Awakening is the first Fire Emblem game ever to let you turn permanent death off via its new ‘Casual’ mode, but if you play the game properly – on ‘Hard’ mode, with death on – you’ll be asked to make some difficult decisions. When you’ve reset the level for the fifth time and the same guy gets cut down yet again, you have to start wondering – what am I saving this guy for? What will he develop into, anyway? Should I let him fall that lets me finish the fight? Few games force you to consider the value of a human life the way the Fire Emblem series does.
You might not understand just yet, when you allow your first unit to drop, that you haven’t yet fully grasped the new mechanics Awakened has introduced. That will come naturally in time, as you try new strategies and develop your team. In my playthrough I have lost three fighters, and I mourn for them and lament my own impatience, my refusal to reset the level yet again. One came early, and his death seemed, at the time, like a breakthrough – the experience I gained from the battle he died made the next battle easier, and let me focus on my stronger units.
The two later deaths haunt me. One was a mage; I had plans for him, but when I managed to convince a dark mage to join my team during the same battle he was struck down in, I figured I no longer needed him. One was a girl who could turn into a dragon at will; she was weak, but no doubt she would have developed into something grand, as so many of my lesser units have. They would have, at the very least, made for excellent support units, and I miss my mage’s enthusiasm and valour.
Fire Emblem makes you care about your individual units more than any other strategy game series I’ve played, and Awakening takes this even further by adding in systems built around character relationships. The fundamentals of gameplay are still much the same as they’ve ever been, and should be familiar to anyone who dug into last year’s XCOM reboot or Pokémon Conquest on the DS. You control a squad comprised of several different units, each with a unique name, face, and personality, and send them into turn/grid-based battle with various enemy forces. Weapons and units have different weaknesses and strengths against other weapons and units. Some units are far, far stronger than others, and the A.I. (playing on Hard) will always, always go in for a kill if they can manage it during their turn.
‘Bonding’ has been a part of past Fire Emblem games, but the concept is taken further here than ever before. On the battlefield, you can choose to ‘pair up’ certain units, meaning that one unit will travel alongside another, offering support in various forms and avoiding damage as long as the primary unit lives. This means that, once you wrap your head around the system properly, you’ll never have dead weight on the field (which is why I feel my earlier loses so keenly). Stahl’s friendship with Kellam makes him an invaluable figure, despite his low stats, Gregor’s ability to severely boost the hit/avoid/critical percentages of anyone he is paired with has proved extremely useful, and watching a relationship bloom between the shifty Tharja (a former Dark Mage, now – get this – a ‘Dark Knight’) and the shy assassin Lon’qu has been a delight. Their marriage – which happens once certain pairs reach an ‘S’ rank relationship from fighting alongside one another for long enough – has brought me much joy.
It’s rare for a Nintendo game to feature characters like these – characters that develop in ways that actually make you care about them – although it’s fair to say that, great as the translation and writing are, the fact that this is a Nintendo produced game has led to a few odd compromises. Instead of voice acting, we get voice acting samples, which grate after a while and lead to a few moments where the tone suffers (when one character asked another to marry him in my playthrough, the text exchange that followed was appropriate, but the speech samples were amusingly terse and ominous: she replied ‘yeah!’ quite enthusiastically, and he responded with a stern ‘good’, as though she had just followed an order he had decreed). These can be turned off, but there’s no option to change every utterance of the word ‘dastard’ to ‘bastard’. Thankfully, the plot is pretty good. It’s simple, but because you’re being made to care about the characters, it works well. There’s intrigue, warring nations, time travel, an irritating dose of amnesia, family problems, and a great deal of death. It’s like a PG Game of Thrones!
Naturally, everything above is driven by what you actually do on the field and in the preparation screens in-between fights. In Awakening, developers Intelligence Systems have crafted something special, a game that has taken the tenants of the Fire Emblem series and polished them until they shine. Flitting across the overworld map between missions, you’re free to engage in skirmishes with random enemies to level up, go shopping, check out the game’s DLC offerings, and visit with your troops in hopes of fostering relationships and working out weapon combinations that work. Although there’s often a desire to rush into battle, careful planning and consideration is essential. Inventory stock needs to be gone over, character classes need to be reassessed, and current strengths and weaknesses need to be considered (especially as you take on the frequently very difficult side quests, which allow you to eventually recruit the children of the characters who have gotten married, a mechanic we can’t really explain without spoiling some minor plot details). A lot of little details about weapons and tactics aren’t explained as well as they could be, but by the time you’re 10 hours deep you’ll have a pretty good grip on how Awakening’s various systems interconnect.
And then, in battle, you’ll die. Characters will be wiped out just as you reach the boss. You’ll leave a healer unguarded and a dragon will swoop them. Something terrible will happen, and you’ll restart the mission, smiling all the while. Awakening is, very occasionally, unfair – you’ll play the percentages right, going into skirmishes knowing the odds, and have things go drastically wrong. Usually though this means that you’re not ready for the battle you’ve taken on, or that you didn’t come up with a good enough strategy. This is why it’s essential that you play ‘Classic’ mode, with death on. The game is designed with death in mind, and it makes every single battle incredibly tense and exciting when your every minor decision could have major consequences.
Your strategies must evolve alongside the characters. New recruits pop up regularly, while some units will forever be resigned to the bench. Sometimes a unit’s true usefulness takes a while to uncover, or only becomes clear once you use a rare item to change or upgrade their class. There’s a pride that comes from building up a unit, testing out new weapons and strategies with them, and ultimately breaking through into a good run where you enjoy a series of comfortable battles before your next inevitable roadblock.
While the 3D effects of the 3DS generally seem less worth noting in reviews every year, Awakening really pops with the slider turned all the way up. That’s not to say that you’ll want to leave it on all the time unless you’re completely impervious to headaches, but each time you encounter a new environment, or witness one of the game’s gorgeous FMV cut-scenes, it’s definitely worth flicking on. The sense of depth afforded by 3D is a surprising thrill in a game that isn’t otherwise spectacular to look at (although it’s an enormous step-up from the old GBA games).
Within two days, Fire Emblem: Awakening overtook every other 3DS game I’ve played in my Activity Log. I’m keen to restart it and test out new relationships and classes, and save the characters that died on my first run. The game’s gravitational pull is unbelievable, but you’ll come away from it each time feeling just a bit sharper than before. Handheld gaming doesn’t get much better than this.