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Fire Emblem Awakening

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Fire Emblem Awakening is the newest addition to one of Nintendo’s oldest franchises, despite some earlier fears that it might not come to North America at all. While the oldest Fire Emblem games never made it outside of Japan themselves, the Game Boy Advance releases of Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones showed the franchise to be commercially viable in the West. These releases, while successful, came with an almost immediate reputation. Fire Emblem quickly became known for its unforgiving difficulty, with permanent character death, constant enemy reinforcements, and bosses who could wipe away characters with one blow. But it also became highly respected for its interesting storylines, huge casts of characters, highly strategic battles, and sense of reward upon completion of challenging levels. Fire Emblem Awakening contains all of these elements, with a casual mode for new players, making it a worthwhile experience for any strategy-minded 3DS owner.

Awakening opens with its hero Chrom and his sister Lissa finding your personalized character, “the Avatar,” asleep on the ground. All is not well with their home land of Ylisse, which has been occupied with constant border skirmishes against neighboring Plegia. Chrom, leading a band of soldiers known as the Shepherds, decides to take your amnesiac character along, despite the protests of his knight Frederick – and the suspicious circumstances surrounding their discovery of the Avatar. This hints at what is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game. The line between good and evil is really thick, even compared to past entries in the franchise, and the main characters are altruistic to the point of defying logic. Even a hint of suspicion on Chrom’s part regarding the circumstances of the Avatar would’ve gone a long way in developing a character more complex than the perfect, selfless hero ubiquitous in Japanese RPGs. On the flip side, the antagonists are portrayed as nothing more than the purest incarnations of evil, one-dimensional monsters that are hard to take seriously.

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But despite these annoying characteristics, Awakening continues the long line of Fire Emblem stories full of wide-scale war, surprising revelations, and political intrigue, even if it doesn’t manage to separate itself from any of its predecessors. As the dead begin to walk the lands of their home, and a masked person arrives under the name of Marth, the Shepherds are plunged into a continent-spanning conflict that will define their epoch: a battle to alter the very fabrics of time in the wide scope of an epic. And once again, a huge cast of characters can be recruited to join their cause. As always, there are a wide variety of unique personalities, each interesting (or humorous) in their own way. Take clumsy Sumia, who is always falling on her face, or Kellam, who nobody seems able to see despite his hulking armor. Recruiting the characters that aren’t already with the Shepherds takes the same sort of effort as it did with other Fire Emblem games; typically, you have Chrom talk to the applicable character before that character dies. But, for the first time, there is a marriage system in which the children of married characters can be acquired in special chapters called Paralogues.

The marriage system is an intriguing, albeit rather strange, addition to the franchise. You can pair Chrom with almost every female character, and you can pair the Avatar with every character of the gender you did not choose. Most of the other characters can be paired with select others, which somewhat boils down to getting whoever isn’t chosen by Chrom or the Avatar. This leads to some hilarious dialogue. The support conversations that lead up to marriage can be rather entertaining, but when a character who loves someone like Chrom decides to marry someone else, they occasionally make remarks along the lines of: “I do love Chrom, but I’ll certainly settle with you.” Undeniable laugh out loud moments. The children you can receive are already pre-set regardless of who their parents are, and they can be absolutely devastating in battle when used alongside their family. Unlocking new support conversations is therefore more important than ever. And you have to hand it to Chrom: who needs a professional army when dad, mom, and sister can stand side by side and watch enemies shatter on them like waves on the Cliffs of Dover?

The dialogue in the support conversations, even between characters who cannot marry, still plays the important role of building up a cast you truly care about and hate to see die. As in the previous Fire Emblem games, the storybook “pop-up style” cut-scenes and dialogue provide the brunt of the story, and outside of the occasionally misused word, the dialogue is finely written. But, as fun as the previous Fire Emblem games were to read, Awakening can be rather annoying. The characters often grunt, moan, laugh, interject phrases that aren’t on the text, and occasionally speak their lines. These constant interruptions could’ve easily been done without. This problem arises from the expanded voice-acting in the CGI cut-scenes, which are slightly longer than they were in Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. As wonderful and action-packed as these cut-scenes are, leaking the voice-work onto the text-based dialogue seems utterly unnecessary. And if Nintendo truly wants to go in that direction, then everything should be voice-acted, instead of the current half-way convergence. Otherwise, Awakening has wonderful sound design, with excellent sound effects in battle and a beautiful take on the Fire Emblem theme song.

