Fire Emblem is a long-running Nintendo exclusive franchise that has garnered millions of fans across the world, but mostly in Japan. It hasn't really ever gotten a strong foothold in the West, for whatever reason, but the big N are really making a push to position this latest entry in the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening, as the ultimate experience. Does it live up to the hype of tactical brilliance, or is just another grid/turn-based strategy game?
Let me get this out of the way early and say that this game is every bit the tactical RPG you want it to be. There is a grand and sweeping tale that takes you through an international war, there is romance, there is leveling up and there is plenty of battling. Most importantly, however, for the Fire Emblem faithful, there is lots of hardcore difficulty.
The general plot follows Chrom, the prince of Ylisse, on his journeys and troubles. The player also creates an in-game character that you can customize the general appearance and skills of who is found to have amnesia at the start of the game. This serves as a great plot device for introducing the player to the game world and its mechanics. One thing leads to another and you eventually have warfare, supernatural beings and a sacred object sought after across the world up for grabs. It's generally not too surprising and keeps things moving forward, but you probably don't play Fire Emblem for the plot itself; you probably play Fire Emblem for the punishing difficulty and intense strategic battles.
Fire Emblem has never been a game for the feint of heart and Awakening is no different. Battles take place from a top-down perspective on a grid. The player controls each member of the party individually, moving them around, assisting allies and attacking enemies. Once all of your troops have moved, it's the enemies turn. This pattern continues until the battle is over. Generally, this is how combat ensues, but Nintendo have expanded things a bit from this basic interpretation of the genre.
First off, the entire combat system is, just like previous entires, based around the sword-axe-lance (rock-paper-scissors) format. Each weapon has an advantage against another, ensuring stability on the battlefield. This means that you want to diversify your party and make sure you spread the XP in battles as equally as possible. In addition to those three types of troops there are magic users, archers, flying units and several other variances to keep things interesting.
The best addition this time around is how the game handles relationships between characters. For starters, if you place units next to one another in a battle, they gain added stat bonuses and even the chance to block attacks from enemies or follow-up attacks from allies. This leads to a whole new layer of strategy and placement on the battlefield to try and maximize the best bonuses and placements. When two characters fight side-by-side in battle enough times, their relationship improves. This eventually leads to things like "support conversations" that unveil added layers of their personalities. Those conversations and interactions are never the same which makes you rack your mind even more to decide which relationships you want to build over others. Eventually, they may even get married and have children. Moving that guy around the left or right flank may actually decide who his future wife and kids are....crazy.
It doesn't stop there, however. As just like any Fire Emblem title, your characters die permanently when they die in battles. You can turn this off and play in a more "casual" mode, but that would defeat the purpose if you're actually looking for the complete Fire Emblem experience. While it's a simple concept on it's face and you wouldn't really expect to care a whole lot about the characters you play with in a game like this, you would be wrong. The writing and character progression is out of this world and each of the dozens of personalities are likable in their own way. Once you get further into the game, Awakening sets itself apart from other SRPGs because instead of deciding whether you should let Knight A take one for the team and die, that could be Frederick, the trusted guardian of the Prince and current husband and father to other members of your party. That could be the character that has saved you several times over and it can be tough to make those decisions in the heat of battle; it's an immersive experience unlike any I've had the pleasure of being part of as a gamer.
The cutscenes are superb, along with the great voice acting. There isn't much of it, except for the fully animated cutscenes, but it's enough for a game like this. There are plenty of side missions and even DLC to keep you busy for months at a time. If you're looking for a new must-have 3DS game, you can't really get much better than Fire Emblem: Awakening. It takes everything that was great about the franchise already and makes it even better while adding in more layers of progression and character development. While the difficulty can be overly punishing and it does get off to a bit of a slow-start, this game should not be missed.
Let us know your thoughts on the game and the review in the comments below. Are you playing Awakening?
This review was based on a review copy of the game for the Nintendo 3DS provided by Nintendo.