Fire Emblem Awakening is the latest in the Nintendo developed, character driven strategy RPG. It also happens to be the best entry into an already excellent series.
Fire Emblem has always been a bit of a niche gaming series, mostly due to its uncompromising difficulty and character permadeath. After spending 20 hours leveling and growing attached to a character, one false move could lead you to losing one of your greatest assets. While I’ve personally always enjoyed the games, it’s never really hit it big and certainly has never been a huge series for Nintendo here in North America. In fact, the reason they originally even decided to bring the series to the US was fans response to the Marth and Roy characters in Super Smash Brothers Melee. Prior releases have always been regulated to the word of mouth and smaller ads in gaming magazines. With Awakening the series takes one giant step into the spotlight, in what I predict will make gaming fans everywhere pay attention and not just the hardcore min/max SRPG crowd.
Permadeath can certainly add a level of tenseness and personal danger to combat that you don’t get in SRPG games where you can just pop your character back to life in the next battle. However, it isn’t for everyone and can be highly discouraging to even the most hardcore player. Sometimes an unlucky critical or the smallest of wrong moves in the later battles can have you replaying over an hour of carefully made tactical decisions. For people who may not have the most time in the world, or those who have always been intimidated by the series, I got good news for you. Intelligent Systems has added a casual mode this go around that turns off permadeath for your characters. They could have done this by just making it easy mode, but understand that some people just want the challenge without losing hours of gameplay. So not only can you pick your difficulty level, but you can also choose whether to play with permadeath letting you dictate the terms of your play.
What’s so great about this is that it lets even newer gamers to the strategy RPG genre be able to ease into the series and simply enjoy the story if they want, while simultaneously giving the more hardcore players the chance to play the most difficult Fire Emblem that they remember. Even with permadeath turned off on the harder difficulties you will need to bring your absolute A game, so don’t think this is a play for the kiddie crowd. However, it does open up the series in a genuinely encouraging way that opens arms to thousands of new gamers who have never tried it before. Essentially it lets Fire Emblem take a big step forward in terms of accessibility, without sacrificing it’s hardcore cred.
For those unfamiliar with Fire Emblem (and I hope there are a lot of new players to the series) the stories usually are more political in nature invoking a sort of Game of Thrones feel to the whole affair. The stories are usually really well done, with Awakening being no exception, from the first person perspective opening to the fantastic ending. You’ll actually control your own character that Chrom, Prince of the Halidom of Ylisse, finds unconscious in a field with no recollection of who you are exactly (you have amnesia like all good heroes).
You’ll create your character at the outset with a choice of gender and a few different choices of hair style, face type and size. In addition you’ll choose your strengths and faults stat wise which leads to bonuses or penalties to whatever you choose. However, you won’t choose class at the outset as everybody defaults to the Tactician class. Never fear though, as you level you’ll gain access to every class in the game beside the plot and character specific ones and you can build your avatar as you see fit.
For the uninitiated, strategy RPG’s retain the story that is so prevalent in the standard RPG while stripping the extra dungeons and running about overhead maps and gets straight to the battle. At the outset of each you’ll arm your characters, pick which ones complement the map and your strategies, and deploy them to the battle. You and your enemy will take turns moving and taking place in combat with a paper/rock/scissors element to it. Basically sword beats ax, which beats lance, which beats sword, while magic will wipe out armored characters and can be leveraged against elemental weaknesses some characters have. Archers naturally do better against flying targets and will take them down in an instance.
You’ll encounter these weapons through chests on the map or more likely rewards from combat. Equipping your character with the right weapons and coordinating their attacks to best leverage their strength and keep them alive is part of the thrill of the strategy genre. Min/max RPG players will be in heaven as there is a number of stats within weapons, characters themselves, and enemies to revel in while standard players can still have a strong grasp of tactics and a mastery of the field, if not perhaps the strongest character ever.
The characters themselves are really the star of the show, more so than even in previous Fire Emblems. You’ll find yourself growing attached to certain characters at the outset of course, but you’ll quickly have a hard time finding your favorite as each new character adds something and there seems to be a type of character to appeal to everybody here. You have the noble and courageous Chrom, the arrogant but likable Vaike, and deadly assassins who simply dig candy. Within the battles themselves you can pair up characters to add stat boosts to the active character which you can switch back and forth who is actually battling. The backup fighter will then always be near the chosen character and will sometimes defend the player from an attack or add extra firepower to wipe an enemy unit out. You can get these same effects from simply fighting side to side or back to back with other units and every time you do you’ll find yourself building support levels with characters.
