I’ve played quite a few Fire Emblem games; two for the GBA, one for the GameCube and one for the DS, but I’d never completed one. I enjoyed them for a while, but then I’d hit a difficulty wall and give up; I’d generally got twenty or so hours out of the game and was ready to call it quits, but Fire Emblem: Awakening was the first that I followed through to the end. The simply reason is that this is the best in the series, possibly the best game for the Nintendo 3DS and one of the best strategy games which I’ve ever played.
Fire Emblem: Awakening opens as the Avatar, a figure who is named and designed by the player, wakes amnesiac in a field. He is found by Chrom, the prince of the Haildom of Ylisse, and several of his companion. Chrom head the ‘Shepherds’ an elite band of fighters charged with keeping the civilians of Ylisse safe. Incursions from the neighbouring land of Plegia draw Chrom and the Shepherds’ attentions, as well as the arrival of undead creatures known as the ‘Risen.’ Among all this a mysterious masked warrior arrives, claiming to be Marth, an ancient legendary Prince and a name familiar to long-time Fire Emblem fans, although most will know the name from Super Smash Bros.
The actual setting of Fire Emblem: Awakening is fairly generic, with a few ties in the wider mythology of the series providing some interest, but by and large there’s little in this Fire Emblem world which we haven’t seen before. I’d quite like to see a Fire Emblem game which gave a different kind of fantasy world a try, with the quaint medieval setting failing to offer anything which we haven’t seen before.
The actual plot isn’t necessarily particularly interesting either; it’s got a few enjoyable twists, but there’s little in the main narrative which we haven’t seen in other Fire Emblem games, or any fantasy game really. The real star of this game is in its massive cast of incredibly likeable and well developed characters. Whether it’s the clumsy Sumia, the sadistic Tharja, the goofy Owain or the terrifyingly creepy Henry, there are very few characters which fail to make at least some impression. These characters can be paired off and married to one another, and best of all even have children. Sure, I don’t want to lose Frederick because he’s a handy tank, but more importantly I don’t want to leave his wife to raise their child alone.
The true genius of Fire Emblem can best be summed up in the tale of a character by the name of Donnell. Donnell is recruitable in an optional side mission, and has the class of ‘Villager’, and is utterly and completely useless. Seriously, he’s a massive liability and keeping him alive is a constant struggle, but here’s the twist. Donnell has a special ability which means that he levels at a much better rate than other characters, so by the end he has gone from a painfully irritating waste of space to literally my most powerful unit. Seriously, Donnell was nigh indestructible and could take down almost any foe in one strike. This is a great example of building plot into the fundamental mechanics of the game itself, and Donnell’s character arc is one of the most satisfying which I’ve ever experienced in a game, all achieved through the actual gameplay itself.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn based strategy RPG, in which the player commands a small band of fighters against increasingly brutal foes. The series is best known for its ‘permadeath’ system; if you lose a character here, they’re gone forever. The game operates on a basic ‘rock/paper/scissors’ approach, with lances beating swords, swords beating axes and axes beating lances, as well as a few other twists, such as the colossal damage done by archers to flying foes. There are a fair few rules to always remember when you play, but if you keep these in mind the game is quite forgiving on lower difficulties. That’s not to say that the game is easy; this game can be very punishing, especially if you’re as bullish as I am on not losing any characters, but Awakening is certainly much more forgiving than its predecessors. The optional ‘Casual’ mode disables permadeath for the those who don’t fancy the stress (and I can’t say I blame them), but things have been improved for those of us who stuck with the more brutal ‘Classic’ mode. It’s much easier to access extra fights to level your characters than it was in previous games, where it was all too possible to find yourself underleveled in a tough fight with no way to rectify the situation. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a perfect example of how you can streamline a game, and make it more accessible, without dumbing it down.
The main addition to this game is the ability to pair your characters so that they may fight side by side. In previous games character could be paired, but this was very limited, and only for the sake of better transportation. Here, pairing characters boosts their stats as they fight, and the longer and more frequently characters are paired the greater their ‘Support Rank’ is, which is also how romances are determined. By the time characters reach the maximum support rank, S for opposite sex characters and A for same sex characters (no gay marriage here, which is a shame, but in Nintendo’s defence the children mechanic wouldn’t have quite worked otherwise) characters regularly block attacks to their partners or even strike alongside them. Working out which characters pair best together adds an extra layer of strategy to an already complex game, without making things convoluted.
There’s also plenty of game for your money here; there are 25 main missions, some of which can take up to an hour to complete, as well as an equal number of fully fledged out sidequests. Random roaming packs of bandits which can be fought add even more value to a game utterly bursting with content. If you’re interested in building the relationships between your characters, you’ll find plenty of entertaining conversations to reward you. Fire Emblem: Awakening requires you to give it a lot, but you’ll get a lot out of it too. This is the kind of game which gets into your head, and can be a devil to dislodge.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is comfortably the best looking Fire Emblem game to date, with the battles looking incredibly cool and the characters looking excellent in their 3D battle forms, their anime style conversation forms and their tactical icon forms. The battles deserve a lot of praise, and definitely feel much more dynamic than they did in previous Fire Emblem games. The music has its moments, the main theme is as sweeping and epic as ever, but it’s not particularly memorable. There are a handful of fully animated and voice acted cutscenes which look amazing, but there aren’t many of them, and I’d like to see more of these in future Fire Emblem releases. The game isn’t fully voice acted, with each character having only a handful of vocal snippets which are repeated over and over again in combat or support conversations. These aren’t nearly as annoying as they could have been, and the actual performances of these snippets are solid and likeable.
Fire Emblem: Awakening could have been the end for Fire Emblem, but likely instead represents a rebirth for one of Nintendo’s lesser known franchises. It’s subtle improvements on the formula of the earlier games take nothing away, adding accessibility without dumbing down, as well as an incredibly compelling and likeable cast of characters which makes Fire Emblem: Awakening such a special game. I wouldn’t be surprised if, due to the success of this game, we get another Fire Emblem game for the Nintendo 3DS soon, and I for one cannot wait.