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There are a few other songs, and each matches the urgency of the story surrounding each specific battle very well. As always, Fire Emblem provides some of the greatest turn-based battles you’ll ever find, and Intelligent Systems accomplishes this with an experience perfectly worthwhile for both veterans of the genre and complete newcomers. You can choose between Normal, Hard, and Lunatic difficulties from the very beginning, and more importantly, you can choose to play either Casual or Classic mode.  The former allows your characters to return several battles after being vanquished, while the latter will see your characters disappear permanently if they fall (with the obvious exception of Chrom and the Avatar, whose deaths will automatically give you the “Game Over” screen). While Casual mode will be a welcome addition for potential customers previously worried about Fire Emblem’s renowned difficulty, Classic mode shows Fire Emblem for what it truly is as a franchise: a hardcore experience that takes wit, adaptability, and stamina.

While Awakening is noticeably easier in Casual mode, including the ability to save mid-battle like in Radiant Dawn, the Classic mode rivals any North American-released Fire Emblem in difficulty, and perhaps goes a step further. Once again, the enemy AI ruthlessly attacks your weakest units, going for the kill even if the ultimate result of that kill is guaranteeing your victory in the stage. For people who want all of their units to survive for support conversations and the ending, the real result is resetting the game, even if it’s a two-hour level. This will force you to utilize a variety of formations, putting hard-to-kill units on the front lines as mages and archers fire from behind. Fire Emblem is much more strategy than RPG, and learning when to retreat or send highly maneuverable units to flank will often be the difference between life and death. But Awakening is one of the most liberal games in the series as far as enemy reinforcements are concerned, throwing them at you from the front, sides, and even the back to catch you unaware. The final boss throws them at you endlessly, a mighty challenge for any Fire Emblem veteran. You’re given warning, but when reinforcements appear right behind your healers, you’re in trouble.

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Awakening also adds Dual Strike to the game, which allows two adjacent characters on your team to not only give each other bonuses in battle, but actually deflect blows and attack in tandem. Remember what I said about married couples? Wait until you see them attack back-to-back-to-back-to-back, obliterating everything in front of them. The enemy AI, ruthless though it may be, still isn’t particularly intelligent, and when weaker units aren’t around to attack, they’ll smash themselves to pieces against your powerful, paired units. You can learn many different skills for every character, as you could in the more recent Fire Emblem games, and this time you can gain more as you level up and change class. Now, when a unit hits level ten, you can choose between two different classes to promote them to using the Master Seal. But with the newly-added Second Seal, you can choose between a few completely unrelated classes for each character, even after they’ve used the Master Seal. Every class can gain different skills, and figuring out the best combinations for each character will go a long way in ensuring victory. The weapon-forging system is easier than in games past but far from necessary until, perhaps, the last battle. Level-grinding has returned due to the traversable map, but is thankfully unnecessary outside of building all-important character relationships. While Fire Emblem still isn’t as deep as other Strategy RPGs when it comes to RPG elements, the improved customization and unit skill possibilities have really bumped it up in that regard.

No matter how you wish to develop your characters, virtually every one of them can be incredibly useful in Awakening, a huge breath of fresh air for the franchise. Strong early-game units will be vital in progressing through the early stages of Classic mode on Lunatic difficulty, while units that start weaker can be complete game-changers by the final chapter. It can be immensely satisfying to watch the little villager you got early in the game go on to cut through ranks of swordsmen. And of course, completing a level at all, with everyone alive and well, can feel like a huge accomplishment by the end of the game. The tense feeling of each battle, the horrific moments when you know a unit is about to die, and the rewarding sensation upon defeating a boss is what Fire Emblem is all about, and Awakening has it all. Very nice in-game visuals that include character models and environments on par with Radiant Dawn (despite the distracting lack of feet), beautiful lighting effects for magic attacks, and some of the best 3D effects the 3DS has had so far, are like whipped cream on apple pie. There are plenty of side quests and downloadable content to boot, and even local multiplayer. The story could’ve done more to separate itself from other games in the franchise, but outside of that, Fire Emblem Awakening is the perfect introduction for gamers interested in one of Nintendo’s oldest series, and an excellent hardcore experience for fans who’ve been playing for years.

The Good

Highly refined turn-based strategy gameplay with tense battles | Beautiful cut-scenes and great 3D effects | Huge amount of side content | Dual Strike and improved support conversations make battlefield positioning even more important

The Bad

Story is too similar to past games in the franchise, with predictable plot twists | Grunts and spoken phrases are a constant annoyance when reading the dialogue

4/5

First introduced to gaming with Wolfenstein 3D, Daniel has never looked back. He still returns to the old classics while enjoying the current generation, and beats every game he can get his hands on. In addition, he loves to read and write and is an avid follower of sports and martial arts.
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