Fire Emblem: Awakening review
The latest installment of one of the most beloved tactical RPG series was released in North America two days ago. After almost a quarter of a century, does Fire Emblem: Awakening still have what it takes to keep us glued to our 3DS’s screens?
Well, in short – yes, it does. But, let’s start from the beginning.
Fire Emblem: Awakening’s narrative is mostly centered on Lord Chrom, the brother of the king of Ylisse. Chrom leads the band of soldiers in charge of protecting the kingdom’s borders. However, although Chrom is undoubtedly the game’s main protagonist, the players experience the story through the eyes of a custom created unit, similar to Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken, except that this time, the player-created avatar will play a much bigger role on the battlefield itself.
Unless you’re a veteran of the genre, I sincerely recommend doing the first playthrough on normal difficulty, because Fire Emblem: Awakening is a challenging game. Character deaths are permanent, collecting money is hard, and the AI will make a fool out of you very often. After you get the hang of the game, you can explore the other 3 difficulty levels made especially for masochists. A quick note on permanent character deaths: there is an option of turning them off, but don’t do it. Just pick a lower difficulty and leave the permanent deaths on, because they are a huge part of the overall experience; They are the reason we restarted so many Fire Emblem missions over the years, and they are the ones that make your tactical choices on the battlefield even harder to make. Honestly, I was surprised to even see the option of turning off permanent deaths, since Fire Emblem games were never made for casual gamers, but I guess that it’s not too strange, since these days, everything’s trying to appeal to everyone anyway.
Speaking of characters, Fire Emblem: Awakening features over 40 recruitable characters. Of course, recruiting all 40 of them will require several different playthroughs, but it’s not like you’ll have the time to get to know all 40 of them in one playthrough anyway. Also, the only two that aren’t “allowed” to die are Lord Chrom and the custom avatar created by the player. Just like in the previous games, the characters here can interact on the battlefield, building a relationship that can easily affect the final outcome of the story. This relationship also has more immediate effects, like improved stats for adjacent characters with a high support level. A novelty in Fire Emblem: Awakening is the characters’ ability to pair up with another character, which puts both characters in the same grid on the battlefield and significantly boosts their stats. However, pairing up the characters means that one of them will get significantly less experience in battle, which means that you can’t overuse this ability or your party will become unbalanced very quickly.
The gameplay itself is divided into two main parts – the overworld and battle phases. In the overworld, you’ll be exploring the game’s map, completing chapters and side quests, saving villagers and recruiting various characters. At the end of each chapter, all of the explored locations turn into shops from which you can buy weapons and items from. If you’re fast enough, there’s also a chance that you’ll find a merchant that’s offering a discount on all of his merchandise for a short period of time. Some of the new features include StreetPass functionality and local multiplayer, both of which will offer you a chance to earn additional experience, money, and “renown”, which make the single player campaign a little easier and significantly improve the duration of the whole game.
The battle and leveling mechanics of Fire Emblem games have never been more complex. Aside from the traditional rock-paper-scissors weapon and magic mechanics, semi-random stats improvements upon leveling-up, numerous classes and prestige classes, and special weapon proficiency bars for every character, the terrain is now also a factor in battle that will either improve or reduce your attack and defense. Understanding how the combat works and maximizing the inflicted damage per turn is crucial, because the AI will show you no mercy and will often one-shot your characters simply because you weren’t paying enough attention to your surroundings and equipment.
The soundtrack is great, both in terms of length and variety, so I wouldn’t recommend playing Fire Emblem: Awakening with the sound turned off, unless it’s for some reason completely unavoidable. Sound effects are also varied and of high quality, so in overall, the sound aspect of the game is quite impressive. The graphics are also pretty good: although most of the game is in 2D, the 3D battle animations look fantastic, and just when you think that the game is starting to overuse a colour palette, the story will take you to a place with a completely different graphical setting.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is free of any major downsides, and even finding some smaller game flaws proved to be a challenge. Still, there are some things that bother me. For instance, what I really miss is a simple way to restart missions without having to abort the game and go back to the main menu. Also, although I can appreciate the challenge, the enemy AI shows very little in terms of variety: it’s always suicidal and sacrifices its characters without a moment of doubt, with just a single thing in “mind” – to get you to that “game over” screen by killing off either your custom character or Lord Chrom. This does makes the game harder, but it seems kind of cheap when on one side, I’m having a hard time letting even one of my characters die because not only will that negate all of the time and effort I’ve spent in leveling-up that character, thus making the game even harder, but it also screws with my ending, and on the other side, the AI just throws all of its units at me. Of course, these emotional decisions are all a part of the Fire Emblem games and sooner or later, you’re going to have to make one, but I don’t believe asking for an AI that’s even remotely defensive of its heroes like I am of mine is too much. Still, all of these things are just nuances, and they don’t take away from the bottom point of this review.
And the bottom point is that Fire Emblem: Awakening is a system-seller, pure and simple. Although the series changed very little over the last 10 years when it first came out in the west, the fact is that there was nothing really wrong with Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken in 2003, and Fire Emblem: Awakening is a small improvement in every aspect. Although handheld gaming has definitely seen better days, if titles like this one keep coming out, there’s no doubt that portable consoles will stick around for a long time. So, in short: if you own a 3DS, there’s no excuse not to buy Fire Emblem: Awakening, and if you don’t own a 3DS, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the perfect excuse to get one.
Graphics: 7.7 - varied and colourful 2D with excellent 3D battle animations
Sound: 9.2 - fantastic soundtrack and quality sound effects
Gameplay: 9.5 - it’s hard to master the game, but it’s much more harder to stop playing it
Duration: 10 - single player is worth numerous playthroughs, not to mention the constantly incoming extra content and multiplayer
Score: 9.6 - some smaller nuances aside, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a system-seller
Genre: Tactical RPG
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Red Entertainment
Release date: April 19, 2012 (Japan), February 4, 2013 (North America), April 19, 2013 (Europe)
The game score is not an average of other rated elements (since not all of them are equally important), just the reviewer’s overall opinion of the game.