Review by contributor Brooks Clarke.
Like a good number of you out there, last year’s surprise hit XCOM: Enemy Unknown provided me an excellent re-introduction to turn-based strategy games. So naturally, when I finally decided to pick up a 3DS XL, the first game that caught my eye was Fire Emblem: Awakening. The latest in a long-running series of Japanese strategy role-playing games, Fire Emblem: Awakening bucked a few franchise trends in order to appeal to its broader handheld audience. For series vets, that type of thinking is borderline hypocrisy. However, in lowering the barrier of entry while simultaneously upholding its hardcore tactical roots, Fire Emblem: Awakening creates a smart mix of deep, yet accessible combat that gamers of all stripes can enjoy.
Make no mistake, careless or over-aggressive unit placement will net your little pixelated warriors nothing but a six-foot hole in the ground, tout suite. Rather than dumbing down the tried and true Fire Emblem formula that has garnered such a fervent fan base, Fire Emblem: Awakening provides a wide range of optional handicaps and tutorials to guide newbie tacticians though the myriad systems at play. Regardless of difficulty, however, smart use of unit strengths and squad bonuses is crucial to beating the relentless, if a bit dim-witted, enemy AI.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is complex game; there are no buts about it. With over 50 different character classes – all with their own skills, strengths, and weakness – and a castle-sized armory at your disposal, new and veteran players alike will need a good chunk of time to adjust to the ebb and flow of combat. Unit movement is handled on a 2D grid-based overhead view, with cutaways to cutesy, polygonal models for the actual combat, though the latter is entirely optional.
Fire Emblem: Awakening provides a wide swath of stat overlays for making precise, educated decisions on the battlefield. One of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s biggest strengths is the sheer amount of information it’s able to convey on the 3DS’s bottom screen without bogging the player down. What’s more, you can tap on practically every stat or icon to get a handy tool tip. It’s small touches like this that show just how much consideration went into improving accessibility without compromising the series’ hallmark challenge.
As a series newcomer, one of my biggest concerns going in was how well a behemoth strategy game like Fire Emblem would work on a handheld. Battles in Fire Emblem: Awakening take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the circumstances, which you’d think would be thoroughly commuter un-friendly. And while Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t lend itself to quick gaming sessions nearly as well as something like New Super Mario Bros., I did find parsing a battle out over the course of several different sessions – or even days – to be a remarkably plausible affair.
Nintendo has made decent use of the 3DS’s Wi-Fi capability, with players able to exchange characters, items, and maps over SpotPass and StreetPass, as well as a bevy of downloadable “Xenologue” side missions and characters from past Fire Emblem titles. In addition, players can team up against enemy AI in Fire Emblem: Awakening’s Double Duel co-op mode, though it requires each player to have his own 3DS and copy of the game. Unfortunately, Fire Emblem: Awakening lacks any true competitive online mode like that in XCOM.
Of course, superb combat alone would make for an excellent strategy experience, but what really sets Fire Emblem: Awakening apart from the crowd is its lineage system. By fighting alongside each other in combat, party members can forge bonds, eventually leading them to tie the knot. And while seeing the humorous, often heartwarming support conversations play out is its own reward, children born from these relationships inherit stats and skills from both parents, creating a surprisingly in-depth battlefield matchmaker sub-game.
It’s clear right from the get-go that the 40-plus characters that make up your squad, and the bonds that intertwine them, are the stars of the show. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s overarching narrative is disjointed and largely forgettable, and really only serves to introduce new squad mates and battle locales. Though I probably should be more disappointed in a lack of strong narrative, I always found myself more interested in the inter-squad sub-plots. This is due in large part to Fire Emblem: Awakening’s diverse cast and fantastic dialogue, which was translated by the perennially awesome 8-4, Ltd. localization team. Honestly, my biggest problem with Fire Emblem: Awakening is a lack of squad content. With each character only getting three to four conversations per relationship, I almost would’ve preferred Nintendo cut down Fire Emblem: Awakening’s overarching story in favor of more support dialogue.
I mentioned earlier that much of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s combat is handled via 2D top-down map. As an interminable fan of sprites on handhelds, I’m happy to say that, even on the 3DS XL’s expanded screen, Fire Emblem: Awakening’s pixels are handled with aplomb. Character portraits and animated cutscenes look absolutely phenomenal as well, with remarkably little use of the system’s 3D tech throughout. Even Fire Emblem: Awakening’s use of polygonal models during combat and in-game cutscenes is adequate, though I definitely would’ve preferred more hand-drawn art in its stead.
Fire Emblem: Awakening’s entire cast of characters is voiced–surprisingly well, I might add. Though in true JRPG fashion, a majority of the non-critical path dialogue isn’t voiced. Actually, that’s not entirely true. In “non-voiced” dialogue, voice samples–usually in no way relevant to what’s actually being said–will play over a character’s first line of dialogue. Rather than “adding life” to conversations, it comes off as an unintentionally hilarious miscue. Thankfully, you can turn these voice samples off; they’re independent of the rest of the game’s voiced dialogue.
Fire Emblem: Awakening’s fittingly epic orchestral score matches the game’s medieval-inspired subject matter remarkably well. The soundtrack’s booming, yet melodic horn section is particularly effective during battle sequences, often making you forget you’re playing on the 3DS’s relatively modest screen. Grandiose as it may be, however, Fire Emblem: Awakening’s score does tend to veer into generic adventure movie territory a bit to often for my taste, almost like it’s trying to compensate for the game’s small form factor.
For all Fire Emblem: Awakening does right – namely, just about everything – perhaps its biggest success is condensing such a gargantuan strategy experience into such an easily digestible package. Countless developers boast about it, but Nintendo somehow manages to pack a deep, infinitely replayable combat system into game fit for players of all skill levels. Couple that with a massively diverse cast of characters, an intriguing lineage system, and superb dialogue, and you’ve got one of the best strategy RPGs on any gaming system, handheld or not. Whether it’s your first tour of duty in the Fire Emblem universe or your thirteenth, Fire Emblem: Awakening provides a top-notch strategy experience that no 3DS owner should pass up.