Fire in the sky

While the strategy-RPG might be considered mostly niche in terms of audience, a few franchises have permanently ingrained themselves  into the hardcore-gaming community. And fewer still represent this better than Fire Emblem. After its first several chapters were Japan exclusives, Fire Emblem crossed the ocean a decade ago and hasn’t looked back since, as we’ve seen one title in the series on every Nintendo system since the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era. So, if Fire Emblem were to continue this streak, it was only a matter of time before it graced the 3DS’s dual screens. And thus, we have Fire Emblem: Awakening, featuring the same core tactical turn-based strategy gameplay we’ve come to love.

Now, before we even get into the story, we need to talk about something that’s never been seen in a Fire Emblem on this side of the Pacific before: In Awakening, you’re allowed to customize your character. Sure, it’s not as detailed as something you might get in an open-world game, but you still get to name your character, choose their gender, hair, and facial features, and develop an immediate bond with them.

Of course, this also means it’s unlikely that we’ll see much of this particular roster of characters again beyond maybe a Smash Bros. appearance down the line, because your interactions with each and every one of them—especially for your created character—are critical. This leads to another feature never before seen in North America: the marriage/bonding system. By fighting alongside characters in battle, you develop trust; later on, if set to fight side by side again, the characters will get bonuses to certain stats like Critical Hit or Attack Avoidance. And if that trust builds up high enough, and if the characters are of the opposite sex, they can get married and have children—who later can fight for your cause!

A brand-new tactic—never before seen in any other Fire Emblem—can help with this bonding. By sacrificing a turn (strategy fans know how much of a risk this can be), two characters can team up and occupy one square. In the past, certain mounted characters could help move another character; now, though, that second character can also fight should the main character be attacked—and, thus, can also level up. This is a great mechanism to help evenly level up your forces—and advance your battlefield position.

And speaking of leveling up, each character has a new Skills feature that allows them to equip five unique skills—earning a new one every 5 to 10 levels. These skills can help in combat, increase stats, or give a variety of other bonuses depending on the terrain and scenario. Some are simple, like a plus-2 to defense, while others are more elaborate—like giving you a plus-10 to hit if your enemy’s wielding a particular weapon type.

All these combat adjustments and additions are all well and good, but the heart and soul of an RPG is the story. And though Awakening gets off to a slow start, the story’s just as immersive as any previous title —and you’ll soon find yourself as attached to these new characters.

Awakening begins with your character face-down in the mud and unconscious—but soon found by Chrom, Prince of Ylisse (the continent you find yourself on). Immediately, the cheesy RPG stereotypes start flying; not only does your character have amnesia, but you’re also immediately welcomed with open arms into Chrom’s band of merry men (and women) who fight to keep Ylisse safe from outside forces. And not only that, but you’re immediately made chief tactician, too! How convenient. And so begins the heroic, swashbuckling adventures of Ray the Tactician! Er, or…whoever you should actually choose to be. Like I said, it’s a slow start to the story, but you’re soon caught up in a conflict that’ll span two continents as you try to quell a threat millennia in the making.

A slow start to an RPG story is a more than forgivable offense, as it’s rare that they start off with a bang. That’s not to say there are no unforgivable flaws, though, with Fire Emblem: Awakening. If you choose to play the game with the traditional “permadeath” feature on, you may find your forces dwindling faster than you’d like. This isn’t uncommon in a Fire Emblem game, and there is an option to turn off permadeath via Casual mode. Still, I would’ve loved an easier way to restart battles where I lost characters, instead of having to restart the game over and over. I suppose you could say I should’ve just turned permadeath off, but that wouldn’t be getting the full Fire Emblem experience—and I still like the idea of being punished for letting one of my characters die. But restarting the whole game repeatedly became a chore, and I stopped caring about certain characters (I’m looking at you, Frederick!) after a while.

The biggest letdown, however, is easily the graphics. The animation style for the story cutscenes is fantastic; it exudes a level of detail rarely seen on any console, never mind a handheld. The problem comes from the sprites used on the battle grid that fail to take advantage of the system’s 3D. In fact, much of the game avoids using the 3D feature, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with it. And the few times 3D models are used—mostly during battle sequences—they look blocky and appear to have no feet. I questioned Eric L. Patterson, our news editor, to see if he wasn’t seeing what I wasn’t seeing; he agreed that all the models looked like Rob Liefeld designed them as they pranced around the battlefield on their tiptoes.

At the end of the day, though, these are minor complaints. Fire Emblem: Awakening stands near the pinnacle of the series, as it blends rarely seen elements and a few new twists of its own into the tried-and-true combat and storytelling. Awakening is one of the few must-have’ 3DS titles.  

SUMMARY: Aside for some minor annoyances, this is probably the best Fire Emblem to come to the States yet. Strategy fans everywhere should rejoice.

  • THE GOOD: As pure a strategy experience as you’ll get anywhere.
  • THE BAD: No simple way to restart battles.
  • THE UGLY: The 3D character models look like they were designed by Rob Liefeld.

SCORE: 9.0

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive.