Fire Emblem: Awakening
April 19, 2012 (JP)
February 4, 2013 (NA)
April 19, 2013 (EU)
April 20, 2013 (AU)
Fire Emblem has a history of being perhaps the least-approachable of all Nintendo’s franchises, with its sometimes-punishing difficulty, deep strategic gameplay, and unforgiving permanent death. With Awakening, the latest entry in the series, Intelligent Systems has tried to lower the barrier of entry while still satisfying the hardcore enthusiasts. The end product is quite possibly the best in the series and the best new title on 3DS.
Awakening tells the story of Chrom, the Prince of Ylisse and leader of a band of mercenaries called the Shepherds. When conflict erupts between Ylisse and rival nation Plegia, the entire world is threatened by an ancient evil. Convoluted plot twists, time traveling, and amnesiac characters abound – and while it’s a pretty typical and clichéd RPG plot, it’s the deepest one of any Fire Emblem game yet.
Besides, plot has always taken a back seat in these games – Fire Emblem is about deep tactical gameplay and forming bonds with your characters, and the cast of Awakening is one of the strongest yet. In addition to Chrom and your player-created Avatar (who serves as the game’s Tactician), Awakening features an impressive number of characters with distinct personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. Whether it be Frederick’s steadfast loyalty, Virion’s narcissism and womanizing ways, or Tharja’s deathly serious but still-hilarious threats to curse and hex every member of the party, every character has their own unique personality that will ensure you form close bonds to each and every one of them. Considering the massive size of the cast, that’s no small feat.
Which only makes it more crushing when you lose one of them. One of the defining features of the Fire Emblem series is perma-death – once one of your characters dies in battle, they’re gone for good. It’s one of the reason the series has never been known for approachability, so it’s no surprise that in an attempt to make the game appeal to more players, Intelligent Systems has included the option of Casual mode, which only sidelines your characters until the next chapter if they fall in battle. Fire Emblem veterans will scoff and go straight to Classic mode, but for novice players intimidated by the thought of losing their cherished units, Casual mode is a welcome addition.
To add even more depth to the characters and the strategic gameplay in Awakening, the game takes the support system from previous titles in the series and expands upon it by leaps and bounds. Beyond forming bonds with each other to get support conversations between battles and stat increases when next to each other in battle, characters may now marry opposite-gender characters and eventually recruit their offspring. The parents influence the stat growths and abilities of the children. Hardcore players will spend countless hours figuring out the best pairings and abilities to produce the strongest child characters, while those not as concerned with that can still get by with pairing whoever they want to each other. Even if you can’t or don’t want to marry two characters, it pays to build up as many supports as possible because placing two supported characters next to each other in battle grants stat and evasion boosts and the possibility of an additional attack or defense from an enemy attack. It adds new depth to both the plot and the gameplay, and it’s something that would be great to see return in future titles.
As if that wasn’t enough character-building, Awakening allows a huge range of class customization. With the use of a specific item, you can promote your characters to your choice of two more powerful classes – for example, a Mage can promote to a Sage for access to staffs and more magic power, or a Dark Knight, a mounted unit with access to swords in addition to magic. If you’re not happy with your character’s current class, you can even use an item to switch them to an entirely different class. That same Mage could become an Archer, a Thief, or even a Knight. Characters keep all the skills they learn as they level up and move through classes, so sending a character through various reclass paths before returning them to what you choose for your final class can yield impressive results.
The series’ strategic gameplay is on full display in the battles – charging blindly will only bring you pain…or, at least, a whole lot of restarting. Casual mode players catch another break in that they can save at anytime, but Classic mode continues the tradition of only allowing you to save between chapters (though you can suspend mid-battle). Each battle requires you to navigate various landscapes – from mountains to canyons to open fields – while being mindful of enemy units, defensive fortifications, movement impediments such as walls and forests, and more. A small but incredibly convenient new feature allows you view movement and attack ranges of all enemies on the field at all times, at the trigger of a button. It helps immensely in planning strategies, especially in a game where one misstep can cost you a fight.
Thankfully, it’s easy to level up if you find yourself having trouble in battles. Random mobs of Risen (the antagonistic zombie-like followers of the main antagonist) spawn throughout the map, and you can trigger a battle with them at any time to gain experience for weak characters. If you’ve cleared the map, you can use a readily-available item to spawn another mob (though said item is exorbitantly expensive in higher difficulties). In addition, the game makes use of SpotPass, allowing you to download new maps, battle characters from previous Fire Emblem games, and buy items (including high-level tomes), all of which can help you progress through the game.
StreetPass battles are a nice addition, allowing players to form a team of their best characters and transmit them to other players’ games for skirmishes and additional bonus units. Sadly, there is no online play, which seems like a huge oversight. It would be amazing to take your well-trained team online and have epic strategic battles with your friends, and hopefully we’ll see that in a future incarnation of the series.
Visually the game is one of the best on the 3DS. The 2D battlefields are augmented by the 3DS’s 3D feature to create a pop-up book effect, and the hand-drawn portraits for each character are gorgeous and expressively drawn. When a battle starts between two units, the action shifts into 3D, with some detailed (but oddly feet-less) showing off some impressive animation as they slash, stab, and cast magic at each other. Finally, the anime-styled CG cutscenes that appear at key points in the story would be gorgeous on a console, much less a handheld.
And the soundtrack is quite possibly the best of the series. It has everything – sweeping fanfares, ominous chanting, heart-wrenching melodies – and the music always fits the scene perfectly. When two units square off in battle, whatever is playing in the background swells to accompany the showdown. Likewise, when you lose a unit, the music shifts to a mournful tune. Voice acting is sparse, mostly limited to exclamations throughout text dialogue, but each character’s voice fits him or her perfectly.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best game in the series so far and the best original 3DS title to date. It has successfully lowered the barrier to entry and made the game approachable to all, while still retaining the hardcore strategy gameplay that series veterans will relish. There’s an insane amount of customization here, and the numerous gameplay additions have made the game an even more strategic experience. Awakening is a great entry point for newcomers to the series, and a game that every 3DS owner owes it to themselves to try.
Incredible cast of characters with likable personalities.
Insane customization opportunities.
Support/marriage system adds new strategic elements to the gameplay.
Much more approachable to newcomers while still retaining the challenge demanded by series veterans.
Gorgeous graphics and an incredible soundtrack.
Typical convoluted JRPG plot.
Limited voice acting.
Lack of online battles.