Fire Emblem: Awakening Review
Fire Emblem: Awakening is not only a fantastic 3DS game but also one of the best tactical games I’ve played in recent memory on any system.
Fire Emblem has been one of Nintendo’s longest running franchises, but it didn’t make the movie over to the Western markets until around the time of the Game Boy Advance. Since then, there was another sequel for the GBA, a DS installment, and 2 console versions. With Fire Emblem: Awakening, the series makes a triumphant return to handheld systems, cramming more content into a little 3DS cartridge than many of the other games combined. Fire Emblem: Awakening is reason alone to own a 3DS and a must-have if you are even mildly interested in the turn-based strategy genre.
The story of Fire Emblem follows Chrom, prince of Ylisse and leader of the Shepards, a small band of characters from all walks of life that patrols the country and protects its citizens from raiders sent by the neigboring nation of Plegia. Early on, Chrom and his companions come across a strange person lying unconcious in a field. This character serves as the player’s avatar in the game and can be customized with a small variety of options such as gender, hairstyle, body-type, and voice. Turns out your character is suffering from amnesia (this is a Japanese game after all) and soon discovers his/her abilities as a tactician and thus joins Chrom and his friends as their strategist. After your character earns the group’s trust by helping to defend a small village, the Shepards are attacked by a strange new foe called the Risen that appears to be made up of undead soldiers. Through your strategies and the timely arrival and subsequent departure of a mysterious man who calls himself Marth, your group makes it back to the capital of Ylisse and begins the task of discovering the source of the Risen and preventing Plegia from inciting an all-out war.
Though the story maintains several overused tropes of anime and japanese-rpgs, it uses them sparingly enough that it never becomes an annoyance. Yes, some of the characters can be defined by simplified archetypes, but they’re handled in a way that makes most of them endearing with a few small exceptions *coughSumiacough*. There are some plot twists that are a little bit obvious, but those tend to be presented in a way as though the game wanted you to figure them out before the characters themselves, an example being a particular secret that Marth reveals to Chrom and chastises him by saying, “I’m honestly surprised you didn’t figure it out sooner.” Even some of the villains, who could have very easily been stuck into the “Bwahahaha I am evil because I am written this way” gimmick are given a sliver of motivation, such as it being explained that the people of Plegia hate Ylisse so much because the now peaceful Ylisseans once went on a warpath and slaughtered countless innocents themselves. Yes, the Mad King of Plegia is given an obviously evil appearance and mannerisms, but at least the game gives you a reason why he might be a little wacko and blood-thirsty. Of course it wouldn’t be a Japanese game without some greater evil behind the scenes, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
A majority of the gameplay is presented in the top-down perspective typical to strategy games. Various unit types such as calvary, wizards, and archers move across a grid and attack each other using a variety of weapons such as axes, swords, and different magical tomes. Every weapon has its own attributes, from simple bronze weapons to “killing” blades that have a higher chance to crit. For the most part, weapons exist in a kind of rock-paper-scissors dynamic with axes beating lances, lances beating sword, and swords beating axes. The same also applies to the dark, elemental, and holy magic types. All this means is that the unit wielding the winning weapon will deal a little more damage and have a higher chance to hit, but it’s hardly a necessity unless you’re playing on the hardest difficulty with under-leveled characters. When a unit attacks another, the camera zooms in and shows both units and any supporting characters (more on that later) as they trade blows if possible. Each character has a set amount of HP and once it expires, the unit is defeated and disappears off of the map. Nearly all levels task the player with wiping out all enemy units or simply killing the commander, but the latter objective will usually only be tackled once all of the enemy units are dead anyway so they all essentially equate to “kill the enemy army”.
Previous Fire Emblems were linear affairs; you moved from one level to the next along a set path and completed the main campaign with some side missions here and there. Awakening, however, breaks from that and utilizes a map similar to the one used by Final Fantasy Tactics, allowing the player to navigate between levels that have been cleared already and trigger random encounters. Unlike FFT, however, random battles are never forced. Enemy armies will show up on the map and can be freely engaged as the player sees fit. Each stage has a small preparation phase that allows you to select which units to bring into battle, equip them, and even abandon the map with no penalty if you notice that you’re not quite ready for the selected battle.
Probably the biggest addition to the Fire Emblem formula is the existence of Support. Many characters will fight better when they are next to units that they trust and their bonds will grow deeper the more they aid one another. If a unit is fighting next to any other friendly unit, the first unit will receive a small stat boost. Build up enough trust, and the supporting unit may even throw its own attacks into the exchange or dive in and block an incombing blow. Building bonds between your characters will unlocking special dialogue sequences after battles that offer more depth for your individual soldiers. Characters of opposing genders can even marry one another and in a strange twist will eventually create offspring that will grow up and fight alongside you. These children will inherit some of the stats of their parents, allowing players to engage in selective breeding. It’s a silly sounding gimmick, but it added a lot of extra considerations for me to make when deciding which units to bring into battle. More often than not, I found myself choosing units based on which relationships I wanted to work on as opposed to which units made the most tactical sense, but by focusing so much time on building these relationships I created powerful unit combos that were able to do far more damage and survive longer than single unit might have been able to do regardless of their level. This also caused me to restart the game far more often than I’m willing to admit due to Fire Emblem’s unforgiving failure policy. If a unit dies, they are gone forever. Even characters that are important to the plot will disappear from the battlefield by citing injuries or an unwillingness to return due to the shame they feel for letting their comrades down. In previous Fire Emblems I would often allow myself to lose a few units and continue on, thus having to deal with my poor tactical decisions that got a unit killed. In Awakening, however, I couldn’t bear to think of the special dialogue that I was missing out on by losing a unit forever. Awakening is a bit more forgiving with the inclusion of of a new setting that removes the perma-death, but my pride wouldn’t allow me to play on this mode the first time. Thankfully, with all the possible support variations and the inclusion of DLC and a new game+ mode, I see many playthroughs in my future and will probably do so at an easier setting.
