Fire Emblem: Awakening review
The Most Impressive Fire Emblem Yet.
Fire Emblem is a strategy RPG series that, until the seventh entry, had been a Japan only thing. Through a moment of pure genius the creator's of Super Smash Bros Melee left the two Fire Emblem characters in the game, and this sparked interest which led to the localisation of Fire Emblem on the GBA. The rest is history as every game since (save for the second DS game which mysteriously never made it over here) has found its way to Western shores. This brings us to Awakening, which is basically everything a Fire Emblem game should be.
The game has a very strong anime style for its visuals and this comes across in all of the graphics in use. Full cutscenes are used at a few key points in the story and allow the game to deliver a level of storytelling that would be tricky with its more usual format. These are fantastic and I only wish the game had even more of them. As per typical for the series much of the dialogue during events is conveyed through half body portraits and head shots popping up onscreen to display the conversations, complete with varying emotions depending on the context. This is backed up by seeing the 3D character models moving around onscreen. The animation here is fairly basic as characters move around and may perform a few basic actions but it's a nice compliment all the same.
Where animation is far from basic is during battles. The 3D battles in the Gamecube and Wii games were cool but seemed to lack the charm of the 2D sprite battles of earlier games. Awakening decides it can manage both and it does so amazingly well. Characters are now very active on the field of battle, cleverly dodging out of harm's way with all sorts of acrobatics before lunging in with a variety of attacking animations. You'll see warriors leaping into the air to crash their axe down on an unfortunate skull, a swordfighter moving in low to deliver a swift thrust to the gut or a airborne knight literally piercing through the target and ending up on the other side. This is before you get the fancy effects of critical hits, invoking a brief eyeline cut-in of the character and fancy flashing light effects before they deliver an outstanding attack. What really impresses me is how each character has multiple attack animations even for basic attacks, making it feel so exciting to look at.
The game's interface for when you're moving around the map is excellent. The grid based format is clear to see and you are treated to a number of different locations such as a desert or villages. The icons that represent characters are easy to identify too, with distinct ones for each class and your own characters having their own special icons. All this is clearly displayed on the 3DS's top screen, while the bottom screen displays the status screen of the last unit the cursor passed over. This means you no longer need to having another screen pop up when surveying the battlefield as all the information you need is presented at once.
Sticking with the theme of "awesome" we move along to the music in the game. The opening title theme is an updated version of the classic Fire Emblem theme and immediately sets the tone for what is to come. This continues as you progress through the game, providing players with impressive battle tracks such as this track or more sorrowful options like this one.
Characters are also a lot more vocal in this game. While we're still far away from complete voice acting (and considering the sheer amount of dialogue in the game, that might never happen), you do get treated to all sorts of voice clips. The full cutscenes are fully voiced and characters often say a very brief phrase while talking and during battles, especially when dishing out a more flashy attack. Sometimes the voice clip doesn't really mesh with the context of the situation, but minor blips aside it's great to hear it all.
It's hard to really convey the full scope of the plot behind Awakening without spoiling a lot of it. The game starts with a premonition of what may come to pass and then snaps you back to reality with your tactician unit waking up in a field with amnesia. Sure, that's overdone but it's what happens from there that becomes interesting. You end up joining up the the Shepards - a band of knights that serve the kingdom of Ylisse. Your travels see you coping with the threat of a neighbouring kingdom while a more intricate dark plot is unravelling behind the scenes. The game isn't very good at hiding its plot twists as it seemed easy to figure out what each twist was several chapters before each reveal, but it was great being part of the story and seeing the events unfold.
A story would be nothing without a strong cast of characters to support it, but fortunately that is exactly what we get. The story largely focuses around Prince Chrom and his interactions with allies and enemies alike. He's a royal more suited to a soldier's life than that of a prince but is a strong willed leader with a clear sense of humanity. King Gangrel makes a perfect psychotic antagonist who seems to revel in his twisted actions. Then of course there is the mysterious swordfighter who opts to go by the name of Marth, who seems to know a lot about what is going on. In addition to these you get to recruit a whole host of characters that you will come to care about the more you use them.
