Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening
After too long of a wait, Fire Emblem has finally returned and on Nintendo’s newest handheld console. Taking full advantage of the 3DS hardware, Fire Emblem: Awakening looks wonderful, but does it have the game-play chops to back up that pretty face? Strategy nuts and series fans have most likely already picked this title up, but let’s explore some of the reasons why everyone else should consider doing so as well.
Let’s get this out of the way early: Fire Emblem: Awakening is a very finely crafted game that is dripping with polish. Every part of it seems to be the fruit of the developers’ intense labor of love.
Observing the game at face value, Awakening looks fantastic. The 3D character models and environments look superb. The anime art style shines through in the character portraits. The cutscenes (which were whipped up by Mad House I believe) are colorful and sharp. There is a huge variety of different environments and enemy types to gaze upon. The game makes sharp use of the console’s stereoscopic 3D capability.
The cinematics look absolutely marvelous in 3D. The battles between units, which are also graphically very pretty, seem to pop off the 3DS’s screen. There are also times when you’re shown a single piece of art in 3D (for example, like in the character’s love confessions, which we’ll get to) and it just looks really good. The game looks great with or without the stereoscopic 3D, but in my opinion if you have the option you should definitely turn it on whenever possible. There are lots of little flourishes, such as the sparkling event tiles on the maps, that simply stand out more and look a lot better in 3D.
While you’re navigating the battlefield and sizing up the opposing faction, all of the units are assigned sharp little sprites, similar to older games in the series. But when a battle occurs between two units, you are swept off into a fully 3D environment where the two units do their dirty business with each other. This is similar to Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, but even though Radiant Dawn was on the Wii, I still feel that Awakening is the better looking of the two games. The battles too look even better with the 3D turned on.
Between the artsy character portraits, the lush maps, the beautiful battles and the excellent use of 3D, Awakening is by far the best looking game I’ve seen on the 3DS at this point and perhaps the most visually stunning title in the entire series.
The story is entertaining and compelling all the way through. The player is tasked with designing a male or female character (with admittedly modest customization options) at the beginning of the game. Although much of the story focuses on leading man Chrom, his siblings and the many characters encountered throughout their exploits, the proper star of the game is the unit you create. The characters are wonderfully well written, and I never grew tired of reading the dialogue between them.
Throughout the game, quite a few characters seem to take the spotlight as the main villain, but none of them actually are. The ultimate baddie isn’t revealed until the final moments of the game. Some of the characters who seemed evil actually had good intentions. There are a number of plot twists and surprises that keep things interesting and compelling. As the characters are developed and you learn more about them, you grow attached to them and you want things to turn out well for everybody.
This is why the classic difficulty setting – where units who die are lost forever – is the best choice to keep the stakes high and keep you invested in every moment of every battle.
Although the premise of the game starts off as a trifling war between factions, the fate of the entire world is at stake by the end of the game. Some serious choices are put in the players hands, especially towards the end of the game, that affect the ending. The characters are all charming and likeable and there is a variety of different personalities to enjoy. The Fire Emblem games have almost always tried to offer something in the way of a decent plot or narrative, but Fire Emblem: Awakening definitely sports one of the most engrossing stories.
This game’s sky high production value continues into its music. Its sweet, sweet music. It’s orchaestral, it’s tasteful and it’s enjoyable throughout. The music in the game sounds just great and it is always appropriate. The battle themes are intense and sweeping. The sad moments in the game are accompanied by soft strings and somber melodies. The soundtrack is so versatile and strong that every moment in the game is accompanied by a perfectly appropriate song.
Sometimse it sounds whimsical, sometimes it sounds ominous and forbading, sometimes it sounds playful – and it always finds a way to get stuck in your head. One of my absolute favorite pieces is the string heavy piece that plays during the love confession scenes. It is simply beautiful and when it plays during the ending credits and you’re shown the fates of the various units, it’s absolutely tear-jerking.
The voice acting is spot on. Very few segments of the game are fully voiced. Most of the time the characters just blurt out sounds and relatively appropriate phrases while you are reading their dialogue. This works, but sometimes I did wish for a more straightforward, fully voiced approach, even if that would’ve been an insane amount of work. The option to play the game with original Japanese voicing is present, in case you’re the kind of gamer that appeals to. The general sound effects are standard fair for the series (such as the sound of an attack missing). All things considered I loved the game’s soundtrack and most of the character voices. The console’s speakers don’t quite do it justice. Enjoy this game with a nice pair of headphones or even a stereo system if you can. In the audio department, Awakening conquers yet again.
All the production value in the world doesn’t matter if the game underneath isn’t fun, right? Fortunately, Fire Emblem: Awakening’s rich, multilayered game-play snatches the spotlight from its production. The battles are as strategic as ever and new options are in place to ease series newcomers into the fray.
At the beginning of the game you are given the choice between a difficulty setting and a game mode. You can choose normal, hard, or lunatic as a difficulty setting (notice that ‘easy’ is missing) and you can choose between classic and casual for the game mode. In classic mode units that die are gone for good. Series fans are no stranger to this mechanic, but because it might be a bit offputting for newcomers, the casual option has been added. In casual mode all units are magically resurrected at the end of each battle.
