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Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS) artwork

Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS) review

"Gregor ees on job!"

Fire Emblem is not a new intellectual property. The first installment in the long-running series of strategy games arrived on the original Famicom in 1990, but the first one to reach North America didn’t do so until 13 years later. Perhaps that delay explains why Western audiences have had difficulty acclimating themselves to the way Fire Emblem operates. Though the franchise definitely has its fans, a lot of gamers have been turned off by certain rules that tend to define the experience. This latest release, Fire Emblem: Awakening, looks to change that.

Everything about Awakening seems to have been designed to reduce frustration, which is particularly evident once you learn that you can finally remove the permanent death mechanic if it suits you. In past titles in the series (minus one DS entry that was never seen outside of Japan), characters who died in battle remained dead--or at least too badly injured to fight--for the remainder of the campaign. Hours of character building could be lost after sustaining one unlucky blow from an enemy. This is a mechanic that has defined Fire Emblem for decades, but it can certainly be off-putting for those who view a character’s death as a permanent failure.

Awakening appeases players who dislike that convention by introducing Casual mode, which eliminates the permanent death penalty (though any recruitable characters who die before you add them to your party will still remain dead forever). This change naturally makes the game much easier because now you can “sacrifice” units without giving the matter too much thought. Thankfully, you can also mix and match Casual mode with any of the game’s difficulty settings to create a mix of challenge and risk that works for you. Importantly, those who enjoy living on the edge of a knife, relishing the feeling that any skirmish could be their last, can still play in Classic mode with permanent death penalties in place.

Some of the game’s other elements have been streamlined, as well. Character recruitment and relationship building has been modified so that there’s no more need to worry about who is compatible with who. Characters that you must recruit within missions will often respond to multiple party members, so you no longer have to guess which character must be used to solicit their aid like was necessary in the past. Now most characters can be convinced by a variety of party members, and everyone in the game can be recruited by Chrom, the main character. Warriors who battle alongside one another still build relationships and will learn to support each other more effectively, but the former limit of five support levels has been removed. There’s now a list to let you know who can support who, and everyone can gain three levels of support with everyone they’re compatible with. You’re no longer asked to decide where five finite levels are allocated.

Every time two characters gain a support level, you’re treated to a special conversation between the parties involved. Except for a handful of main characters and your own avatar (who you create at the beginning of the game), most characters are incredibly one-dimensional. They usually are defined by a single character trait that’s repeated forever. One party member might have a tendency to use big words, while another may cry way too much. Meanwhile, the overarching story is pretty typical for this sort of fantasy setting (there’s royalty and magic and a dragon and all of that stuff). In spite of its shallow nature, the story features light and fun writing that makes conversations a pleasure to read, plus the plot twists are interesting enough that you’ll want to follow along to see what happens next. Relationships don’t exist simply for entertainment purposes, either. Characters who appreciate one another can provide additional support in combat or even marry one another. After that particular commitment is made, the miracle of time travel allows you to recruit heroes’ eventual offspring to fight in your army. They’ll possess certain traits that they gained from their parents, such as skills and potential class evolutions. Yes, you can breed your playable characters, much like you do the monsters in Pokémon.

Another welcome new mechanic is the Pair Up system, which allows two characters to share a single square on a map and work as one unit. The process mixes the Support system and the Rescue ability that appeared in previous games. Paired units will receive support bonuses in every battle, as if they are standing next to their ally on the map (which means that they could see increased defense or critical hit rates, for example). A paired unit will receive even more stat bonuses than are possible when simply enjoying support from an adjacent character. The tradeoff is that both units will move together, and they will only attack one time unless their support abilities are randomly triggered in battle (by default, if a pair doesn’t have a very close relationship, the active unit will receive stat bonuses but the secondary unit probably won’t block any attacks or do any damage and the secondary unit also won’t gain any EXP unless he or she chooses to attack). Pair a husband and wife unit and you could produce a seemingly unstoppable killing machine, one that hits up to four times per battle and blocks most attacks. Such a system allows for some interesting strategies. For instance, it’s possible to pair a healer with a mage at the beginning of a battle, before there’s anyone that needs healing, to protect the squishy healer and increase the mage’s magic power. In another instance, a unit with low movement might join a pegasus knight to fly closer to the action, before the two split into separate units again on that same turn. A unit that has taken damage and has low HP can also be paired with a stronger unit for protection, which also offers helpful stat boosts.

In spite of the numerous changes, Fire Emblem: Awakening remains a Fire Emblem game and it will continue to appeal to series fans. Gameplay still takes place on a grid, characters still level up and learn new skills, and they can change classes once they reach certain levels. Classic mode is tense, and losing a character late in a battle forces you to think about whether or not you’re willing to sacrifice them and accept the victory their loss ensured. You can always reload your last save from before the battle started, but will you do any better the next time around? Maybe the second time you attempt the stage, you’ll lose more characters, or someone even more important.

For better or worse, some of the impact such decisions might have had is lost even when you’re playing in Classic mode. Unlike most Fire Emblem games that preceded it, Awakening allows for grinding using infinitely re-spawning optional skirmishes. Past games offered a limited number of battles that meant there was a finite amount of EXP to go around. Every single attack a player mounted was also a careful decision about which characters should be allowed to grow stronger through combat experience, but that’s not the case anymore. If you’re willing to put in the time, every one of your characters can master all class available to them.

Depending on how much of the optional content you wish to experience, you may actually find that you have no choice but to grind. New missions and characters are distributed via SpotPass and paid DLC. None of the former missions are currently available in North America, and only one piece of (temporarily free) beginner DLC is live at present, but the options that will eventually be available can reportedly prove quite tough. Such missions will allow you to encounter and recruit tons of extra characters. A few of those are characters that appear in the regular story, but the vast majority of them are guests from classic Fire Emblem titles. If you’ve ever wanted to have Marth, Roy, and Ike in the same party, you can make that happen now. Even if you choose not to buy any of the DLC, classic characters appear every day for you to pound on and recruit, and they can be summoned and refought indefinitely. Awakening has tons of optional content.

Fire Emblem: Awakening does a great job of remaining true enough to the series’ roots to satisfy its loyal fanbase while also opening up and becoming less intimidating to new players. The new Pair Up and revamped Support systems add a few really interesting layers of depth, and the amount of content available in Japan--both free and paid--is simply staggering. Even though most of that content hasn’t yet arrived in North America, Awakening is by no means a small game. It already contains more than 40 recruitable characters and dozens of missions. A handful of fans may be disappointed by the unlimited amount of EXP that can be acquired, but most of them will probably enjoy Awakening as much as they have any other Fire Emblem (if not more so). Perhaps more importantly, Awakening serves as a great starting point for potential new Fire Emblem fans. If you’ve ever enjoyed a tactical RPG, this is one that you won’t want to miss.


Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (February 06, 2013)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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