Intelligent Systems is one of the most underrated developers in existence. Nobody ever talks about them, they just go about their business making titles like: Super Metroid, every Paper Mario game, the WarioWare series, all Advanced Wars titles, and also the entire Fire Emblem franchise. After developing the Fire Emblem series from its beginnings on the Famicom, Intelligent Systems seems to have perfected their craft in Awakening. I don’t mean this lightly: Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best handheld game I have ever played. Let that sink in for a second.
The gameplay in Awakening has players taking turns moving soldiers around a square grid to fight enemies. There are numerous types of units that have differing abilities and specializations. For example, an archer can strike from a distance, but can’t attack anything that comes too close, while a mercenary can only attack things that are nearby (unless they have a special item). Solid strategy and adaptation are required to successfully bring all your characters through each of Fire Emblem’s missions alive. As in previous entries, you will have a few missions where an enemy scores an extremely lucky or critical hit, killing a character. While annoying, having the possibility to lose a character (either permanently or temporarily) only increases the satisfaction of completing a mission without casualties. Layered on top of the strategy elements, there is a rewarding leveling mechanic. As units attack, defend, heal, or vanquish enemies, they gain experience that allows them to level up, boosting their stats. After reaching a high enough level, they will be able to use special items to change their class and become more powerful.
Awakening’s places a strong emphasis on building relationships with members of your army, more so than previous Fire Emblem games. To say that the character development and writing in Awakening is “good” really does it a disservice. Every member of your army (and there are many, many possible members) has a distinct personality and watching them interact with each other is a real treat. Numerous times I found myself laughing out loud at witty dialogue or pushing a battle to go longer so that I could get two characters to bond more and see what conversation they might have next. If you maximize a relationship between two compatible characters, they get married, unlocking side-missions with new characters for you to recruit.
(Pro tip: recruit Donnel and invest some time training him)
By all accounts, the Fire Emblem series has always been very niche, but Fire Emblem: Awakening goes to enormous lengths to make itself welcoming to new players. The series traditional perma-death feature is now optional, at the beginning of the game you turn it on or off as you see fit. There are also three difficulty levels with Normal being particularly forgiving (Beware, Hard is VERY challenging and Lunatic is... crazy). Tutorials appear constantly to explain new mechanic, but if you are familiar with past titles the in-game advice is easy to ignore and is relegated to a menu.
One of the biggest changes to the series comes in the form of downloadable maps, characters, classes, and items via the 3DS’ wireless online connection. After completing the first couple of missions, a new location appears on the world map that allows the purchasing of downloadable content. None of it is crucial to complete or get the full experience out of Awakening, but if you finish the game and want a little more Fire Emblem, then it is nice option to have.
Awakening abandons the rescue mechanic in previous games which allowed units to pick up adjacent units to take them out of danger. In its place, is the ability to pair up units and have them fight together. This bestows numerous advantages to the two units like boosted stats, increased experience gain, the ability to help each other in combat, and improves the two units relationship after every action. You won’t make much progress in Awakening if you don’t start pairing up the various characters you recruit into your army.
The story focuses on the conflict between two nations, the peace-loving Ylisse and the war-like Valm and begins with a main character who has amnesia. However cliched this setup might seem, there is a bit of depth involved: Ylisse’s previous ruler waged a brutal war against Valm and the Valmese still harbor anger over the wrongs done by the Ylissians. Awakening throws enough twists into the mix to avoid being predictable and deals with questions of fate, relationships, and the ethics of war. Without going into too much detail, the story also revolves around time-travel, and is probably the most sensible implementation of that storytelling device in a video game since Chrono Trigger.
Graphically, Awakening is stunning. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the PS3 exclusive, Valkyria Chronicles. Hand-drawn character portraits combine with animated 3D battles and beautifully rendered cutscenes to create a an experience that I couldn’t believe I was playing on a handheld. The 3D effects add some depth to the battlefield and are quite impressive on a few occasions, but can be turned off with without repercussions.
The fully-orchestrated soundtrack represents a huge leap forward since the series last handheld title, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Every track is a memorable delight and fans will instantly feel nostalgia for the series. Unfortunately, if you want to purchase the music by itself, it will cost you almost twice as much as simply purchasing the game. Luckily, once you beat the campaign the sound room unlocks, allowing you to listen to any of Awakening’s songs.
Everything about Fire Emblem: Awakening is near-perfect: simple, yet engaging combat, clever writing, a compelling story, beautiful presentation, and major improvements over previous entries in the Fire Emblem series. Intelligent Systems did a fantastic job crafting an ideal experience for strategy fans. I cannot recommend this game enough. If you own a 3DS, you should own Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is now available for 3DS.
Wage a war to prevent a grim future
Colorful, energetic, and beautiful
The fully-orchestrated tracks are phenomenal
The gradual increase in difficulty eases you into the game
Fans of strategy games, JRPGs, and good games
Is It Fun?: