Fire Emblem: Awakening

You wouldn’t think it with how long it took to get localised here, but the Fire Emblem series is the grand-daddy of the tactical JRPG genre. It pre-dates every QUEST game out there, and even SEGA’s Shining Force franchise wasn’t around when Marth was first charging the fields of Archanea on the Famicom. Even so, Fire Emblem has built up a contingent of hardcore fans in the West, and it’s not surprising – its unique blend of character-driven story and rewarding combat is very satisfying.

The core of any Fire Emblem lies in a strong single-player campaign and things are no different here. Awakening follows a narrative that makes no apologies about adhering to Fire Emblem story tropes (so expect dragons, tyrannical kings, and maybe even an ancient relic or two), but it does so extremely well, even occasionally poking fun at itself and throwing in shades of The Terminator for good measure. Considering how much effort the game makes towards you caring about its characters, players are likely to be pretty invested when they reach the finale of the 30+ hour campaign.

It’s often very tough, but ultimately fair; if you make a mistake, it’s likely your fault.

Like previous Fire Emblem titles, the first ten chapters of this mode act as a mini-tutorial, easing newcomers into the specifics of battling. Here, players will learn how to move units across the battlefield grid, how the classic weapon triangle works (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords), why leveling up matters and how to promote classes. As you encounter new gameplay systems, non-intrusive pop-ups will remind players that they can seek more info from a handy built-in guide, keeping you in the action. Speaking of the base combat, it’s essentially a tight role-playing take on chess. It’s often very tough, but ultimately fair; if you make a mistake, it’s likely your fault, unless you get very unlucky with that pesky random number generator.

The map system, originally introduced to Western players in Sacred Stones, returns again here, though its implementation is a lot more thorough, and sensible. You can still tackle the linear campaign objectives by skipping paralogues and other events, but buffing your squad will make important battles easier. One neat addition has new enemies, and merchants spawn on the map by simply putting the 3DS into sleep mode or leaving the game for a couple of hours, ensuring that there’s something new for players every time they dive back in.

Players can now optionally engage the campaign in a “Casual” mode, allowing your units to go down in battle without losing them permanently.

One of the unique quirks of Fire Emblem has always been the way that it treats player units. Instead of a number of infinitely recruitable generic soldiers, units are individual characters with unique attributes, and back stories. When they die, unless they’re essential to the main story, they’re gone for good.

With a perma-death mechanic core to the gameplay, the series has earned a reputation as being a bit of an unforgiving franchise. But it’s here that Intelligent Systems have made some bold strides forward: players can now optionally engage the campaign in a “Casual” mode, allowing your units to go down in battle without losing them permanently. While it might ruffle the feathers of Fire Emblem purists, its inclusion can only benefit the series, and grow its audience, much like it did for last year’s more accessible rendition of XCOM. For series veterans, “Classic” mode is still available, and I would pair that with “Hard” difficulty if you want the traditional experience (which is how I played).

In prior Fire Emblem games, pairing up units was only used as an emergency measure to rescue weak characters, typically evoking more penalties than advantages. But in Awakening, it’s become a central and heavily-encouraged mechanic. At a base level, pairing units together provides a stat boost to hit and evasion, though this grows as they spend time together. Paired units may even attack in tandem, or defend each other from incoming blows.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going out of your way to ship your favourite archer with that newbie lancer.

The support system, which allows units to converse with each other outside of battle to develop friendships, has long been a part of Fire Emblem. However, only the most dedicated players would get units to spend enough time with each other to, say, fall in love.

With the new emphasis on pairing units and the growing benefits that strong relationships provide, marriage, and life-bonds are a far more tangible possibility this time. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself going out of your way to ship your favourite archer with that newbie lancer – some of the most charming and funny character dialogue from the wonderful localisation is hidden in support conversations.

Shortly after the campaign enters its main phase, the support system evolves to take on a new element. It’d be downright criminal of me to spoil, but let’s just say that it slots into the presented fiction perfectly, and allows further customisation of your character set.

Nintendo doesn’t exactly have the strongest reputation with backing online functionality, but they’ve done a sterling job here utilising all of the 3DS’ wireless tricks. StreetPass is here in force, allowing players to setup and exchange teams and earn an exclusive reward currency, “Renown”. But more impressively, over the last month of playing the game I’ve received weekly SpotPass updates with free goodies for the game, including bonus legacy teams (say hello to Lyndis from Fire Emblem 7!), co-op maps to run through with a buddy, legendary items to send the main campaign and much more. Paid DLC is also available at the “Outrealm Gate” (a map location that unlocks fairly early into proceedings) and I’m told that the content is good value for series fans, though by no means an integral part of the game.

Fans of Fire Emblem have been critical of its move away from 2D, but I’m pleased to say that Awakening is the closest that Intelligent Systems have come to matching the raw punch of their gorgeous GBA sprite-work. Though character models can be a little basic, their animations have a real heft to them that further enhances the thrill of a critical hit. The expected 3D-effect is surprisingly well-done, too, particularly when it comes to particle details. Special mention should be given to the CG cut-scenes. While they are few and far between, when they trigger it’s a treat for the eyes.

On the audio side of things, the symphonic melodies, though sometimes a little repetitive, suit the action and narrative well. There are few tracks here as memorable as the “Rise to the Challenge!” boss theme from Fire Emblem 7, for example, but what’s here is very solid. Intelligent Systems should also be given props for including a full Japanese dialogue track in addition to a competent English treatment.


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