When Fire Emblem came out on the GameBoy Advance many years ago, I was extremely excited. I loved playing as Marth and Roy in Super Smash Brothers Melee, and I had read the gameplay is similar to Advance Wars, one of the best games on the GameBoy Advance. Once I had received it, Fire Emblem became one of my favourite games of all time and I always highly anticipated any new instalments from this strategy-RPG series.
While Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance were good games with solid stories, they didn’t really add anything interesting to the gameplay and I became less excited with every subsequent Fire Emblem. So the question now is whether Fire Emblem: Awakening on 3DS can revitalise my love of the series, or is it simply another okay game?
The short answer is: Yes, I love Fire Emblem Awakening. It’s possibly the best game in the franchise and probably the best game available on 3DS.
When you begin Fire Emblem: Awakening you create a tactician who acts as your avatar and is a key character to the story. You and Chrom, the prince of Ylisse and the main character of the game, kill what appears to be the final boss of the game. Shortly after, your Avatar winds up murdering Chrom after being possessed by the man you just killed.
At this point your character awakens in a field only to meet Chrom, alive and well with a smile on his face. You get taken in by his merry band of mercenaries called the Shepherds tasked with keeping peace in the nation, saving citizens from bandits, invading armies, and hordes of the undead.
Like many Fire Emblem games, your army will have to save the home nation from invading armies and eventually uncover a deeper darker plot. I will admit that the story is not ground breaking or as deeply involved as other games released this year. However, the story is genuinely engaging with just enough mystery to keep your attention.
Of particular interest is whether the opening sequence was a prophecy of some kind and who the mysterious masked man calling himself Marth is.
All the characters are extremely likable and are entertaining to see interact with each other. It’s especially effective that they bring the player into the narrative by making an Avatar character that represents them and making the player a key part of the story.
The support conversations between different members of your army help bring more character to each of their unique personalities, gradually allowing players to grow attached to the characters in the game.
For the first time in Fire Emblem history, combat using 3D polygonal characters actually looks as good as, if not better than the 2D sprites seen on the GameBoy Advance. On GBA the sprite animations were stylised nicely with comic book like flashes that looked very impressive, particularly the critical hits.
When Fire Emblem made the jump to GameCube the battles looked much more stiff and boring, making it almost unbearable to watch. However, everything about the battles in Fire Emblem: Awakening is visually improved.
Character movements feel very dynamic as they run around their opponents to dodge blows, double back to deliver follow-up attacks or lift a sword to parry an opponent that’s about to connect. Even after fifty hours of gameplay, I still enjoyed watching the battle animations.
The animation is not the only visually impressive thing about the combat. The details on the characters clothing is quite impressive as no two characters look the same. Every weapon they equip is also unique in detail and immediately recognisable when used in battle. The backgrounds are stunning with set pieces ranging from giant tree roots surrounded by water that combine vibrant blues and greens, to villages set ablaze during a raid that bathe the cold grey stones of the street in orange and red light.
The game also makes use of a limited amount of cut scenes. They are done in an anime style and are gorgeous to watch. The characters are quite expressive and the voice acting in both English and Japanese is performed very well. Outside of the cut scenes, dialogue uses the same combat models for your characters to represent basic body language while character art is used to represent facial expression during conversations.
This is effective in delivering the more variable parts of the story, though the dialogue is what you’ll be more interested in. The character art is also in an anime style and very well represents the colourful cast of characters present in the game.
The music is quite good in Fire Emblem. They use a variety of different tunes for the conversations to set the mood and the music used cut scenes helps to emphasise the tone of each story segment of the game. Where the audio in this game stands out however is during the story battles. When you are moving your characters around the grid, the song is toned down but as soon as your unit is in combat, the music adds more layers of sound to expand and capture the intensity of the battle.
One particularly memorable piece happens during a climactic battle between two armies. An orchestra plays an epic tune that captures the drama of the situation perfectly but when a character attacks, you hear a chorus of men singing in Latin. It is little details like that which elevates Fire Emblem: Awakening into a new standard for the series.
The gameplay is what truly makes Fire Emblem: Awakening entertaining. It keeps the combat and class system very similar to earlier instalments, but making enough changes to keep old players interested without alienating them at all. It is also simple enough that people new to the franchise can easily understand and enjoy the games mechanics.
Like the earlier games, battles take place on a bird’s eye view of a map. Movement is grid based and turns alternate between the player and the enemy. Varying units and classes have different advantages and disadvantages as they traverse the map, as well as in combat.
These range from mounted units moving further across plains but slower across sand, to Pegasus knights having no movement penalties but being susceptible to archers and wind magic. It’s a very simple and approachable system, but battles quickly become more difficult and you’ll have to think strategically about whom you send into battle and what equipment they should carry. You can also heavily customise the characters classes using items to gain new skills and stats to cater to your own playing style.
When you begin a new game it asks if you would like to the newcomer or the classic mode. In classic mode, it plays like every other Fire Emblem game, so when a character is defeated in battle they are dead for the rest of the game. This ensures that most players will feel a heart breaking guilt if they sacrifice any character to ensure victory or if they made a mistake in their strategy, keeping the narrative more engaging.
In newcomer mode, when a character is defeated they are simply gone for the rest of the mission as opposed to the rest of the game. This small addition helps ease new players into the game, making it more accessible and making every mission much more relaxing. I can tell you from experience the game starts to become a lot less fun when you start a mission for the thirtieth time because you refused to let your candy obsessed thief die half way through the story.
The other major improvement is the support system. Other Fire Emblems allowed your characters to form relationships with each other via support conversations. These conversations are entertaining and help the player understand the characters and their relationships. The practical benefit is seen in combat when the characters fought near each they would receive small stat boosts.
However in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the benefits of support conversations are much more obvious. The characters will actually double up in battle to improve each other’s statistics, perform duel attacks or even defend each other when receiving damage. You can also use the support conversations to get characters to marry each other and have their offspring join your army later in the game. If you’re anything like me you’ll spend more hours than you should, trying to match up the perfect couple. This also adds to the replay value since you’ll want to try different parent combinations to change the children’s stats and abilities, or even just to set them up with different spouses.
Fire Emblem Awakening makes use of the StreetPass functionality by sending and receiving player armies to each other’s 3DS’s so you can buy their items, hire their avatars or battle them for extra experience and renown. If you connect to the internet, Fire Emblem also updates with free items and challenge maps you can play through which unlock characters from earlier Fire Emblem games and nine DLC maps are currently available for purchase. So there are plenty of gameplay options and extras to keep you playing your 3DS for the next three months (or years depending on how obsessive you are).
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Fire Emblem Awakening is the best game currently available on the 3DS and is a must own for any fan of JRPGs or strategy games. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score is the games simplistic and, at times, predictable story. The simple gameplay and customizability of difficulty makes this the most accessible game in the franchise and will please casual and core audiences alike. A minimum of 20-30 hours of games will be required to complete the adventure but the addictive features of support conversations, creating offspring and customizing your characters will ensure you’ll be playing this game for several months to come.
Anybody who has played and enjoyed previous Fire Emblem games or Advance Wars games will love Fire Emblem: Awakening and I would definitely recommend it to fans of Final Fantasy or Valkyria Chronicles as well. Anime fans will probably also enjoy the game. A free demo is available to download from the Nintendo eShop if you wanted to test the game out before purchasing it.