The Fire Emblem series is a curiosity. Not many titles have been released by Nintendo outside of Japan, and yet it has developed an amazing cult following. This lax amount of release has left potential players, such as myself, out of the loop of what many consider to be one of the best games in the Strategy genre. Now, with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening, it is time to hop on board. Better late than never, because the game is amazing.
You are an amnesiac who is discovered by Chrom, the leader of a group of warriors and keepers of the peace. Before any attempt to put together your memory can happen, attacks begin to happen on Chrom’s homeland of Ylisse by mysterious creatures called Risen. Unfortunately, due to long-term political tension and long standing rivalries, any attempt to fight off this potential threat slowly turns into a highwire act of avoiding full scale war between the neighboring nations. It is up to you to lead Chrom and his men to fight back the Risen, and defend the land from the impending storm of conflict.
If there is a problem with the story, it has to be the application of the player. There is a character creation menu which allows you to give your character a bit of personality. However, it falls a bit flat when the game begins and the story revolves more around Chrom and his crew more than any input you can provide. If you are expecting a role-playing experience analogous to Dragon Age, you may be disappointed.
This letdown is assuaged by the characters being very likeable. The main cast always manage to be serious when necessary or bring levity whenever possible, even if some supporting characters can feel a bit one-dimensional. The villains always manage to be that potent mix of threatening and ostentatious, complete with delightful scenery chewing at some points. Also, the plot has plenty of twists and turns, so every mission doesn’t feel like it is padding out the running time or just going through the motions.
The missions in Fire Emblem Awakening are impressive. The turn-based strategy gameplay manages to hit that sweet spot of being easily accessible to newcomers of the genre as well as deep enough for enthusiasts to enjoy. You start by selecting a group of units and equipping them with weapons, potions, or spells. The weapons manage to fall into this rock-paper-scissors system where one type is preferable to another. Hammers are great against armored units, swords are strong against axes, etc.. After the units are selected, you start fighting against enemy units, attempting to reduce their numbers to zero before you lose your key units: Chrom and yourself.
What separates Fire Emblem Awakening from other games is the impact of loss. Like last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, if a unit dies, they are gone permanently. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but the threat of permanent death to any and all units you control adds in a dangerous numbers game of risk and reward, short-term and long-term. A dangerous prospect since the majority of Awakening’s combat is driven by numbers. A single hitpoint difference, application of a buff, or something as negligible on the surface as a 3% Critical Hit chance can mean the difference between your unit winning the battle, or them dying. This nerve-wracking decision making is further intensified by intelligent enemy AI that will take advantage of any weakness you may show. Yet, as frustratingly technical as these moments can be, it makes the loss of a fight all the more aggravating, and the elation of a perfectly executed strategy all the sweeter. Thankfully, there is a Casual mode if you aren’t so inclined for such stakes, where units will rejoin you if they are knocked out in a mission.
There is another addition to Fire Emblem Awakening: a Support system. During a mission, you can have one unit Pair Up with another unit. Doing so gives the unit bonuses depending on the characters being paired, and adds plenty of variety to the formula. These bonuses are tied into an ongoing relationship system between the characters outside of combat. Depending on how well certain characters gets along determines the strength of bonuses they receive, and in some cases may lead to intimacy which will cause new characters as the campaign progresses.
Fire Emblem Awakening may just have some of the most impressive visuals on the 3DS this year. The overview map uses a mix of textures and sprites to illustrate general activity, while direct conflict between units are realized with full 3D models fighting with fluid movement. The real visual treat however comes from pre-rendered cutscenes which boast some of the best cel-shading I have seen on a handheld game. The art direction is great, with solid colors serving the high-fantasy aesthetic, with the standout sequence being the utterly gorgeous introduction.
The musical score is also beautiful. Horns and strings blend seamlessly together into a sound that can both enthrall and lift then immediately descend into deep drum rolls signaling battle. The voice-acting is hit and miss. The aforementioned cel-shaded cutscenes are complimented by solid performances, but the text oriented dialogue seems to be almost completely absent of voice work. It is jarring to have a scene where characters are breathlessly fighting for their lives, only to have the next sequence be a text box followed by a vague grunt of the character speaking.
Fire Emblem Awakening is a rare treat. It’s a game you’ll be frustrated by, but will make you keep coming back. Whether its to see how certain characters interact or to try out a new strategy you’ve been thinking up, you will not be disappointed. This is a game that could have easily been at home on a console with the amount of content and entertainment it provides, and yet it is on the 3DS with utter confidence. It’s accessible, challenging, all while being endearing and clever in its own special way; a high mark for the genre.
If you have a 3DS and love Strategy games, I recommend Fire Emblem Awakening. If you don’t have a 3DS and have been looking for an excuse, now you have it. You may get frustrated when a certain mission doesn’t go perfectly, but you won’t be disappointed.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
+ Fantastic Musical Score and Visuals
+ Challenging, Accessible Gameplay
+ Endearing Characters
– Voice Acting Could Be More Prevalent
– Very Little Player Input Involving the Plot