Perhaps it's this that makes the series' trademark of permadeath all that more valuable. This feature means that if a unit is defeated in battle they are gone for good unless you restart the level. Which you will do because only a monster would leave such important allies dead on the battlefield. This concept reinforces the fact that the people you deploy for combat aren't just mass produced soldiers - they are individuals that you seek to keep safe while making the most of their capabilities. As a first for the series though the game does offer a more casual mode where units defeated in battle return at the end of a chapter, which is great for those concerned over the prospect of losing characters, although I would recommend all players to eventually try the classic mode in order to experience the game as it is meant to be played.
So let's move onto how it actually plays. The game is a mixture of strategy and role playing games. What this translates into is that gameplay is done in turn based strategy style where you move units around a grid, directing them to fight enemies and use abilities. Where the RPG part comes in is that these units are individual characters that gain experience points and level up as you progress. Depending on your actions they may grow more proficient in certain weapon styles, gain new abilities and develop bonds with other characters.
The strategy element is executed brilliantly. You're provided an overhead view of each battlefield with a distinct grid. You can hover over characters to see their movement and attacks ranges, which can be set to stay on or off both independently and for all enemies (with differing styles for both options). Hovering also feeds you information about the terrain and the characters on the field. Knowing if that nearby archer has an iron or a killer bow can mean the difference between success and watching one of your friends die an untimely death. When you go to engage an enemy in battle you're given a chance to change what weapon you'll use and provided a brief overview of the battle conditions prior to confirming the action, showing you information such as the likelyhood of scoring a hit and damage values. Once you've finished issuing orders to all of your units the enemy army makes all their moves. If a NPC team exists they then move before control comes back to you.
The basics of combat are pretty easy to understand. The idea is to deplete the enemy's health to zero while making sure your characters avoid the same fate. The information window is useful for figuring this kind of thing out, with the stats and equipped weapons determining the flow of battle. A knight with high physical defence will shrug off physical attacks with little damage but are a lot more susceptible to magic based attacks that target their lower resistance. On the other hand specialised sword fighters tend to be more likely to avoid attacks altogether and may even have enough speed to attack twice at the cost of low defences. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each character, as well as how to make best use of them with the weapons you have is something you'll enjoy working out.
A massive change that occurs here is the dual and pairing systems. These function very similar to one another and basically means that two characters can join each other in battle if they are adjacent to one another or paired up. Primarilly this is done to provide boosts to the primary unit but it can also allow for a chance for the second unit to join in on an attack and to block an enemy's attack. Characters who build up a support relationship with each other by working together and talking outside of battle can increase the bonuses received as well as increase the likelyhood of the second unit joining in the battle. This mechanic is so amazing in that it changes the way you approach the game. Unit placement becomes so much more important as you try to maximize your combat ability. The pairing up system in itself acts a little like the rescue system of past games. Here two units occupy the same space but only one of them at a time can be targeted by enemies. Instead of receiving a penalty though the lead unit actually gets stat bonuses, the second unit can join in battle much like before and players can switch the two unit roles without using up a turn. This can allow you to train up a weaker unit or sneak an otherwise vulnerable unit past danger, such as keeping a flier out of reach of archers.
Awakening gameplay in action.
As characters grow they will get access to many more options. More weapons become available to use as a characters rank in it increases, giving you more powerful and unique options like a sword that gives a damage bonus against armoured units and a spell that siphons off the enemy's health to restore your own. Awakening has taken a fortunate step and dropping the whole weapon weight concept from previous games, where the stronger weapons would slow down characters, making the higher end options more viable. There are also a variety of weapon types on offer. Swords, axes and lances form a weapon triangle, where for example a sword bears bonuses if used against an axe but is weak against a lance. As well as this you have bows and magic that exist outside of this triangle and special staves that can be used for healing or other special effects. We even get a few beast type characters who use stones to attack. This is similar to Myrrh of Sacred Stones, only with the exception that you can obtain more stones in the game, thus the characters are not rendered useless after 50 attacks. Given the sheer amount of weapons for each type you have loads of variety. A change from past games is carrying capacity. Each character is limited to carrying five items, but the convoy that stores all your extra items has no limit at all. This allows for some micromanagement of items on hand while not having to worry if you need to sell the lower end goods in the convoy to make room.
