Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: Feb. 4th 2013
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Rating: T For Teen
Played on Nintendo 3DS
Being a fan of Nintendo’s long-running Fire Emblem series, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Fire Emblem: Awakening from the information I was seeing in the weeks before its release. This latest entry seemed like an amalgamation of odd choices with a new, cheaper looking “anime” art style, new game dynamics such as a “pair-up” system and retooled “re-classing” system and the reintroduction of the oft-criticized “world map” from Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones. I was convinced that I would either love this game or abjectly hate it. I quickly realized that– thankfully — it was the former. This is a fantastic, beautiful and engrossing game with a lot of content designed to keep even the most dedicated players busy. However– while thoroughly enjoyable– this isn’t a perfect game by any means.
The story follows Chrom, Prince of Ylisse and his band of warriors known as the “Shepherds” as they traverse the country-side protecting the smallfolk from brigands and bandits (as heroic lords are wont to do). They come across a mysterious, amnesiac stranger collapsed in a field and the story begins from there. This stranger they come upon is you- a surprisingly robust customized character. Herein lies the best decision Intelligent System’s has ever made with the Fire Emblem series; giving the player the ability to self-insert by designing a unit that represents them as a person. You are now a player instead of just an observer; the story is happening to you instead of at you. This idea was first toyed with in the Japanese only release “Fire Emblem: Shin Monsho no Nazo” for the Nintendo DS and was expounded upon significantly in this entry to become possibly the cornerstone mechanic of the whole game. It’s such a simple feature, but proves invaluable in terms of immersion. While it’s disappointing that you are given no real decisions to make in terms of changing the outcome of the main story, the sense of connection “My Unit” provides the player to his/her rag-tag group of warriors is surprising strong.
The name of the game is a grid-based, RNG-centric, Strategy-RPG through and through but what makes Fire Emblem: Awakening unique is the heavy focus on and encouragement of character interaction. When characters spend time fighting together, they gain what is known as “Support” for one another. This gives them stat bonuses in battle and access to “Support Conversations” – short, often comical, sometimes tragic exchanges between two units providing backstory and character exposition. In my opinion, this is a smart and interesting way to allow the player to get to know his/her units without pouring buckets of texts down the their throat. This also makes the game much more accessible to non-RPG players. You only have to listen to the characters you want to listen to– and it’s just great.
There are 49 characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening, each with an average of 6-7 units to have support conversations with. Taking into consideration the 26 main chapters, 23 paralogue chapters, DLC missions and in-game character interactions, there is a lot of text that needed to be translated and Fire Emblem: Awakening’s localization team did an excellent job. While Fire Emblem: Awakening deals with serious subject matter for the most part, when comedic moments come around they are handled very well. The humor is silly, fun, and infectious and the jokes almost never fall flat. The characterization of your units is also great; every character has a unique and noticeable presence in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Be advised though, not all the writing is Shakespeare. Some characters interactions (specifically in Support Conversations) find themselves falling into tired, all-too-familiar archetypes that anyone who has ever watched a drop of anime will instantly recognize.
Another thing Fire Emblem: Awakening is notable for is its permanent death feature. The game is unforgiving– one wrong move on the battlefield and your unit is dead forever. No resurrections, no replacements. Gone forever. Fire Emblem: Awakening also has a casual mode in which units are resurrected at the end of the battle, but this mode mutes a very important theme in Fire Emblem: Awakening’s main story: moving on after death– a concept that the main characters have to deal with time and time again. This carefully maintained balance of life and death adds a heavy weight to every decision you make in Fire Emblem: Awakening- a heavy weight felt significantly throughout the ENTIRE game. That’s why is incredibly disappointing that Fire Emblem: Awakening has such a huge flaw that can sometimes cheapen this intensity: enemy AI.
Ironically, Fire Emblem: Awakening puts such a heavy emphasis on the lives of your personal units and virtually none on the lives of the enemy. Enemy AI is almost non-existent, with only one of two plans of attack: Run at the player’s weakest unit with no regard for its own life or wait until the player’s unit comes into its walking range then run at the player’s weakest unit with no regard for its own life. This makes them far too predictable and easy to deal with. Enemy AI uses no emphasized strategy, such as utilizing unique tile advantages for extra defense or positioning themselves in an area that the player can’t easily access or attack. Instead, the responsibility lies with the game designers to design maps around the simple enemy AI: pre-placing units in hard to reach spaces or adding imposing walls to inhibit the enemy unit’s mindless advances. It feels like the enemy is ALWAYS trying to overpower you instead of out-think you. This type of behavior would make sense when you fight the zombie enemies known as “the Risen,” but the humans that you fight implement the same strategy.
While it is quite fun to stand your ground against wave after wave of enemies crashing against your shields, I sometimes wished for a bit more of a challenge for my brain instead of my fortitude. Not to mention that it’s MORE than frustrating when you lose a unit not to a misstep in strategy, but to a huge horde of mindless enemy reinforcements showing up on top of you and being able to rush your team on the same turn.
Something you’ll be saying quite a lot during this game.
