Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening

FireEmblemAwakening

In the raging fog and fire of war, the aspiring master tactician has to juggle a myriad of critical concerns. Attack full force or hold back for a defensive strike? Does everyone have the correct weapons and spells equipped? And hey, which units should I hook up, so they can get married and have children, providing soldier fodder for future battles?

Yes, it’s true that Fire Emblem: Awakening, the tactical-RPG series’ splashy debut on the Nintendo 3DS, puts you in the intriguing role of social engineer/matchmaker as well as battlefield general. This Match.com move is just one more clever choice the game gives you to deploy, and one more way it lets you play the way you want. In a 3DS library that’s still small enough to only occupy a single wing, Fire Emblem: Awakening merits a spot on the top shelf.

The wild array of choices represents a major sea change. Since its U.S. debut on the Game Boy Advance back in 2003, the Fire Emblem series has always been revered for its smart tactical chops — and largely avoided by the casual masses, who end up rebuffed by the rigidly unforgiving attitude toward battlefield missteps. In a world in which gaming death has become about as meaningful as flipping channels between “Girls” and “How I Met Your Mother,” Fire Emblem always dared to differ. Left your favorite unit a little exposed on the flank? Bummer, dude—when he’s dead, he stays dead. (Well, at least until you turn off your game and reboot from the last save point, but that’s not the point.)

Purists will cough a sigh of relief to learn that’s still true if you play Fire Emblem: Awakening in Classic mode. Those who’ve always wondered what all the Fire Emblem fuss is about can cotton to the new Casual mode, where unit permadeath gently becomes “retiring from the battlefield.” Losing all your units still nets you a game over, but the new casual approach allows for some trial and error that earlier Fire Emblem entries never really brooked. Developer Intelligent Systems deserves major props for catering to both audiences without irritating either.

Our story starts innocently before exploding into an epic saga that, for a welcome change, feels worthy of the name. Your avatar is discovered in a field by the dashing prince Chrom, his sister Lissa and their stuffy knight-at–arms Frederick. You’re suffering from (ugh) amnesia, but before you can say “mission one,” you and a growing army of colorful characters are fending off an army of zombified warriors and embroiled in a kingdom-wide scrum to control (what else?) the magical Fire Emblem. Then it’s off to the tactical races.

The units are a huge part of what makes the game enjoyable. Each of the 40 you’ll potentially encounter and recruit–don’t imagine you’ll be able to use them all—has its own hilarious and/or intriguing wrinkle. Guys like Kellam, a knight that nobody ever seems to notice, despite the fact that he’s as big (and powerful) as a tank. Or Virion, the frilly and foppish archer. There are units whose gender identity always seems to be a source of confusion, and units that can transform into neon dragons and glowing-eyed monster rabbits. When you find yourself agonizing over which ten units to bring into battle and strategic viability isn’t always your leading criteria, you know the designers have totally nailed it. These are characters you’ll care about and really work to level up and preserve, even if you’re not risking their permanent death in Classic/Lunatic mode.

Character customization is another fascinating wrinkle to the action. When your units hit level 10, you can pay to buy a master seal and specialize their chosen class further, opening up new skill trees, or use a different seal to switch their class to see, for instance, how the magical half live. The decisions you make have real impact on the battlefield, especially in the later missions, when the enemies get big and the battlefields get crowded like a college bar at closing time. Weapon customization’s a little less effective: You can pay to have specific weapons forged for your units, but in most cases you’ll be fine with the spoils you score by winning battles.

Even on the game’s casual settings, the AI difficulty is appropriately curved—around the fifth mission, enemy units begin targeting your healers and magicians the way Kim Kardashian targets a video camera, and exploiting holes you’ve left in your ranks. Every melee battle plays out in glorious 3D animation on the 3DS’s upper screen. And if that’s not your thing, the game lets you tap an icon and speed right through it—yet another way you can make the experience uniquely your own.

All the tactical staples are in play as you move your units around the stages—paying attention to enemy unit range and terrain, attacking from behind for greater damage, etc.—but it’s the team-up facets that really add an addictive strategic depth to Awakening. As you’d expect, you can score stat bonuses by placing your units next to each other during battles. But in a deft new feature, you can also pair up two units on the battlefield, a move that combines their stats and turns them into a singular major powerhouse. In battle, the advantages are obvious; when the battle’s done, these support relationships can be further buffed through conversations. Build specific relationships high enough and characters may end up getting married and having kids, who then become new units you can recruit to your cause.

Smartly, there are caveats that balance this pair power play: Depending on how the battles play out, valuable experience points may go only to the primary unit, leaving your support unit woefully behind in the level-progression race. And taking a level 10 healer into a battlefield littered with level 20 wyvern knights is as bad an idea as it sounds.

In a move Nintendo likely wouldn’t have thought to include even as recently as a year ago, Awakening supports (gasp!) regular DLC. Assuming you’ve got the storage space and the cash, you’ll be able to purchase downloadable map challenges to keep things fresh and interesting. Given that this is a game that already encourages you to play through multiple times using different skill levels and modes, steady DLC could make it a year-long staple. Maybe even a multi-year staple.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those rare games that boldly tries to be all things to all people, and actually pulls it off. If your 3DS has been collecting dust since Mario grabbed a stack of gold coins last fall, it’s time to dust it off and get cracking. Yes, it’s only February, but Awakening’s already the leader in the clubhouse for 3DS game of the year.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Same great tactical Fire Emblem gameplay, now with 3D
+ Enough gameplay choices/options to choke a dragon
+ Hilarious and compelling characters
+ Unit-pairing system adds a new risk-reward element

Cons:
– Weapon forging is useless

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 2/4/2013
Genre: Turn-based strategy RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2 (through Streetpass)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.