I have always loved Fire Emblem, ever since the titles started coming to Western shores. It’s a shame knowing I could have been having those experiences way back on the NES if Nintendo had more faith in Western tastes, but really I will take what I can get. But the past is the past, and since those GBA games came to us, Nintendo it seems has been pretty good with getting us more Fire Emblem. This is a good thing, as the game are typically of a uniform excellence. Does Awakening keep to this tradition of rockin games? I think so, but we should get into why. Maybe…yeah. We will get into why.
First, let’s get into the most obvious difference. While previous Fire Emblem games had serviceable, if very bare graphics, Fire Emblem Awakening (Awakening) is a very different beast altogether. Foregoing the very stiff animations, Intelligent Designs has put a beautiful graphics engine in place in which the characters have a lot more personality to them. This visual upgrade is put into each individual encounter in the large-scale Fire Emblem battles we’re used to. While it looks nice, there are only a small set of animations available for combat scenarios, and those animations get shared over a lot of units, friend and enemy alike. Luckily, you can speed up individual encounters by holding down the A button, or skip them altogether by hitting start. Also I think you can just turn them off entirely in the options. So really you have choices available to you if it gets to be too repetitive.
These pretty graphics don’t just get shown off in combat however. In a series that almost always used static backgrounds and character portraits talking back and forth as its main means of exposition; seeing a fully 3D scene play out in a Fire Emblem title is a very welcome sight, especially since it looks so damn good. The characters even have voices! Usually these voices are used in short bursts of exclamation, which I quickly turned off. However, when the voices happen in the larger, fully spoken scenes, it was plain Intelligent Designs and 8-4 Play (who localized the game excellently) put a lot of work into making sure these voices came across as fitting the characters very well. Not once did I want to turn down the speakers during a speaking part, and I often found myself playing the game with headphones on, a first for a 3DS game with me.
Awakening, while sounding and looking great, the story could have used a bit more work. Anyone who has played a Fire Emblem game previously, especially Shadow Dragon will be very familiar with the overarching tale. While this is fine by itself, the smaller details fall flat a lot more. The characters are dragged all over the world for various reasons. The context for these transitions takes a long time to become clear, but even then it could have been tighter. Years apparently pass in the campaign, but never any sense of that is felt.
While cosmetically the game got an obvious upgrade, the nuts and bolts got a fine upgrade as well. While battles in Awakening can be played in the exact manner just about every title in the series has seen, there are extras now that provide much needed help, especially as the game goes on. Characters on the field can now aid one another in combat in two ways. First by being simply adjacent to a character attacking, or being attacked, the character not actively engaging in the combat will add bonuses to the one hitting or being hit. On top of that, at times the helper will even get involved themselves, shielding someone from damage, or even attacking the enemy. When this happens between certain characters, they will get closer socially, which will lead to greater bonuses as their relationships rank up. Some characters can even eventually fall in love and get married, which actually leads to side quests to recruit new characters.
The second way the bonuses can be accrued is by having characters pair up, and occupy the same space. What this does it allows only one character to act as normal, however with stat bonuses provided by the second, inactive character. Whoever the active one is can be changed at will. All of the bonuses that apply in combat to having characters next to each other also apply when using this new system. While this may cut down on the number of active fighters on your side of the field, it becomes absolutely essential as the game progresses, as it creates what are essentially super characters with the stat raises. Using this pair up system also allows you to hide some units who may be weaker, or would surely die in a map. Say the enemy has a lot of archers running around. Hiding your Pegasus Knight, who still gets absolutely ventilated by arrows behind a Cavalier allows you to still have that person in the fight and helping, and makes sure they stay alive to fight again.
Yes, the permadeath system is back in Awakening. It has to be right? Fire Emblem wouldn’t be same without that sort of tension. Which is why I did not play with the new Casual Mode. Yes, you can now play Fire Emblem and not worry about your characters dying. While this will certainly help get in new people who didn’t want that stress, it also absolutely kills the difficulty for any given fight. Instead of carefully making sure everyone stays alive, you can simply throw yourself at a boss, and be fine with it, as everyone will drink their wake up juice and come back fresh and ready.
While this is a feature that is easily avoided by those looking to keep the difficulty, the worst feature of the game is not so much. While I believe random battles are something that have been in Fire Emblem games past, they were truly random and you had no way of controlling the frequency. This is no longer the case. The item “Reeking Box” summons a horde of enemies at any location you want, their strength dependent on where it is used. So as long as you have the money to keep buying boxes, which is easy, you can continuously grind out levels and social rankings. This serves to in some way trivialize the harder boss battles you find in typical Fire Emblem game, as this game devalues tactics, in favor of being able to brute force your way through the encounters.
The faults of Awakening, while taking away from the experience, doesn’t change the fact that this is a Fire Emblem game, one of very high quality. I probably did the grinding too much simply because I am used to JRPG’s wanting me to do that, and it is a great way to pass the time. The fights are fun, the strategy is really good, and the tension of a beloved unit dying is always there. This is honestly a great entry point into the series for someone, especially with the Casual Mode ready to hold your hand if you need it. Also this bears mentioning, but if you register Fire Emblem: Awakening, and the newly released Shin Megami Tensei IV to Nintendo, you get 30 dollars E-Shop credit. Really cannot go wrong there.
Final Score: 4/5