As one of the first strategy RPGs (along with Shining Force), we’ve seen Fire Emblem come a long way since its youth on the Famicom. Gone are the days of progressing directly from chapter to chapter (and sometimes side-chapter), with little chance to shop for supplies or for the army to take a break in its travels. Over the past two decades and spanning several Nintendo consoles and handhelds, Intelligent Systems has added generation systems, support conversations, a navigable map, optional battles, the choice to disable permanent deaths, multiple Lord characters, new races and unit types, and even a player-created character, known as “My Unit” or in Awakening, “the tactician.”
So what happens when these elements converge on Nintendo’s latest and greatest handheld? A fresh setting and cast mean a new beginning, and so we follow Prince Chrom and his new, amnesiac tactician friend while they and the Shepherds defend Ylisse, the country that houses the series’ titular relic. Fire Emblem’s plots are not exactly at the top of my of favorite RPG stories, but Awakening still offers quite a few more twists than its predecessors (did I mention that the player character conveniently lost their memory?), and it keeps the player’s interest by feeding them enough tantalizing bits of information to keep them pushing through more chapters. Perhaps the most fascinating element in the story is the eventual presence of the characters’ second generation, not just for its plot reasoning, but also for the resulting character interactions. At the end of the day, however, country X invades country Y and eventually dragons come into the picture; a medieval tale we have seen more than a few takes on in past Fire Emblem games.
Fortunately, story is not, and never truly was, the driving force behind these games, as few other RPGs can create a large ensemble of characters with so little filler. How does everyone get their share of screen time? The short answer is: they don’t. Only a handful of characters appear frequently in event scenes, and the rest come into play via the support system. This remains by far my favorite gameplay element, not only for the battle advantages it provides, but for the character development and interactions behind the scenes that you would miss otherwise. In the process of creating all kinds of unlikely friendships and marriages, the nature of the series’ support system conversations has evolved from the straightforward getting-to-know-you type in the first English GBA title to amusing anecdotes, spar challenges, extremely unfortunate timing, and fascinating observations in Awakening. Yes, some characters will inevitably become wallflowers if you choose to neglect them. But given a chance, you’ll find that everyone has their silly quirks, annoying habits, fascinating traits, and suave (or not) ways of dealing with the opposite gender. These hilarious, sweet, and overall entertaining chats (of which there are many) establish themselves as bright spots in the middle of an otherwise grim tale of all-out war.
For this reason, I found myself rather fond of the English script, and the fact that there was an obvious fan or two of A Song of Ice and Fire on the localization staff may have also helped. Awakening is a game with an absurd amount of text when you factor in all of these chats, and it’s very clear that Nintendo took its time and a lot of care with the translation and writing, and it was well worth it. The dialogue is anything but dry, characters come to life, and I often chuckled even when the enemies talked amongst themselves. The localization and writing didn’t just ensure that I remained invested in the plot; they made me actively pursue as many in-game conversations as possible. And if you’re ever in doubt as to which characters to pair up in the long run, you can always solicit Old Hubba’s advice. Because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a pervy old man providing insight into the young female characters’ romantic outlooks. Nope. Not at all…
In Awakening, we find trademark series and strategy RPG mechanics, with elements such as the pair-up system and expanded support role keeping the gameplay from going stale. If you’re seeking a challenge, flip on Classic Mode and try to keep your entire army intact on any difficulty setting. Go on, I dare you. Just be warned that on any difficulty, the game won’t hesitate to punish you for your mistakes, but that’s all part of the fun. After all, it isn’t exactly strategy if you’re not planning out your moves carefully. On the bright side, it’s comforting to know that you can make all of your moves in the player phase before the enemies do the same in their own. To add longevity to the game and level up your lowly team members, you can wander the map for optional battles and, much more importantly, side missions. These aren’t mere throwaway chapters; new units are found in side missions who you’ll absolutely want to recruit for both story and gameplay reasons.
The abundance of Nintendo’s resources is evident in every aspect of the game’s production value. The vibrant 3D graphics enhance the battles, its few yet gorgeous animated cutscenes highlight important story moments, and in the midst it all, the detailed 2D sprites feel right at home on the maps and menus. While only cutscenes are fully voiced, enough voicing is present during other events and in fights to ensure that the personalities stay intact at all times. The event voices can be easily disabled if you find them awkward, but I much preferred them over silence in these scenes. It certainly helps that I have no qualms with the voice acting: each voice was well suited to his or her role and delivered well. Even 40 hours later, battle cries and phrases never wore on me.
Musically, this is a very predictable Fire Emblem score, and some tracks repeat often. That’s not always a bad thing, since the score grows more dramatic as the plot progresses and usually fits the game. Perhaps my favorite use of the music is the way the battle theme is always an enhanced, more spirited arrangement of the current map theme. And regardless of how you feel about the music, the sound quality is still top notch in all aspects.
With all that said, a couple of minor issues hold Awakening back from being a more perfect Fire Emblem title in my mind. At the risk of sounding extremely old-school, I miss the vast maps that we saw back in Thracia 776 and its era; miles of ground that took many a turn to complete. I found a few of Awakening’s maps a tad cramped, although these were admittedly easier to clear. A little more layout variety, conditions such as fog or darkness, and chapter objectives outside the standard wiping out of all foes or defeating the boss would have all been welcome in the main game. (This is not a knock against their aesthetics, mind you, as my favorite story map is literally a massive tree, one that makes for a gorgeous forested battle backdrop.) Second, the lack of distinction between light, dark and regular magic isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. The classic Fire Emblem weapon triangle still exists: the rock-scissors-paper mechanic where swords beat axes beat lances beat swords, but in Awakening, magic is simply magic. With no magic triangle and all offensive magic lumped together, it’s befuddling when I promote a dark mage to a dark knight and she actually loses the ability to cast dark magic, denoted by purple tomes. Had I known this would happen, I would have made her a sorcerer instead.
Is Fire Emblem Awakening sufficient enough to revitalize the interest of previous fans of the franchise while still appealing to new players? Most definitely. In a series that is already my favorite of the entire SRPG subgenre, this might be my new favorite Fire Emblem. And given my long history with the series, that’s a pretty high compliment. The title is an ode to games and characters past, but not so laden with references as to leave anyone lost or confused. (That part begins in the upcoming DLC maps, chock-full of characters from all across the series.) Gameplay is easy enough to pick up and figure out, with hints and tips that suffice without holding the player’s hand, and the touchscreen interface is readable and navigable without much trouble. It oozes charm that doesn’t simply cater to a niche crowd, and there is much here to love and to play through for 40+ hours, whether it is the challenging strategy-centric gameplay, the characters, series nostalgia, or simply to keep your 3DS occupied for a while. Or maybe even a combination of the above. With Nintendo’s handheld expecting many promising RPGs in English this year, Awakening still ought to be near the top of any RPG lover’s list, as it easily stands out as one of the very best 3DS titles to date.