Where men patiently wait for other men to move before fighting
Fire Emblem Awakening is the latest is the long-running strategy-RPG Fire Emblem series, of which my experience has only been seeing the (admittedly awesome) characters in Super Smash Bros. It’s not that I have anything against the games, but I rarely play RPGs from Japan due to the massive time investment they tend to require. Fire Emblem Awakening is something special though, supposedly a ‘must-have-title for the 3DS, something the system has been lacking for a while. So how’s the game?
Fire Emblem: Awakening is all about choice for the player, which is refreshing for heavily story-based game. There’s no moral choices and only two possible endings, but the gameplay is largely up to you. When you start off you get two significant choices, the difficulty and whether to play in classic or casual. On my first run I felt like a challenge so I put it on hard and set it to classic mode. Classic means when a character dies in battle, they are gone for good. Permadeath is a real and frightening thing, and although the characters aren’t taken out of the narrative as in Mass Effect, you can’t use them in battle any more and that can be a significant blow if they’re a high level or your group’s only healer. On hard, it also seems to happen with alarming frequency. Bringing to mind my experiences with X-Com, I have certified myself as the worst possible military leading and a curse to any who must serve under me, everyone dies. This led to me giving up on a ten hour save because I just couldn’t take it anymore (and I was spending a lot of time going back to previous saves) so I restarted on normal and casual, where everyone is healed and restored at the end of each battle. Nintendo had given me that choice, rather than deciding for me, if I had wanted I could have even picked harder difficulties. The choice pervades the whole game with optional missions, lore, crafting and a wide variety of tactics and feasible approaches to any fight.
The battle system itself is straightforward and easy to learn the basics (the tutorial is mercifully short) and will be familiar to anyone who has played previous entries or other strategy-rpgs in the same ilk (along the lines of X-Com). On your turn, each character gets to move and attack or use an item, once all your characters have used up their turns it’s the enemy’s go and so on until someone wins or one of your main characters are defeated (which is a game-over even on casual mode). When you attack an enemy, a short cut-scene plays out to show you what happens. There’s a huge amount of depth to this battle system, but it never really gets in the way. There’s a rock-paper-scissors style mechanic for the weapon types, then there are the usual stats and it takes into account whether or not an ally was nearby or paired with that character and this contributes to the fight too. While the animations are pretty nice-looking for the 3DS they do get a little repetitive and thankfully you can fast-forward through them by holding down ‘A’. Little touches like this really show how Nintendo understand what a player feels while playing their games. Without it, each fight could drag on, but if you ever want to see the full effects of your decisions, it’s easy to watch it in full detail.
As you go your characters level up and gain new items, and the story progresses in terms of chapters, each of which is a single fight. The objectives are all pretty similar ( normally consisting of ‘kill ’em all’) but thanks to the depth of the combat it doesn’t get tedious. Each fight tends to last between 5-30 minutes so it’s ideal to just complete a single chapter in a play session, and have the game carry on over weeks and months. It’s easy to burn out in an extended play session though, especially if things aren’t going well.
The story itself is more interesting than typical JRPG fare (speaking as not a fan) but I felt I missed something by not knowing the rest of the Fire Emblem series. There were definitely references to mythology and history that were lost on me, and certain reveals lacked the power I guess they would have had if I knew what was going on. That being said the polotical situation and key characters are explained well in the opening hours of the game and you get a sense of what is happening in the world and why you should care about these characters. While there’s a few clichés (young healing magic girl, quiet grumpy defender) the characters have a lot of backstory if you’re willing to look for it in the biography and listening to optional inter-character conversations. The cut-scenes used sparingly throughout the story are gorgeous, following in the vein of Professor Layton, with high-quality videos interspersed with in-engine conversation. The 3D works beautifully in these videos and I spent much of the game looking forward to the next one thanks to a gorgeous art style and animation.
There were some odd visual glitches when I Was playing through, notably none of the characters had any feet. At first I just assumed tiny feet might have been a creative decision, giving them unique silhouettes etc, but as the game wore on (and in an early seen there’s lots of mentions of someone’s boots which I couldn’t see) it became clear that this was just a bug. It might have just been my copy, or it might be more widespread, but it doesn’t really impact on the game at all aside from providing a few laughs.
There’s DLC for the game in the way of extra fights or chapters, which can be repeated and give you a significant XP source. I didn’t put up the money for these so haven’t tried them out and I can assure you they are not necessary for the story or to make it feel like a complete game, they’re just an optional extra and reasonably priced at that.
It is a hard game, at least for a novice like me, but it never feels spectacularly unfair. Occasionally there might be a lucky crit or your character might miss a few too many times, but it’s hard not to admit that the fault is your own, and you find new strategies in order to win, or go buy new items to boost your stats. There’s lots of difficult fights, but in the time I played I never hit a brick wall that prevented me from progressing. All in all, howlongtobeat.com tells me the game takes around 36 hours, so I might just not have got far enough to find the real challenges, but it seems as though Nintendo have made the game accessible to all and I can’t imagine it would ever get to 3DS-breaking point.
There are multiplayer options, of the vs varities and making use of spotpass to turn other play’s avatars into challenges or potential allies for you. It’s a neat idea but lacks any real depth and it’s clearly not the focus of the game. That being said, the 3 on 3 battles can be fun as long as they’re balanced. Sadly both players will need a copy of the game.
The name of the game for this entry in the Fire Emblem series seems to be accessibility. Without losing the hardcore element for purists who want to face almost insurmountable odds, Nintendo have opened up the series and allowed newbies like me into the fray. It’s a game that could last you a couple of months easily in short half-hour bursts, or at least a week even if you were playing intensively. The game is compelling throughout and the story is interesting enough to keep momentum so the game has everything going for it really. While it’s still not quite the killer app for me, it’s an important addition to any 3DS-owners collection, which should be, thankfully, growing by the week with all the good stuff coming out this year.