Review: Fire Emblem Awakening

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Click here for my review rubric.

Difficulty: Hard (Classic)
Time allotted: 27 hrs to complete campaign. 1 hr on multiplayer.
Console: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: February 4, 2013 (NA)
Other Notes: Played mostly in 2D on a 3DS XL (I found the larger screen more pleasant for this title)

I know I’m late to the party in terms of reviewing this title, but finding a retail copy of the game had proven to be a quest of its own since shipments of the title arrived in extremely limited batches (3-4 per retail location at launch) in my city. I realize that I could have easily purchased the digital version from the 3DS’ eShop, but I’m a bit of a collector, so I decided to wait until I could get my hands on a physical copy.

Introduction

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Chrom giving you a hand

In Fire Emblem Awakening, you play as an individual (A character created by the player) found lying on the floor by Chrom (Prince of the nation of Ylisse) and his band of the realm’s protectors, known as the Shepherds. As it turns out, you are an amnesiac, and since you can’t recall your past, you have nothing better to do than to join the Shepherds and fight alongside them. It just so happens that you have an inert tactical mind and great fighting capabilities too, how fortunate! As you progress through the game, you’ll do battle with nations warring against Ylisse and an additional threat by the name of the ‘Risen’. You will develop ties with members of the Shepherd as your adventure persists, and you’ll also learn a great deal about your past and future alike.

The Fire Emblem series is widely known for merging turn-based strategic combat with a healthy amount of role-playing flair. Fire Emblem is an extremely popular franchise in Japan, but many of the titles never managed to make it across Japanese borders. The series’ first title was released in 1990 on the Family Computer, but international audiences didn’t get their hands on a localized FE title until 2003, with the release of the GBA’s Fire Emblem (which was awesome, by the way).

Byyear from left to right - 1990, 2003, 2005, 2012.
Byyear from left to right – 1990, 2003, 2005, 2012.

As you can see, the franchise’s formula has remained consistent since the initial release. The gameplay has kept a similar style for the past 23 years. Other common features that make the Fire Emblem series distinct include:

  • Permanent death when a character is downed in a battlefield
  • A setting based on the Western Medieval era (you can see this with the unit types, speech and environments)
  • A robust cast of unique and highly developed characters
  • Politics and disputes between kingdoms with a greater over-looming threat
Even the poses look kind of familiar.
Even the poses look kind of similar.
Left – Rebecca – Fire Emblem (GBA)
Right – Severa – Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

With each new iteration, the traditional elements of the FE games are met with new functions. Fire Emblem Awakening introduces various features to the series such as pairing units, marriage, a user-generated character, and extra DLC. With so much additional content, can Nintendo stay true to the franchise, or have they lost sight of the core makings of a Fire Emblem game?

Technical

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The grid

Fire Emblem Awakening’s underlying architecture has been standardized over the years. You’ll be participating in battles that increase in scale as you progress through the story and recruit members. Awakening’s mechanics remain traditional to the tactical turn-based genre. Underlying each battlefield is a grid in which you must manoeuvre your characters within. The distance that each character can move is based on their unit type and the terrain (e.g. horses travel much farther on grass than sand.)

I like to think of the series as a dramatized game of Chess. Like Chess, the player takes the role of a tactician facing off against an opposing strategist. One by one, both parties take turns making their moves, and a victor emerges when the other side is unable to fight back. Each piece has specific strengths and weaknesses; in Awakening, Chrom and your personalized unit could be considered Kings since the game ends immediately if they fall. Character management is crucial when playing both Chess and the FE series, especially since your deceased allies can never return to the battlefield. 

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Checkmate!

Graphically, Awakening’s visuals are polished and the look is clean. I particularly like how characters in the battle portions are displayed in sprite form on a 3D backdrop, it works much better than I would have imagined. The combat animations are done in 3D, which is a first for a Fire Emblem game on a handheld. I was concerned about the new models since the old 2D sprites of the GBA generation were gorgeous, but Awakening definitely handled the 3D well; the battle scenes were highly enjoyable to watch. fireemblembattle

Levelling up and class promotion are both mainstay features of the FE series, you’ll find lots of both in Awakening. There are numerous classes to promote your characters to, as well as special units (often tied to race) that are restricted to specific characters. For example, Olivia is the only character in the game that can be a Dancer.

The Dark Flier is a secondary class.
The Dark Flier here is a secondary class.

Awakening introduces numerous new mechanics to the Fire Emblem franchise. Casual Mode enables players to have a relaxed playthrough where the characters do not die permanently if felled in battle, but instead return to the party after a mission is completed. I don’t recommend this mode as it changes the way you play. Although it’s annoying having to restart the game when a character dies, your strategy becomes much more defensive and cautious in Classic Mode. I personally find that the game becomes much more intense and engaging when there’s a character on the line.

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The character creation screen

The new title also introduces a character creation mode where you construct your own avatar to experience the story alongside Awakenings cast, which effectively adds a personal touch to the game. My only gripe is that the selection of the visual details are limited, I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of my Avatar creations.

Pairing up and physically fighting beside an ally in Awakening reaps substantial benefits. The pairs can boost one another’s statistics as well as defend and attack together in combat. Allies can build relationships, some may eventually get married and produce children. The offspring will maintain skills from their parents, and they’ll look like them aesthetically as well. The kids will also become playable characters, further increasing your roster. As you can probably tell, the support mechanic will lead to a lot of deep decision-making as you pick and choose which characters to pair up and the skills that they use (each unit can have up to 5 skills equipped at once). The pairing system, alongside individual character management (i.e. Class promotion) results in an extremely customizable experience.

A couple of allies fighting as a pair.

Presentation

The numerous elements of Awakening are coordinated extremely well. Transitions from the over-world to the battles sequences are linked seamlessly with unique story segments, there is plenty of deep dialogue between the cast, and progression occurs at a solid pace; not too fast nor too slow. A Japanese dub option is also present, which is great for players that wish to hear the original voice acting.

Awakening‘s localization is incredible. Its written work is some of the best I’ve ever seen in the industry. The English translation and editing work was done so well that I could hardly believe that it was initially created in Japanese.

I especially enjoy Virion's personality
I especially enjoy Virion’s personality

There are anime-style short films that function as cut-scenes. These theatrical videos are jaw-droppingly beautiful and the general choreography was spectacular. You’ll see some awesome facial expressions and action as you watch each segment. The animated scenes in Awakening are of even higher quality that most currently televised anime.

The game’s intro offers a taste of the overall quality of the animated shorts. Credits to GameXplain for the video.

Heart

Fire Emblem has always been a series heavily influenced by bonds and friendship, Awakening is no different. You will develop many ties to a number of different people as you play through the game. If a character dies, the player will likely mourn for them, especially if they choose not to reset the game as soon as an ally drops.

With the introduction of love, you will see the intangible ties between the characters becoming stronger as they fight alongside one another. Marriage is the ultimate bond in Awakening, and this is important since a unit’s strength increases drastically if they engage in combat with their marriage partner. The death of a character will obviously make their counterpart significantly weaker as you are no longer able to pair the lovers up in battle. Nintendo put forth an unbelievable amount of effort into this feature. There is a great amount of dialogue between the cast, and you can see relationships blooming through ‘support’ events. Your very own avatar may even fall in love with a party member and have a child; that’s how personalized and deep this experience is.

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Probably the best pick-up line ever.

The story and dialogue are well thought out, each character has their own distinct personality, and a lot of the interactions between members of the Shepherd are expertly written and witty.

The language in the game stays true to the era of which it takes place, the text’s format is similar to that of books and stories set in the same time period. The English and environments are based off of the Medieval era, and Awakening abides to the niches of the times very closely.

At the heart of Fire Emblem Awakening lies a story that emphasizes the triumphant power of the human bond. Alone, we may hit an obstacle seemingly impossible to overcome, but with the right friends by our sides, we could potentially alter fate itself. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s not that far from reality. I’m sure everyone has had an experience where having a close friend around turned out to be a life saver (I’d love to hear some stories).

Value

Awakening has plenty of DLC content featuring popular characters from the previous titles. The new maps, items and allies will definitely keep players busy after finishing the campaign. Astute fans can attempt the game on a different difficulty (Preferably on Classic mode this time, cheater.). Lunatic mode is the hardest difficulty out of the box, but when it is complete, an even harder Lunatic + mode will be unlocked for the masochists. Playing through the game again will allow you to selectively breed your party in a different manner, so you’ll have the chance to see different pairings between the members of the Shepherd. The offspring of married couples will always take after their mothers, but their hair colour and possibly other aesthetics will change according to the the father.

Spot Pass and Online/Offline multiplayer will also offer something else to do. You could also make a hobby of collecting your friends’ custom avatars if you so choose.

