Here in Canada, we have a reputation for cold weather and politeness. We also happened to get our hands on Fire Emblem: Awakening about a full week before the game’s official US release date. Longer if you take into account all the shipping delays the game had. As such, I was about finished by the time the game started to trickle into American hands. Lucky me! It also means (helped along by some other circumstances) that I get to be the one who reviews Fire Emblem: Awakening for the site. Lucky you!
So, what is Fire Emblem: Awakening? Put simply, it’s the first Fire Emblem title to receive an official English translation since Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon in 2009 and the first original title since 2007’s Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. It’s also the series’ debut on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld. Here at oprainfall, we have quite a few hardcore Fire Emblem fans; some of us even listed the game on our “Most Anticipated of 2013” lists. Let’s see if it held up to our expectations…
Fire Emblem is a strategy RPG series. That much hasn’t changed in Awakening. Players control a small army of unique units on a grid-like map in turn-based battles against enemy forces. Player units attack enemies on their turn and are themselves attacked on the enemy’s turn. The outcomes of unit versus unit battles are determined by the units’ stats. It’s all fairly traditional RPG fare. Of course, this is Fire Emblem. A series whose signature gimmick is permanent character death. Each of the player’s units in the game is a unique character, and if a character falls in battle, that’s it. They’re dead. Not only that, but they stay dead for the rest of the game. It adds an element of gravity to battles that regular strategy RPGs may lack. If you’re a perfectionist, you may find yourself restarting the game whenever a character dies… Unless you choose to play on “Casual mode,” that is.
Casual mode differs from “Classic mode” in that characters that die in battle are only gone for the remainder of that battle, and are available again for the next one. Casual mode also gives players the option to save during battle. This differs from the standard “Bookmarks,” which are analogous to quick-saves. Bookmarks are only meant to allow players to quit game mid-battle and are deleted after reloading, while battle saves are similar to regular saves in that they can be loaded and reloaded at will. I played the game on classic mode, reloading whenever a character died, but personally, casual mode sounds fairly attractive, if only for the ability to actually save during battle. Some might see using battle saves as being similar to using save states on Virtual Console games, but to those people, I point out that casual mode is entirely optional.
In addition to classic mode and casual mode, Fire Emblem: Awakening also includes separate, more standard difficulty settings. In this case, the difficulty levels are called “Normal,” “Hard,” and “Lunatic.” An extra difficulty level, “Lunatic+,” can be unlocked by completing the game on Lunatic mode. I played on Normal, and I found that the game provided a decent challenge, so I expect the higher difficulties would be quite tough indeed. There’s definitely something here for anyone, from those who just want to see the story to the hardiest of challenge seekers.
Beyond the fundamental customization that is difficulty settings, there’s a lot that can be done within the game itself. There are weapons and items to buy, and just like in previous games, item management is very important. Weapons have a certain number of uses. The stronger or more unique a weapon is, the fewer uses it has (there are a couple of exceptions). Once a weapon is used to its limit, it breaks. It would suck if your weapon broke mid-battle, leaving a unit defenceless. This is why item management is so important.
Now, here’s where Fire Emblem: Awakening starts to differ from previous titles. The individual units have quite a few more customisation options, for one. In addition to the standard “Master Seals,” which allow a character to promote their class into an improved version upon exceeding level 10, there are “Second Seals.” Second Seals allow a basic class of level 10 or higher, or an advanced class of any level to change class again into one of a number different base classes, which are determined by the unit’s starting class and, in certain cases, the unit’s parents’ starting classes (more on that later). Re-classing using Second Seals allows a character to greatly exceed the standard level cap of 40 (20 in the base class and 20 in the promoted class). In addition, each class has a couple of special skills that are triggered under certain circumstances. These are learned as the units level up, and re-classed units retain their original class’ skills. These skills can be equipped and un-equipped as needed, with up to five being equipped at once. Skills can provide highly personalized characters, as well as some incredibly deadly ones.
