Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

Fire Emblem has always been one of my favourite franchises since it dropped in North America in 2003 on the Game Boy Advance. When I first saw it in a store, I was looking for something to play before heading out for a few weeks out to sea, and my only thought at the time was “yay, Advance Wars with RPG elements!”. It was an easy $30 to spend, and though I had problems in the beginning (laughably, I kept looking for a Phoenix Down equivalent that never materialized), it became one of the most addicting games I ever played. True fact: my old copy of Fire Emblem from those days is still in outstanding condition, whereas most of my other GBA games are really beat up. The reason for this is simple: Fire Emblem just simply never left my GBA for the last half a year of my naval career. This led to me searching for more information on the series when I hit civilian life, which led to me finding the Fire Emblem: Sanctuary of Strategy, which indirectly led to virtually everything that I do, and everyone that I know, even nine years later.

Despite being such an exalted franchise, I haven’t written too much in my professional life about the series. I reviewed the import copy of Shadow Dragon back when it was new, and it got the equivalent of a 6.5; good, but not great. Every other Fire Emblem game would have gotten about the same score, with Sacred Stones and Radiant Dawn scoring lower. These are decent scores, but nothing otherworldly; as a reviewer, I have to consider how the game plays to a mainstream audience, and Fire Emblem has never been much for accessibility, something which is a benefit in the fandom. At the very least, it’s helped me avoid the accusations that I’m a mindless fanboy.

And then, Fire Emblem: Awakening hit, which is going to open me up to a lot of questions.

feawakeningboxartFire Emblem: Awakening
System: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: February 4th, 2013
MSRP: $39.99

The first thing players are made to do when they load up a new game is to create their avatar, who is then found lying in the grass of Ylisse by Chrom, his sister Lissa, and their subordinate Frederick. These three make up the bulk of the Shepherds, a group of fighters who protect the citizens from bandits. Eventually, Risen – undead fighters – invade, but the Shepherds are given help by an enigmatic figure calling himself Marth, named after the hero from Shadow Dragon and New Monshou no Nazo who is, in game time, from thousands of years prior. The story from there evolves into the Fire Emblem standard of eventually saving the world, but like with most good Fire Emblems, the real fun to be had is with the twists it takes to get there, as well as the characters that make up the plot. Fire Emblem has usually had good characterization, but Awakening is on such a high level it’s almost unfair. Virtually every character, even those cut from the cloth of standard anime tropes such as the hard-ass butch female Sully and classic “b-baka!” tsundere Severa, have their own little personality traits that make them special, and fun to have around the party for more than just stats and killing enemies… and that doesn’t even get to the truly “special” cases like Henry (who sometimes says “Yeah! Blood!” when making a kill) and Noire, who is completely schizophrenic. The overall story is outstanding; while the story itself is nothing that hasn’t been seen before, it has enough twists and turns that it keeps the player invested the whole time. The characters and the amazing localization are what bring the story from “good” to “great”, adding such flare that they nothing ever feels generic. Fire Emblem games have always been made or broken on their characters, and FE:A has the best characterization the series has seen thus far.

The story is largely driven by multiple parties, but of optimal importance is the player’s avatar. Brought over from New Monshou, the game allows players to create an avatar with the tactician class. Despite the physical settings that one can apply, including the character’s gender, there is no change to the story or the dialogue with the exception of certain support conversations. This is unfortunate; Intelligent Systems missed a chance to apply different personality types, even if they’re as stereotypical as “mild-mannered” or “gruff”. Ultimately, it’s my unit, but it never really felt like “my” unit; it was just a character that had my name attached to it. This didn’t hurt the game, but it does feel like Nintendo could have stretched a double into a triple.

fea1When I think of what Fire Emblem: Awakening really is, it comes to me: this is every good idea the Fire Emblem series has had, all mashed together in one. The biggest difference for those who didn’t import New Monshou is the addition of casual mode for those that want that option. In every Fire Emblem game prior, death was permanent, giving gamers who made a mistake the option of either restarting the stage to keep everyone, or going forth with less people, and a finite source of units to recruit. Now, gamers have the option of having that be the case, or getting their units back after the stage, something more akin to Shining Force. This is a game-changing addition, and for anyone who isn’t an elitist prick about this kind of thing, it’s a 100% positive change. Fire Emblem has always had a problem bringing in fans who weren’t hardcore strategy buffs; forget the casual gamer. This helps tremendously in that regard, especially when it’s considered that the game is really written around the idea that the player is going to have a full roster.

Another addition includes extra battles with Risen on the world map, courtesy of Fire Emblem Gaiden and Sacred Stones, as well as some other map battles I’ll go into more in a bit. Whereas previous Fire Emblems had a finite number of stages with a finite number of enemies and finite amounts of experience to gain, Awakening doesn’t; I’ve had almost as many battles after beating the main game as I had beforehand. Considering this, it’s to the player’s benefit to have *some* room for error, because playing in classic mode makes every little mistake, in every tiny little stage, a restart waiting to happen. Experienced players should probably look to play on Hard/Casual.

