It probably hit me at about a quarter to one in the morning as I laid in bed playing Fire Emblem: Awakening. I’d gone upstairs to bed and decided to play a quick side mission battle before going to bed while my wife was chatting with her friend downstairs. Thing is, I’d gone up at 11:15. I’d been spending an hour and a half playing what ended up being a couple of side mission battles in a strategy RPG. And I’m not a fan of strategy RPGs.
That’s the genius of Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Strategy/Tactical RPGs can be intimidating to the uninitiated. There’s a lot to digest and on first glance it can be difficult to see their appeal. Their turn-based nature and focus on strategy and thinking may also turn off the fast-twitch action crowd. Whether it was a conscious decision or not to try and rope in a new audience, Intelligent Systems have done an outstanding job of “dumbing down” the strategy RPG with Fire Emblem: Awakening for those who want that. The result is a game that both the hardcore and the uninitiated newb (like myself) will enjoy.
Awakening features three levels of difficulty (plus an unlockable fourth) to cater to different skill levels. But it also includes a new wrinkle, adding a new “Casual” game mode as an alternative to the traditional “Classic” mode. In past games, if a character fell in battle, they were dead and lost for the rest of the game. Classic mode definitely adds a tactical and emotional stress to the game as you risk losing characters who are not only powerful, but also ones you might be emotionally invested in. Yes, somehow Awakening, through its strong story, finds a way to make you care about characters on a level beyond how much enemy butt they can kick.
Of course, since I’m somewhat of a wimp, and not well-versed in the strategy RPG, I chose to play the Casual mode, where fallen units are simply unavailable for the rest of that battle, and return to your party after you’re finished. This allows the less hardcore among us to still enjoy the game without the crushing pressure of trying not to lose units that you care about. Think of it as your training wheels. Beyond this, there is also an excellent ongoing tutorial slowly introducing you to the various nuances of battle. And if you ever forget something, all the tips are a couple of button presses away at any time. If this isn’t your first rodeo, the tutorials are not that intrusive, and most are easily skippable. I was really impressed with how wide a range of ability Awakening catered to.
Still, all the accessibility in the world (and Fire Emblem: Awakening pretty much has it) won’t do you any good if the game itself doesn’t entertain. Fortunately, Awakening features tight and satisfying gameplay. You have lots of flexibility in choosing your units, deploying, partnering, and stocking them. There isn’t one specific way to win a battle, so you can be creative and try different strategies. I especially liked the “this is what might happen” screen you get when you choose a unit to attack, letting you see if this is really a good idea or not.
Relationships – One of the more interesting strategic elements of Fire Emblem: Awakening is the idea of Support, where units can form relationships which lend stat boosts in battle, whether they pair up implicitly by standing on adjacent spaces during an attack, or explicitly by pairing them up. As units fight together their relationship improves, even to the point that male and female characters can get married and have children which can also join your party after a healthy dose of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome. During my play time I had an almost unstoppable Chrom-Sully marriage laying waste to my enemies. It’s a nice little tweak on the gameplay, and one that won’t require a lot of grinding to take advantage of.
Beyond the gameplay, which is terrific, I was quite honestly shocked by the quality of the production. The music was tremendous, the visuals were fantastic, and 3D was used really well in cutscenes. There’s even full voice work in the full motion cutscenes and some limited voicing in the more static cutscenes. I’m pretty confident that I can call this the best presentation of any game on the Nintendo 3DS that I’ve seen so far. And it’s not even close. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the story of the game is really compelling. Almost Game of Thrones-ish what with the warring kingdoms, the medieval setting, and the supernatural force biding its time in preparation to smite them all. Really good stuff all around.
This game is rated T for Teen, which is appropriate. Even as accessible as it is, it’s still a strategy RPG, so there’s a lot to keep track of. The amount of thinking and strategizing required is great for kids, but even though battles are turn-based, there are still (very well done) video representations of the battle which involve weapon or magic attacks. So even though you never actually control the violence directly, it’s still a fairly violent game, and there are other elements that really skew it towards a more grown up audience. A mature 11 or 12-year-old might be able to handle it, but I can’t see going much younger. I chose not to expose my nine-year-old son to the game because I’m not sure he’s quite ready yet.
The GamerPops Recommendation
Though it may not have the mass appeal of a Mario game, Fire Emblem: Awakening can make a strong case for being the best game available on the 3DS so far. I struggled to find flaws with it (if you really need one, the real-time 3D character models don’t seem to have feet, so, there you go), and any game that can make a non-fan appreciate and thoroughly enjoy a strategic role playing game is clearly doing something right. It’s an accessible and well-presented masterpiece that older 3DS owners would do well to check out, regardless of their feelings towards the genre.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
ESRB Rating Summary
Rating Category: T for Teen
Content Descriptors: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes
Rating Summary: This is a role-playing game in which players assume the role of a young adventurer who journeys through a fantasy world. Players engage in tactical battles by moving characters around grids and taking turns attacking enemies. Gameplay attacks consist of brief animations in which characters slash each other with swords, or attack with magic spells; light effects and cries of pain denote damage. Cutscenes also contain instances of violence: characters getting impaled with swords, lightning bolts; enemy soldiers attacking a village; a character jumping off a cliff to her death. During the course of the game, there is occasional suggestive dialogue/text (e.g., “Your philandering is quite deplorable, but high marks on your attitude,” “Noble or not, you should be wearing at least a towel when you address a lady!” and “loins afire” when a character is in love.); a few characters also wear low-cut tops that reveal deep cleavage. A handful of scenes feature characters discussing mead, wine, and being drunk. The words “ar*e” and “p*ss off” appear in dialogue.
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