Fire Emblem Awakening
The Fire Emblem series of games is another one which was an established success in Japan from the NES era, but only hit our shores a handful of times, and the West has been poorer without them. The DS heralded one Fire Emblem game, Shadow Dragon, and the 3DS has the GBA’s Sacred Stones on its Virtual Console by way of apology to 3DS early adopters like myself. Still, this is the first proper release on the 3DS, and compared to New Super Mario Bros games which are thrown at us on an almost yearly basis, this has had time to be anticipated, and to actually evolve into something beautiful.
So what is Fire Emblem? The game is Strategic RPG, or SRPG for short. There have been a few on portable platforms like the Advance Wars series, the oft-overlooked Ghost Recon Shadow War, and most recently on the big boy consoles, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Fire Emblem is what happens when the Japanese try to meld Western fantasy tropes with their own jRPG styles. You control an avatar, one you make yourself in Awakening, and move your army around a board-game like map on the 3DS’ top screen. You direct your soldiers through villages, towns, castles and skeleton-infested desert wastes, taking on several cackling baddies. The units all have different abilities such as archers who make ranged attacks, clerics who can’t fight but can heal, or dancers who do a little jig to get your little soldier boy another go this turn. You generally win by defeating the enemy general, letting people escape the map, or simply wiping the board clear of foes.
Pretty standard so far, but here’s where the beauty of Fire Emblem sinks in. Every little man and woman is a character. They have a background story, a personality, and if they die…they die. Much like in XCOM, permadeath is as much of a beloved feature as it is a tooth-grinding nightmare. I have screamed, actually screamed at losing people on my team. A chap by the name of Stahl rubbed me up the wrong way, being a scruffy-looking charmer who got through life a bit too easy, but after a few missions he’s mates with your avatar, with Chrom (the real hero you play advisor to). Then he took a spear to the face. I was an idiot, I let him go ahead a few steps and the enemy took advantage. The enemy, after all, is a total bastard. Make one misstep and they’ll all murder you. And that’s it for Stahl. His story’s done. His budding relationship with the uptight mage, Miriel, was over. A way through the game and she’s still alive, having levelled up, changed classes a couple of times and she’s got it bad for the androgynous monk, Libra.
The Fire Emblem games have always had an emphasis on character. It’s what made me quit Sacred Stones after a few missions, I didn’t have the emotional stamina to be able to keep going. In the Wii’s Radiant Dawn, I’ve lamented losing every single healer I had in two missions. Fire Emblem Awakening knows that it’s all about character and makes that a core part of the game more than any version before it. If you fight next to a character, or paired up into a single unit, then you’ll grow closer. Between battles you might have a chat in the barracks, or just hang out, improving your relationship and improving the bonuses you give each other out in the field. My avatar, Matsu Duunu, took a liking to the brash knight Sully, and the two ended up married before seven missions. The real leader of this rebellion and hero you play advisor to, Chrom, sadly never married until a time jump where he shacked up with a village girl. My shy swordmaster Lon’qu ended up marrying the dark mage Tharja. You end up shipping characters, partly to see how they interact but through weird temporal crazy, you end up with children of the married characters who harvest abilities from both parents. So do you create an ‘optimal’ child or just see what the different combinations do?
You’ll notice I’ve not said much about the story and that’s because it’s fairly standard. You’re an amnesiac man or woman who is collected by some plucky rebels called, The Shepherds. There’s an evil nation, a bunch of bandits and the undead springing up all over the place. There are some nice takes on it, being a hybrid of both the jRPG and Western fantasy sensibilities. While we have callbacks to previous Fire Emblems, they aren’t invasive enough to detract from the story or the gameplay.
The main story is over 20 missions long, with a similar amount of side-quests, so you’ve got a lot to sink your teeth into. Not just that, but there are harder and harder difficulty modes including Lunatic, which will likely fill anyone with dread. You can even turn off the permadeath at any difficulty if you want, you big wuss. Oh, and there’s DLC. Nintendo are embracing the world of DLC now, after all. There’s free Spotpass DLC which allows you to fight classic characters and add them to your roster, bribe them into joining you without a fight or simply buy goods from them. Streetpass does a similar trick but with the avatars of any people you walk past who have played the game. There is paid DLC, too. The first map is free for now, featuring Smash Bros and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon star, Marth. Like the New Super Mario Bros 2 DLC, these maps are bundled together at a discount and are replayable, which makes grinding a few more levels (or a few more relationship connections) so much easier.
If you have a 3DS, enjoy SRPGs (including XCOM you judgemental ‘big console’ owners), interesting character experiences, and weeping when little computer men and women die, then this is a must buy. My flatmate saw the last half of a mission where I was fending off assassins in the night and has bought a 3DS just for this game, and here at D+PAD we’ve been comparing pair-ups and emotional horrors during our experiences of the game. Fire Emblem Awakening is a truly absorbing experience; a game which can make you fist-pump in victory and shout in horror as you watch zombie archers pick off your last Pegasus knight, all while you plan on how you’ll do it all better next time. And for what is essentially a board game-type RPG where little men and women run around a grid, that is pretty damn impressive.
Reviewed on 3DS; Game purchased by D+PAD.
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