Of all Nintendo’s long running franchises, Fire Emblem has undoubtedly left the smallest impression in the minds of non-Japanese gamers. That’s not to say the series is lacking in global appeal – its mixture of European mythology and anime-inspired presentation has earned it a small but dedicated following on both sides of the Pacific – it’s just that, well, the Big N’s been a little stingy with the localizations. Fire Emblem: Awakening, despite being the eleventh original game in the series, is actually only the sixth title to receive an official English localization. If you’ve been following the series from the beginning, you’ll be happy to know Intelligent Systems has managed to layer some significant improvements into an already rock-solid formula. And if you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before, fear not – there’s no better place to start than Awakening.
Fire Emblem’s core gameplay has always been about mixing rock-paper-scissors style battles with RPG-like character development and light elements of social simulation, and that hasn’t changed with Awakening. One weapon type will always trump another, more experienced units can dish out and take more damage, and soldiers are more likely to survive a battle if they’ve got friends or lovers by their sides – relationships that grow through close proximity on the battlefield and optional dialogue trees between missions that open gradually the more time characters spend fighting together. New to this latest entry is the ability to combine units onto a single space on the battlefield, which gives players an opportunity to make those well-developed relationships count for even more. You might be having second thoughts about sending a level 10 dancer into a fight against a level 15 assassin, but if she’s paired up with her level 13 wyvern lord husband, the two are practically unstoppable.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a long game. With a total of nearly fifty playable characters and an equal number of character classes to develop, you could easily spend 60 hours beefing up your roster – and that’s not factoring in the copious DLC Nintendo has prepared for the game (which I was unable to test for this review as servers aren’t live just yet.) In fact, you probably won’t even see all the classes in a single playthrough, as many are tied to hidden characters and missions that don’t unlock until you develop specific character relationships to their maximum potential. Even if you were to put in the bare minimum, sticking solely to the campaign missions, there’s easily 25 hours of gameplay here. You won’t want to do that, of course, since most of your characters will die forever and you probably won’t be able to finish the game – but you could try!
With few exceptions, character deaths in Fire Emblem are permanent. That means that each and every choice you make is critical not only to your overall mission success, but to the effectiveness of your squad as a whole – after all, if one of your most popular characters dies, his friends won’t be able to lean on him in times of need. The solution to this has traditionally been to restart a mission if a character is killed, but this can get tiring, especially when your favorite character dies at the tail end of an hour-long battle. A much better solution is to train your characters harder in optional missions and skirmishes. For those for whom Fire Emblem’s “permadeath” feature is a turnoff, Awakening includes an optional casual mode that sees vanquished characters returning to full health after a battle is won, but I wouldn’t recommend it as it takes most of the impact out of the choices players have to make throughout the game.
The Fire Emblem games have always gotten by in the presentation department thanks to their well-crafted dialogue, diverse cast of characters, and stirring musical scores from industry veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko, but there are moments of beauty in Awakening unmatched by anything in entries past, particularly in the (too-infrequent) story segments provided by legendary anime studio Madhouse. And though the story here isn’t particularly original – a kingdom under siege, mysterious figures from lands unknown, an ancient evil awoken once more, etc. – Awakening transcends this limitation by inserting the players themselves into the game and trusting them to fill in the details through the relationships they forge and the decisions they make. Like last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Awakening’s narrative is really all about what you bring to it. And that’s a powerful thing.
There’s so much to love about Fire Emblem: Awakening that the few missteps it takes are genuinely baffling. Why, with such a talented pool of actors, isn’t more of the dialogue actually spoken? Why do players have to quit out of the game completely to restart a mission, when previous games had the option built in? And for crying out loud, what happened to everyone’s feet? Okay, so maybe Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t perfect. But what game ever was? For Fire Emblem fans, the series has never shone brighter than it does in Awakening. And for everyone else, take notice: this just might be the best game on the 3DS.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Fire Emblem: Awakening was based on an eShop download provided to us by Nintendo. We were unable to test multiplayer or downloadable content in advance of the game’s official release of February 4th, 2013 but will update the review accordingly if the experience warrants it.