While it might not be as big as Mario or Zelda, Fire Emblem is a series that has been with Nintendo since the NES days, hidden away from western audiences for half its life until its second release on the Game Boy Advance. The fantasy turn-based strategy RPG comes to the 3DS with the latest instalment, Fire Emblem Awakening. On a console barren of games, Fire Emblem Awakening makes a powerful and lasting impression.
In this title you take control of Chrom, a noble from the country of Ylisse, and his militia known as the Shepherds. You are able to create your own character and have them aid Chrom as he battles Ylisse’s warmongering neighbours. The story keeps to Fire Emblem traditions, starring a medieval world, magic, and dragons of course.
Rather than fighting with a mass of faceless troops, Fire Emblem Awakening gives you a cast of unique and colourful characters, from vain and romantic archers to sinister and cheerful dark mages. As you play through missions these characters will join your ranks. Some need you to protect them from incoming enemies and others can even be recruited from the enemy side. A large part of the game revolves around the interactions and relations between these characters. When characters fight alongside each other or pair up in battle they gain supports with each other which give them stat bonuses for being near each other. These supports also give conversations between characters which reveals more of their personality. In Fire Emblem Awakening when two character if the opposite gender get their maximum support rank they get married and while I would not want to spoil anything for you let us just say that these relationships impact the game further down the line in a big way.
A new feature to Fire Emblem Awakening is the ability to pair characters together in battle. This enhances the stats of the primary character and can also be used to shield weakened characters. Pair a knight with a cavalier then you can take advantage of the horse’s greater movement to ferry the knight greater distances. While it opens up many interesting options, pairing up characters take off too much the edge from normal mode. Veterans of this series may for that reason want to start on a harder mode.
The long running staple of Fire Emblem is the permanent death of characters who fall in battle. When they are defeated you either have to restart the chapter all over again or simply soldier on without them. The use of random number generator and a lot luck in battles will result in having fate snatch a character away from you, perhaps at the worst possible moments. In Fire Emblem Awakening however, there is an optional casual mode designed for newcomers to the series. This means they can wet their feet in a slightly more forgiving version of the game before moving onto the true Fire Emblem experience.
You move your army between chapters via the world map. Each location has a shop where you can buy new items to equip your characters. Funds are limited in Fire Emblem Awakening and weapons break after a certain number of uses, so managing your characters inventories and your money is an important aspect of making sure your army is well equipped for the next chapter. Your basic weapons include trustworthy materials like iron and steel, but every so often your characters get access to special weapons like killing edges which give higher critical hit chances or hammers which do extra damage to heavy armour. These items you will want to covet and use wisely. The world map also features random encounters with smaller enemy forces outside of the main story as well as special side quest chapters which can be done at your leisure.
Fire Emblem Awakening, like its predecessors, uses a simple system for the basis of its weapon battles, which is rock, paper, scissors. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat sword. Bows and magic are the outliers and main sources of ranged attacks. From this simple foundation the game becomes deeper when the time comes when you start encountering second tier characters who are stronger and have access to more weapon types. Adding to this is the selection of special weapons to use and fight against. From melee weapons that can attack from a distance to weapons or spells designed to be highly effective against certain classes (such as bows and wind magic against flying classes). Therefore it always pays to take your time to research your enemy and their inventories before moving ahead. This is especially true on the harder difficulties where a single wrong move will likely end in the death of one of your characters.
The enemy AI is relentless in their offence. They will always seek out your weakest link and drive their blades straight for them. If you leave your main healer out in the open in range of an enemy they will hunt them down immediately. The enemy team can also call in reinforcements which means you must always be wary of sudden back attacks. As you move through the chapters you will be presented with new challenges, from terrain that slows down certain units to neutral units and villages that need to be protected from marauding enemies. Relying on a single tactic in Fire Emblem Awakening might end with you running into trouble later on.
Compared to the previous hand held Fire Emblem games, Awakening ups the ante with the visuals. Featuring stunning cutscenes and fully 3D fight sequences, this is a game that pushes the 3DS hardware to the limits. The map screens blend 3D terrain with stylised sprites very effectively. The character designs have also seen a change from older times. Fire Emblem Awakening ditches the down to earth styles of Blazing Sword and Sacred Stones in favour of something with a bit more zazz and detail. This is a more subjective change, and while it does not go to the lengths of recent Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts titles, some designs might seem harder to like than others.
Finally, Fire Emblem Awakening will be offering DLC from its otherworldly gate. These include the chance to play on maps from old Fire Emblem games and the ability to control and fight unit from previous games as well. While additional content for a great game might be welcomes by some others might have their reservations, especially considering Nintendo have never been big on DLC in the past.
Since the release of Radiant Dawn on the Wii six years ago Fire Emblem has been awaiting the release of a new title (that is not just a remake), and Awakening does not fail to please. Fire Emblem Awakening, if nothing else, finally gives us a reason to look to the 3DS. A solid and proud entry to this long running series, an instant recommendation to anyone with or considering a 3DS.