There comes a point, when you're playing a Fire Emblem game, that everything just seems to ‘click’. That magical moment where all your strategies fall into place, where you become so absorbed in the story and your characters’ fates that a single death in your line-up becomes a personal tragedy and where you can spend several minutes contemplating a single move that could change the course of the whole battle. These things have always defined the series, but with this latest instalment on the 3DS, Nintendo has shaken things up and opened up this very ‘hardcore’ franchise to the masses. Does this new direction feed the flames or is this fire quickly fading?
The game opens with a brief encounter between our heroes: Chrom (crown prince of Ylisse, not to be confused with the web browser) and your custom character (an amnesiac tactician) who are battling against a dark mage. Once the magician is defeated all seems well until your character suddenly turns and attacks Chrom. You then awaken in a field, not remembering who or where you are but greeted by Chrom and his ‘Shepherds’, a group of elite warriors who decide to take you on as their tactician. It isn’t long, however, before things really start going pear-shaped and everyday seems to bring a new threat to Ylisse, whether it be undead hordes, royal abductions, border incursions or whatever bad luck happens to befall the kingdom that day.
Chess has got nothing on this bad boy.
Like its predecessors, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn based strategy RPG. You begin a level with a set amount of units and must move them on the grid-like battlefield, engaging enemies one at a time until you accomplish your mission. What has always set the series apart from similar titles is the deep level of character interaction and personal emotional involvement you will put into the game, because if one of your characters dies in battle, that’s it, they're gone, and it’s your fault.
In the past, this daunting gameplay requirement has been a major barrier for those looking to enter the Fire Emblem series with a dip instead of a splash. This time around Nintendo has decided to give gamers of all skill levels a fighting chance by including a ‘casual’ mode (hey, their word not mine!) where characters who fall in combat are only removed from the current battle and will be ready to go in the next round. This new mode (well, new for North American gamers) is great for those who want to experience the game in one go without fear of losing their favourite characters, but purists will likely never pay it any head. A brief word of warning, however: Fire Emblem: Awakening is by no means an easy game. The new ‘casual’ mode definitely lowers the entry bar for novices, but this is still a gruelling, strategic experience.
Another major addition is the ability to join two units in battle and combine their strengths. On the surface this seems like a nice addition but not an essential one since your characters aren’t very powerful or diverse enough early on. But once you start earning interesting skills and recruiting high mobility warriors, joining forces becomes an essential strategy and one that completely changes the way you play Fire Emblem for the better. This new dynamic opens up so many strategies and options that you could potentially play the game a hundred times and never experience the same battle twice.
Tag team battles bring the series into the 21st century.
To compliment this new addition a whole new ‘relationships’ system has been added where characters who are constantly paired together will actually boost eachother’s stats during battle. Outside of combat you can even partake in optional dialogue sequences that will increase these relationships even further, all the way to the point where your characters can even get married and have children to join you in combat (family values aren’t one of the game’s selling points.). This new dynamic adds so much to an already heavy experience and is just the sort of kick in the pants that the series needed to stay relevant.
One of the most interesting additions, however, is the ability to create your own avatar (complete with your likeness and even a unique voice). Great lengths were also taken to make your character one who is not just another disposable, nameless warrior but an integral part of the story. It’s one of the most expertly created character interactions I have ever seen in an RPG, where your actions decide every facet of the story.
Donnel soon found out otherwhise...
Underneath all these changes lies a very traditional and competent Fire Emblem experience. The gameplay has been refined so much over the years that Intelligent Systems has gotten this type of game down to a science. It’s not all perfect however. One issue I’ve always had with the franchise that hasn’t gone away here is how 95% of the levels are almost identical. Rout the enemy and win, simple. I wish more dynamic elements would make their way into the series (levels that change their composition, stages where you want to avoid direct combat, and so on) but for now it’s just fight, win, rinse and repeat.
Anyone who’s played an RPG with a deep and complex combat system will know that it also comes with a deep and complex tutorial (I’m looking at you Xenoblade Chronicles!). Fire Emblem: Awakening takes a novel approach to this by having the entire tutorial available right from the get-go to study, but if you choose to ignore it that’s perfectly fine; the game will only display a small message indicating that a new mechanic is being introduced in case you want to read up on it.
The controls here are virtually identical to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the Nintendo DS. The action all takes place on the top screen while the bottom screen houses all the useful information like stats and attack power. You move around the map using the D-Pad or Circle Pad and attack your foes. It’s a pretty standard set-up, especially for those familiar with the series or the Advance Wars games. It would have been nice to have had the option to play using the touch screen, but that’s not a deal breaker.
Among the best looking cut-scenes yet.
Graphically the game is split into several different styles. There's the world map, which has a 16-bit RPG vibe to it and is brimming with towns and characters to interact with; the battlefield, viewed from a top down perspective, which is reminiscent of the last iterations on Wii and DS; dialogue segments, which are the classic RPG fare of still images staring at eachother; and finally the battles themselves, that you can now experience from a number of different camera angles. Somewhat surprisingly all of these different styles come together beautifully, and echo the gameplay to perfection.
I should also mention the game’s absolutely brilliant pre-rendered cut-scenes; these little bits of magic allow the characters and the world they inhabit to come to life. The 3D effect is also put to good use, giving the environments and added sense of depth and the art styles more of an impact, though it should be noted that the framerate is made to suffer on occasion. All of this is underpinned by a soundtrack that's able to deliver both subtle background music and epic battle chants depending on what the circumstances of the moment dictate, and dialogue and voicework that gives the characters well defined personality. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s presentation is among the best and most well rounded currently available on the Nintendo 3DS, showing just how far portable gaming has come over the last few years.
One of the best games on the 3DS.
If you're just interested in seeing the main storyline through to the end and somehow resist the lure of sampling the game's extra features, Fire Emblem: Awakening will last you in the neighbourhood of 20 hours. If, on the other hand, you want to experience every story arc the game has to offer and complete all of the optional levels then you could easily double if not triple your play time. Extras include items, maps and character distribution through SpotPass, as well as paid DLC (which gives you access to whole maps and classic Fire Emblem characters like Marth, Roy and Ike, among others).
Sadly, however, the online battles from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon have been cut and replaced by local co-op duels against the computer, and a StreetPass mode where you can battle teams you meet in the real world. While both of these options are welcome additions, I do miss the ease of simply hopping online and finding an opponent to duel with from the DS instalment.
In the handheld's short lifespan we have already seen some truly amazing games; games that have pushed the system in terms of graphics, offered innovative gameplay mechanics and brought us experiences that, while familiar, feel fresh. Fire Emblem: Awakening does all of this and just keeps on giving. On a system with so many great games, Fire Emblem: Awakening stands tall amongst the best of the best. It's a testament to the notion that tried and true ideas can be reinvigorated with new mechanics without compromise.
This review is based on the retail version of Fire Emblem: Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS.