Fire Emblem: Awakening is a pseudo-sequel to the original Fire Emblem games. Players join Chrom, who is the prince of Ylisse, a kingdom that is under constant threat from bandits and invading armies. The neighboring kingdom wants to wage war, and Chrom and his army, the Shepherds, must save Ylisse. Chrom must flee after being saved by a masked man called Marth. Together Chrom and the player must figure out why Ylisse is being targeted and save it.
To those who have never played Fire Emblem, it's a straightforward turn-based strategy RPG. Combat takes place on a grid where players move their units, and then the enemy AI takes a turn moving its units around. Combat is automated and stat-based, but that doesn't mean it's simple. Every fight comes down to careful planning, and there are a lot of things to take into account.
First and foremost is the weapon triangle, and the long and short of it is that swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. There are a number of ways to game the system in your favor, and the most obvious way is terrain. Finding a good fort or thick patch of woods offers defensive bonuses that can overcome the weapon triangle. You can also find special weapons that reverse the triangle or offer an advantage over an enemy wielding the same weapon. There are also characters that exist outside the triangle but have their own strengths and weaknesses. Archers and mages, for example, can attack from two squares away instead of one but are more vulnerable to being attacked up close. Certain weapons can do extra damage to armored enemies, drain health, or create gold from a slain enemy — and each requires careful thought before using.
More important than anything else are skills. In previous Fire Emblem games, each class had unique attributes. In Awakening, it gets a little more complex. Each class now has a specific set of weapons that it can use, but the more esoteric abilities take the form of skills, which the class learns. You can have up to five skills equipped at once, and once a character learns a skill, he or she keeps it. You can equip and unequip skills between battles, allowing you to customize a thief to be more combat-heavy in some battles and geared for thievery and speed in others.
This plays into some of the changes to the promotion system. In previous Fire Emblem titles, each character had about 40 levels to play, with about 20 levels of a basic class and 20 levels of a promoted class. You could promote a character at level 10, but it was almost never worthwhile to do so because you lost 10 levels of stat gains. This basic system is still around in Awakening, but you now have the ability to reclass. By obtaining a Second Seal item, you can convert your characters to another available class, though not every character can become every class. When you convert a character to another class, he or she instantly reverts to level one but retains all of the stats and skills from before. It's harder for them to continue to level up, and the more you cross-class, the harder it becomes to gain new levels in your class.
What this means is that you effectively have infinite levels, but beyond a certain point, it is ineffective. Promoting and reclassing reduces the amount of experience you gain and leads to characters who gain stats more slowly. Careful promotion, however, can do the opposite. You can end up with characters that are powerful and have incredible skills. The stat caps are much higher than in previous Fire Emblems, so careful promotion is necessary to get the strongest character. It's a rather nice balance between grinding infinitely as in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones and the more rigid leveling mechanics of older games. You have to make decisions and optimize your gameplay, but you aren't severely hurt by a bad level or a character that begins with a promoted class.
With that said, grinding is still an option in Awakening. Enemy groups randomly appear on the world map, and you can summon more by buying the (expensive) "reeking box" item from a shop. Unlike The Sacred Stones, this never feels like it trivializes the difficulty level. You can become powerful, but the harder difficulty almost require it. Normal is a stress-free adventure, but anyone who wants a challenge will find it. It's hard to imagine infinite enemies and Fire Emblem coexisting nicely, but Awakening pulls it off quite well.
New to Awakening is the Pair Up system. Any time your character fights alongside another character, you gain a stat bonus. A character can officially Pair Up with any other character, causing one to become the "main" unit and the other to become its support unit. The latter functions as the permanent Support Action partner, granting the main character a tremendous stat boost. In short, it allows you to sacrifice quantity for quality, which is often a useful feature.
One of the most unusual features in Awakening involves children. A plot event eventually brings the future children of your existing cast back to the present day, where they (as adults) can join your army. This means that you have a complex (and somewhat convoluted) way to customize your characters.
