One of the better-known franchises within the strategy role-playing game genre is Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is a relatively well-known franchise, mainly due to Super Smash Bros. However, like fellow games within the genre, Fire Emblem games in the past were difficult to new players. While the games slowly implemented methods over time to make them less punishing, the reset button was still an FE player’s best friend when costly mistakes happen. Despite the rather steep difficulty for newcomers, those who like Fire Emblem highly appreciate the incredibly robust gameplay system and interesting story universes. The appeal of strategy RPGs is limited, but Nintendo has brought Fire Emblem Awakening to North America and Europe. Bringing some more refinements and additions to the gameplay, Awakening seeks to be more approachable to new players.
The story takes place in the same universe as the one where the hero-king Marth used the legendary blade Falchion to slay the evil earth dragon named Medeus. Some one thousand years passed before the events of Fire Emblem Awakening occurred. The tactician-type character makes a triumphant return, with a customizable look and name. The tactician, “Robin”, had a very unpleasant nightmare before waking in the middle of a field with almost no memory. He/she was found by Chrom, his sister, and a fellow comrade. Robin rather quickly earns the trust of Chrom by helping the Shepherds save the people of the kingdom of Ylisse, while demonstrating tactical and combat skill. Recent events had recently put the kingdom on edge due to their aggressive neighbor over in Plegia trying to instigate a war. The peace further takes a massive nosedive when a portal appears over the kingdom a night, with “Risen” coming out of them. A mysterious swordsman also appears at about the same time. Calling himself Marth, he is vague about his mission, but warns the “Risen” are a sign of terrible things to come. The future will become a very bleak place unless the army headed by Chrom and Robin are able to defy fate.
The narration has a strong start. Character development begins promptly and quickly establishes the likeable personalities of the characters early in the game. The plotline is easy to follow, story events connect with few jarring transitions, and there is tension for most of the story. It loses a lot of steam during the last few hours, as events become predictable and lose the suspense. It is a story that came close to great. Awakening still has somewhat of a problem trying to make backgrounds for the thirty-plus fighting unit characters, but the improved game mechanics help increase support conversations. These more frequent conversations help create a story between two characters. The dialogue is very thought out and has quite charming humor. There are cases where there are not enough unique conversations, as parent-child and sibling conversations are nearly identical in many areas.
Like in FE: Path of Radiance and FE: Radiant Dawn, computer-generated cutscenes were used in some of the storytelling. There is a rather cool amount of video during the first several hours, but it then becomes very few and very far in between. Most of the narration is told through pictures and text. The cutscenes also are blemished by noticeably iffy animation that seems a bit unnatural.
There are two established but very similar ways Fire Emblem could do its turn-based strategy RPG mechanics. The decision with Awakening was to stay truer with the Game Boy Advance and DS versions. Those who have played FE titles such as Sacred Stones or Shadow Dragon will be mostly familiar with what is happening. There are some refinements. The skills system from Radiant Dawn is here, though not as noticeably effective. Changing and upgrading classes have some more choice, and the interface gets some optional updates for potentially easier flow. The biggest improvement is the ability for two friendly adjacent units to team up for a battle phase. This grants minor stat bonuses of vary degrees to aid against the enemy, and even may lead to double teaming. This feature greatly encourages unit cooperation against stronger enemies, and also boosts the relationship between units, leading to story-generating support conversations mentioned earlier. There is somewhat expensive DLC that makes for good fan service, and the wireless features allow sharing of teams via StreetPass.
Fire Emblem games, at the core, are rather challenging turn-based strategy RPGs. There are a lot of numbers, management, and planning. Thinking two or three turns ahead is usually needed to make it through a difficult level without massive losses. Older games were made even more challenging because when a unit died, they were gone for the rest of the game. Awakening added a new “casual” mode, where allowable unit deaths are no longer permanent. This small addition is enough to make Fire Emblem much more approachable for a new player. Difficulty remains quite steady until the last couple hours. The near-punishing difficulty then returns with a vengeance. Other than that, it is usual Fire Emblem, with the sword-lance-axe weapon triangle, varying grades of magic, wide range of classes, and other important mechanics. Because Awakening stayed with the portable FE gameplay, there is not as much depth as in Radiant Dawn. The desire to replay the game is also not as strong. The main playthrough will land somewhere between twenty and thirty hours. By then, there is a sense that most of what can experienced already has been. Minor issues aside, the improvements and refinements do bring Awakening to about the same level of gameplay quality as Radiant Dawn.
The art style is familiar and resembles the other FE games of the last decade. There is certainly a bit more variation with facial expressions, but otherwise quite standard. The graphics implementation is adequate. Just about every scene outside of battles has decent modeling, texture work, and somewhat stiff animations. The battle sequences are a nice advancement over Radiant Dawn. The scenes look quite nice, the animations are much better, and critical hit moments are very satisfying. There is also the addition of having a couple different camera angles and battle speeds to choose from during the sequence. The battle map board has the three-dimensional rendering with tilted camera angle, and two-dimensional sprites to represent character units. It is a nice blend between the older portable and console games. The stereoscopic 3D function of the 3DS was utilized well. The depth perception is quite amazing, and the computer-generated story cutscenes are awe-inspiring with the feature on.
The soundtrack is one of the best the franchise has seen so far. There is a larger sense of variety as well as emotional range. It is quite a pleasure to listen to. Like in in the past, the same several pieces are replayed quite often throughout the thirty hour adventure, leaving a slight need for more variety. It is nicely written though, and the map/battle music is somewhat dynamic, so it is not a major concern. There is more extensive voice acting. In addition to the moderately cheesy English dialogue of the video cutscenes, there is “reactionary” voice acting in all the other dialogue. If English is not preferred, Awakening has the option of switching to the Japanese voice pack.
Fire Emblem Awakening is the best Fire Emblem yet by a small margin. Awakening has the Fire Emblem gameplay that offers plenty of challenge with new improvements. The adventure is more involving, the support system adds much more personality, the new partner system in battles fits in very well, and the game is more approachable to new players. Fire Emblem Awakening may not have as much depth as Radiant Dawn, but the incredibly sturdy mechanics are there, with a nice boost of better presentation.
Final Score: 9.0/10