Fire Emblem: Awakening, the latest entry to the long-running series, is undoubtedly the sum of its multitude of parts, and that is a beautiful thing.
Oh, Fire Emblem, you had me at high fantasy square grid turn based RPG tactics. Ever since 2003, when the series finally crossed the vast expanse of the pacific ocean to reach our not-so-humble North American shores, I’ve been hooked. I have played every single localized title in the Fire Emblem series to completion, so when I state that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ latest effort, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the absolute pinnacle of the tactics franchise, I heed you to listen closely.
Before we dig in to what makes the latest title incredible, allow me to illuminate why these games are worth a 2nd, 3rd, and perhaps 4th glance, especially when they are found among such esteemed peers as the Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics series. The short answer is that Fire Emblem uses a system that the gaming community has (so eloquently) coined, perma-death. Every character in your small army has a name, a personality, a unique appearance, and one of 42 classes. However, when that character dies in battle, he or she is gone forever, and the player must choose to restart the mission altogether, or cope with the loss and press forward. The looming threat of perma-death brings both emotional and strategic weight to every single decision one makes in a battle. To clear this game without losing a unit will take as much of an iron will as it will talent. Though Awakening allows for a difficulty option known as “casual” that removes perma-death, we all know this is for heathens and cowards only.
The uniqueness of each character and the erasure of dead units carve Fire Emblem: Awakening’s distinctive niche in the tactics RPG genre, in both gameplay and storytelling. No tactics RPG crafts a character progression system that is as rewarding as Awakening’s. Every level up feels great knowing that this character is minutely more effective and safer. Even better, when it finally comes time to advance a character’s class, the player truly feels the power boost gained and an almost paternal sense of pride in this little warrior’s own coming of age story. The bonds formed with each character, both on and off the battlefield, require the player to execute each mission to perfection, not failing any of the loyal soldiers that were trained over many hours. And when, after failing numerous times, that particularly challenging chapter is finally cleared, the feeling as you stand victorious is one worth fighting for.
And challenging it is. Awakening is perhaps the most difficult Fire Emblem game released here in the West. Yet, it also allows the player more options for overcoming adversity. Much like Sacred Stones, Awakening features an overworld map with numerous ways to fight extra battles on the side, be they random enemy occurrences, Streetpass functionality, or DLC (both free and paid). If you feel you just can’t complete the next mission safely, take on some of these side quests. Acquire extra gold for those powerful items you want, and extra levels on the characters that may be falling behind. The cynic could call this grinding, but your brain will be releasing so much dopamine every time you see your favorite fledgling soldier’s numbers go up, you won’t even notice. Besides, every battle is different.
Awakening is no slouch in the art and sound department, either. Most games have, at most, two styles for their characters; one style for gameplay and one for cinematics. Well, the designers at Intelligent Systems decided you need 4 for Awakening. Admittedly, more doesn’t always mean better, but in this case it works mostly well. Gorgeous, anime-inspired cutscenes, hand drawn character portraits for read dialogue, old school sprites on the battlefield map, and decently animated and designed 3D models for the battle scenes. The retronaut in me cries a solitary, manly tear for the loss of the series’ perfectly envisioned and animated sprites, but there’s no use fighting the future, even if it is a bit jaggy. Sporting what is perhaps the best soundtrack in the franchise’s long history, as well as fully voiced cinematics and snippets of voiceover throughout other segments of the game, Awakening’s sound design emerges as one of its best features.
Other than minute nitpicking here and there, my only real complaint with Awakening is not unique to this genre, series, or gamingdom in general. The story could use some work. This isn’t to say the narrative is outright bad, but it is a fairly predictable romp through the various nations with power hungry, mad kings and ancient evil dragons that are, as always, just waiting to be resurrected. These are the tropes you expect from a Fire Emblem title, and they haven’t gone anywhere. Some of the plot twists (if you can even call them that. Try plot bends) are as predictable as they are groan-inducing. However, in the end the tale is compelling enough to keep you actively engaged. The characters are entertaining and interesting, while the writing and localization is simultaneously top notch. Dialogue between characters is always fun, and sometimes even funny. In the end, the story does occasionally manage to make the player feel things, which is nice, and it is definitely aided the unspoken bond formed with each unit on the risky, rewarding battlefield.
Awakening is definitely the kind of sequel that, rather than reinvent itself, builds and improves on its predecessors. This is not to say that the latest installment doesn’t bring new features and content to the table. Most notably, the support system has been overhauled. Your units build up relationships as they fight side by side, gaining stat boosts based on proximity to each other and the strength of their friendship. Units can now even be paired together and fight side by side, yet moved as if they were a singular character. Support relationships can grow so strong that opposite-sex soldiers can even marry. Certainly an exciting feature, but this modern, 21st century gamer finds it a bit uncomfortable that Awakening only allows for heterosexual partnering. Is someone going to write Nintendo about the necessity for video entertainment to be an exemplar of social progress, or do I have to? After all, Bioware got the memo… Ah well, at least my Chrom and Sully are happy together.
Awakening is so unbelievably packed with content that it is easily one of the best deals on the handheld market on an entertainment-to-dollar ratio. Many story missions (I won’t spoil the exact number), half as many side quests, tons of DLC with more on the way, random battles, multiplayer capabilities… the list goes on. I’ve spent 25 hours with this game, not counting mission restarts, and sometimes I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. If you’ve been holding out on buying a 3DS, there has never been a better time than now.