Finally, Fire Emblem: Awakening probably has the best implementation of the 3DS’s Streetpass feature that I’ve seen yet. After clearing the 4th level you unlock the wireless features and can begin setting up a Streetpass team of about 10 characters from your roster. When you pass another player, your team will show up on their map as a random encounter. The other player can then choose to buy the items that your team is carrying or try to recruit your avatar as a playable character by either purchasing your services (you don’t get actually get the money) or by challenging you to a battle. If they win, your avatar joins them. It’s entirely possible to have an entire party made up of your friends’ characters, though I wouldn’t recommend it since they cannot build support amongst eachother. I tend to use my roommate’s party as a source of grinding and equipment more often than not. Other classic characters from Fire Emblem’s history can be obtained in the same way through DLC and Spotpass, such as the original Prince Marth. There are also a few little multiplayer modes such as a vs mode and a fun little diversion called Double-Duel, which tasks each player with picking 3 characters and supporting one-another in cycling battle sequences against a pre-determined set of enemy units. It’s quick, painless, and can reward you with some neat items to take into the main game. Speaking of which, every little thing you do involving the multiplayer, be it Streetpass battles or Double-Duel, earns you a special currency called Renown which can also be used to unlock special items.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is hands-down one of the best looking games that I’ve seen on the 3DS. While it doesn’t support the realistic look that Resident Evil: Revelations had (my other favorite 3DS game), the anime artstyle and cel-shaded cinematics fit the Fire Emblem franchise perfectly. The sprites that are used to signify units on the tactical map are small enough to fit on the board yet visually distinctive, allowing me to pick units out of a crowd regardless of how chaotic the board becomes or how far I zoomed the map out. When fights commence, the game flows from the map to the battle screen without the slightest hint of a loading screen and the fluid battle animations are a joy to watch. You can speed up the fights by holding down the A button or skip them entirely by pressing START, but I never felt any draw to do so despite how many times I repeated some maps.
Most cutscenes are shown with the same character models that are used in the battle animations, but every once in awhile the player is given a beautifully pre-rendered animated cinematic. The closest comparison I can make is Valkyria Chronicles of the Playstation 3 and I looked forward to every instance that the game decided to show off these scenes. My only complaint, and literally the only reason I didn’t give the graphics 5 stars, is that these scenes are few and far between; the first few chapters had them in spades, but then I went through at least 10 more chapters before I saw another one. Throw in all the random battles I was engaging in, and it was literally days of playing the game before I saw another one. When one did show up, my face lit up like a child in a candy store, a fact that my girlfriend would have probably laughed at had she not also been engrossed in her own copy of the game.
Fire Emblem: Awakening’s soundtrack was always a boon for the game. Sweeping music for the individual levels and cinematics serve as proper motivators for the battles while appropriately joyous melodies set the tone during the characters’ often-humorous support conversations. What really impressed me though was how seemlessly the music was able to transition. Each level tends to have a track associated with it (I’m a huge fan of the music of Chapter 9) with variants for both the tactical map and combat scenes. When blows are exchanged the music transition is just as seamless as the graphics, switching instantly from the calm tactical-map version to the louder, more boisterous alternative as characters try to kill one-another. Previous games used a seperate track for battles similar to those used by other classic RPGs, but I personally I enjoyed the more consistent choice that the developers decided on with Awakening.
The English voice-acting is of very good quality with just a few exceptions. Given the usual associations that gamers tend to make with the dubbing of Japanese titles, even competent acting from one or two characters would have been acceptable so I’m happy to see that Nintendo went the extra mile for this port. Despite this praise, The developers still made an odd choice with the conversations. Some lines are fully voice-acted while others are just accompanied by a single noise from the character such as “huh?”, “Yes!”, or “Ok…” to accompany the general emotion behind the statement. While not an annoyance in itself, the game seems to pick which lines will be spoken at random. I’m a fairly fast reader and constantly tapping the A button to further the dialogue along caused me to miss some of these randomly voiced lines. It wouldn’t have have been an issue at all if it didn’t happen so often.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is not just the best game that I currently own for my 3DS; it’s also one of the best games that I’ve played in recent months on any device. The excellent production values in both terms of graphics and sound combine with an incredible amount of gameplay and replay value to make it well worth the price of admission. Some might be put off by the cartoonish graphics, but I cannot stress enough that this is a challenging experience that will drive the most dedicated strategy fans to the point of frustration, but in a good way that makes you want to pick up the pieces and try again. If you like games like last year’s excellent X-Com: Enemy Unknown, you owe it to yourself to find a way to play this game. Furthermore, if you’ve been on the fence about buying Nintendo’s latest handheld, there is no better excuse than Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Written by Guest Reviewer: JGGiant