Tactical RPGs are not in my comfort zone and, save some mainstays like Disgaea, it is a rarely released genre. That considered, on top of my unfamiliarity with the genre, Fire Emblem Awakening was not a purchase I expected to make. It is best-known for its notorious penchant for killing off characters permanently once they have been thwarted on the battlefield. The very idea that a character one could train and fall in love with could be permanently killed from an ill-timed critical was enough to keep the weary from the series. This entry in the series has a casual mode however, which adds impermanence to death, and because of this, I decided to try this black sheep Nintendo franchise. Far from our beloved Mario series, Fire Emblem requires strategic planning, detailed character management, and a sometimes playful, but often harrowing storyline. My first foray into the world of Fire Emblem will now be the first of many.
At the beginning of the game, the player creates his or her own avatar. While the character creation features are simplistic, it is a first for the series, and it is surprising how quickly the created avatar feels like a member of the cast, a polar opposite to the all-too-familiar silent protagonists in most games. In the opening scene of the game, Chrom and Lissa, sibling prince and princess of Ylisse, are proactively engaged in ridding the kingdom of baddies when they stumble upon the avatar character unconscious and amnesiac in the middle of a field. Despite the circumstances of their meeting, Chrom quickly enlists your avatar as an ally. It soon becomes clear that the world of Fire Emblem is rife with war. On top of this, a mysterious hero claiming to be Prince Marth (of Super Smash Bros. fame) falls through a portal in the sky accompanied by, but not working with, an undead horde of warriors. With the aid of the player character, Chrom and his army (a cavalcade of personalities, abilities, and love interests), take on the threats of the kingdom worldly and otherwise. What follows in subsequent chapters is a rich experience tailored to the player’s investment in his or her characters. I was at times elated, surprised, horrified, and deeply moved.
As with many a tactical RPG, there are map grids in which characters can move and attack before relinquishing their turn to the enemy forces. Even so, excitement is generated by the thoughtful development, organization, and deployment of characters. In battle, players choose where they can place units and can view the most typical outcome of each skirmish before making a decision. These decisions cannot be made lightly since the enemy is keen on removing the feeble from existence. At higher difficulties, a careless move or enemy critical will decimate any team’s dynamic. Players can even save mid-battle before making a risky move, making tension more player discretion than forced pressure. Characters engage enemies with the weapon or spell equipped to them in both offensive and defensive actions. Be wary though, since quickly optimizing characters automatically will not cut it in the classic and higher difficulty settings.
While the typical move/action/wait formula is standard fare for the series and the genre alike, Awakening’s focus is its devotion to relationships. When characters are adjacent to one another on the battlefield and attack or defend against an enemy, they show up together on the battle screen with one character in a supporting role. Depending on how frequently these moments occur (and you will go out of your way to make them occur), character relationships grow both on and off the battlefield. Off, characters will become closer and closer through dialogue. On, and warriors are granted with higher performance percentages as long as they are together. It is even possible to pair characters together on the field so that they move as a unit, but they will have a single move and action by doing so. These relationships, fully developed, can even result in marriage and children. When my avatar married the girl I had been swooning over and later had children, it was exciting in a way that I am a little ashamed of. From that point on, I was dedicated to fostering my family’s relationships, even refusing to involve them in battles from which I feared their demise. This somewhat embarrassing devotion to pixilated persons came to me unexpectedly, but engrossed me completely. The short scenes that accompany the multitude of relationship possibilities are some of the best story elements, albeit they are not voiced. All that said there are no same-sex relationships that can reach marriage level (though bromance and girl-biffles are allowed). This choice on the part of Intelligent Systems antiquates the game and could alienate LGBT players hoping to best embody the avatar. It may be a small complaint, but it removes a group of people from one of the most rewarding experiences to be had in this game.
On the world map, there are always enemies to fight (if not on screen, than with the use of an easily obtainable item or DLC level). With this option, players can buff characters outside of critical story chapters, adding a bit of relief to play. There are shops available to buy items, weapons, and upgrades which become costly as your army grows. Character progression involves stat upgrades at each level based on percentages. Sometimes a character will level up many of their stats, sometimes only a few. While this could be a point of contention, the ability to change classes makes your level cap effectively limitless. Each class earns different abilities, and while some characters are limited (there are some classes they just won’t learn) it does not become tiresome to change classes, but rather, a fun experiment with your chosen group of heroes.
The cutscenes in Fire Emblem Awakening, though there are only a cruel few, are stunning. The animation is a leap above the anime cutscenes of the Tales series. Battle scenes are a mixed bag. While the pixels are crisp and even cute on the overhead map, it does date the game some, but is par for the course in the tactical genre. The game’s story scenes and battle animations are standard for the 3DS. Cutscene, battle animation, or sprite, the 3D pop to this game is some of the best on the system. While for most 3DS games, I leave the 3D slider in the off position, I rarely turned it off during Awakening. The strange sensation that you are losing the image in the more action-oriented 3DS games almost never happens here and the battle avatars, though simple, feel spread across a board in front of the player. In and out of battle, characters interact with one another in speech bubbles accompanied by facial expressions. Perhaps this alone would have been best, but characters incessantly make noises along with their dialogue instead of actually reading their dialogue. Grunts, catchphrases, and the like will be acceptable to some, but annoying to others. In movie scenes, everything is voiced, and fantastically. No actor sounds inappropriate, so to under-utilize this feature in most of the game is just too bad.
Months and months after release, Nintendo continued to release DLC packs for Awakening. These include characters from previous titles, like Marth and Roy, and while this may be more of a treat for the hardcore fans of previous titles, it is nice to get a taste of the music and personalities associated with the series’ past. Other levels offer absurd amounts of gold and experience, which make the main game easier. Again, while some will claim this taints the pure difficulty, it is optional in a single-player game. The game’s streetpass features allow players to battle computer-controlled versions of their team. This is a neat feature, and the player can then import that character’s leader should they win, though it is just a tweaked mirror of the avatar character anyway. Players can also just buy items from the friend or stranger they streetpassed with, offering some rarer items up. Even without delving into the DLC too much, the game took me 40 hours to clear, and players can easily get more via the included content, DLC content, or the desire to play on harder difficulties or with another team of players and relationships. It is simply chock-full of content.
Fire Emblem Awakening is undoubtedly one of the top three titles on 3DS in its lifespan thus far, if not the most involved game for the system. It is a handheld masterpiece, with a measly few, if altogether ignorable, complaints. It takes a series that is often brutally inaccessible and welcomes new and returning players alike. That accessibility, so looked down upon by those who think only hard games are good, is the thing that will catapult the series into Nintendo mainstay status. Nintendo needs to acknowledge that this type of game has a place in the west and in the forefront of their future plans. 3DS owners need to play this game, even if it is out of their comfort zone. Fire Emblem Awakening is a handheld experience that will make you come up for air.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames