Fire Emblem: Awakening Review

Intelligent Systems are one of Nintendo’s most consistent development studios. Their work has regularly gained glowing reviews, and over the years has included properties such as Paper Mario, Wario Ware and Advance Wars. Fire Emblem, though, has always been their key franchise, with the latest title, Awakening, being the thirteenth entry in the series, although only it’s only the sixth game to be released in the West.

The Fire Emblem series is generally credited with spawning the modern tactical role-playing genre, and while games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea have added layer upon layer of complexity onto its foundations, Intelligent Systems has set out to prove that the core Fire Emblem experience is still relevant, and indeed still vital, to the genre it originated.

For those not familiar with the series, the most important thing to note is that Fire Emblem has always been crushingly hard. However, Intelligent Systems have clearly recognised that this difficulty level has been a huge barrier to entry, and have ensured that Awakening is their most accessible Fire Emblem title to date.

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[drop]The first change is is the difficulty selection, which now offers normal, hard and lunatic settings (they couldn’t quite bring themselves to offer a ‘beginner’ option). For the purposes of this review I tried out both normal and hard, with the tougher option providing a near masochistic level of difficulty that left me wondering what the lifespan of any 3DS would be when playing on lunatic. Normal was far more forgiving, though by the fourth mission you already had to really consider each of your actions.

As well as the core difficulty level, Awakening adds an option to forgoe one of Fire Emblem’s defining features – the permanent death of your characters when they fall in battle. This is a first for the series, and for veterans it’s a potentially controversial decision. Having played all of the series’ Western releases I’m used to a Fire Emblem session following a strict pattern of making a fatal error, quitting out of the game and reloading the level from the start – in many cases losing up to an hour of gameplay.

In classic mode Awakening is no different, and when I saw that my save file said eight hours I was pretty convinces that my actual play time was at least double that. The further you get into the game, the bigger the impact of losing a character is, as you grow more attached to the members of your party with each moment. 

They’re all well-defined and enjoyable characters, and their dialogue, both written and spoken, lends them a genuine humanity that is so often missing in fantasy games, where it’s often easier to lean on genre tropes. As storylines and relationships permanently disappear with the character, you feel genuinely callous to even consider carrying on without one of them, and meaning a reset swiftly follows each death.

The newcomer mode erases all of that, with characters returning as soon as the battle ends, allowing you to fling them around the battlefield without too much worry. Although this mode doesn’t really feel true to the Fire Emblem legacy, it’s nice to see the series striving to welcome new players.

The game’s presentation is fantastic, and amongst the best the 3DS has to offer, featuring some impressive 3D visuals and character art alongside the traditional 2D grid which makes up each level’s terrain. The 3D battle movements have real weight and look great, though the odd design choice for the characters to have no feet can be initially jarring. 

Counterbalancing this design oddity are the game’s truly phenomenal animated cutscenes. Each of these is simply fantastic and leaves you genuinely enthralled, with No More Heroes designer Yusuke Kozaki’s character design bursting from the screen.

The sound design is equally superb, from series veteran Hiroki Morishita and Okami’s Rei Kendoh’s sublime orchestrated score, through to the snippets of dialogue which add colour to the character’s protestations. It’s worth noting, though, that dialogue is still mostly in text boxes, although there is genuine emotion, humour and life in the writing which is so often not the case.

One of the few elements where the game falls down is in providing a customisable character. Although this is the first Western release that allows you to customise your character, the implementation is so limited in scope that it’s laughable, particularly when you consider what other developers are regularly offering elsewhere. It’s a real shame that the system isn’t better, especially as your character remains at the centre of the storyline.

[drop2]Tactically, Awakening takes many of the core facets of the Fire Emblem series and develops upon them, giving seasoned fans plenty to sink their teeth into while ensuring that it is accessible to newcomers. You move your characters across a grid whilst aiming to meet each level’s requirements, whether that’s a simple case of routing the enemy, saving an ally, or, more interestingly, levelling up a character in a short space of time. 

Depth is built upon the basic ‘weapon triangle’, which is fundamentally rock-paper-scissors for lance, sword and axe. When you add in ranged and magical combat, weapon and character levelling, and a class progression tree, Fire Emblem becomes an enthralling and thoughtful experience, with numerous different approaches to take you to the closing credits (and the unlocking of a horrific Lunatic Plus setting).

One of the remaining key aspects of Awakening is pairing your characters together, with them performing support roles when placed together, or having the ability to team up. Over time your character’s bonds grow stronger, and eventually some of them can even get married and have children. It’s a great mechanic which adds to the overall feeling that these are real people, as opposed to glorified automatons moving around a misshapen chessboard.

What’s Good

  • Fantastic presentation
  • Tons of content
  • Rewarding tactical gameplay
  • Options to make it more accessible to newcomers

What’s Bad

  • Lacklustre character creation
  • Console-smashingly hard

Despite a couple of minor issues, Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of the best titles for the 3DS, and one of the best tactical role-playing games in recent years. If you want to experience the true nature of the series, it’s still there in all its punishing glory. However, you can just as readily enjoy a toned down run-through, with all of the tactical depth, great characterisation and epic plot, but none of the handheld-destroying frustration. If you have Nintendo’s portable console to hand and want to see what it is capable of, then Fire Emblem: Awakening is amongst the best it has to offer.

Score: 9/10

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10 Comments

  1. Sounds awesome. Can’t say I’ve ever played a Fire Emblem game before so am tempted to play one of the older ones on either my SNES or GameCube. Any suggestions?

    • Path Of Radiance on the Gamecube would be a good one to go for – though if you’ve got a Gameboy Advance hanging about then Fire Emblem is a classic, and the first one to make it over here!

      • Ta :) I’ll keep an eye out for the GameCube one on eBay, etc

    • As a warning, the gamecube version won’t be cheap!

      • LOL you’re telling me!! Checked eBay after reading Dom’s post and nearly spat my coffee out. There is a Wii one for about 11quid, think I might try that one lol.

  2. I have the GBA version, really liked it, but was terrible at it. Stopped playing because it was heartbreaking when you lost a character.
    Will be buying this.

  3. Currently between buying this or monster hunter 3 ultimate. Not sure which one to go for…

    • I’m not going to help by saying they’re both amazingly good…

    • Depends if you were intending on playing MH3 online. The Wii version of the game is now around 8quid, however they are pulling the plug on the internet services soon I believe. If you only care about the single player, grab both games I say :D

  4. I’ll probably get this next year, so many games waiting now.
    I wish Intelligent Systems would actually revive the Wars series and come back with an Advance Wars title for the 3DS. It’s one of my favorites ever and I don’t see why they abandoned it, I always thought it sold well too.

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