Critically acclaimed in the land of the rising sun, the wait for the latest entry in the Fire Emblem series is finally over! Was it worth the wait?
Although one of the newer Nintendo franchises to the western world, Fire Emblem has been an RPG staple in Japan since the NES. In fact, many later popular strategy/tactic style RPGs owe a great deal to the innovations that Fire Emblem introduced, including fan favorite series like Shining Force and Tactics Ogre. It wasn’t until Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube that had characters from the series as playable characters that interest piqued for the Japanese exclusive series. Yes, the Fire Emblem games were only released to the rest of the world due to the popularity of Marth and Roy within the Smash Bros. universe. The series has been met with some moderate success on the platforms its been released on but with the newest entry it may become a staple for Nintendo in the west.
Intelligent Systems has managed to lower the barrier of entry into Fire Emblem by making Awakening much more accessible than previous games. There are three difficulty levels from the start with a fourth one being an unlockable. Normal is balanced around newcomers to the series while Hard is for more veteran players and Lunatic is only for those with a resolve of steel. That alone would’ve been fine for most developers but for the first time in the series they took it a step further by introducing two different modes. ‘Classic’ mode is the one that experienced players are familiar with. Characters remain permanently dead when killed in battle and you can only save between battles. That might be a steep requirement of new players so Intelligent System created the ‘Casual’ mode. In this setting characters are only removed from the map you’re in when killed and will be able to fight again in the next one as well as the player can save during an actual battle. As a veteran Fire Emblem player myself, I welcome these additions with open arms. I can still play through the game the way it has been for decades now but other players can now enjoy the game at their own difficulty and pace, something which was not possible before. In fact, in my Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword review I specifically mentioned how I wish the game had two different modes for players who were experienced with the series and new players. Hopefully this happens more often and more frequently with games in the future.
For those unfamiliar with how the game, it plays out on a grid battle map made of individual squares that are your terrain. Your characters are the various swordsmen, knights, archers and mages that you recruit through the game and the objectives can vary from eliminating the enemy general or defending a location for a set amount of turns. You play as your army’s tactician, giving every soldier under your command orders to move and attack and your success or failure is completely dependent on your ability to formulate an effective strategy. This is the bulk of the game and the enjoyment for most comes from the ability to solve each level almost as if it were a puzzle of sorts, watching as your grand plan either comes together like an orchestrated symphony or becomes a fiery train-wreck of disaster and death for your army.
Digging deeper into how the game flows, each character has a class that dictates their equipment, movement, skills and stat growth. The basis for Fire Emblem games is a simple rock-paper-scissors formula. Swords are strong against Axes, Axes are strong against Lances and Lances are strong against Swords. To equate this, if one of your characters uses a sword to attack another unit equipped with an axe, your unit will do more damage, have a better hit/crit rate while the inverse will apply to the enemy. It’s not the end-all, be-all of the battle system by any means but it’s an easy concept and it will be necessary to exploit the weaknesses of your enemy while taking advantage of your own units. Past that, there are characters like knights who are mounted on horses and have a higher movement range but can be weak against someone with a weapon that is effective versus them. Being this is a medieval fantasy universe, there are even pegasus and wyvern riders that have the most mobility but are extremely weak against archers. Mages also exist in this game and use ranged magic of fire, wind and lightning varieties and a new addition to the series is dark magic.
New to the series is the ability to Pair Up and have your characters fight alongside one another more effectively than they would be able to alone. With two units adjacent to one another, when they go into battle they will jump in to help the other out. At the very worst it will affect hit rate but as friendships and relationships improve, teammates will be able to completely negate an attack made by the opponent or swing in with an attack of their own to crush the enemy. Even further than this, you can effectively combine two units together so that they share the same space. What this does is the secondary character acts a stat boost to the frontal unit and makes them better overall. The tradeoff here being that only one of two can actually make a movement and an action and the other loses out on being able to make their own. It’s an interesting innovation where it’s up the player to use or not but on the higher difficulties it becomes imperative to pair weaker characters up with stronger ones for survival. Also new to the series is the ability to reclass your units via Second Seals. This will allow a unit to start over at level of a new class and offer them the opportunity to keep the stats they’ve earned while continuing to level and getting more stat points and acquiring new skills.
For all the praises I could lavish about the gameplay, it would negligent to not talk about the story. While past games have offered perhaps more memorable stories and dealth with deep issues like racism, inequality, etc Fire Emblem Awakening is a bit more tame by comparison. A bit stereotypical perhaps, the main character Chrom is the prince of Ylisse that goes about as the protector of the kingdom and finds himself in the middle of political treachery and eventually war. Game of Thrones this is not, but it’s still deep and interesting enough to catch your interest and keep you playing to see how it unfolds.
If anything, the wonderful localization alone is worth exploring all the possible dialogue that is bolstered by support conversations that are found between battles. Every character in Fire Emblem Awakening is a unique one with their own strengths, specialties, weaknesses, interests, dreams and fears. An ordinary RPG would only allow character interaction at the story’s pace and forcing the characters to talk and learn more about it. Fire Emblem instead allows the player the opportunity to watch character interaction and growth unfold before their own eyes at their own pace. When two compatible units are paired up, either through the actual mechanic or fighting side by side on the battlefield they will begin to form a bond that can be witnessed in the Barracks camp option between fights. Selecting a conversation will allow you to see it play out in person as the two characters meet and greet. Each pairing has unique dialogue that offers a little background information about each and lets you witness their friendship grow. There are three levels of support conversation between friendly units with a fourth level being exclusive to only opposite sex characters that have potential love interest. When you reach the final, “S-rank” between two characters it winds up in marriage between the two and proving that love truly can bloom on the battlefield.
There are benefits to encouraging relationships between the individuals in your army. Firstly, in battle units with better support rankings will offer more benefits than two incompatible units as I noted earlier in the Pair Up mechanic. But secondly when two characters fall in love and marry, their offspring will eventually be able to join your heroic army and fight alongside you. Children characters inherit their parents’ stat growths in addition to skills and with a little training can be some of the best units in the game. Once again, on easier difficulties it’s not a necessity but on the harder modes it definitely makes things easier.
Lastly, by watching your characters develop and grow with one another it makes the game that much more enjoyable. Now you have a personal attachment to the characters as they risk their lives by accepting every command you give them without question. These aren’t just nameless, generic soldiers that are so easily replaceable with another generic one when the mission is over. Every teammate has for some reason or another, trusted you with their life and dedicated it to your cause. Some for love, some for friendship, others out of duty, even some former enemies choosing to rally behind your just cause. So when they fall on the battlefield and die, there is significant weight and impact behind it. You will no longer be able to access anymore support conversations involving that character which includes any potential offspring. Your job as the tactician means that the burden and responsibility falls solely on your own shoulders and if playing on Classic mode will be the reason for many chapter restarts.
This leads itself back into the gameplay as a way of adding intensity and excitement to each battle, as a single miss could potentially prove fatal to a character that you had counted on killing an enemy unit. In several maps reinforcements can show up on specific turns to add chaos to the battlefield that you had calculated out so thoroughly just before your turn ended and now your weaker backline units may be on the receiving end of the enemy. You may witness an underdog unit miraculously counter and kill several units in a row and praise the RNG gods for your good fortune or you may watch as they are surrounded and slaughtered like sheep. It’s part of the decision-making process that the series has been known for so long as every action (or inaction) you make will lead to consequences that may count for the rest of the game. In an era where death is usually nothing but a minor annoyance it adds not only challenge to the game but weight. Fortunately for those that don’t wish to have such a rigid structure, Casual difficulty takes away the permadeath and characters that are defeated on the battlefield will return in the next encounter you get into.
Visually the game impresses from the start with some impressive, high quality CG scenes that have a distinct anime flair to them, which comes as no surprise since the studio behind them is none other than the infamous Madhouse, responsible for popular series like Deathnote, High School of the Dead, and Record of Lodoss War. Past that, the character designs and illustrations have a distinct modern approach to them, perhaps another feature to help widen the accessibility to the series. Characters are colorful and distinct visually and it should be fairly easy to find a few favorites. Their in-game models look especially crisp and attractive during the battle animations, something that the past few 3D Fire Emblem games were not so strong at. In fact I resisted turning on the option to skip the animations since it was not only fun to watch since every dodge, critical or skill-activation is more fluid before but the Pair Up option can lead to some dynamic little skirmishes. Speaking of 3D, the specialty of the 3DS is put to good use here as its well done in several ways. Aside from making the aforementioned battle scenes come more alive, even going through the menus has textboxes popping out over character portraits while on the world map it gives off a storybook pop-up with the way castles and mountains strike out at you.
In terms of sound and music, the game excels here as well. Fire Emblem Awakening has quite a few catchy soundtracks whether it’s during a battle with heavy drums or during support conversations that range from playful melodies to genuine heart to heart background music. Familiar chimes and tunes such as characters leveling up are present to strike at the nostalgia chord of veteran players. Once again, Nintendo shows that when they do decide to implement voice acting they are at the top of the field. All of the characters have voicework done and while the non-story relevant characters are usually only speaking short lines, grunts or cheers for support conversations, the main characters have full fledged voicing for cutscenes. All of this is offered in either original Japanese audio or native English which is a welcome feature.
Past the main game, which is probably at least a good 20-25 hours of content (not counting side missions), Fire Emblem Awakening offers a wealth of bonus DLC additions to extend the life of the game. Map packs are available from Nintendo once you get a few missions into the game where you can purchase them individually or in a pack of three for a discounted price. These are side story missions often revolving around characters from older Fire Emblem games including fan favorites such as Marth, Ike, Roy and Hector and you will often be fighting with or against them, with the end result being in actually recruiting them for your own army. For those who hate to grind there are even DLC maps that are designed specifically for you to easily acquire gold or with units that have great amounts of experience points when killed to boost characters with minimal effort required. Even without spending additional money on the game, Nintendo is releasing free DLC via the Spotpass feature where you can summon teams to parley with or even Paragon missions that extend the main story for some characters. Add in a StreetPass feature where players create their best team to exchange with another to fight afterwards as well as local multiplayer where you join forces to take on a superior force and Fire Emblem Awakening becomes a great value for your money.
Simply put, Fire Emblem Awakening is a rare title that does almost everything to perfection from start to finish. It excels in every category one could ask for, especially from a somewhat niche genre and is now more accessible than ever before. Everything from the characters to the presentation to the massive amount of options and customization comes together to make it a worthy addition to any gamer’s library. You might come for the story or the gameplay but you’ll stay for characters as they are truly the driving, compelling force behind the scenes of every battle you will encounter. In many ways, this title is the rebirth of the franchise and is poised to become a staple franchise for Nintendo, something which we can all be thankful for. Fire Emblem Awakening is truly one of the best titles available for the Nintendo 3DS and is an experience that cannot be missed.
AYCG Score: 9.5 out of 10