Ten years ago Fire Emblem wasn’t a particularly well-known Nintendo franchise outside of Japan. Early games in the series would either have been too niche or feature some quite questionable content for the Western branches to bother localising them until Super Smash Bros. Melee featured two playable characters from the series. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly all but one of the Fire Emblem titles since has been released worldwide introducing western Nintendo fans to the Strategy RPG series. After missing out on the last release, a remake of the second game of the series, we finally have what is possibly the most refined entry in the saga yet, Fire Emblem Awakening.
The story focuses on the young Lord Chrom and his band of ‘Shepherds’ who are sworn to protect their land of Ylisse. The neighbouring country of Plegia has been sending bandits and soldiers to invade as a revenge for havoc wreaked on their lands by the previous king of Ylisse, Chrom’s father. The group also encounter a gate from another dimension out of which comes a demonic army and a young man calling himself Marth after the legendary hero from previous Fire Emblem titles, although his motives aren’t clear. Although the early game introduces a lot of different factions and characters it soon settles into a fairly simple story, split into three main arcs. While it may not be as focused as Path of Radiance the story is still consistently entertaining throughout the lengthy campaign.
To begin the player is able to slightly customise their avatar for use as a unit in battle. Unlike a lot of other RPGs the character creator is fairly limited beyond the few base character designs, although you are able to choose both a statistical strength and weakness, such as their strength, magic abilities or luck. Because of this limited customisation the Avatar will not appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes as much of the story is presented from their point of view.
As with all Fire Emblems released in the west, Awakening’s progression through the story is handled in a linear chapter format. Each chapter results in a battle that must be fought and they are generally bookended by cutscenes, both pre-rendered and real-time, that develop the story and characters further. Usually it can be quite irritating for a game to keep stopping for cutscenes and character conversations but thanks to the varied, interesting characters and beautifully rendered cinematics it never gets as tedious as is all too often with Japanese RPGs.
The core gameplay elements will be familiar to anyone who has played previous entries in the series or its sister franchise Advance Wars. At the beginning of each battle the player is able to select the characters they wish to send into battle as well as do some last minute preparations such as gearing up each unit or switching their starting positions on the battlefield. Once the battle begins the player will take it in turns with the enemy to move their combatants around the grid-based field to attack each other until the player successfully defeats every enemy soldier on the map. The player can take heavy losses which will have different repercussions depending on what difficulty and mode they choose to play on, but should Chrom or the Avatar be killed in action it will be game over.
The screen format has been flipped from the previous DS titles in the series as the main action now takes place on the main 3D screen, sacrificing the touch screen controls in order to gain the more desirable viewing experience. Fortunately the cursor movement is incredibly fast and fluid using the circle pad and although it isn’t as instant as the touch controls for Shadow Dragon it doesn’t feel as sluggish as the similarly controlled Battleships. The bottom screen now displays each character's stats, active skills and inventory. The only real information presented on the main screen beyond the core action is the actual combat statistics just before launching an attack showing how much health each combatant has, what weapon they’re using how much damage they’ll deal and what chance they have of actually hitting their opponent or scoring a critical hit. What could easily feel like an overwhelming amount of data to have to look at before making a move is actually quite elegantly presented thanks to the dual screens that the system offers.
Most characters join the Shepherds as part of the main story, but a few are optionally recruited by using Chrom to negotiate with certain enemies or civilians. Each playable character has their own class which will determine what weapons or magic spells they are able to wield once in combat. At the core of the combat is the classic weapon triangle rock-paper-scissors system that dictates which weapon types have an advantage over the other. The basic rule is that swords beat axes, axes beat lances and lances beat swords unless of course a character with a disadvantageous weapon has a higher raw damage output thanks to being at a higher level. Archers can only attack from a distance or in a cell located diagonally from an opponent, leaving them vulnerable to a direct close-range attack although they do have the advantage of being able to fire over obstacles such as rivers and walls essentially averting any risk against enemies without access to ranged weapons. Characters riding airborne steeds can cover the most ground but are very fragile when confronted with Archers or Mages using wind attacks. Priests or Clerics can heal or rescue allies but are otherwise defenseless so must be kept out of harm’s way. Once a duel with an enemy has finished a player will gain experience points as long as they dealt damage to the opponent which will allow them to level up and improve their combat stats.
