Eager Fire Emblem fans had a long and apprehensive wait as we looked forward to the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening in North America and Europe--after all, the last Fire Emblem game on the DS never made it outside of Japan. Well it turns out Awakening was well worth any amount of anxious anticipation, as this latest Fire Emblem game offers an incredible wealth of strategic gameplay to satisfy any level of fan, yet also a low enough accessibility that new players won't be overwhelmed by the franchise's often harsh demands on players. Top off the enchanting and riveting gameplay with a fun, massive cast of characters and exceptional presentation value and Fire Emblem: Awakening is a must have for any 3DS owner.
In a somewhat cliché opening your customizable avatar awakens in a field with no memory of his (or her) past, and yet retains a strange affinity for tactical warfare. After teaming up with Prince Chrom and his band of warriors known as the Shepherds, you soon find yourself caught in the midst of a continental conflict, the depth of which you can't even fathom when you begin. What makes the story in Awakening work so well, though, is its fantastic array of characters. Saving the world is all well and good, but listening in on support conversations between characters is a real treat between battles, and these supports can even lead to marriages, giving them not only a tactical advantage but a cute story-related bonus. Additionally, being able to insert your own avatar into the mix as a playable character is a clever way of integrating the player into the story and gameplay--it's easy to grow attached to characters in any Fire Emblem game, but all the moreso when it's your own unique unit on the field. From the storyline to the characters the game is oozing with charm and personality, and it's hard not to love each character for their own unique foibles.
The core gameplay mechanics of the Fire Emblem series haven't changed much over the 20+ years since its inception: it's a strategy-RPG where you move characters around a grid-based field and attack enemy units, often against overwhelming odds so you need to play intelligently. The franchise has always been a particularly challenging series of games due not only to the difficulty of using characters wisely but because in past games any character that died was gone forever. I did say "past games" though: Awakening features a "casual" mode which can be activated on any level of difficulty--normal, hard, and lunatic--so that defeated characters can come back at the end of the chapter. For new players--and even for hardened Fire Emblem veterans--casual mode is a huge weight off the player's shoulders and creates a significantly more welcoming environment to help players learn and understand the intricacies of the game without such harsh penalties. Of course there's also "classic" mode for that familiar sense of challenge, which shows that Awakening knows how to cater to any style of player.
Another significant addition to Awakening is the ability to change character classes, not just promote them. In past games, once a character reached the level limit of 20 you would need to promote them to a new class in order to continue earning EXP, and eventually that class would be maxed out at 20 as well. Now, however, you can change classes laterally, meaning a knight doesn't have to promote to a general, you can change him to a thief or archer for example. This system opens up a massive amount of freedom in crafting your team--for example you might like a certain character's personality or skills but not his class, so now you can just change it and continue to use him as you please. Fire Emblem has always prompted players to craft their ideal team to tackle the battlefield, but now there's even more opportunity to develop your units perfectly, and of course this means far, far more replay value as well. It's easy to get overwhelmed thinking of all the possibilities, but the freedom to do so is an amazing boon, making each player's experience even more unique and personal.
The last major addition is the ability to pair units and perform dual strikes where both units attack a single target at once. It's a give and take system since pairing units means you can only use the pair once per turn rather than using two characters separately per turn, but the boost in power makes pairing well worth it, and is a great way to build support relationships for the aforementioned support conversations. Having yet another tool at your disposal for planning out your attack is more than welcome, and the satisfaction of seeing a well executed dual strike makes all the level raising and support raising worth it. The best part about these changes and additions to the Fire Emblem formula is that they change so little about the fundamentals of the game and yet have a huge, reverberating impact on how you play. This isn't a complete overhaul of the franchise's gameplay but a natural evolution that makes the already addictive, challenging, and enchanting gameplay even better.
The controls of the game are inherently simple--the grid-based and turn-based gameplay doesn't lend itself to much flair or pomp as far as the controls are concerned. Examining the battlefield, selecting units, and scrolling through menus of weapons or stats all work just as conveniently as they should. Awakening does make a small change in the way you see the stats and percentages of each attack, stream-lining the information a bit to give you the essentials in a clearer and more concise way, which can be quite handy when you're trying to judge which unit to use or which weapon. It's a small change but a useful one nonetheless.
Like its approach to controls, the Fire Emblem series has never really needed particularly impressive visuals--after all, no one is upset by the simple visual style of a game like chess. Nevertheless, Awakening puts the 3DS to excellent use and creates beautiful backgrounds and battlefields, exciting character animations, and fantastic use of stereoscopic 3D throughout it all. Individual battle scenes are time consuming but it's hard to resist seeing your characters strike down opponents in stylish 3D. The animated cutscenes are truly gorgeous--and the 3D looks even better here--which will no doubt make you eager to see each new beautifully animated scene as they arise, few though they may be. And finally the portrait artwork, which is shown when characters are speaking, is of the highest quality as well, perfectly capturing personalities while adding visual quirks and traits. If there's one even minor complaint to raise about the graphics and artwork it's that no one has feet in the normal in-game graphics--their legs just kind of stop at the ankle. It is, actually, quite distracting at the beginning of the game, but by the end it's just an art design quirk that is easily overlooked.
The music of Fire Emblem games has always been somewhat understated; if the graphics are subordinate to the gameplay, then the soundtrack is subordinate to the graphics. That doesn't mean the music is lacking in any way, though. On the contrary, the soundtrack is a perfect complement to the rest of the game: light enough to be perhaps overlooked when you're enveloped in planning your attacks yet strong enough to set the theme and tone of battling overwhelming odds for the sake of friends and loved ones. On top of all this, the soundtrack is undeniably catchy as you'll find yourself humming the tunes even after closing the 3DS, which just proves its beautiful subtlety and catchy quality. Additionally, Awakening features light voice acting, primarily for cutscenes but each character has a handful of short statements or exclamations whenever they speak via text dialog. The voice work isn't extensive--which would have been quite a feat considering all the text in this game--but it's a nice touch to liven up the characters and give them a little aural personality.
No matter what difficulty level you play on, causal or classic, Awakening is jam packed with content. Just finishing the game can last around thirty hours, and that doesn't even include the option of using all of the many playable characters available in just one play-through. On top of that there's SpotPass updates which let you recruit even more characters from past games, plus paid DLC which features new maps as well as new characters--including new character classes and skills--and then there's StreetPass functionality which lets you send your team into another player's game to battle them. And this is assuming you're only using one play-through; if you play again on a higher difficulty or to create different marriage parings--and trust me, you'll want to--the sheer amount of gameplay hours, and more importantly unique, compelling gameplay hours, is incredible. Awakening takes hold of your attention and doesn't let go, and every second with the game is engaging, challenging, and satisfying.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is everything a Fire Emblem fan could hope for and more. The rich and rewarding strategy gameplay is all retained with a number of new features that only make the thought-provoking action more compelling, while the colorful characters are a perfect blend of endearing and quirky. With SpotPass and DLC updates the content won't stop flowing for months to come, so you won't have to say goodbye to Chrom and the others even after defeating the final boss. Simultaneously newbie-friendly and brimming with meticulous strategic depth, Fire Emblem: Awakening is both a perfect starting point in the series and a perfect continuation, and is sure to engulf your mind in the best way possible.