These support levels lead to conversations between the characters that are absolutely entertaining, touching, and legitimately funny. The conversations might not seem like much, but they give every character a real sense of personality and make them feel more like real people then cardboard cut outs you send out to die. Especially when playing in permadeath, it makes every battle more tense because you simply like the people you are playing with. You can min/max and try to get the most out of your stats sure, but I highly recommend just playing with the characters you find interesting as it makes the game utterly tense and enjoyable. In the end I felt more bonded with these characters then I have in long epic RPG’s that I’ve spent dozens more hours on.
The endearing character traits aren’t the only reasons you want to build support though. Male and female fighters can build to the highest S support level and upon doing so will marry each other. S Level support characters are utterly devastating on the battle field with extra stats given to each other and combined can be unstoppable. The real treasure here though, and a reason you will want to marry off everyone you can, is each pairing of eligible characters will result in a child that you can actually recruit to do battle with you. Each of the children will adopt traits of the mother and father enabling them to have different classes available, different stats and stat growth, and best of all different skills; some of which aren’t available via any other normal means. It may sound odd at first, I myself wondered if I would have toddlers fighting bad guys, but indeed the troops you get are in their teens and capable warriors (don’t worry it’s explained and explained well).
Awakening has another hidden strength in its ability to let you utterly customize your experience: beyond just your marriages, children and character created avatar. Battle animations can be turned off for a minimalist approach, text can sped up or skipped altogether, watching enemie’s turns can be skipped, and there is an accompanying toggle for just about everything else you could want. Inventory in the game could have been extremely difficult with all the characters, and though it occasionally does take some juggling to get the best out of your warriors, the game has some great options for managing it all. You can automatically store every characters inventory if you don’t want to sort through them individually, make the system optimize characters inventory if you don’t want to fuss with it, and even top off your spell books or weapons (since they all have limited uses and will break eventually). It’s really common sense stuff that just makes the game easier to play basically removing obstacles to your fun.
As if an epic quest, gripping strategic battles, marriages and offspring, custom avatars and endearing characters wasn’t enough Fire Emblem Awakening has even more to offer through its Street Pass, Spot Pass, and DLC offerings. Street Pass lets you round up a gang of your favorite characters and led by your avatar sent out into passing gamers systems. People receiving your group can buy items from them, chat with them, recruit them or test their mettle in battle against your group. Upon winning you can even recruit other’s avatars as one of your 20 bonus characters and free of charge to boot. Of course you could just pay for that privilege, but why take the easy way out?
Spot Pass lets Nintendo set you up with goodies in the form of extra maps, items and characters. There are a ton of included characters from past Fire Emblem’s and it’s a real treat to fans to be able battle and recruit the leaders of these bonus parties. You can also buy and earn their unique weapons that they battled with in past games and they tend to be powerful in their own right giving you a leg up in combat. On top of that are DLC packs (the first being free till March 6th) that introduce the most legendary of the characters like Roy and Marth from Smash Brothers fame. Further DLC can be purchased and will include not only bonus characters but new original characters with exclusive items and characters. All of these battles builds your online reputation which is basically your cred. Going up against a fellow Fire Emblem player you can instantly shake in your boots when you see a high number.
Fire Emblem Awakening is overall a pretty game with great character design and fantastic cut scenes that look like moving manga scenes. Graphics are well done if limited by the 3DS slight lack of graphical power. What’s here is more than serviceable, but it bears mentioning. The 3D actually adds quite a bit to the experience in my opinion, allowing the characters to pop from the backgrounds and giving a sense of depth to the battlefield. Sound is well done and while you might not find yourself humming the music, it certainly serves its purpose with some epic sweeping tunes in the mix. Battle sounds are satisfying and the different effects have good oomph that goes along with the well done animations. I do have one nitpick thing that bothers me, though I understand it’s a design decision. WHERE ARE ALL OF MY GUY’S AND GAL’S FEET?!? Seriously every characters feet end in little nubs even though the character art shows them with feet (albeit small ones). It can be a distracting, if small thing, but it’s certainly worth noting. There is of course a certain amount of grinding here, but it never really feels excessive. Because of the attractive class changes available through leveling up, the support conversations and the myriad of other small rewards the system is really good at doling out, you never quite feel like it’s a chore.
The hardest thing about playing Fire Emblem Awakening was trying to find something bad to say about it. There is just tons of high quality content that is easy to access and allows even the most timid among us gamers to experience the great gaming series. Polish is abundant in everything within the game with attention being paid to the smallest of things like being able to customize your menus and manage your inventory without headache. Even without the extra Spot Pass and Street Pass features and DLC this is an utterly complete package and the aforementioned features just serve to add a feel of community to what has always been an isolated single player experience.
Succinctly put this game is a system seller and if you only ever played this and maybe one other game on the 3DS it would be worth a purchase. If you have even the slightest interest in this series and have always been hesitant to play now is the chance to jump in with the best in the series and experience one of the finest games in the Nintendo 3DS’ growing library. Join me in the world of Fire Emblem; you won’t regret it.