I’d urge any newcomer to start with casual mode but eventually work their way over to classic mode. The full gravity of each decision and the grueling true Fire Emblem experience are somewhat lost when the lives of your favorite characters aren’t at stake in ever battle. I applaud the developers for including the option, though.
As far as the difficulty settings are concerned, the closest to easy you’ll get is the normal mode. In all honesty though, normal mode really isn’t too challenging. I started my first play through on normal mode but I quickly restarted on hard mode because I simply wasn’t being challenged enough. The game-play is traditionally deep, with new twists and additions to make things even better. The player moves a number of units throughout a big battlefield to complete a number of objectives. Game-play is turn-based and grid-based. The most common objective is to defeat all of the enemy units.
Each kind of unit has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the wyvern riders can cause a considerable amount of damage and they can fly freely about the battlefield, but they play victim to bows and magic spells. The knight on the other hand can’t move very far and is rather immobile but is an absolute tank and sucks up damage from most kinds of weapons. The strategy and fun comes in when you are arranging your units into a competent team to cover all of your bases. Should you bring a healer or do you need that slot for another attacker? You’ll want to bring a thief if you see a map laden with treasure chests and locked doors.
On hard and especially lunatic difficulty settings, the enemy units are clever and aggressive. Every enemy unit on the field will target your weakest unit with the aim of taking it out of the game. If you want to make it to the end of the game with all of your characters alive, you’ve got some critical thinking and lots of very challenging battles ahead of you.
Units can be outfitted with a number of weapons and items to improve their performance. Some advanced units can wield multiple weapons and you’ll want to take advantage of this whenever possible to make the weapon triangle work in your favor. Battles between weapon wielding units are governed by a simple system that’s actually much deeper than it seems on the surface (and also largely irrelevant at high levels): the weapon triangle. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances and lances beat swords. Bows and magic work a bit differently.
The many nuances of combat in the game are explained wonderfully in the games tutorials. Instead of having a now customary tutorial mode, Awakening introduces tutorials to the player as they play the game. These can all be accessed easily in-game whenever the need arises. The tutorials go in-depth and explain why certain units cause so much damage to other units, why enemy units spontaneously appear on the field and anything else that transpires on the battlefield.
As units defeat enemies, they gain experience points and levels. Gaining levels increases a units stats. Once the unit has gained as many levels as they can (the limit is 20 for most basic classes), they can be promoted to an advanced class. Promoting the classes is rewarding and fun to watch, not unlike a Pokemon evolving in one of the Pokemon RPGs. The advanced classes typically have better stats and skills than the basic classes.
For example, once a wyvern rider is promoted to a wyvern lord, that grave ineffectiveness against bows and magic is somewhat alleviated and they gain the ability to wield lances in addition to axes, not to mention their stats are infinitely better.
A new item in the game is the second seal. Unlike the master seals which are needed to promote a basic unit, a second seal allows a unit to be promoted to various things or even demoted. Demoting a unit restarts it to its basic class at level one but usually only drops a few stats. This way the unit can be leveled up and promoted again while retaining many of the stats it earned the first time around. The second seal can be abused to create a viable super-unit with sky high stats that is nearly unstoppable (or at least impossible to land a hit on).
As units grow in strength, they also gain skills. These skills are usually very useful. One character who already has a very high speed stat can gain a skill that makes her nearly invincible against sword wielding classes, allowing her to take on waves of foes while hardly every taking any damage. Another magic using unit can learn a skill that absorbs an opposing units stamina when she defeats it, which – when combined with her absurd magic stat – makes her an immortal arbiter of doom and destruction.
Promoting and growing these units is addictive and very fun. It’s always exciting to see what they’ll look like after being promoted and selecting the new skills and stats adds yet another layer of strategy to the deep game-play. There are also dozens of different classes to learn and explore. The support system is back but this time it’s streamlined and richer than ever before thanks to the new pairing options.
The ability to rescue a unit has been removed and replaced with the option to pair up with them. Pairing two units gives one of the units (the main unit or the unit in the front) a number of stat bonuses based upon both the stats of the second unit and the support level between the two units. For example, pairing a knight with a falcon knight will give the falcon knight a huge bump in defense, which flyers are always in need of. Fighting while paired up increases the level of support between two units, and this can also be useful to cover the weaknesses of a certain type of unit.
As the support level is raised, the two units gain new dialogue options with each other and form a deeper relationship. Many male and female units have romantic potential when paired up and once the final support level is reached they get married. Before your created character gets married, you’ll see an adorable love confession scene. So yes, this is the deepest the support system has ever been.
Paired units with high support levels have an improved chance of guarding an attack on the other’s behalf, or of attacking an enemy simultaneously. On top of that, the stat bonus granted to the front unit is greatly improved. For example, I made my main character a magic user. I married him off to another magic user, which gave him a significant boost to his magic stat. Then, they always fought paired up and his wife guarded nearly every attack on his behalf and almost always attacked with him for vicious bonus damage.