The variety of different classes, weapons and mobility of each different character allows for a great amount of flexibility in how players approach each battle. In order to defeat the enemy without suffering any friendly casualties players would be wise to be cautious in their approach, especially on the harder difficulties where enemy soldiers will gang up and annihilate any vulnerable team members with relative ease. With a tap of the X button you will be able to see any unsafe zones where enemies will be able to attack you. Early on players will more than likely become reliant on Frederick, a Great Knight who can take a great deal of punishment in comparison to the other starting characters. Placing him just inside the danger zone whilst keeping lower health and weaker characters just out of reach will lure opponents towards the player where they will then be able to attack is a simple but effective strategy and allowing lower level characters to move in for the killing blow will grant them more XP to catch up with the stronger ones. Although some characters may need a little babysitting when they’re first introduced they will eventually become just as good, if not better, than characters who begin with much better stats.
In addition to the three initial difficulty options there are two different modes in which players can choose to experience the story in. Casual Mode allows for players to be able to keep any fallen comrades after a battle while Classic keeps the series’ staple permanent character deaths should they be killed. The level of adjustment in the difficulty level will no doubt be a welcome addition to those new to the series or perhaps simply don’t want to worry about losing their favourite characters. While even in Classic Mode there is a fairly quick method of restarting should things go wrong by performing a soft reset (by pressing L, R and either Start or Select) or creating a bookmark in the battle to quit out of the game and reload a previous save retreating out of some of the more gruelling battles may in the end negate the accomplishment of reaching that point in the first place, but then that has been part of the appeal and challenge of the previous Fire Emblem titles. Should you hit a wall in progressing through the game it is possible to grind a little to level up your fighters but there’s no option to lower the difficulty or switch to Casual Mode once an adventure has been started which could have the potential to frustrate less patient players.
Character relationships are also integral throughout the game. By positioning units next to each other during an attack the support character will grant temporary stat boosts for the duel as well as having a chance of blocking an incoming attack or unleashing an extra attack. It’s also possible to pair up units onto the same square on the grid which can be very useful for characters with limited mobility but it doesn’t allow for each individual unit to initiate their own attack. When two paired or adjacent units finish their move, be it offensive or defensive, their relationship will improve and will unlock conversations between chapters that will level up their relationship. Certain pairings can reach S rank, get married and produce children that gain strengths from both of their parents and can then be recruited for battle. The children already have one predetermined parent with the other being used to bolster stats and slightly change their appearance. Each character can only marry once, so players won’t be able to simply get their avatar to reproduce with every member of the opposite sex. There’s no option for same-sex marriage probably due to the children that result from the union of two characters, but there is a fortune teller who will try to gauge two characters’ feelings towards one another. It would have been an interesting little throw-away feature had it tracked any choices a player had made in the main game but it appears to be just random.
In between each chapter the player is able to move around the Super Mario World style world map and revisit previous locations that will now have a shop set up offering various different spells and equipment for your army to make use of. Side stories also unlock at certain points of the campaign with these battles featuring optional side objectives such as protecting fleeing villagers or killing thieves who are attempting to escape with valuable items. By using StreetPass you can organise a team to send to other players while theirs will appear in a previously beaten location waiting to be challenged. If you can’t find anyone to StreetPass with who has a copy of the game there are also regular challengers who appear on the map anyway. Free downloadable content allows players to recruit fighters from past Fire Emblem games by challenging them or simply paying for them. There is also paid content (the first of which is currently free for a limited time) that allows players to travel back in time to new levels and fight alongside heroes from previous titles against twisted versions of other characters.
Awakening is for the most part a beautiful game to look at. The anime-style cinematics are stunning and the character designs and portraits by No More Heroes’ Yosuke Kozaki are nicely drawn and have much more personality than the previous DS entries. The 3D character models are animated in battle far better than Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn although for some reason every character appears to have stumps in place of feet. On the overhead battle map characters are presented as sprites which might seem odd but are much easier to tell apart without having to look at the character portraits once the cursor is placed over them. The localisation is also the best that a Fire Emblem title has received with a well-written script and great voice acting in cut scenes. Some of the voice clips used during character conversations do get repetitive however with the same few samples being used as you flick through the text boxes. The musical score also impresses featuring stunning compositions, both new and re-arranged versions of classic tracks.
Fire Emblem Awakening is overall the best game in the series so far. The new casual mode allows players who are either new or wish not to be punished so hard for their mistakes to experience the game without getting frustrated, but will also keep series veterans happy with the classic gameplay. Building up character relationships is a surprisingly addictive element of the title and does bring a great amount of potential replayability as players may wish to experiment with different partners in future playthroughs. Overall, the game is a wonderfully presented experience and the best game that the 3DS has to offer.