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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Fire Emblem Awakening marks the first “new” game in the series since 2007’s Radiant Dawn on the Wii. As such, it seems reasonable to expect greater ambition from the folks at Intelligent Systems.

...but not so much on casual mode
If ambition is what you seek, Awakening delivers it in spades...just perhaps not where you expect it. Looking at the various promotional assets for the game reveals top-grade 3D battle scenes, a sophisticated soundtrack, and arguably the finest character portraits to date. That's all nice, but nothing particularly groundbreaking (considering the console versions). Perhaps most interestingly, a masked incarnation of unofficial series icon, Marth, appears on the front cover.

Without spoiling too much, this “Marth” represents a time-travelling plot device. Our new hero, Chrom, wages war in the modern age until encountering this enigmatic figure. To defeat the threat of monsters and madmen alike, he’ll need to team with comrades from the past, present, and his future. Many story elements and characters are drawn from the original NES game, making this particular entry feel like the epicenter of the Fire Emblem universe.

The actual plot comes across as slightly contrived, but the localization makes the whole thing divine. Not many video games about human conflict contain so many likable characters and witty one-liners. In fact, I burst out laughing more times than I care to admit. Female characters will even take not-so-subtle shots at the implied chauvinism of previous titles.

For all intents and purposes, the core gameplay is “identical” to the previous twelve titles. Players individually move units around a map in turn-based fashion whilst squaring off against enemy forces and levelling up. Should one of your soldiers die at any point, you will lose them permanently to war. Items, weaponry, and money are finite, so you must keep track of these prior to and following skirmishes. This micromanagement is downplayed compared to the other games, but we’ll touch on that later.

There are several lesser refinements such as the exchange of the old “rescue” mechanic for a more dynamic “pair up”, but these are ultimately icing on a cake over twenty years in the making. Old fans will be doubtlessly receptive of the deeper mechanics, but the most meaningful alterations lie elsewhere.

If you don't mind inaccuracies, I guess
The two real “problems” with Awakening are decidedly philosophical in nature. For some, these points will actually be encouraging. Like Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, you can replay maps and essentially grind your way to victory at any point. Similarly, the option to turn the series’ trademark permanent character death will ruffle a few feathers in the hardcore community. This writer would rather not decry a game for bearing options that expand the player base, but it’s easy to see how things would become vapid if you get overpowered characters with ridiculous handicaps.  

The thing is that Awakening is designed around replaying chapters and extending the experience of one file for as long as possible. This is the most “open” game yet (significantly more so than even Sacred Stones), allowing you to take a break from story progression to pursue marriage, micromanage, play bonus chapters, or recruit foreign teammates. If you want to truly enjoy Awakening, you’ll have to embrace this fresh approach.

Thankfully, the new class system in place means you can technically grind characters to level 80 or beyond. Doing so will reward you with a greater skill set and better stats than that of the traditional 40 levels. This also means you can replay stages without having to worry about building your team into unstoppable powerhouses whilst simply pursuing marriage.

With so many characters to pick from and bonus chapters to unlock, you’ll want to develop your roster as much as possible. Unlike previous games, you can have virtually unlimited support conversations, which gives each character more depth than you would otherwise notice.

Even if you are infuriated by the removal of linearity (and subsequently, overarching strategy), the presence of a “lunatic” difficulty level and some fan service should set you straight. Naturally, by fan service I mean the ability to fight and play as characters from the previous twelve iterations of Fire Emblem. Being able to take Marth, Marisa, Ike, and even Nergal into combat with you makes for an infinitely rewarding experience. Having the digital version of the game seems suitable since new characters and downloadable content (free and paid) will constantly be distributed.
Awakening's world hub

Further consider that Awakening has the largest character roster of any title in the series as well as the most maps and chapters. This is almost a Pokèmon-esque approach in that it encourages you to collect characters and “breed” them beyond the completion of the central campaign. Awakening goes a step further by providing countless customization options such as class changes. So yes – you can now make a dragon ride a dragon into combat. All things considered, you're looking at hundreds of hours. 

As previously mentioned, this game probably has the largest development budget of the series. Combat animations look better than ever and the ability to switch into a 3D first person perspective keeps them interesting. It’s worth noting that though the voices for cutscenes can be changed to Japanese, no subtitles accompany them. The mumbling character quotes associated with text-based dialogue also get a bit grating given their abundance. Other than these minor quibbles, this is auditory and optical bliss.

Fire Emblem Awakening is a paradox – familiar yet daring; mechanically perfect yet controversial. Functioning simultaneously as a love letter to seasoned vets and an invitation for novices, this is an essential title for all parties with the remotest interest in strategy games.



- Clark A
Find me on MiiVerse: Midori

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Review: Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)
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