At the top support levels, some units can even activate their skills while the other unit is attacking, making the pair an absolute force to be reckoned with. Married units can also have offspring, who will inherit certain skills and stats from their parents. The way this works is tied into the game’s story somewhat so I won’t explain exactly how it works, but it is very cool because the units even retain physical features of their parents. My unit and his wife had a daughter who’s magic stat was in the mid-twenties even though she was a basic low level mage.
Building a relationship between characters is not only fun because of the hilarious dialogue and character development involved but also because it is very, very useful on the battlefield. That is a stroke of brilliance in my opinion.
As you complete the game you’ll move across a large world map. This map is gradually filled out with new battles and locations as you progress through the story. Aside from the missions that move the story along, there is also a great number of side quests to be completed in the game. Many of these quests are the only ways to add certain characters to your troupe and others house powerful items and weapons. Depending on which difficulty you’re playing on, you might just want to do some to grind some experience to keep you from getting mercilessly slaughtered.
The side quests are rewarding and offer plenty of space to further develop support levels and skills between units. You can shop and sell or buy items and weapons. The selection in the shops improve as you move further across the map. You can also use a forge at shops to improve a weapon. Through forging you can improve certain parameters of a weapon, such as the critical hit rate. Forging good weapons can cost several thousand gold pieces, but it might be worth it depending on your play style.
If you improve the critical hit rate of a weapon that already has a high crit rate (such as the killing edge), and give said weapon to a unit with a high skill stat, the result will be a unit that frequently lands devastating critical hits.
There is no post-game super dungeon like there was in some of the other FE games so the game feels a tad bit light on post-game content. However, if you want a distinct challenge you can try going through the game on lunatic difficulty. If you have access to wi-fi, there is a good deal of DLC available and more of it is on the way. One of the maps is free until March. The paid content looks nice, but there is also some free content. Free bonus content has been added to my game using the console’s SpotPass feature. This includes characters from other FE games (they look cool but they don’t have a backstory and can’t build support relationships), weapons, items and a map.
It seems very likely that more stuff will be added in the future, and regular updates with free content definitely sounds good in my book. By completing this additional content (and the quests already in the game, I think) your created unit earns an amount of renown. Once you have reached a certain level of renown, you can get powerful items and weapons to use in the game, but wi-fi is required for this too, I think.
The game also makes use of the StreetPass feature of the 3DS, although I’ll probably never encounter anyone else who has the game. If you are lucky enough to encounter someone else playing it, you can recruit their created character for use in your game, which could be really helpful depending on how powerful their character is. One of the bonus maps was really pretty challenging, so it can be assumed that the challenging post-game content will be filled out with free bonus maps. Perhaps this approach isn’t as strong or readily available as the post-game super dungeon (and it’s also completely inaccessible to anyone without wi-fi), but it is cool nonetheless.
Even without the wifi add-ons, the game is quite heavy on content. My first play through on hard took roughly 20 hours, if you don’t count any of the time I spent completing side quests and redoing a map to keep from losing one of my soldiers. Taking all of that into consideration, I had played the game for over forty hours before I finally made it to the ending credits. Once you complete the game, you unlock a number of sumptuous bonuses. These include a theater where you can view all of the glorious 3D animated cutscenes, and a unit gallery, where you can examine all of the character models in 3D and in any of the game’s many beautiful backdrops.
In the unit gallery, you can also listen to any of the wonderful music in the game. Despite the other extras, that is probably the one I’ve spent the most time enjoying. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent simply letting that love track play while I did something else (the song is called “Ha ha! Yes, it will take some getting used to!”). The music, character models and environments in this game are really fantastic, so I greatly appreciated the option to enjoy them without any of the critical thinking that actually playing the game requires.
The replay value of this game is quite high, I think. You’ll want to fully develop as many support levels as you can. I played as mage the first time around, but I may choose more of a warrior type character (and as a result, a very different wife) the second time through. I missed out on the notorious young fighter Donnel and a thief on my first play through, so I’ll have to go through again to get them. You also get the chance to make some important choices in the story and you will most likely want to know what happens if you do things differently. There is no new game plus option, but your renown carries over to a new game and you can use your created unit again.
Aside from the dozens of different support (and offspring) opportunities and the major story related choices, the game-play is simply fun and challenging enough that you’ll want to experience it again – maybe even on lunatic mode if you’re patient and skilled.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is fantastic, just pure turn-based strategy bliss. This is what happens when sky high production value is paired with absolutely remarkable game-play. The story is engrossing and the characters are well written and developed. The music is endearing and beautiful. The visuals and art are excellent and eye-popping. The console’s stereoscopic 3D and wireless functions are implemented. The game-play is rich, complex and simply irresistible. Aside from being a must have for series and genre fans, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a genre highlight and in my opinion the strongest incentive to invest in a 3DS to date.