with Falchion.) Love literally saves the day, and I love how well the gameplay reinforces that theme.
On that note, I'd like to segue into how amazingly well crafted the gameplay is in this game compared to previous Fire Emblem entries I've played. I'll be comparing it a lot to Fire Emblem Awakening in particular, given this game is the direct prequel to it and shares a lot in common with it.
For reference, I played this game on Hard/Classic Mode, the usual norm I play each FE on for a first playthrough. The game is pretty challenging with a lot of strong units, but the game is well balanced in the sense that for however many difficult opponents you face, your own army is also very strong due to growth rates being buffed more in this game compared to previous Classic FE titles, but not to the point that it makes your units broken. This game in general is very good at introducing a lot of really nice QoL additions to classic Fire Emblem gameplay that make it more friendly to newcomers while leaving options for and maintaining the challenge that the series is known for.
One nice QoL feature added that this game carries over the Tellius duology's Bonus EXP system mechanic in the form of the Drill Grounds training, which makes you guaranteed to get stat level ups when you level up there. Another is the "How's Everyone" mechanic that updates after you leave the game for usually several hours to a day, which gives free EXP to your units and really good items such as better healing items and strong weapons to help even the odds. It's a good way to get an edge on the enemy, but not to the point where it breaks the difficulty of the game, as it's not abusable. You have to wait through real time to get some of these rewards, and even then, sometimes they're not great. As for the Drill Grounds, they cost a lot of gold to use to farm EXP, so if you're not careful using it, you'll have nothing left to use to actually stock your army up on supplies, so that's another good balancing factor. Compare this to Awakening, where you have DLC maps that let you infinitely grind for few money/EXP without any consequence to get as overpowered as you want, and it's clear where the balancing philosophy was directed when each game was made.
Another mechanic in modern FE that I think was used better here is the mid map save points feature, which was the predecessor to what would become the rewind feature in later games. The mid map save points are great for 2 reasons. One is since it lets you take a break if you need it during the long and difficult maps this game presents (some took me 1 to 2 hours) and lets you keep this save permanently unlike a suspend save in case you get screwed over by bad luck. I'm honestly surprised Awakening didn't have this feature given how geared toward newcomers it is. But the second reason why it's done well is because the save points are strategically placed by the developers and puts the balancing around this sort of "rewind/failsafe" mechanic more in their ballpark than the players. The rewimd mechanic, especially in Engage, is very abusable and can trivialize game difficulty by negating game overs and character death; you're encouraged to use it heavily in the games it's in as it's your most precious resource in a game series all about important resource management. However, with the map save points, not only do they let you take a break from the game if needed, but they're only mitigated to whatever spots the devs dictate to keep the game balanced and not make them broken like Engage's infinite rewind (and even then I'd say the save points placements are incredibly fair for the most part). I do think to balance the rewind mechanic in newer games, a system should be implemented that either makes the rewinds a resource you need to replenish manually for a cost if you overuse it, or give a reward to players who choose to use it less or not at all as incentive. Or heck, maybe even do both depending on how challenging you want the game to be!
Back on topic though, New Mystery also made me use a lot of creative strategies to clear its maps that I hadn't ever been pushed to use in other entries, such as using the Warp/Rescue staff to strategically provoke enemies into attack range or to collect key items, as well as having to think outside the box for recruiting a lot of units in more precarious situations to get them out alive.
As much as I do love this game though, it naturally has its flaws, like any game. The one real sticking point of this game (which most FE games have to some degree, though none as bad as this entry of the ones I've played) is how badly you NEED a guide when playing this game if you want to actually beat it without having a hard time/keeping everyone alive, and seeing all of the maps the game has to offer.