There’s one huge customisation option I’ve neglected to mention. The main character. At the start of the game, players are tasked with designing an avatar. Players can name the avatar, give it a birthday, slightly tweak its stat growth, and choose between various appearance options, such as hairstyle and colour, body type, face, voice and, of course, gender (this is important). These options (except hair colour) are fairly limited, which is unfortunate, but understandable when you consider that someone had to design the character portraits for all the combinations. The completed avatar then becomes a character in the game with its own backstory, interactions, and support conversations.
Ah. Support conversations. A series staple. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, however, this staple is given an all new importance. In previous games, support conversations provided some supplemental story for all the characters, as well as some combat bonuses when characters where fighting near their support partners. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, support conversations still provide a look into the characters’ lives and their interactions with each other, but they also have a huge effect during battle. When any two characters are positioned directly beside one another, both will take part in battle when an enemy is engaged by either of the characters. The secondary character grants stat bonuses to the primary character, and they also have a chance of performing a follow-up attack while on offence, or of blocking enemy attacks while on defence. Characters with supports between them will have larger stat bonuses and a greater chance of follow-up attacks and blocking when fighting together. If a character has multiple supports with different characters, all of the support characters can be positioned around that character, providing even bigger bonuses (only the character with the highest support level will actually join the battle, though).
Characters can also be paired up on the battlefield. In previous games the “Rescue” command would allow a unit to pick up an ally, shielding it from damage at the expense of their own stats. In Awakening, pairing up serves a similar function, but without the penalty. Pairing up is actually a boon, in fact. When paired up, the lead unit gains stat boosts from the secondary unit, as well as a boost to their support level. The two units fight together when like this, but as a down side, only the leader gets experience, unless the follower performs a follow up attack. Because of this, I found that pairing up was most useful when I wanted to level up a weak unit by giving them a stat boost from a higher levelled partner, or when I wanted to quickly raise the support level between two characters.
That’s not all there is to support conversations, though. If a mommy character and a daddy character love each other very much… Wait, let’s step back a bit. Once a male character and a female character raise their support level to “A” (normally the highest level), they can continue to advance their relationship to the next level, “S.” Once their support level reaches S (it comes right after A, so it doesn’t take long), the characters will get married! Yay! As you’d expect, S rank supports provide the greatest combat benefits, but, in certain characters’ cases, you’ll eventually meet their children! The children have stats based on their parents’ and they also inherit some of their skills. As a result, the children can be incredibly powerful, if you put in the effort to level them up. Your avatar can also have a child. This is why gender is important. It decides who the potential other parent can be.
In previous games, characters were mostly limited to one support maxed at A, and a couple others at lower levels. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, characters can max out all of their potential supports at A. Of course, they can only have one spouse. No philandering allowed! The avatar can have a support with all of the characters in the game.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is divided into chapters, with additional side chapters called “Paralogues” sprinkled throughout. All of these can be found on a world map. The world map also contains encounters with monsters that can be used for grinding experience and money, and there are items that summon additional monsters to the map. If you’re worried that this grinding potential makes the game too easy, I didn’t find this to be the case. Almost no characters had their stats reach astronomical heights, despite their high levels, and enemies in the story always did enough damage to be dangerous.
Well, that’s a lot of game crammed into the 3DS’ little cartridge, huh? It all works together wonderfully, but can story and presentation bring it all together into a complete package?
The story follows Chrom, prince of the Halidom of Ylisse, and his band of Shepherds. These aren’t your standard shepherds, however. As one character mentions, their flock is not made up of sheep, but of the people of Ylisse. The Shepherds are on patrol, keeping an eye out for bandits, when they come upon the player’s amnesiac avatar sleeping in a field, kicking off the story. There are lots of twists and turns in this particular story, and, while I didn’t find it to be as strong in this regard as Path of Radiance or Radiant Dawn, it’s compelling, and the characters and twists add a lot to what might otherwise be a typical “save the world” adventure.
