Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series made its North American debut back in 2003 on the Game Boy Advance, with titles released on the DS, GameCube, and Wii afterwards. However, the series has had a far richer and longer history in its native country of Japan, with older entries dating back to the NES and Super NES. It’s fortunate that Nintendo eventually decided to start translating later titles, as the series has gained a reputation for providing a high-quality mix of strategy and role-playing elements. Fire Emblem: Awakening, the first game in the series for the 3DS, is no exception. Providing a genuine challenge, a well-developed cast, and a large amount of content, it is the latest must-have title for the handheld.
The story starts off in the medieval kingdom of Ylisse, where the heroic prince Chrom and his rambunctious little sister Lissa come across an amnesiac warrior, who they end up recruiting into their personal troop, the Shepherds. Two new threats emerge soon after, the first being the threat of war from the neighboring kingdom of Plegia, and a mysterious undead army known as the Risen. Chrom and company set out on a journey to bring peace back to the land, recruiting other warriors along the way.
The bulk of the plot is told through numerous text boxes with accompanying character portraits and sound bites, along with the occasional, fully-animated CG cutscene for major events. The presentation for these scenes is good as a whole, but one gripe is the lack of fully voiced dialog for most of them. I say fully because the game has an odd way of handling voice acting during the text-based scenes. With each new line, a character will make a sound that fits their current mood, such as, “Oh!”, “Hmmm…”, and so on. The occasional character name is also dropped, and certain important lines are fully voiced. It’s possible that Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems simply didn’t have a big enough budget for fully voiced dialog, but I felt that the method they went with caused a sensation of disconnect at times.
Gameplay takes place on a series of grid-based maps, with players choosing a specified number of their characters to place on assigned spots on the battlefield, along with an opposing army. From here, the player and the A.I. take turns moving their units around the map and directly attacking enemies when they get within range. Much like an RPG, every character has their own finite amount of health, stats that show their strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to earn experience points and level up by attacking and defeating enemies.
There’s also the fact that there are numerous classes of characters to deal with, such as armored knights, projectile-based archers, and healing clerics. Each have their own advantages, such as archers being able to stand far enough away when attacking that many enemies can’t fight back, and disadvantages, such as clerics being weak and vulnerable when directly attacked. One of the key parts of the game’s strategy component comes in choosing which units to use and level up, and where to place them at the start.
Another factor to take into consideration when planning an attack is the system for close-range weapons. Many characters are able to carry one of the three main types of weapons: Swords, axes, and lances. In a rock-paper-scissors sort of system, swords do badly against lances, lances have a disadvantage against axes, and axes are weak against swords. Because of this, it’s a good idea to scan the map before starting, in order to know what kinds of enemies you’ll be dealing with.
The main plot is solid and engaging enough to keep you playing through each chapter, but Awakening‘s biggest draw in terms of its presentation is probably its colorful cast of characters. Unlike many other strategy games, where individual units are mostly bland and without unique dialog, every unit in the game has its own name and personality, along with a unique design and voice style. It’s likely players will end up with several favorites to use based not on their battle skills, but because they like to see that character in general. Even better is the fact that the amnesiac lead is customizable in their appearance at the game’s start, with numerous hairstyles, faces, and even voices to choose from.
In fact, the game encourages character development and interaction in the gameplay itself. In a new feature for the series, characters who attack while standing next to an ally will not only gain some stat bonuses during their turn, but build up relationship points with that character. Enough cooperation can build up a pair’s specified support level to C, B, A, and eventually an S rank, which adds more stat bonuses in battle and even the opportunity for specific pairs to marry and have children, who can be added to the troop later in the game.
Not only are there many choices regarding who you can pair up with and marry, but the game even goes to the trouble of having dozens of unique conversations built to show each pairings’ relationship develop. It’s fun to see the different characters you’ve grown to know interact with each other, and really helps to give you a sense of attachment to each of them.
This attachment can lead to heartbreak, however, as one of the key gameplay elements of the Fire Emblem series, commonly known as “permadeath”, can put a stop to all that. By default, if a character is defeated in battle, they won’t simply recuperate and be ready to go again in the next chapter. They’ll actually die, and will remain unavailable for the rest of the game. This element means you’ll have to be extra careful in choosing who to use and where to place them, and definitely adds an extra layer to what is already a challenging game.
For those who are intimidated by the concept, though, Nintendo has made a smart decision by adding the option to play the game in Casual Mode, where defeated units will withdraw from battle when defeated instead of dying and will be available for the next chapter. This will definitely help novices to the series ease into things better, and series veterans who have grown accustomed to permadeath don’t have to worry, as this mode is completely optional.
Awakening also promises to have a heavy amount of downloadable content as time passes. Thankfully, these aren’t super-important story elements that you have to pay extra for, but extra maps to battle on and new characters to recruit. These characters include protagonists from past Fire Emblem games, including Ike from the GameCube and Wii titles, and Roy and Marth, who fans of the Super Smash Bros. series will recognize.
It’s a nice idea, but I’ve found myself rarely using the bonus characters that have become available thus far, through map completion. It’s not possible to build relationships and support levels with them, and they don’t have any unique dialog, which is a bit disappointing. An upside to the maps themselves, though, is that they can be replayed infinitely, unlike the one-time-only levels of the main campaign. In other words, if a level is giving you trouble and you want to level up your characters to gain an advantage in combat, DLC maps will be very helpful. It should also be noted that the first map, featuring Marth, will be free until March, so you won’t necessarily have to pay to make use of this feature.
The game makes creative use of the system’s StreetPass feature. Players can set up a team of their characters to be sent out wirelessly, and when they pass by the 3DS of someone else who is playing the game, they’ll swap character data. As a result, their customizable character will show up on the map used to select levels, and can be fought and even recruited into your troop. This is a neat feature, but it’s a shame that actual multiplayer is limited to a local co-op mode. A turn-based game like this seems perfect for competitive online matches, but that’s nowhere to be found, and feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Still, every other part of the game is good enough that it’s easy to forgive.
Fire Emblem: Awakening might scare some away with its challenging battles and in-depth character management, but it’s a game that anyone with a 3DS should at least try out. Offering plenty of playtime, a memorable cast, and a well-thought-out gameplay system, it’s an engrossing strategy experience overall, and one that fans of the series or genre definitely shouldn’t miss.
This review is based on a Nintendo 3DS copy of the game that we received for review purposes.