The main complaint I'm referring to here is that New Mystery is unneccesarily vague with how to collect the Zodiac Shards, which are key to getting the true ending of the game. It's weird considering the game's "Talk with Everyone" option gives you tons of hints on how to get most of the recruitable units in this game (very nice QoL feature by the way), but when it comes to the true ending, they don't say a lot. They at least address its importance in the plot, but for some reason the developers had the great idea of informing the player about their importance... only after you finish the chapter where you can easily miss a Zodiac Shard in a chest if you don't know it's there. Up until that chapter they're pretty easy to not miss given bosses drop them, but I don't know what they were thinking with placing it after the first easily missable shard, that just seems like bad/mean game design to me. There's also other stuff like how Starlight (a legendary magic tome that's the only thing that can kill Gharnef) and Falchion (the legendary sword that makes the fight against Medeus more doable due to how incredibly tough he is) are also easily missable and can make your run of the game much harder as a result, which makes a near flawless game fall a bit short for me. Luckily this is one of the only real issues the game actually has.
The other main critique I have regarding needing a guide to complete this game without getting frustrated are two main points:
1. This game has way too many fog of war maps if you do all the Gaiden Chapters, which aren't fun because they're just a ridiculous amount of trial and error unless you look up where the unit placements are ahead of time to avoid unneeded frustration.
2. This game has so many reinforcement triggers that it's not even funny. This is the first time I actually had to go out of my way to look up what causes and where the reinforcement triggers are located on the maps in order to plan my strategy around that gameplay-wise, since it was getting annoying dealing with nearly every single chapter in the game. I got through even Fire Emblem The Binding Blade (a game notorious for its difficult and annoying reinforcements) without having to look them up. Though then again, I was in my teens when I played it and more stubborn, so I likely just toughed it out and didn't think to look it up at the time. Side note, the guide I used to help me with map triggers and such was the FEWOD website (Fire Emblem War of Dragons), it's a really handy site for stuff like this that gives general strategies and helps you with formulating your own for every map in the series, I'd recommend it to anyone big FE fan!
Despite the QoL additions the game adds to make it friendly for newcomers, I will admit that it's not best for newcomers due to its challenge and need for a guide in order to complete the game without much frustration or missing out on important story content, Awakening is definitely better for newcomers in comparison. However, for veteran FE players, I think this game is perfect at finding the best of both worlds of classic and modern FE gameplay wise and would recommend it to any long time Fire Emblem player.
This last part is personal preference, but I feel that the classic more grounded style of Fire Emblem's storytelling/aesthetic that this game was the last to embody fits the series better as a war drama, rather than the more lighthearted/comedic and anime route that Awakening onwards went with. I really miss that style. Thankfully Intelligent Systems does still cater to us classic fans with their remakes, as Fire Emblem Echoes shows by maintaining that classic style and not remaking it to be more like the more modern style we see in recent FE mainlines.
Also, I have to say, the OST for this game is just stellar. It takes a lot of SNES music and fleshes it out for modern standards incredibly well, and the new music is nothing to scoff at either. The final boss theme, "Reign of Despair" is incredibly epic and blows the SNES version out of the water. It truly captures that feeling that everything is on the line, and that this is the last push to end this tragic war once and for all, which feels very satisfying after how harsh this trial has been on all of the main characters involved.
The last thing I want to touch on is that I disagree with people who say the sprites in this game look ugly. They don't have the same kind of charm and polish that the GBA games do I'll admit, but those games just went above and beyond in that department. The portrait sprites for this game still look solid enough, though I will admit that the previous game (Shadow Dragon's remake on DS) actually does have some legitimately ugly sprites, such as timeskip Marth's whose has scraggly looking hair and a weird block chin. Thankfully they fixed his design with his portrait sprite here.
I'm honestly saddened that Nintendo took more effort to translate the original version of FE1 (Marth's first game) over translating this wonderful remake. Then again, the fact the first game is so barebones writing wise and has much less text as a result was probably one big reason why upon closer inspection. I'm so incredibly grateful to Heroes of Shadow for translating this wonderful hidden gem of a game in a series I've loved for many years.
If anyone reading this ever plays the game for themselves, I hope you enjoy this entry as much as I did. It deserves far more love in the fandom and is much better than most people will make you think if you ask their opinion on it. This game was a fantastic note for Classic Fire Emblem's era to end on, and I wish we had more entries like it.