Speaking of the characters, there are a lot of them, and, while they fall into many of the standard JRPG archetypes, like a kind hero (Chrom), a ditzy girl (Sumia), and a hot-headed, but lovable idiot (Now it’s Vaike time!), a fabulous localisation gives them all life beyond their archetypical limits. The characters’ individuality shines through a great deal more in their support conversations. Many of these fall into the “amusing” category, but a lot are quite touching as well.
The story is well supplemented by voice clips for all of the playable characters, during both battle and story sections. Voices are provided in both English and Japanese, but I’m a fan of English voice acting and never saw a reason to switch. Nevertheless, the inclusion of both is great for people who are fans of Japanese voice overs. There are also occasional CG cutscenes interspersed throughout the story, adding extra weight to its major points. Also, unlike Path of Radiance or Radiant Dawn, none of the voice acting is so hilariously bad! Indeed, the English cast is mostly composed of experienced video game and anime voice actors like Kate Higgins, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, and Yuri Lowenthal. There’s a little bit of voice actor overlap, but it’s not too bad, and none of the major characters will be talking to themselves as a result.
Still on the subject of audio, the soundtrack is fantastic. It crosses a few different styles, from rustic accordion music, to the more sweeping, grand tracks you’d expect from Fire Emblem, all the way to Latin (or Latin-esque, anyway, I’m not sure) chanting during pivotal battles. A nice touch I noticed was the way the music on the battle maps would change to a quicker, more frantic arrangement when a fight was engaged, rather than having fully different battle music.
Rounding out the game’s presentation are the graphics. On the battle maps, characters are represented by 2D sprites on a 3D battle field. Nothing too special, right? However, things get good when the characters start to fight. Battles are in full 3D, and the character models and backdrops are well detailed. The character models’ long arms and lack of feet (or hooves for feet) may be off-putting at first, but I found that I noticed it less and less as the game went on. Otherwise, the character models are fairly true to the game’s art. Until you go messing with their classes, anyway. There’s not much they could really do about that, though, I guess. In addition to the detailed models and settings, there are lots of nice graphical effects that add a lot to the presentation. Light glints off weapons and metal armour, water and dust are thrown up around the characters’ feet, and in one of my favourite settings, characters are reflected in pools of water as they battle. The characters’ battle animations also seem to be a bit more varied than I remember them being in past games, which is nice, as it makes the battles seem a bit more organic.
There are some minor multiplayer elements to be had as well, not that I particularly cared after the single player meat of the game. You can meet other players’ teams via Streetpass, allowing you to buy items from them, pay to recruit their leader, or fight them. There’s also a local co-op mode that allows players to team up and fight enemies for rewards. It’s pretty much just a throwaway, but whatever. I don’t play Fire Emblem for the deep multiplayer.
I guess I should mention any issues I have with the game. To be honest, I’ll really have to stretch here. I guess the inventory system could be a bit more refined. It can be tough to move items around between characters. Trading in camp involves going through all the items of the type you want, and find the character holding the particular item you want. In the past, it would let you select the two characters you wanted to trade between, which was a great deal simpler. I could also say that I’d want the game to have more voice acting. I found what’s there to be well done, and I think more voice acting could have really enhanced the game. So, basically, the only issues I have with the game are pretty nitpicky.
If you’ve stuck through this review to this point, you can probably tell that Fire Emblem: Awakening has a ton of content packed into its little cartridge. That content gives the game a lot of longevity. Played the game with a male avatar? Try again with a female! Want a tougher experience? Try a new difficulty! Pair up different characters! Get a new spouse for your avatar next time! There’s a lot you can do even in one file, too. Keep changing your characters’ classes around, boost their stats and learn all the skills. Add in the release of DLC maps, chapters, and characters, and I can see someone putting hundreds of hours into this game.
Okay, let’s go through the essentials of this review. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a brilliant game. Plain and simple. It evolves the Fire Emblem formula in some excellent ways, but it’s still Fire Emblem. The gameplay is deep and highly customisable. The story is compelling, and the localisation really brings the characters to life. Excellent graphics, music, and voice acting snippets are icing on the cake. The problems I have with the game are very small and very few. This is an excellent game, and a must have for every 3DS library.
Review copy supplied by author.