Fire Emblem: Awakening is a rebirth of the long time Strategy/RPG franchise by Intelligent Systems – reimagined bigger and better than just about any game in the series before it, and eager to be put before a grand new audience of Nintendo 3DS owners and longtime Fire Emblem fans alike. It is a game that not only appreciates its roots, acting as a love letter to the classic and underappreciated games before it, but as a reminder of how to do Strategy right. Awakening opens up the year with an unexpected bang, cementing itself as by far the best game on the great handheld system to date.
After less than stellar reboots of the original Fire Emblem games (only one of which actually made it to US Shores), Nintendo brings forth Awakening. The game brings with it a train of monstrous hype as details are slowly revealed about it. A series that never saw full success in the West was getting the full bulldozing power of Nintendo’s marketing attention. Awakening was bound to make a splash, good or bad. Thankfully it’s the prior.
The most ambitious story in the series to day comes to life in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Most notably, it is a story actually focused around the Fire Emblem itself (something not entirely true about previous games). Players are granted an ability never before seen in the series – the ability to create their own protagonist. This protagonist battles alongside new Lord unit Chrom and his sister Lissa in the strongest narrative in the series. You have the ability to customize the appearance, name, and skills of your protagonist, allowing you to truly model it after yourself, or to allow you to be whoever you’d like. Obnoxious kings, gods, and even time travel make appearance. All of this is sprinkled with the charm of Awakening’s plethora of collectable characters.
Ylisse is a capital of peace – a nation with a dark history it decided to cast aside. Emmeryn, Chrom’s older sister, and leader of Ylisse is a staunch pacifist, leading their nation to glory through peace and prosperity. When the Mad King of the neighboring country Plegia, Gangrel, attacks, Chrom and his party are tasked with stopping the assault and saving the continent from the war. During which he encounters a mysterious warrior that goes by the name of Marth, after the hero of old, and the appearance of the undead Risen. Every event leads up to uncovering a huge conspiracy, that being the most grand in Fire Emblem history.
Fire Emblem’s grid based combat is as strong as ever in Awakening. You, as the tactician, are tasked with giving your units specific orders to not only clear out the enemy, but to keep your units alive as well. Luckily, the game is often challenging, so that detail is easy the most important. There is a weapon triangle, dictating which unit types get bonuses against which other unit types. Units battle, gain experience, grow levels, and eventually become more powerful advanced units through the use of seals. When units are fallen in combat in Awakening, they are gone forever. This isn’t a mechanic never seen before in games, but it is at perhaps its strongest in the Fire Emblem series. In a game that is character driven as much as story driven, losing a character near and dear to you can be devastating.
Intelligent Systems noted that difficulty threshold in creation of Awakening, though. Possibly a barrier to new players, a new option emerged in Awakening: Casual Mode. This mode’s only difference is when player controlled units are defeated, they return after the mission is over, allowing you to continue using them. Had this been a forced implementation, it would have easily left a sour taste in the mouths of many; however, it remains predominately as a way to bring new fans into a series. ‘Hardcore’ fans can easily choose to ignore it, and should be happy that new players will be able to get the same enjoyment out of the series as they are.
Fire Emblem has always been known for its deep support system, but Awakening brought the entire system out into the limelight. Rescuing (a strong unit capturing and protecting a smaller unit) is replaced with pairing-up, a mechanic that allows two units to join forces, one giving stat boosts and occasionally an additional strike to the active unit. Actively using the pairing system will boost the support rank for the two units involved, unlocking involved support conversations between the characters, and giving each unit stat bonuses when paired up or adjacent in battle. In this respect, Awakening encourages you more than ever to bring your units together, to boost supports, and to make the absolute most out of its classic gameplay.
Examining all of the little details, such as character interaction developed by supports, is the best way to get the most out of Awakening. The player’s attachment to the characters makes for a sublime, engrossing experience in which you really care what is happening to these named, very ‘real’ characters. You become one with your army, and can really become immersed in the game as your avatar, especially if you take care to make your avatar your own.
Supports are more important than ever in Awakening. Reaching an S rank between a male and female character actually has a meaning in this iteration of the game. Units who reach the ultimate ranking of support elope. Married units not only enjoy top level bonuses in battle, but will have a child unit which you can then recruit during a paralogue (side quest) that appears on the world map. More details about this new mechanic ventures deeply into the intricacies of the game’s story.
