If It Ain’t Broke…
Fire Emblem: Awakening sticks to Nintendo’s formula of improving on the strengths of what its series is known for: long robed nobles committing themselves to a war of political ideals with the unfortunate peasants and subjects getting caught between. A huge cast of characters backdrop well refined strategy gameplay and an RPG system as deep or shallow as desired.
Like all of the great strategy games in history, i.e. XCOM UFO Defense, Final Fantasy Tactics and Valkyria Chronicles, Fire Emblem: Awakening excels not thanks to its main plot, but rather the camaraderie formed between the gamer and his or her units. While filing through the large cast of characters, you will inevitably find your favorites and fight each battle perfectly to make sure they all survive.
There is a genuine love and care put into each cheeky personality. A thief who craves sugar and fights for lollipops. A towering knight with no presence and often goes unnoticed by his friends. A secretly murderous sorceress who is either planning to love or kill the main character. The characters unimportant to the plot easily outshine those who are front and center, nearly rendering the gamers’ custom avatar totally pointless.
Intelligent Systems knows their loveable casts are the main reason fans play Fire Emblem and plays it up in Awakening. Uncovering these hidden faces of characters who charge into battle can be more rewarding than the actual battles themselves. To unlock these side stories, characters will have to learn to trust one another openly by fighting together on the battlefield.
While nothing more than a formality in previous games, relationships and friendships have been skyrocketed as the driving mechanic. The more a character learns to like the others, the more they will spill their souls to those who listen. Not only does this reward emotionally by getting to understand and relate to your troops better, but the better relationship a character has with his cohorts, the better his chances become at aiding his friends in a time of need.
Story Takes a Hit, Though
With such a huge focus placed on the interpersonal relationships of its enormous cast, the mutli-generational tale of Chrom and his cohorts never quite hits the levels previous games nailed so perfectly. Much of the political intrigue and alliance infighting have been sacrificed for an uncharacteristic barebones tale of zombie soldiers from a parallel universe and a manipulative evil kingdom.
Do-gooders do good, and villains use shallow motivations like insanity and revenge to justify their actions. Chrom’s journey of bringing peace throughout the world comes across as a simplistic story of one man’s struggle against evil rather than nations finding themselves on the brink of a catastrophic war.
Fire Emblem has never been a straightforward realistic medieval tale of swords and knights, nor has it ever been a pixie land of magic and fairy dust. It has always tiptoed a very thin line of fantasy and reality, never revealing the true lore behind its conflicts. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s tale lacks the subtle hints and gestures towards its place in the series’ continuity.
It’s a necessary step to get more of an audience involved in the story, but longtime fans will see the plot as just a tool for progression rather than a main attraction.
RPG vs. Strategy
Fire Emblem: Awakening also continues in the series’ long established tradition of blending tough turn based strategy with console RPG elements found in Final Fantasy or Suikoden. An early pioneer in the SRPG sub-genre, Awakening does a wonderful job of refining the solid formula. Battles are tough and require excessive amounts of planning, and characters die permanently if felled in combat, creating a constant sense of tension that one wrong move can mean restarting.
(If that whole perma-death thing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, Fire Emblem: Awakening also has a casual mode were fallen warriors come back after the battle is over.)
Time and time again, Fire Emblem’s great sense of danger proves that victory is sweetest when your talents are pushed to the brink.
However, this is where I might defer with many Fire Emblem fans. The second Game Boy Advance game to come to America, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, opened up the world map, allowing more grinding and the opportunity to exploit the deeper RPG aspects of the combat system. Fire Emblem: Awakening also follows the pack in this design choice, and this flies in stark contrast from the linear mission to mission structure the previous games were known for.
This opening of the map, while creating a fun RPG sandbox to toy around in, also commits the sin of alleviating the driving tension. Much of the allure of the older games came not only from strategizing each battle to perfection, but also dealing with the limited time and resources. Replenished weapons were not so readily available, experience points need to be divided between characters or the weaker units would fall behind, building relationships between characters must constantly be paid attention to with such a limited amount of turns.
Fire Emblem before these games was all about tension and always being pushed to be prepared from deadly battle to deadly battle.
While all the open world can be totally ignored in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the option to replenish weapons and grind out a few levels between the story battle kills the sense of danger looming throughout the entire experience.
Fans looking for a tougher and more pure strategy experience might want to look back at the superior 2003 Fire Emblem game on the Game Boy Advance. Gamers looking for light RPG fun with the option of stat-inflating artificial difficulty can’t go wrong with Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Together, though, they represent the best of the two branches of Fire Emblem. Which camp do you fall in?
Power grinding can make even the most difficult boss fights a cake walk
Regardless, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a beautiful game to look at. No longer do fans have to worry about ugly 3D models being an unfit substitute for the fluid sprites the old games were known for. The GameCube and Wii games have been totally outmatched by Awakening’s crisp visuals and enchanting soundtrack.
The anime cutscenes intertwined with the game’s plot show someone at Intelligent Systems understands the basics of 3D in ways not even Hollywood can keep up with.
Call me a little too old fashioned though, but the game engine cutscenes are actually a step back from the series older style of storytelling: animated faces set against a static backdrop. I’m not sure how Intelligent Systems used to get it done, but the tension in the older scenes could be cut with a knife. Here, the goofy character models work in combat, but their awkward movements and blocky limbs just come off as silly during serious moments.
Editor’s note: What about their missing feet!?
Small Sacrifices for a Great Experience
A few older fans might find gripes in the simplicity of the story and general ease of grinding, but Nintendo has done their best to make up for it with brutal difficulty levels and the addition of classic mode.
In the end, Intelligent System’s choice to expand the relationship system proved to be a winner, and its deep and addictive RPG elements do more than enough to make up for the lack of tension and momentum.
Awakening the absolute best possible way Fire Emblem could have make a grand return to the portable scene. Take it anywhere you want and get lost in what could possibly be the best gaming universe Nintendo has ever created. There is plenty here for newcomers and longtime fans alike to enjoy.
We received a review code from Nintendo for a digital version of Fire Emblem: Awakening.