A generally accepted belief shared by fanboys and detractors alike is that gamers purchase Nintendo consoles and handhelds to play Mario titles. Sure, there are your other first-party heavy-hitters like the Pokémon and Legend of Zelda franchises, but Mario and company are seen to be the ones that really move systems. All that being said, after spending weeks wrapped up in its expansive universe, thoughtful gameplay and gorgeous presentation, I am positive of one thing — Fire Emblem: Awakening is a Mario-free 3DS system seller.
My love of turn-based strategy RPGs dates back to the age of the Game Boy Advance. Advance Wars, a title unfortunately released on September 11th of 2001, set the stage as an accessible, enjoyable entry point into this rather niche genre. After that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the North American debut of the Fire Emblem series and eventually the then import-only Super Robot Wars franchise continued to compound my new-found passion for this deliberate and thought-provoking style of gameplay.
I reference my earlier brushes with these exemplary games because, on almost a molecular level, Fire Emblem: Awakening represents the very best that portable turn-based strategy has to offer. To the uninitiated observer it probably looks like another healthy dose of Western fantasy wrapped in Japanese RPG tropes, and on a purely cosmetic level this is true. The deeper one delves, however, the more likely an astute gamer is to notice Awakening‘s polished interface, high-caliber voice acting and stunning visuals.
After a brief introduction you’re tossed into the role of an amnesiac wanderer — Remember that thing about RPG tropes? — who encounters Chrom, prince of the Halidom of Ylisse and leader of its protectors the Shepherds. After joining this band as its uniquely skilled tactician, your avatar becomes a true part of this lengthy tale of war, political intrigue and a heaping helping of magic.
Though the customization elements of your own character seem a bit thin, Fire Emblem: Awakening allows you to control a wealth of richly detailed and wonderfully realized warriors on its gridded field of battle. From incompetent axe-men to haughty healers, the title is jam-packed with deep interpersonal drama that parallels and supplements each strategic skirmish. Just as it pays to understand the balanced combat system — swords trump axes, axes crush spears and spears fare well against swords while the extended movement of flying units is easily undone by ranged bow attacks — so does it serve the player well to keep an eye on the relationships of his troops.
Positioning warriors side-by-side in battle has always been advantageous in strategy RPGs, but Awakening‘s beefed-up support system makes this tactic indispensable. It even goes further with the ability to pair two units into a single fighting force, increasing the movement of heavily armored infantry with the speed of a horse rider or protecting a green recruit by placing him in the care of a seasoned vet.
Cooperative combat supplements character relationships, which in turn makes for a more efficient fighting force; put another way, just as your individual warriors level up their defense and weapons skills, so do these strengthened relationships unlock new and more powerful support options. While friendships flourish and love blooms amid the chaos of the battlefield, the human drama often continue well after with menu options devoted to supplementary support conversation and a voyeur’s view into the team’s barracks, where friendships are forged and sparks fly.
Sadly, this heavy focus on communication and relationships compounds the inevitable battlefield death of your soldiers. Those who simply can’t take this kind of pressure, however, will be relieved to know that Fire Emblem: Awakening includes a casual options that eliminated the series’ standard of unforgiving perma-death. For those keeping score, this means that the title not only excels for hardened Fire Emblem strategists, but is also a great jumping-on point for those new to the series.
With tons of switchable and upgradable character classes, ample engaging personalities, nail-biting battles and unlikely partnerships, Fire Emblem: Awakening leaves other handheld titles in the dust practically out of the gate. Add to this stunning cinematics, SpotPass support, a nuanced battle interface and downloadable content that both expands the experience and puts old fans back in touch with more of the great heroes of series canon, and you’ve got something truly special. Sure, minor annoyances persist like over-used soundbites in incidental dialog and the kind of one-man rage quit that typifies the SRPG experience, but these are easily overlooked as simple quirks of a masterfully constructed gameplay experience.
At the time of this writing some North American retailers are already selling Awakening while others are warning pre-ordering patrons that shipping issues may delay stock, but let me plainly state that it is well worth any amount of release day searching you may need to do in order to secure a copy of this particular 3DS jewel. And since this title is distinctly focused on the power of choice, I’ll allow each reader to choose his or her own closing sentence.
- likely the best domestic entry in the franchise.
- one of the most satisfying 3DS titles to date.
- exactly the kind of handheld game that will be popping up on year-end best of lists.
(Go ahead and pick; they’re all correct.)
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America