For such a long time, the Fire Emblem franchise had been a Japanese exclusive saga. It never left the shore of its birth for a good couple of decades and was only ever considered for international release thanks in part to being featured in Super Smash Bros: Melee. While we never got to experience the adventures of Roy on international shores, we last saw the franchise go back to its roots for a second time on the Nintendo DS in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. It was only natural for the series to come to the 3DS in the form of Fire Emblem: Awakening; but with plenty of other tactical RPG offerings out there showing signs of innovation, can the franchise finally reclaim the tactical RPG throne?
The player created character begins his tale lying in the middle of a field, waking up to the sight of Chrom, the man who he killed in his dreams. It turns out this man is the Prince of a realm called Ylisse, which is on the brink of war with its neighbour Plegia and the Mad King Gangrel. On top of this, the local populace is under siege from a largely unknown force that they have named “The Risen”, and a mysterious stranger claiming to be the legendary warrior Marth appeared out of nowhere. Full of twists and turns that some might see coming, the plot of Fire Emblem: Awakening occasionally borders on a light-hearted Game of Thrones approach. It wears the lore of the franchise on its sleeve, but it’s the interaction between the characters that makes the narrative believable to the point where a loss of a character truly hurts.
Catering for multiple audiences is always a tricky proposition, usually because one choice feels drastically unbalanced. At the beginning of the game, you get a choice on whether the Fire Emblem trademark “perma-death” is enabled or disabled. In the effort to make the game accessible to newcomers, having the option for perma-death to be disabled does make the game a little easier, but only in the fact you needn’t worry about making sacrifices; but the real joy comes from having that restrictive gameplay quirk turned on. There’s something cathartic about defeating a particularly hard map while keeping everyone alive, or avenging the death of another character to a strong foe. Given that characters can develop relationships, it’s only fitting that the closest relationship they’ll ever have is the player – character bond you’ll most likely develop.
Chances are though you’ll have your favourites, your vanguard if you will; those members who stand out from the crowd and will defend your game plan to the death. Some are charismatic, others tough as nails. There’s a huge joy in seeing their class reach the tenth level, where their basic class can be upgraded with a Master Seal into one of a branching second tier class, unlocking new weapons and skills to use. What’s more, you can even upgrade them into a brand new class with the help of a Second Seal. In short, levels aren’t what determine how good a unit is, but their overall ranking, weapon usage grade, and the more traditional stats. Each milestone level will also grant them a new passive ability, which depends not only on their class, but also whether it is a first tier or second tier class for when they get it.
That’s a lot to take in for sure, but then you get to the good stuff – relationships. When fighting side by side or healing each other, your units will develop bonds that are ranked by grade. The higher the grade means the better they’ll assist each other when side-by-side in combat. You can have both units join forces by pairing them up in the middle of a stage, with the ability to switch the active unit once per turn. While in battle their overall rating is boosted, it is the likelihood of their support ranking going up that is the most appealing. Perhaps the most interesting element is what happens when a male and female couple get their S ranking and get married as a result. One particular plot twist later will show you perhaps the most interesting mechanic ever devised in a Fire Emblem game to date. You’ll know when you see it and you’ll most likely figure out the benefits.
But enough of this Game of Thrones social drama, where relationships and feuds determine the politics of the world: let’s get to the fighting. You select your band of warriors to take on AI controlled soldiers/brigands. Each one has their specific strengths and weaknesses, most predominantly determined by the weapon triangle the series is also well-known for. But this rock-paper-scissor style of combat is just scratching the surface, as some weapons have advantages over particular unit types that are shown in the form of easy to digest icons. While a Pegasus Knight might have magic resistance for example, they will fall quickly if shot down by a Bow carrying class. Generally it is a good idea to keep a range of classes, but as long as your units have a higher ranking than your enemy, you shouldn’t run into that much trouble if you’re incredibly careful. To veterans, the combat overall is largely familiar, but the coupled social mechanics keep things fresh.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is also a very long game, stretching over 20 campaign levels alone with numerous side-stories and skirmishes with the ever looming Risen. SpotPass also plays a part in that you can get new free maps, units, and kit periodically, while you can also take on Double Duels with a friend locally. Interaction with people doesn’t stop there as StreetPass allows you to exchange Main Characters that you can attempt to recruit into your squad. Together with the DLC, there is a lot for you to do when the campaign eventually ends, but the local only multiplayer seems like a missed opportunity with its narrow focus.
Another slight knock on Fire Emblem: Awakening is in the sound direction, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. Annoying voice clips that serve as little more than grunts, screams, and one-liners can mercifully be turned off; but given that the orchestral score is wonderful, it is a shame you can’t listen to parts of it for longer than a few seconds. Granted it makes the game feel like an epic at the right points (i.e. When there is fighting going on), but there is no option for those who enjoyed some of the score to listen to it. Aside from this though, the presentation is remarkable – showing just how the 3DS is capable of rendering decent 3D models and cut-scenes, while retaining impressive 2D sprites. The script is well written, with decent voiceovers during the cut-scenes that make you wonder if hardware limitations got in the way of full voiceover work.
The marriage between gameplay and narrative is what makes Fire Emblem: Awakening the best in the series thus far. It’s not what happens in the overarching plot that makes the experience so compelling, but what happens in battle. If someone dies, things undoubtedly change. If someone gets married to someone else, things also change. Neatly refined combat mechanics and a class system that rewards investment into developing your troops round off one good-looking, tidy package that will last for weeks; which isn’t counting the ongoing support Nintendo are showing for the game. If the only knocks are that multiplayer is a bit of a damp squib and the lack of full voice acting is confusing given the fidelity of the 3DS handheld, then these are just minor details on an almost flawless package. Fire Emblem: Awakening is one epic game that even the great historic conquerors would be proud of.