By Leo Stevenson
I'd like to tell you a story if you'll indulge me. Having never played a Fire Emblem game before, I wasn't on board the hype train for Awakening. In fact, the game barely even registered on my radar. So, when our faithful Editor-in-Chief handed me the game and asked me to review it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I did know that the franchise had many devout fans, which I assumed meant the games were pretty good. Little did I know just how good. The first time I put the cartridge in my 3DS, I played for seven straight hours, stopping only to hook up the charger to prevent it from going flat. Fire Emblem: Awakening is very, very good. It's a game that does almost everything right, and once it grabs you, it doesn't let go.
At its core, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a strategy game. The majority of its actual gameplay involves moving units around a grid in order to defeat an enemy. Match-ups are calculated based on the stats and weapons of each unit. A mini cutscene plays out the battle between the chosen units, then you move on and repeat the process over and over. This may sound dull at first, but I assure you it's anything but. Some units have ranged attacks which allow you to damage the enemy even if not in an adjacent square, and others only have the power to heal. Some are on horseback and can move further, and some are... well, you get the idea.
The combinations and intricacies of battle created by the varying units and their associated skills makes the gameplay less of a straightforward slog and more of a chess game. Each move must be carefully considered and the ramifications imagined (especially on higher difficulties) because one wrong move will see your beloved soldiers defeated.
Thankfully, Awakening caters to the hardcore fan and the noob alike, featuring Classic and Casual modes that go with the Normal, Hard and Lunatic difficulties (as well as Lunatic+ once you beat the game). Classic sees units removed from the game entirely upon their defeat, whereas Casual returns them to your fold once the battle is over. Purists will baulk at the inclusion, but anything that lowers the barrier for entry into such a great game, franchise and genre is to be applauded.
It's not just your stats and weapons that affect the outcome of battles in Awakening. The terrain, nearby allies and weapon proficiency all play a role in determining your succes rate at "routing" the enemy. You have two options when using friendly units as support. If, during your attack phase you have an allied unit in an adjacent square, they will provide support for your attack and may boost your stats or even deal some damage to the enemy themselves. By doing so, you also increase the two units' compatibility making them work even better together next time.
Alternatively, you can join two units together by performing a support move -- which involves moving to a square adjacent to a friendly unit and selecting its support command -- although this removes one unit from independent play until you separate the two. Teamwork is heavily emphasised and truly makes the difference between victory and defeat in many of the battles. You can further develop the relationships of units outside of battle by having them partake in conversations with one another to improve their compatibility. If you improve those relationships enough, units of the opposite sex can marry and even have children that you can recruit and have join you in battle.
Unfortunately, once again we're prevented from even having the option of same-sex relationships or marriage. I know Nintendo is quite conservative, but at this point there's really no excuse. The argument that it takes members of the opposite sex to create children falls apart when you consider that the story takes place during a war. War creates orphans. There could quite easily have been an option for same-sex couples to adopt, which would also have made sense within the context of the story. It's a shame that there wasn't some leadership shown by Nintendo on this one, but coming from the house of Mario the chances were always slim. Maybe next time?
It truly is a shame that same-sex relationships are a no-no in Awakening, as the story and interactions between characters are actually quite engaging. Much of the narrative is played out during conversations with the main characters and the dialogue and attitude of each is spot on. All of your allies are incredibly likeable -- even the infinitely vain Vaike or the pompous Frederick -- and they grow moreso as the campaign progresses.
If you play in Classic mode, losing a character is almost like losing a family member; in turn, each loss ratchets the tension of each battle into the stratosphere. You feel the weight of each and every move; in the beginning, you're able to breeze through battles in minutes, but later on battles can take hours. You'll have to plan, plot and pray that you have the right combination of units in the right combination of movements to win... and more importantly, come out unscathed. It's really riveting stuff and doubly impressive from a handheld. An added bonus is that your main character -- rather then being a mute, blank canvas -- has a fleshed out personality of his or her own. They too add to the story rather than act as a casual observer.
While the aforementioned lack of relationship options is a blight on an otherwise fantastic game, there are a couple of other minor sticking points.The gameplay seems ripe for some form of competitive multiplayer, but it's nowhere to be found. Instead, there are two other options that seem to be largely missed opportunities. Firstly, if you have StreetPass activated and meet another player, their team will be transferred into your world (and vice-versa), and you can challenge them and trade items. When I say challenge them, I really mean that you fight that player's team as controlled by the AI. While it helps to level up and can occasionally deliver some rare items, it's not like fighting against another real human.
The second multiplayer mode is called "Dual Battle," and it involves two players fighting alongside each other to defeat a computer controlled enemy. Once again, it's great to level up and find new items, but it really just makes you want to be able to fight the guy sitting next to you. Dual Battle is only available via local play as well, unfortunately. For a game that seems to have so much content and that does so much right, to fumble the multiplayer is a tragedy. Thankfully, the rest of the Awakening is so stellar it can be overlooked.
The majority of Awakening is graphically gorgeous. From the fully animated and voice acted cut-scenes, to the 3D character models of the battles, the game looks stunning. The graphics for the battle-grid are fairly lacklustre, however. Employing a sprite based style, the pixelated units of the battle-grid look pretty awful and don't fit with the rest of the style of the game. This is the most minor of quibbles though; the game plays brilliantly and after a while the sprites tend to develop their own form of charm. I just wish they'd have created proper character models so the transitions between battle-grid and battle animation weren't so jarring.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is the reason to own a 3DS. It's got both a deep and rewarding gameplay system that is as simple or as complex as you like, and an engaging narrative filled with a wonderful and colourful cast of loveable characters. It's not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot of fun and more than worth your time and money.