Fire Emblem: Awakening
McClubbin's Fire Emblem: Awakening Review
I’ve spent the past few days and nights being captivated by Fire Emblem: Awakening, often until the crack of dawn. I honestly find it hard to believe that the game was released just over a week ago, but in this past week I’ve spent hours upon hours deliberating strategy and scrutinizing every move. It’s been 13 years since the Fire Emblem series first arrived and over its lifespan has carved out something of a niche for hardcore RPG enthusiasts. It’s no surprise that it's gained such a following given the series’ vast amount of content and its notoriously unforgiving difficulty. With Awakening, Intelligent Systems has attempted to create a title that attracts new players. That isn’t to say that they’ve watered down the Fire Emblem experience, but have made adjustments to welcome newcomers. Still, Awakening stands up as a worthy addition to the Fire Emblem family, with some media outlets, such as Kotaku, claiming it to be a reason to pick up a 3DS. I probably wouldn’t go that far, but if you’re a die-hard SRPG fan or already have a 3DS, then you should absolutely find a way to play this game.
The game starts out in classic JRPG fashion; your created avatar, who suffers from a case of amnesia, is found lying in the middle of a field by Chrom. You come to learn that Chrom is the prince of Ylisstol, who, instead of living in the lap of luxury, chooses to serve as the leader of the “Shepherds,” a group that protects the denizens of Ylisstol from bandits. Unfortunately, Ylisstol faces a much more dangerous and imminent threat than simple brigands with the sudden appearance of the undead (called the “Risen”) and the hostile continent of Plegia, bent on seeking vengeance for the past. It is up to Chrom to save Ylisstol through the use of strength and diplomacy as he amasses an army capable of warding off ever-impending doom.
The story is told through chapters with each chapter consisting of a scene to set the stage, the battle, and an ending scene. Depending on the chapter, you’ll sometimes be treated to a gorgeous anime cutscene. Each chapter can take up around 15-30 minutes to complete, assuming you don’t die and manage to satisfy your personal objectives.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the narrative at first since it seemed like an after-thought to battles, which is usually what the onus is placed on in SRPGs. But as you edge towards the end, the latter chapters do a great job of tying everything together. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but you’ll see how it puts the events into perspective and turns one of the seemingly weaker components into an asset.
Right off the bat one of the major changes you’ll notice is the option to turn “permadeath” (Fire Emblem’s classic mode) off. Casual mode allows new players to experience the game without the fear of losing fallen units forever. After this you can choose between three difficulty levels: normal, hard, and lunatic. I first tried a combination of classic and normal but found it a bit too easy for my liking after a few chapters in. So I switched to hard and classic to provide me with more of a challenge. Boy was I not disappointed! After the first couple of chapters the difficulty ramps up considerably. I lost track of the amount of times I had to reset (protip: soft reset (L + R + START) is your best friend) while playing through the fourth chapter. This is the unforgiving Fire Emblem experience I had been craving since Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on the DS. That’s not to say that it’s impossibly tough throughout. Things become somewhat easier once you become familiar with tactics and can promote your units, but the game will always challenge you, especially if you’re intent on preserving the cast of characters.
If you have experience playing SRPGs, the battle mechanics should be quite familiar. Before the battle begins you can choose which units will go into the battle, equip them, and position them on the map. Awakening features over 40 different classes (16 base classes which can be promoted to multiple advanced classes and some un-promotable special classes) with some types of classes and weapons yielding advantages over certain units. So choosing which units will enter the fray and their equipment requires some thought. Once the battle starts, you take turns moving on the grid-based map to attack enemies. Victory is achieved by fulfilling the battle criteria.
In between battles you’re able to shop, arrange your inventory, view conversations, and visit the barracks where units interact with each other to strengthen relationships, find weapons lying about, or receive stat boosts. In addition to this, Awakening allows you to grind your levels on the world map against enemies that pop up randomly. The higher the chapter where they appear, the stronger the enemies are.
Awakening allows your units to “pair up” and “support” each other. Supporting is done by having units positioned at adjacent tiles, whereas units can be paired up by combining them together. Both these mechanics provide units with stat bonuses and a chance for the supporting unit to perform a dual strike or block an attack to aid you in battle. Though you “lose” a unit to attack with when you pair up, this ability opens up strategic possibilities. For example, a unit with low health can be shielded the next turn by pairing up, saving them from certain death. Another illustration would be the ability to ferry units over water by pairing them with a Pegasus Knight. The more units support each other, the stronger their relationship develops which in turn leads to greater stat bonuses. If the units are of opposite genders they can enter into holy matrimony once their support rank reaches S and conceive a child (who can fight for the cause).