Characters grow in other ways too. Levelling up provides bonuses to stats, increasing general performance in battle. The skills system returns, where characters learn new skills as they grow. Many of these are tied to the classes but can be carried over to different classes. Some of these skills include providing bonuses to nearby allies, negatively affecting enemies or gaining a chance of unleashing an extra special attack during combat. Each character has five skill slots they can fill, which may not mean much at first but eventually it's possible to end up with more than 5 skills. You can equip and unequip them as you please, which provides another interesting element to the game.
Once a character has grown strong enough they get the opportunity to change classes. Using a master seal allows them to promote to one of two new classes depending on their current class. For example a pegasus knight can promote to either a dark flier (gaining access to offensive magic) or a falcon knights (picking up staves for use). This alone provides a wealth of options for you to explore but it doesn't stop there. Reclassing makes a return, where you can use a second seal to change a unit's class to a completely different one. Available classes depend on the character but means you can take a pegasus knight and make her a ground based armoured knight if you wanted to, thus changing that characters role and giving them access to new skills while still retaining their old ones. Reclassing isn't actually necessary for simply playing the game but it's a fun element to play around with.
Another returning feature is the overworld map. Here you can move around areas you've opened up freely, although you can't replay chapters you've already cleared. Instead this function allows you to visit shops located at any cleared area as well as to choose to tackle any available side stories or random enemy teams that have appeared. Merchants may also appear randomly on the map, which sell rare items not normally available or useful items at a discount price. From here you can also access the barracks, where events become available as real time passes. These events focus on recruited characters and involve things like two people talking to increase their relationship, finding lost items that get added to your convoy and gaining some extra experience. It's a nice touch.
There's so much content in the game that you'll likely keep finding something to do even once you've cleared the 20+ story missions. There's a wealth of side stories to play through which present you with loot and more recruitable characters for a start. These can also present some cool concepts like protecting NPCs or joining the fight with an army backing you up. Risen - evil creatures who use the classes in the game - randomly appear and can be fought for experience and loot.
Then there is the download content, which comes in the form of free Spotpass and paid DLC content. Through both you can acquire a wealth of legacy characters to recruit from past games, new maps to play and special items to use. There are loads of characters to use that hit you with an immense wave of nostalgia that showcase a variety of skills and considerably more flexible class changing options than the main storyline characters have, although this comes at the cost of no support options. Legacy characters can still partner up with others for battles but their bonuses and activation rates will be significantly lower than that of supporting characters. They also disappoint in visual terms a little in that they use generic character models in battle, which especially stings for the ones you pay for.
The maps are very interesting and help extend the lifespan of the game, especially the replayable paid maps you can acquire. The sidestory content in these can be brilliant too, showcasing quite a sense of humour whether you're helping a clueless old man to retrieve the spirits of old heroes or dealing with monsters with a strange taste in food. A couple of special classes are also made available through paid content. While I have certainly had fun with the dlc I have purchased, I am rather disappointed with the costs. £5.39 for a set of three maps is a lot and if a player were to purchase all the map packs once released the total could easily end up almost as much as a full retail game.
Gripes about the paid DLC aside, one thing remains clear. Fire Emblem Awakening is everything a Fire Emblem game aspires to be. The battle mechanics take all that worked from past games and adds its own elements to make it even better. All this with more than enough content to keep players hooked for ages. Without a doubt this is one of the biggest reasons to own a 3DS.
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