In addition to the Risen battles, there is also the chance to meet up with potential allies via the world map as well. Key people from past games can be downloaded via SpotPass and made to appear on the map, at which point they can have items purchased from them, be recruited outright for a level of gold dependent on their level, or the player can choose to fight them and their team, with the unit being recruitable. The game explains that the units are basically ghosts; they represent nothing more than a card image of what they once were. Therefore, they don’t speak, or interact in any way, they can’t do supports, and they’re just blank units; the equivalent of replacement units from Shadow Dragon. This is unfortunate for those that had favourites and would like to see how they would interact in this new world with these new characters, but from a story standpoint, it makes sense, and forces the player to focus on the current (and superior) units.

fea2Children come into play for the first time since Seisen no Keifu (FE4), and Intelligent Systems learned some lessons from that 19 year old game. Characters support up to “A” generally – unlike past games, characters can support up to “A” for all of their supports, there are no limits – but for certain male/female pairings, a person can pair up and get to “S” support, an option new to the series. This indicates that the couple is married, and first generation characters can have children. The children are set to their mother – for example, Cynthia will always be Sumia’s daughter, no matter what – and have different traits depending on who their father is, such as different hair colour, different available classes, the last skill from both parents, and different growths. Those traits band together to ensure that the children effectively break the latter half of the game; the first generation characters, with few exceptions, just can’t keep up with their kids, and in some cases, pairing up particularly strong or advanced characters can lead to hilarious results, like my Donnel and Sully offspring that immediately started dual-shotting archers, as a knight. Those children can also marry each other, and while they don’t have offspring of their own, they can still enjoy the support bonuses from marriage.

All of this comes together on the maps themselves, where battles are waged. The standard Fire Emblem weapon triangle, a rock-paper-scissors setup with lances, axes and swords, comes back, and the advantages seem more pronounced than in games past, with the right weapon both adding and decreasing damage. Good stats will still overcome the weapon type, but it’s not something that can be outright ignored anymore. Magic was also tweaked, though I’m not entirely sure it was for the better. There’s still three types of magic, but there’s no triangle to them like there was in FE7 or Sacred Stones. However, some magics do have their own advantages; thunder magic tends to have a higher critical rate, fire magic tends to be more powerful, and wind magic has an advantage against flying units. Unless you’re using a really low magic unit, there’s just not much point in using fire; the chance for higher critical hits or being able to attack a flying unit are simply to good to ignore, and when using magic, there’s really no strategy to it; it’s just a matter of attacking the enemy, and making sure a flying unit doesn’t get in the way of a wind tome. One major addition is the ability to pair up units. It’s similar to the rescue mechanic of past games, but whereas rescuing units carried movement and stat penalties for the carrying unit, in FE:A, there is no “carrying” unit; both units travel together, with the movement stats of the front unit, and they can be switched post-move so that the back unit can attack. Therefore, a General can combine with a Falcon Knight, the Falcon Knight can fly with both of them, and the general can attack on the same turn. Adding to this is the support system, which has any one unit next to an attacking unit having the ability, based on percentage, to do a follow-up attack or defend the primary unit from damage; if units are paired, it will definitely be that unit. Furthermore, when units attack adjacent to units that they’re compatible with – meaning, they can have support conversations with them – their is a larger stat boost, and as support level increases, the chances of attacking and defending in co-op attacks increases. This is yet another game changer that opens up a lot of possibilities for strategy, and also helps with getting unit support conversations unlocked.

fea3All in all, this is the deepest Fire Emblem game in the series’ history. The options given to the player, as well as map layouts, difficulty options, and other assorted sundries, make this a game that fans will be able to play for years. The game’s post-release support thus far shows that’s going to be the case, with a combination of free SpotPass updates that give players free items, characters from past games and other assorted goodies, and paid DLC maps. The DLC maps can get expensive – a three pack map usually costs $6.50 – but they play deep, with lots of units and experience for the player’s units that carries over to the main game. Winning DLC stages often get players new items and a new, improved character from past games (I.E.: the Marth you win in the DLC stages is different than the one you can recruit on SpotPass). However, the DLC maps won’t mean as much to players coming into Fire Emblem fresh as it will for those who have played past games in the series. Not only do they contain the names and pictures of characters from the past games, but they utilize touches like the map and battle music from them, too. Fans that came into the series with Eliwood’s game will have their mark-out moment when the map theme hits; personally, my biggest one came when I heard the battle music from Seisen no Keifu. What are minor, insignificant touches to the average fan will mean the world to those who have been around the block. Nintendo is still releasing content for the game, so expect replayability well into the future.

Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t just the best game on the 3DS right now. It isn’t even just the best Fire Emblem game of all time. It goes beyond that. After playing this game since its release, and making sure I wasn’t just overdosing on hyperbole, I have to put this on the strategy RPG’s equivalent of a Mount Rushmore, alongside Final Fantasy Tactics, Shining Force II and Tactics Ogre. This is, without a doubt in my mind, in the conversation as one of the best SRPGs of all time. It simply must be experienced by anyone, whether they’re veterans of the genre or coming in. The minor quibbles I had with the game are utterly irrelevant. I cannot recommend Fire Emblem: Awakening strongly enough.

PROS

* Outstanding characterization and localization.
* Endless battles and customization options lead to limitless replayability.
* Outstanding post-release support.
* Different difficulty options cater to everyone from the hardcore to newbies.
* SpotPass options are outstanding.

CONS

* Occasional balance issues and difficulty spikes.
* Game is easy to “break”. Some characters and skills markedly better than others.
* DLC is pricey.

FINAL SCORE: A

Disclosure: Fire Emblem: Awakening was purchased by the reviewer. As of the writing of this review, the reviewer had beaten the main game on Normal/Classic and all available DLC/SpotPass maps, with 80 hours on his main save file. The reviewer was formerly the root administrator of the Fire Emblem: Sanctuary of Strategy

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.