Supporting isn’t just a gameplay mechanic but also serves as a symbolic device for the plot. The game has an “us vs. the world” feel which is represented in the number of enemies thrown at you, battle after battle. The only way to come out of this campaign victorious is by supporting one another. Awakening does a great job of driving home the point that “no man is an island.”
This also helps the player to forge an emotional bond with the cast of characters, one of the objectives the developers had while creating the game; the characters aren’t supposed to be faceless chess pieces. Each one’s personality really shines through in their support conversations, usually yielding humorous and quirky results. The marriage system is a culmination of this and the experiences shared on the battlefield. All of these combine to form sentimental ties that make a unit’s loss all the more agonizing.
Awakening features local multiplayer for two people to pit their armies against each other. There’s no online multiplayer, but it’s no big loss due to the amount of meat in the campaign. The game takes advantage of the 3DS’ streetpass feature by downloading ghost data of other Fire Emblem players and giving you the ability to face their army.
Awakening also uses the 3DS’ spotpass feature to provide DLC maps, which can be purchased and accessed at the Outrealm Gate once you reach the fifth chapter. The first DLC map, which features Ike and a recruitable Marth, is free for the first month. The second downloadable map, starring Roy, costs $2.50. Although this is one of Nintendo’s first forays into the world of DLC, hopefully they’ll reduce the prices a bit. As mentioned earlier though, there is plenty of content in the main story to keep you occupied. That being said, the DLC maps are a great place to grind and feature some excellent nostalgic music. Characters recruited from DLC maps can be re-recruited an infinite number of times when they die.
The game looks stunning and is easily one of the prettier games on the 3DS, as well as the series. This is in no small part due to the 3D effects, which certainly pop everything to life. Like Star Fox 64 3D, you can play the entire game with the 3D slider turned all the way up because it looks absolutely brilliant. The anime cutscenes are also beautiful and Yusuke Kozaki’s character illustrations are stunning. The anime look might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but you’ll appreciate the quality if you’ve played a lot of JRPGs. I regret buying the game over the eShop rather than Gamestop just because of the art book pre-order bonus.
The audio side of the game is solid, but perhaps not quite as impressive. None of the music really stood out to me besides the throwback track on the first DLC map. Although, I do have the pre-battle music ingrained in my head, but this is due to the sheer number of times I’ve restarted battles. Perhaps it’s because I’m still awestruck by Shoji Meguro’s genius after playing Persona 4 Golden and the standalone quality of his tracks. Still, the music in Awakening does a good job of complementing the game’s atmosphere.
Each character has their own voiceover; however, dialogues aren’t fully voiced. Each line of dialogue is accompanied by a short phrase or grunt denoting its gist. It can be a bit disconcerting reading through it and hearing generic stuff like, “Right,” “Got it,” etc. The anime cutscenes, on the other hand, are completely voiced, although they only feature a handful of characters (those central to the plot). I really liked most of the voiceovers and wish that the dialogues were fully voiced. They did a good job of accentuating the characters’ quirkiness. The ability to switch to the Japanese voiceovers is a nice touch in an age where Capcom is releasing this feature separately as DLC for Resident Evil 6 (hopefully unpaid).
Writing this review has helped me gain a better understanding of the intangible force that keeps me playing Fire Emblem: Awakening till the early hours of the morning. In a genre where the masses of units are means to achieve the end, the developers’ insistence to forge an emotional connection with these “pawns” has created an engaging experience. With SRPGs I tend not to pay much attention to the plot since the meat of the action is in the battles. However, Fire Emblem: Awakening offers an epic tale of fighting for the future, complete with an ensemble of quirky heroes.
To sum up my verdict, I believe Awakening is one of the best games in the 3DS' current catalog and should be experienced by everybody who owns the system. If your 3DS is like mine and had been collecting dust for a while, Awakening reinvigorates it with hours of replayability (my save slot says I've logged 35 hours so far but it's probably around the 50 hour mark with the number of times I've had to reset during battles). If you've always been intrigued by the Fire Emblem games but found yourself being turned off by their difficulty, Awakening serves as a great introduction to the series and a worthy successor, in its own right, to inherit the Fire Emblem title.
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