Problems arise when Awakening’s scale is given attention to. The scale of the RPG aspect of Awakening, is particularly unbalanced. Second Seal, another new item introduced into the game, allows players to rescript their units as different ones. Doing this not only changes their class (as long as they are about level 10), but allows that unit to keep his or her stats. Units can reached ridiculous levels of strength just through this and grinding. The scale of units in Awakening is greater than any Fire Emblem game before it. Units start out at basic level stats, and can reach soaring heights actually never seen before in a title in this series.
Mostly this can be achieved through diligent grinding. Back from Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, albeit in a somewhat subdued manner. On the overworld map, previously visited maps may suddenly be overrun with the zombie-like risen. You can revisit those maps and clear them of those foes, all the way collecting gold, experience, and weapons. Buying additional items called “rotting boxes” allows the player to spawn more risen and train even more. In combination with second sealing, and standard JRPG patience, this can really throw off the balance of the game.
What threw me off guard, though, is that Awakening seems to be ready for it. Its several difficulty modes differ greatly in challenge level. Even the normal setting ramps up difficulty drastically near the end. On the game’s Lunatic Mode, completing each chapter in the game will be a stressful and righteous challenge in and of itself. That being said, even veterans of the series should start out on Awakening’s normal mode, just to get a grasp over the nuances that make this 3DS game different from other games in the series.
There are quite a few differences indeed. Awakening is very much the Fire Emblem you love and remember, but several details are different in this outing than previous ones. The pairing system, which I already mentioned, is the largest new feature of the combat. Similarly to the console Fire Emblems, characters in this game earn skills. Unlike the console Fire Emblems, these skills cannot be given to units interchangeably. Units gain new skills based on their class, and using a Second Seal will allow you to mix and match skills with nothing but grinding.
Awakening is home to easily the most beautiful Fire Emblem art of any game in the series. Fantastic character art provides sections of dialogue with undeniable character. The dialogue itself is equally funny, in most cases. Some characters are created on the basis of weak gimmicks, like Karrem the Knights tendency to wonder about unintentionally unnoticed. Also some dialogue seems to do nothing but act as quick filler. For example one moment characters will be commenting on beauty of the surrounding pastures, then suddenly a comment about approaching enemies, followed by being thrown into battle with whiplash.
Cutscenes are also part of the Awakening experience, which is a luxury only experienced by a few Emblem games before it. While sometimes the content of these cutscenes are arbitrary, they are the best looking in the series. Some are extremely heartfelt or powerful as well.
Replacing some places that could have insane cutscenes are often lame confrontations visually represented by the game’s stiff character models. A huge improvement over Shadow Dragon, with models actually having recognizable faces and mannerisms but animations are still limited. Some moments would have been very greatly captured if they were done in dedicated cutscenes, where animation could display the emotion, instead of character portraits. Usually the portraits are efficient though.
The adequacy of the portraits is due in part to the inclusion of voice acting in the game. Previously limited to only cutscenes, characters will now make grunts and grumbles during on screen dialogue sections. These are meant to exemplify the characters emotions. Randomly, they will say an entire line of dialogue, which is a bit off-putting. It starts out charming and thoughtful, but soon has a tendency to become a drag, almost sounding like the audio is being continually cut off at the beginning of each sentence. It is hard to decide if the game would’ve been better fully voice acted.
Music in Awakening is worth mentioning. Fire Emblem has always had its fair share of fantastic music, but Awakening takes the blade with firm hands. Tracks are filled with epic ambiance, and often are met with strong choruses in the backdrop, such as the tune Because. Some songs are heavy in tone, and are perfectly placed to corresponding chapters in which the player is meant to feel extreme sorrow. Kakusei – Don’t you dare mock my sister’s words! is one such example of a powerful track that swayed me emotionally. The soundtrack to this title is exceptionally, and will grace my ears from my iPod for many months, even when not playing the game.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is the perfect game to bring in brand new fans into a fantastic series, while bringing insane joy to those who’ve already invested hundreds of hours into the series such as myself. Awakening is a letter of loyalty to fans everywhere. It is a celebration of Fire Emblem as a whole. Outstanding combat, strong characters, moving music, and the best story in the series come together to make Fire Emblem: Awakening the must own game on the Nintendo 3DS. Is it the best Fire Emblem game? That right there is a question for another day.