Fire Emblem: Awakening Review
Fire Emblem: Awakening marks a new start for the long-running series. Though Fire Emblem has long been a Japanese market darling, the games haven't hit with much impact on our shores. Past titles like the GBA's Sacred Stones, the DS' Shadow Dragon and the Gamecube and Wii entries were all enjoyed by hardcore fans but failed to make a significant splash among the general public. Awakening aims to change that with a Casual mode (more on this in a minute), a faithful translation of one of the series' best stories yet, a huge marketing push and more to do in-game than any past title in the series. As a gamer, not a reviewer, I hope Awakening succeeds in boosting the Fire Emblem name to the upper echelon of Nintendo franchises. After you play through Awakening, you will, too.
The story this time follows Prince Chrom and the royal family of Ylissa, a colorful and engaging band of characters fighting against transgressions by rival country Plegia and its rulers. This is more or less the setup for each and every Fire Emblem title, though the characters and kingdoms are rarely repeated from one game to the next. Also like other games in the series, the threat of an even more dangerous foe looms and the cast of characters grows to staggering numbers by the final act. What sets this one apart, for me anyway, is the likeability of the dozens of personalities you'll be forced to deal with. Fire Emblem games' main casts are usually compelling groups, but Awakening's tertiary characters tend to steal the show. Personalities like Gregor, the caring warrior with a hilarious speech pattern, Cordelia, the tough-as-nails Pegasus Knight, and personal favorite Panne, a shapeshifter who transforms into a fearsome hell-rabbit in battle, are standouts, but there isn't a boring or forgettable character in the bunch. Even your user-created character has a personality all their own, something that can fall by the wayside when it comes to personally designed avatars in other games.
The art style in Awakening also deserves a special mention. This is, without a doubt, the best looking 3DS game yet. The character portraits, though mostly static, are beautiful, as are the jaw-dropping animated cutscenes you've no doubt seen teased in the television commercials. Even the in-game graphics are better than they need to be; top-down SRPGs aren't always the most visually impressive games. What really stands out, though, is the use of the system's glasses-free 3D. As one who usually keeps the 3DS' 3D slider firmly in the "off" position, it is pretty tough for a game to implement 3D well enough to get me to relent. Awakening does just that. The 3D during the aforementioned cutscenes is extremely impressive, but the real story is the in-game effects. Check out the birds circling high above the battlefield or the jump-off-the-screen effects used during the unit-on-unit battle representations and you'll see what I mean. It seems totally appropriate that the high watermark for the SRPG genre, Awakening, is also the high watermark for the most underutilized 3DS feature, the 3D.
Yes, you read that right; Fire Emblem: Awakening is the new gold standard in SRPGs. The honor comes from two important things the game nails: refinement and accessibility. First, we'll talk refinement. Everything in Fire Emblem: Awakening is perfectly balanced, from the difficulty to the battles to each and every in-game system. The difficulty is first and foremost, with a laser-like focus on keeping things tough but fair. Players who have trouble understanding the many ins-and-outs of the gameplay are given ample opportunity to learn and even to grind levels, if they need the extra help. No encounter is unfair, if played in a sensible order, and even one-sided battles are winnable with the right setup and strategy. Systems like changeable classes, marriage and child-rearing and the rock/paper/scissors weapon matchups mean the player is constantly given new and exciting opportunities to consider and exploit. The relationship stuff is especially cool, as teaming players both on the battlefield and in their personal lives can produce some amazing and beneficial results. What really impresses, though, is that there is no game-breaking character or tactic anywhere in Awakening. No way-too-strong single unit, no Golden Gun, no Zerg Rush, nothing; everything in Awakening is as balanced and multifaceted as a championship chess match between two (or more!) masters.
The accessibility is the other jewel in Awakening's crown. Being that it has received the biggest marketing push ever for a Fire Emblem game in the U.S., it needed to be playable and enjoyable to everyone, hardcore and casual alike. In short, it meets and exceeds that goal and Casual mode is a big reason why. In case you didn't know, one of the series' trademarks is perma-death; if you lose an ally on the battlefield, they are dead forever. It isn't exactly something that translates well to your average gamer, and it is even more off-putting to those picking up the series, or the genre, for the first time. Casual mode fixes this by resurrecting fallen heroes at the end of each battle, making errors a lot less damning. Normal (with perma-death) and Casual (no perma-death) modes work together to make the game fun for all kinds of players. Also, Awakening contains none of what I call the "Disgaea effect," the act of throwing dozens of things to learn and remember, not to mention tons of numbers and stats, at the new player all at once. I've had a lot of fun with Disgaea games, but it is a wonder they ever found an audience given how complicated and unwelcoming they are to the new player. Awakening is every bit as complex, but it doesn't toss everything at the newbie all at once; new systems and gameplay elements are introduced slowly and deliberately. It is slow burn learning; play the game and even novice players will be familiar with attack range, stat progression and weapon types before they even realize it. If you've tried SRPGs before and quietly put them down when you didn't quite get Geo Cubes, turn order, combo attacks or why the mountains of stats and numbers matter, Awakening is the perfect chance for you to find the same joy in the genre as many hardcore players do.
The last thing I'll mention is Awakening's lasting value. Even though I've spent thousands of hours (my save files can prove it) playing the various Pokemon RPGs, I was floored by how much content is contained in this one small cartridge (or download). As of right now, my hour count stands at 86 total hours played, and that doesn't count all the times I've restarted to save the life of a fallen ally or because I wasn't thrilled with how a battle was shaking out. And at 86 hours, I've barely made a dent in the game. New fights and challengers outside the main story chapters pop up on a constant basis, and endlessly replayable DLC maps are scheduled to keep coming for the foreseeable future. Characters can be built up endlessly, and the game never seems to hit the point where your team is too strong for the toughest challenges. Unlike most other RPGs or SRPGs, Awakening is a game you could literally play forever.
If Awakening has any fault it is this: Nintendo screwed the pooch with the game's retail release. After weeks of plastering television and the Interwebz with ads featuring the title's release date, stores across the U.S. and Canada began selling the game early, breaking said release date. The game's release was further bungled by retail confusion. Some stores arbitrarily changed the release date almost a week after the actual release date because they had not received copies yet, and other stores with copies on the shelf refused to sell them due to confusion over the actual street date. Days later, even those who pre-ordered and paid in full still had not gotten their hands on the game. For a company that manages to get eShop retail releases up at 12:01 a.m. on their street dates, this kind of nonsense is as uncharacteristic as it is depressing. This screw up probably dissuaded more than a few gamers from trying out this amazing, groundbreaking title. Sadder still is that the limited copies shipped will probably continue to hurt the title's appeal. And though this can't and won't hurt my overall scoring of the game, it is far more unfortunate that it did, can and will hurt its sales numbers. Sad indeed.
Aside from the untouchable Kid Icarus: Uprising, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the very best game the 3DS has to offer. It represents the best of a long-running series, as well as said series first foray into the truly mainstream. It packs the hardcore punch it needs while also welcoming the newest, most inexperienced players. It tells a simple, yet gripping and heartfelt story told through characters that feel as real as family members. And on top of all that, it showcases the heights of design and gameplay that can be achieved with Nintendo's 3D handheld. A quick glance over a player's shoulder would show Awakening at its simplest: a grid littered with units of varying strength, all battling towards the other team's annihilation. What further study reveals, though, is a fully realized world in conflict with a single gamer at the helm, a single gamer standing between peace and the forces of darkness. Let yourself be that gamer and you won't be anything but elated.
Final Rating: 98%. Fire Emblem: Awakening tells a simple, yet gripping and heartfelt story told through characters that feel as real as family members.