Developer: Intelligent Systems / Publisher: Nintendo / Played On: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Teen [Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes]
With a story involving ancient dragons, a land divided by turmoil and different rulers, and a character suffering from amnesia, one might think Fire Emblem: Awakening is a run-of-the-mill tactical RPG. But looking at the game in such a way only scratches the surface of what Fire Emblem: Awakening has to offer: a huge cast of varied characters, approachable yet deep gameplay, and cutscenes that are more stunning than some console games.
All is well for Chrom, the passionate prince of Ylisse with a warrior’s heart, until one day he and his sister stumble upon a collapsed man in the middle of the road, who just so happens to be the avatar created by the player. The siblings help the man up to his feet only to discover he has no recollection of any events prior to his meeting with Chrom. Before they can dig out more details on the player’s amnesia, word comes that the neighboring peaceful nation of Plegia has attacked The Ylissean forces. Chrom and crew dash towards battle to protect their kingdom as well as their lives. The situation goes from bad to worse as it is learned that an ancient dragon that once brought mass destruction to the world is threatening to return.
To the seasoned gamer the story is very predictable, yet somehow the characters themselves are oblivious to the malicious deeds committed around them. The story is largely enjoyable, but it’s hard to escape the “been there, done that” feel of the overarching narrative. Helping to relieve this feeling is the interactions between the game’s many playable characters.
As you use characters in battle, you unlock special conversations that go deeper into a character’s back-story, explain why they prefer bows over swords, and even dig up some romance between two party members. These additional morsels of story are both entertaining and worthwhile, and unlocking them actually has benefits to gameplay. Though it can’t make up entirely for the main story’s occasional blunders, the dynamics between characters gives the story a much appreciated layer of depth.
The Fire Emblem series of tactical strategy games will seem very familiar to fans of the genre: you command a team of units on a battlefield outlined by gridlines trying to move and attack your opponent until only your units remain. Certain units have advantages over others; for example the nimble Pegasus Knights can fly all over the battlefield but fall very quickly to the hands of a bowman. This rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay requires you to pick a balanced team before each chapter in order to prevail victorious.
Outfitting your units with the best weaponry and items also plays a key role in winning. The difference between an iron sword and a steel sword is not only quality of blade but also how many attacks each unit can initiate before each skirmish ends. If all of that is too much for you, there’s an ‘optimize’ option to give each character the best possible equipment before a battle, as well as an auto-play feature that lets the computer play out each battle for you.
What sets Fire Emblem apart from other games is the role relationships and positioning play in battle. When beginning an encounter, two units that are positioned next to each other on the battlefield will boost each other’s stats. To give you an idea of how this works, it’s very beneficial to have a bowman behind a Paladin so when the Paladin attacks or gets attacked, the bowman can boost the Paladin’s attack, hit rate, overall HP, etc. This adds a lot of strategy to unit placement on the map, and makes you fight as a cohesive team as opposed to one super-buff unit killing everyone on the opponent’s team.
Supplementing these boosts is the strength of the relationship between the two units. The more you use a unit in battle, the more they become accustomed to fighting with the other units in your party, increasing the bonus they give when aiding in battle. The aforementioned story sequences between party members increases this bond as well. Actually spreading out your attack and defensive strategies between all members involved, rather than using one or two units as your go-to guys, is not only the best way to level up units and win battles, it’s rewarded with even greater benefits. This system alone is a huge plus for the game, as it encourages trying out new unit pairs, understanding your characters in and outside of battle, and creating stronger attachments to said characters, both personally and in-game.
This leads perfectly into discussing the game’s difficulty. The first thing you do when you start the game is choose a difficulty and game mode. Difficulty is self explanatory, but game mode is the option you want to think about. If you choose casual mode, a character that falls in battle simply retreats and can be used in the next fight. Classic mode means if a character dies in battle, they are lost forever. Naturally this can be devastating, especially if you’ve spent hours playing with a certain unit only to have them removed from your game entirely by one or two poorly executed moves.
The game’s difficulty, depending on what you choose from the beginning, increases as you progress through the story, and in the later chapters you’re going to lose units, so be prepared to witness some of your favorites meet their end on the battlefield. I thought it amazing how well the two concepts blended together: you grow attached through your investment in each character as they progress in battle, but each fight is a dangerous one, and you can lose your healer or your strongest warrior at any moment.
Classic mode ensures replay value is high, as you wonder how a certain scene would have played out differently had a specific character lived. Nintendo will also incorporate DLC with the game. There are also duels to engage in with other players, StreetPass teams to discover and battle, as well as the ability to recruit another player’s best characters to your team should you beat them in battle. With all these options available, Fire Emblem: Awakening is heavy on content and should deservingly occupy your 3DS’ game card slot for a long time.
Awakening’s world is fittingly epic, spanning sprawling kingdoms, desert wastelands, lush forests, a volcanic mountaintop, and plenty of towns and villages under distress. The use of color is a highlight for the game. Each new location is drastically different from the last and they look equally gorgeous. Outside of battle characters are rendered in full 3D. Some characters like Chrom look fine but others like Frederick the knight look odd with his ridiculously oversized armor that’s laughable compared to everyone else’s tamer outfits – I couldn’t help but chuckle every now and then when the burly characters were on screen.
The high point of Awakening’s visuals are the cutscenes. The dozen or so mini-movies are so exceptionally animated that I thought I was playing a game on a console. The attention to detail is astounding in these scenes: how each leaf on a tree blows in the wind, smooth animations as characters move about, and fully voiced dialogue. The only problem with the cutscenes is that there aren’t enough! I wanted more from the very beginning, as each one is a real treat and without a doubt the prettiest looking graphics the 3DS has seen to date.
There aren’t many strategy RPGs as approachable for newcomers and as deep for veterans as Fire Emblem: Awakening. Though the story feels like it’s just going through the motions, an expansive cast of characters with a wide array of personalities to match means you’ll find plenty to still love about the narrative. Awakening also happens to be one of the best looking games on the system, headlined by the game’s superb animated cutscenes. If you’ve yet to tackle a Fire Emblem game or any strategy game for that matter, Awakening is a perfect starting point to discover why the strategy RPG is so loved by its fans.
+ The right balance of gameplay depth to appeal to newcomers and pros alike
+ The best visuals on the 3DS to date
– Predictable story
9 / 10