This offers an insane amount of potential customization for characters, as you can transfer skills to allow characters to access abilities they would never have, or to begin their careers with incredibly powerful abilities. Chrom's children can inherit his powerful Aether skill, even if they don't have access to his special Lord class. Nowi's children have the ability to use Dragonstones to turn into a dragon. Donnel's children can inherit his incredibly powerful Villager skills. Careful use of this mechanic can even allow characters to get skills they could never get, such as a male character with a Pegasus Knight's abilities. It also means that you have to balance versatility with strength. The child of two mages will probably be a powerful mage but have access to fewer classes (and fewer skills) than the offspring of a mage and a knight.
If I had one complaint about this system, it's that it creates a character class that is just inherently better than others. Fire Emblem has never been free of that, but it's disappointing if you really like one character only to realize that fielding his or her child would probably give you all of that character's strengths and more besides. The older characters have their own strengths, especially because they'll be highly leveled by the time you get to their children. It is just disappointing that you have to focus your most powerful combinations on a limited subset of characters.
All of these systems wouldn't matter if the game wasn't fun, but Awakening is one of the best games — if not the best game — in the franchise to date. The level design is excellent. Enemies are never overwhelming, but you're punished if you simply sleepwalk through fights on anything above Normal. Going for the highest difficulty encourages you to think about what you're doing and why you're doing it. The gameplay is also easy to pick up and difficult to master. You can play a few rounds and understand the basics right away, but learning how to best manipulate the enemy and your characters is something that you really have to practice. It's the rare strategy RPG that has something for everyone. Even the series trademark permadeath is no longer an issue if you don't want it to be. Casual mode allows players to revive their defeated party members at the end of a fight, while Classic keeps them dead.
One aspect that is difficult to discuss at the moment is DLC. The Japanese version of Awakening had a lot of DLC: new characters, classes, stages, weapons and other content. It came as regular free updates and slightly larger paid updates. As of this writing, none of that content is available for the North American release, and it's difficult to say how much will become available. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of content involves "legacy" characters from older Fire Emblem titles that never saw a North American release, and part of it is simply a lack of information. Awakening is a fully featured game, so you have a complete story line and a large number of side-quests, some of which are only unlockable under certain conditions. You've also got multiple difficulty modes, multiple viable combinations for characters, and the option to trade and battle your teams with a friend's.
Awakening is beautiful. The character models are quite good, which is a first for the series. The previous attempts at 3-D models were lackluster, but the combat animations in Awakening carry a good sense of power and speed that their predecessors lacked. The only glaring problem is that the characters appear to have stumps instead of feet. It's an incredibly off-putting visual design choice that takes a long time to get used to and never looks quite right.
The most dramatic scenes are told in beautiful cel-shaded animated cut scenes, which are quite reminiscent of Valkyria Chronicles and look amazing for a 3DS title. Awakening also includes voice acting, although it's rather half-baked. Characters have good combat quips, but they also have dialogue quips where they make random interjections when text boxes pop up. Sometimes they read part of the text box, and sometimes they make random grunts or noises. It's the worst of both worlds in that you don't have dialogue but it's not mute, either. You can turn off the voice acting or change it to Japanese, but it would have been better with actual voiced scripts. The animated scenes are fully voiced and much better for it. To the game's credit, the voice acting is quite good when it is used. It's the focus on small snippets instead of actual lines that really hurts it.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a must-have if you're even slightly into strategy-RPGs. It's simple enough that even the most casual fans can enjoy it, but it's also complex and difficult enough for those who enjoy a challenge. The gameplay is simultaneous simple and deep, and it's a joy to play. The only thing holding back the game is a by-the-books story and some annoying visual and audio design choices. Longtime fans who are worried about the alterations to the formula shouldn't be. Awakening is a rare example of a series that works. It throws out a lot of the traditional Fire Emblem ideas, but it's almost always for the better, and the end result is a game that's plain fun to play from start to finish, whether you're a newcomer or a hardened Thracia 776 veteran.
More articles about Fire Emblem: Awakening