The tactical mainstay tries to appeal to everyone. Does it succeed?
“I’ve always been curious about Fire Emblem.”
That’s something I’ve read a lot in the past couple weeks. Despite the series’ buoyed renown thanks to Super Smash Bros., people remain wary. Whether it’s the infamous “permadeath” feature or its nature as a tactical game in general, something about Fire Emblem is uninviting at best, and repulsive at worst. Intelligent Systems tries to address this issue in Fire Emblem Awakening, and it is no coincidence that Nintendo has shone the spotlight so squarely on the game this winter; there has never been a more accessible entry in the series. But don’t let that fool you—underneath its friendly veneer awaits the same challenging experience Fire Emblem is known for.
Still, that challenge is yours to mold. Thanks to its Casual Mode, players in North America can play with “permadeath” turned off for the first time, fundamentally changing the experience. While Classic Mode has your beloved characters teetering on the precipice between life and death with every decision, Casual Mode instead brings every fallen character back to life after a battle is won. Players can even save their games during battles and, if a gutsy gambit should fail, can simply load that save to make a different move. It’s a calculated, radical change to the DNA of Fire Emblem meant to extend a hand to fence-sitting players, as if to say, “See? I’m not so bad!”
The character creation feature is another way Awakening ingratiates players. Your avatar is crucial to the story and is entirely customizable, including his or her name, face, hair, voice, height, and other attributes. The variety of choices makes running across a duplicate via SpotPass pretty unlikely. The most interesting aspects of the process, though, were the asset and flaw categories. Here, players choose which stat their character should excel in (strength, magic, speed, luck, etc.) and which they should have a deficit in. I thought these choices might affect how your character plays; a character excelling in strength might be more of a “tank,” and a character flawed in defense might be an archer or thief, for example. But, much to my surprise, the created character always uses swords and magic, and plays irrespective of your choices. This was especially disappointing to me, as I picked magic as my weakness, and had to use rare items to boost my magic prowess to make the most of my character’s abilities. After a few hours, you gain the ability to change any character’s class, including your created character, but by then, I had adjusted and simply stuck with what I was given. My advice: don’t be flawed in strength or magic.
The story of Awakening centers around Prince Chrom and your created character, who is found unconscious in a field by the good prince. Your character suffers from amnesia (as all good, mysterious protagonists should) and is soon enlisted into the Shepherds, a group of soldiers who protect the borders of Ylisse from invading countries. Despite its familiar beginnings, the story moves in some interesting directions as more and more science fiction is injected into the typical fantasy setting. Things are appropriately grandiose by the endgame, and the complexities should keep you interested as you move from battle to battle, something that definitely isn’t the case with every Fire Emblem game.
Awakening’s noticeable production quality helps in this regard. It portrays key moments with gorgeous animated cut scenes, which feature full voice acting and look brilliant in both 2D and 3D. Even the scenes played out in-engine look great, thanks to stylized and detailed 3D models, but be prepared to read a lot of text boxes. Fortunately, the writing is sharp, and, thanks to its excellent localization, often humorous, so it isn't a chore. What is a chore, though, is listening to characters make a noise each time their text box appears, from grunts to simple exclamations like “yes” or “no.” It sounds miniscule, but when you are reading text for over a minute, you quickly grow weary of the continuous barrage of “No!” “What?!” and “You!”
Gameplay is broken up into two phases: battling, and traversing the overworld map. The overworld portions are the more uninteresting of the two, naturally, and offer the player a chance to sell loot, visit shops, promote units, level up relationships, and then move on to the next battle. These functions are all simple enough to navigate, and you’ll easily develop a succinct post-battle routine that quickly gets you back into the action.
The bulk of the game takes place on the battlefield, where the strategic elements of Fire Emblem are all accounted for. Characters move across grid maps as they attack, heal, open chests, visit villages, and more. The maps start out pedestrian, sporting fields, castles, and small towns, but with progression, you see some incredible terrain. I was shocked at the inventiveness of some levels; I found myself climbing up a tree, with branches forcing me in different directions, and navigating an active volcano as the traversable land burned away with each turn.
The battle system is mostly unchanged. Choosing to attack an enemy displays the percentage chance you have to hit him, the potential damage, and the chance for a critical hit, while also displaying the stats for the enemy’s counterattack. Here, Awakening, as in all Fire Emblem games before it, becomes a strict numbers game. Do you risk attacking an enemy with a 78 percent chance to hit, knowing that if you miss, his counterattack will kill you? Every turn is filled with deliberation, particularly for those playing the Classic Mode. Adding to the strategy is the fact that each weapon type has something it is effective and ineffective against. Bows are useless against heavily armored foes, but can knock out a Pegasus Knight in one hit; swords are better against axes, which are better against lances, which are better against swords. Think of it as Pokémon meets Advance Wars.
The one wildcard is the new relationship system. Where particular units would develop relationships in past Fire Emblem games that might translate to a small advantage on the battlefield, Awakening allows every character the opportunity to build relationships with other members of the cast, simply by battling next to each other. The lowest level of relationship, which is automatically shared between all characters, results in a +10 aim bonus. So, casting a spell alone might give a mage a 75 percent chance to hit. But, position him next to another character, and he suddenly has an 85 percent chance to hit. As units fight alongside each other more and their relationship levels up (from C to B to A and, in some cases, to S), extra modifiers are applied on top of the hit bonus, including chances to critical, dodge, and more. You can even gain a small chance for the second unit to attack alongside the main, which doesn’t even use up his turn!
This forced me to play Fire Emblem in a new way. Instead of running characters in each direction to the nearest foe, I would stop and think about how best to position units to build and utilize the perks of their relationships. Moreover, it was sometimes a better idea to move two units together into a defensive position and draw the enemy out then to try and move and attack separately. More difficult battles featured this ebb and flow, as I charged for the attack and then withdrew to regroup my units and play defensively.
Building relationships becomes a worthwhile investment on the battlefield, but It also leads to unlockable characters. When a male and female character both reach an S rank, they marry. After that, you can recruit their child, who possesses characteristics (both in look and in job class) of his parents. Since each character can only marry once, you won’t even see a number of child variants in a single playthrough. I know I’m already itching to run through again and start marrying different characters, just to see what I get. Expect to spend lots of time working on relationships.
Outside the main quest, Awakening has a few things to keep you coming back. StreetPass brings in armies of other players for you to battle, recruit, or purchase items from, and there is a local-only co-op mode (which requires two copies of the game) that lets you and a friend battle against AI opponents. Additionally, Nintendo plans to continue supporting Awakening with additional maps and characters, available both for free over SpotPass and as paid DLC.
Fire Emblem Awakening confidently toes the line between servicing its roots and courting potential players. The battle system is as mathematically complex as ever, the added relationship system can suck up countless hours, and the final handful of missions is absolute hell for anyone playing on Classic Mode. Still, an olive branch is extended to newcomers, who can turn off the more imposing features while being met with helpful tutorials and impeccable production value. Despite its minor flaws, I was never once unhappy while dumping 30 hours (officially, though you can add at least another 10 for all the times I had to restart battles) into the main quest over the past two weeks. Is Fire Emblem Awakening for everyone? Absolutely not. But it is certainly for more people than any other game in the series. If you’ve been curious, now is the time to dive in.