Final Comments

There’s a long-standing tradition in the FE series where you are granted a character that is more powerful than the rest of your roster. The single character has enough power to clean out entire armies with no help from the other team mates. In Awakening, this gleaming bundle of joy is Frederick, a commanding knight tasked to watch over the Prince and Princess of Ylisse. The character generally comes in handy when your party is being overpowered by enemy forces. You may be thinking that having an ultra strong character from the onset of the game is awesome, but using him can actually prove to be counter-productive. You see, your party gains experience from damaging blows and enemy kills, so if you allow Frederick to soak up all the experience, the rest of your army will probably be too weak to handle regular foes much later on. Many beginners tend to find the later stages of the Fire Emblem games daunting because they’ve pumped all their precious xp into a single unit that becomes less effective over time. There’s also experience scaling, so your characters will get less xp per kill as they level up. 

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One of my favourite implementations presented in Awakening is the ability to create a character, I also love the custom protagonist’s involvement with the story. In other Fire Emblem titles, you are presented as the group’s strategist, but you plan behind-the-scene rather than joining the battlefield itself. It’s nice to have a personalized tactician, especially one with such a huge impact on the story, join the fray and fight alongside the cast.

In terms of difficulty, be prepared for a beating on anything higher than normal. I’d like to think I’m pretty well-versed in strategy games, but I still managed to face at least 8 deaths within the first two hours of gameplay. I haven’t even glanced at Lunatic mode due to fear of the impending struggle. The game can be extremely strict and difficult, so enter at your own risk.

Image from Giantbomb

I found the weapon triangle system a little lackluster this time around. For those that don’t know Swords beat out axes, axes beat lances, and lances outclass swords in rock-paper-scissors-like fashion. While playing the game, the function was almost negligible. Any weapon would suffice in combat, I could attack enemies head-on with a sword if they wielded a lance and still emerge victorious as if the weapon triangle didn’t exist.

Possibly my biggest gripe about the Fire Emblem series as a whole is that you’re forced to pick and choose your main party members. There are so many great personalities and unique characters in the game that I wish I could bring them all with me into battle. Unfortunately, you are restricted to a set number of slots that vary for each fight, and you’ll have to select heroes that best fill the spot. Naturally, you will have an affinity towards certain unit types (like an archer to take out flying enemies), and you’ll be forced to neglect weaker characters in order to bolster your chances of completing a mission.

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Sorry Kellam, you’re just a little too… forgettable.

Awakening is undoubtedly one of the best 3DS titles to ever grace the console, the sheer amount of content alone is enough to make a fan of the series soil themselves. The gameplay, soundtrack, visuals and story elements intertwine gracefully to create an outstanding game. However, as much as I’d love to call it flawless, it’s not. The game does have its issues, but they’re all minor and none of them affect the overall experience that a player will take away from the game. Fire Emblem Awakening is a title that deserves a place in every 3DS owner’s library. 

Some Pros: Great story, localization and gameplay. Tons of content.

Some Cons: Weapon triangle is fairly pointless, limited aesthetic options in character creator.

Mandatory Personal Rating: 9.5/10.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Fire Emblem Awakening”

  1. I had a similar thought with the weapon weakness triangle — at best, it seems to increase/reduce damage and hit chance by 10% depending on whether it’s a favorable matchup or not. But you’re right that it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact of earlier games in the series, and that’s a little strange considering that archers still devastate anyone riding a pegasus.

    Considering that this is my biggest complaint of the game, though, I agree with your score wholeheartedly.

  2. I was on the fence over buying fire emblem ( the only one I own is from the 3DS ambassador program) I didn’t play much of the GBA version but for the amount I play I liked it. I didn’t know much about awakening but between your review and my friends I think its safe to say its on my list of games I want.

  3. I had my money ready to buy the 3ds XL for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate when it came out but since I had heard so many good things about FE Awakening and some good short memories on a friend’s game boy advance I decided to buy the XL early and get myself a copy of FE:A. Which proved as hard as it did with you and everyone. It was a quest from shop to shop asking if there was a copy available. I got lucky at one of the shops and scored it the Friday of the week it had been released.

    80 hours in and on my third playthrough, only Monster Hunter has made me dip in so many hours nonstop into a game. The game is great, fun and with a lot of likeable characters. I must say that one of the features that had me replaying the game so much were both the ability to create my own character and marriages. I would start a new game just to pair up different characters in different marriages. Also of course who would my main character marry.

  4. Wow dude, this review makes the game sound so interesting. The character designs are gorgeous (CHROM IS SO HOT)– but they only appear in the dialogue right? Too bad that in gameplay they always look less spectacular.

  5. Def on my list. Worried it’ll be too slow for my tastes, but handheld RPGs are always such a nice experience, I kinda want to just take the risk.

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