Fire Emblem: Awakening also has a serious problem in finding balance in difficulty. Most players will find “normal mode” far too easy while “hard mode” will be slightly too hard. There is also a large difficulty hump near the beginning of the game that will leave most players extremely frustrated and may turn them off from continuing further in the game. One way to overcome this hump is to utilize the “pair-up” feature. Taking the place of the old “rescue” mechanic from past games, “pair-up” is essentially combining two units into one while adding heavy stat bonuses to the primary attacker, depending on support levels. It’s a clever system that is congruent with Fire Emblem: Awakening’s themes and emphasis on character interaction. While it sounds innocuous enough, on lower difficulties the boosts this system gives you units can be game breaking. As long as you remain paired up, almost no enemy units will be able to take you down. This would be a great little system to learn how to master and utilize effectively if it wasn’t essentially forced upon you to use. Intelligent Systems realized how powerful of a mechanic the “pair-up” system is and adjusted the game’s difficulty accordingly, to the point that there are some missions in the hard and lunatic modes of the game that are unbeatable without it. This forcing of a game mechanic upon the player creates a rigid sense of control over how a player can engage with the game. And limiting the ways in which a player can approach and solve a problem in your game is never a good thing.
Another slightly disappointing facet of this entry is that you are given the ability to infinitely grind for experience and gold. Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones is oft criticized as being “too easy” as you no longer had to distribute EXP intelligently within a finite amount of missions; you could simply grind all your units to god-like levels on the skirmish missions available on the main map. This problem exists in Fire Emblem: Awakening as well and — just like the “pair-up” mechanic– it seems that the difficulty of the game has been raised to balance this. However, due to this rebalance in difficulty, grinding becomes almost necessary which is not only frustrating but a huge step backwards for the series in my opinion. Even so, this dynamic change isn’t without it perks. With infinite grinding, we also gain access to the “re-class system”– another system retooled and brought back from Shin Monsho no Nazo. Once a unit reaches level 10, the player is given the ability reset their units back to level 1 with same or similar stats but as a different class. This allows units to not only pick-up the huge EXP growths of a level 1 character with level 10 stats, but also gain the skills of a different class. Intelligent use of the re-class system is the key to making some of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s most ferocious units.
In terms of presentation, Nintendo attributes some of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s success in Japan to the appeal of the new art style of Yusuke Kozaki. I don’t believe that this was a step in the right direction. As far as character art, Fire Emblem: Awakening seems to have gone the way of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Transitioning from a uniquely branded, intuitive art style to a generic anime look feels more like degradation rather than an improvement on the series. That being said, the sprites and 3D models look GREAT in game. What surprised me most about Fire Emblem: Awakening was how often I was playing with the 3D activated, an experience worthwhile on precious few 3DS game. Character sprites pop out, terrain is given form and depth, birds and snow fly across the screen—several nuanced components work together to really immerse the player in Fire Emblem: Awakening’s beautiful setting and scenery. And that’s just map. The in-battle animations are stylish and a treat to watch. Additionally, the amount of camera features you are given to toy with (First person, slow down, Dynamic camera etc.) add longevity to a feature that I personally would have turned off by chapter 7 or so. Although I’m a big fan of the sprite work from the GBA titles, I definitely learned to love the tightly-animated 3D models of Fire Emblem: Awakening. Quite perplexingly, it seems that Intelligent Systems reached a threshold for how much effort they wanted to put in to making nice 3D models and simply phoned in making them varied and unique. Each unit has a unique head (for the most part) but when they change class, their body swaps out for the generic male/female variant body of that class. For instance, all male warriors have noticeably the same body, but different heads. So much effort was put into making the battle scenes engaging that it’s a shame that the developers cut corners like this. The aesthetic value really suffers and thus so does immersion, with some characters ending up looking truly ridiculous and nothing like themselves (General Sumia, Barbarian Henry etc.).
Nintendo also decided to toy with DLC in Fire Emblem: Awakening, which is a really big step for the Big N. There is not only paid DLC available, but a VERY robust system of free “SpotPass” content that will continue to roll out over the course of the year. Additionally, in what is assured to be the biggest nostalgia high of all time for Fire Emblem fans, Fire Emblem: Awakening features classic Fire Emblem maps, with classic Fire Emblem music, fighting against (and with) classic Fire Emblem characters as paid DLC. However, what’s irksome is that the classic characters were not uniquely modeled, but simply assembled out of the “custom character” parts already available in the game’s resources. While it’s understandable why they cut corners on this (there are 122 available DLC and SpotPass characters alone) these “custom” models rarely end up looking like who they are supposed to be. When someone is purchasing a map for an extra character, they are paying for the rights to play as that character. In my opinion, it’s not only misleading but downright dishonest for a DLC character to be nothing like what the buyer is promised.
While I’m hesitant to say that Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best title for the system due to some rather disappointing flaws, this game is still VERY fun. Genuinely fun. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had on the 3DS in a long while and a definite must-buy for any 3DS owner. I’d even go so far as to suggest that if you were on the fence about getting a 3DS, this should be the game to finally push you over. While far from perfect, Fire Emblem: Awakening is still a thoroughly enjoyable gaming experience with a unique and likeable cast of characters, HUGE amount of content and addictive gameplay. If you’ve never played a Fire Emblem, now is the time to start. While flawed, if this latest entry is any indication for the future of the series, this is the start of something beautiful.