Developer: Intelligent Systems
Nintendo is a company that’s known for their franchises. Win or lose, with every new hardware iteration put out, you’ll have people that will pick up a new Nintendo system just for the promise of a new Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mario Kart, etc. And if you ask people to name off their favorite franchises, the system sellers if you will, I imagine the aforementioned titles will be at the top of the list. But I’ve always found it interesting to note that despite featuring 13 entries, Fire Emblem seems to barely scratch the surface of popularity here in the west. But Fire Emblem: Awakening, the newest release for the Nintendo 3DS officially launching next week, seems to have the best chance of boosting the name brand to new heights, and with good reason.
For people that are familiar with the series to this point, you’re probably already going to have your pre-order in place, or potentially in your hand now if broken street dates are to be believed. For those fans I’ll say this, you’re not going to be disappointed in what the new game brings to the table. Despite being the most user friendly, newcomer accessible Fire Emblem to date, it hasn’t lost any of the charm or core mechanics found in previous titles. It can still be fiendishly hard, the series trademark permadeath of units felled in battle is still there, but can be turned off completely for those that prefer to keep their wits about them. There are three difficulty levels from the start, which give a good indication of where to begin based on your familiarity with the series.
Fire Emblem: Awakening also gives you a hefty cast of characters to play with. The game is headed by Chrom, a young prince protected by a unit of guards dubbed Shepherds. At the onset of the game you’ll create a new character, which allows you to pick a name, an image from a number of presets, voice options, sex, and a skill for strength and weakness. Customization options are a bit limited here, but with the anime 2D portraits being used as opposed to 3D models that’s pretty much expected.
During combat you’ll find gameplay elements are largely unchanged from previous Fire Emblem titles. Stages are still laid out in a grid fashion, with each square representing a movement or character tile. You’ll divide turns with the enemy, moving all your units before your opponents turn. Character party sizes are dictated by the map, so sometimes you’ll roll with a group of 6 or 7, while other maps will allow you to command a dozen or so troops.
The whole rock/paper/scissor mechanic popularized by the series is still present. This is a system where you’ll outfit characters with three weapon types: swords, axes, or spears. Each weapon is either strong or weak against another, and matching up against appropriate enemies wielding the opposite weapon you’re carrying is key to victory. Bows are also present, being useful against flying mounted units, but weak in that they can’t counterattack melee blows. It’s a well-balanced combat system for Fire Emblem that has worked for quite some time, and it’s evident that little has changed here.
One new addition is the ability to pair up units for stat boosts. This works in tandem with the carry ability found in previous games. When two characters are tile by tile next to each other, you can combine them into one cohesive unit that fights as a team. There are some drawbacks to this though, as the dominant unit will be the one that gains experience, while the other is only contributing via stat boosts. But it gives some added benefit to carrying weaker units around the board, which is in itself quite useful.
Characters can also get fighting boosts by just being adjacent to other characters. When you initiate combat next to another character you control, you’ll get a short battle animation featuring both. Sometimes the secondary character will jump in to deflect a blow, or will actually fight with you, giving you some unexpected but incredibly useful outcomes to certain fights. When this happens, both characters will benefit from experience gains, and it can also cause the paired units to raise points in compatibility. For units of opposite sex, this can lead to budding relationships, marriage, and the chance to unlock children that are gained through new, optional stages. It’s well worth the time to work on these pairings, despite the fact that the game isn’t really lacking when it comes to the standard roster. New offspring can often lead to rarer class types, which tend to be pretty powerful.
The overall plot of the game is sort of standard fantasy fare, with a late third act twist that felt a bit more predictable than stunning. But the average plot is bolstered by excellent dialogue, and a fantastic localization effort done by the guys and gals over at Tree House, a group responsible for localization on a number of other titles published by Nintendo. The side bits of dialogue given when engaging in the barracks or support menu options outside of battle add a nice amount of characterization to every party member, fleshing them out quite a bit and leveraging even more impact when they’re lost in battle than just feeling the loss of a useful unit.
I also want to state that I really enjoyed the art direction for this entry. Awakening features 3D modeled maps viewed from a top down perspective, but the character models on map are actually sprite based, offering up a unique retro feel to the battle. When jumping into the animated fight sequences seen every time you opt to attack an enemy, you get some nice 3D models for the characters, and then when you’re checking out dialogue, you’ll get lightly animated 2D portraits that evoke both the character sprites and 3D models well. It’s a neat mix of styles that actually manage to complement each other, despite their differences.
Also worth noting is the excellent soundtrack, composed by Hiroki Morishita and Rei Kondoh. Everything, from the main title theme to the combat music, right down to the ending credits, is incredibly well crafted. There’s a number of stand-out tracks (which you get access to via a model viewer mode), which make this one of the best Nintendo soundtracks in recent years, and easily my favorite in the series to date.
There’s also additional content promised via DLC, which I haven’t had an opportunity to check out since it doesn’t seem to be live as of this review posting date. But it seems to offer up additional characters and maps, which could be intriguing provided it’s priced appropriately. There’s also some SpotPass functionality, which again I haven’t been able to test out, but is there for folks that enjoy the full suite of 3DS features being used in their games.
I’m definitely of the mind that Fire Emblem: Awakening is well worth your time. Even if you have no experience with the series to date, this game marks a perfect jumping on point, allowing you to ease yourself into the game without all the punishing (yet fun!) elements of permadeath and high difficulty. And for series vets, everything you loved about previous Fire Emblem games is still present, and you’ll find a hefty challenge in store still if you’re looking for it. From a gameplay experience this feels like a greatly refined version of the last few titles, with a boost in presentation to push the franchise even further. 3DS owners will be doing themselves a favor by picking this up.