Fire Emblem: Awakening Review

Originally published April 16, 2013 on the Escapist

If there wasn’t a reason to buy a Nintendo 3DS before there certainly is one now. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the most recent entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, you know, the game series Marth and Roy are from? If Awakening is representative of the rest of the series, Nintendo has committed a heinous crime in keeping so many of its entries from the western market. Awakening is a brilliant tactical RPG with an interesting progression system, beautiful aesthetic and quirky characters.

“There Are Better Places to Take a Nap Than On The Ground, You Know…”

Let us begin with the story-side of things. Awakening does not boast the most impressive narrative of all time. Many (not all) of the twists and turns are easy to see coming and it is ripe with cliché. However, the characters and their fun personalities and relationships eclipse the issues provided by the somewhat predictable plot. Almost all of the characters in the game have one defining characteristic that dictates a lot of what they do and how the others receive them, but most of them have a fair amount of depth beyond that. Considering the game’s huge cast this could not have been an easy task.

Marth with shutter sunglasses… seems legit.

Every unit in the game has a collection of other characters that can support them in combat (the benefits of which I will discuss later) which can result in a series of fun scenes between characters that offer interesting insights into their lives. If a male and female character is paired together in combat long enough they can eventually get married and some can even have children.

One thing the narrative nails in particular is its mood. Though the spectacular soundtrack helps in this regard, the mood is always brilliantly communicated to the player and is full of ups-and-downs. There is one scene that sticks out near the halfway point of the story that leads directly into a battle. A beautiful, yet sad song plays throughout the battle as the characters swallow their grief and fight on. Even the enemies show sympathy towards your loss and it pains the player to cut them down as the supposed villains question their own actions.

Good stories start with good characters, and while the plot is rather bland, the characters make you care about it. I mean, that ending. Man… the feels.

“Negotiation’s Not My Strong Suit…”

Awakening has some social sim aspects, but it is a tactical RPG at its core. You control your units on a map, commanding them to attack enemies, heal friendly units and collect loot. When you move a unit within range of an enemy (or an enemy moves to you) you can order them to attack, bringing you to a JRPG-like view of the units engaging in combat. Though you can opt to fast-forward through these scenes or skip over them entirely, it is incredibly satisfying when your unit holds the line against a barrage of enemy attacks and counters with a lucky critical hit or two.

From a strategic standpoint many tactical RPGs are all about unit positioning, managing inventory and unit progression, butAwakening‘s support system adds a whole new level of strategy to the basic formula. As mentioned above, you can pair units together to receive benefits in combat. In its simplest form supporting characters merely buff you, but if you get lucky and/or you have paired two units together a lot the supporting character will help block lethal blows and attack along with the main unit. The strongest pairs are those who’ve been married, so it is wise to get characters paired up early on so that you can have an army of unstoppable couples in the later battles.

Holy shit! Chrom actually noticed Kellam!

The game isn’t very number crunchy, with formulas for damage and attack accuracy somewhat easy to gauge based on that stats screen. There is also a bit of a “rock-paper-scissors” aspect to combat where swords have the advantage over axes and bows deal significantly more damage to air-based units. The tutorials are brief but effective and the learning curve for the game is much smoother than it is in other games in the genre. Simply put, it’s a combat system with considerable depth but is easy to access.

Previous games in the franchise dictated that when your units fell in combat they died permanently. While this definitely adds a whole new level of complexity to the game’s balance and difficulty, many people would just reload the battle anyway to avoid losing their favorite characters. If you’re like me and don’t like having your time wasted Awakening offers a dirty “Casual Mode” where unit deaths are not permanent.

Being a D&D guy myself, the one thing that bugged me about the combat mechanics was the ease of unit movement. Sure, only certain units had an easy time moving through certain environments, but I was frequently frustrated that a knight could just march right through my defensive line and smack my healer in the back of the army. This is really just a personal complaint though, as it is designed so that squares units occupy block enemy movement. I just thought it was silly that if you have one small hole in your line an enemy can waltz right through it without any kind of penalty. If it were D&D I’d be screaming, “ATTACK OF OPPORTUNITY”!

“You Deserved Better From Me Than That One Sword…”

The final big piece of business to discuss is the progression system. Awakening has hard level caps for classes, but not for characters. Theoretically you could max out every stat and weapon proficiency for a character. This is both a fun and dangerous concept to employ. The good thing is that you can essentially make a character whatever you want within reason (99% of the characters have class restrictions), but the way in which it is implemented is a tad confusing and not adequately explained. It also throws a wrench in the game’s balance later on.

“How well will you die?”

Where this progression system really shines is in the concept of inheritance. For a reason I won’t spoil here, the player has access to adult versions of the paired characters’ children. These children inherit skills and attributes from their parents usually making them potentially far more powerful than those from which they were spawned. I kind of felt like I was making my own perfect master race of super children in my Hard Mode playthrough as I meticulously planned out who would marry who so that their children could inherit the right abilities and class options. That was, of course, completely unnecessary as the system of inheritance can be as complex as you want it to be. Unless you really fuck something up the children will usually turn out pretty damn powerful. I actually regretted planning so well as the children I created steamrolled the last 30% of my playthrough with ease.

Mixing and matching classes/skills can be a lot of fun and offers just enough depth to keep hardcore RPGers satisfied as well as being simple enough for the rest of the playerbase to enjoy.

Ahhhh… there’s nothing quite like making a super child that can damn-near solo the entire game. I feel like Miranda Lawson’s dad.

“I’ve Never Seen One Fall So Gracefully…”

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a complex game with a lot of people to meet and things to see. Through SpotPass, free new content has been regularly added and there is even a co-op battle mode (which I haven’t tried). The pre-rendered cutscenes are beautiful and the music is way too catchy. In fact, one of the coolest aspects of the music in Awakening is that most the combat songs have two versions that work seamlessly together. In the map screen it plays a lower-key version of the song and the more badass version jumps in where the other left off when it transitions into battle scenes. The anime-style character designs are great, but the tiny feet the in-engine character models had bugged the shit out of me! They were just… so goofy looking.

For me, though the whole package was an awesome experience, the game was really about the little moments. From the time my psychotic daughter force fed her husband bear meat to the battle in which Lon’qu, King of Clutch Moments (nearly dead from relentless attacks), held the line against enemy forces alone through a series of super RNG crits; there are simply too many awesome moments to remember. After a second playthrough I’m still not quite tired of this game and likely won’t ever put it down for good. Well, I suppose that is until the release the next game.

If you have a 3DS you should get this game. If you don’t… get a 3DS and get this game!

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a 3DS exclusive currently selling for $40.

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