Well, the 3DS has certainly become much more of a thing while I was away. It came out over half a year before I left, and I remember my line of reasoning from abstaining at the time. “There’s no games, soon you’ll be gone for 2 years, and by the time you get back you’ll be able to get a new model at a reduced price and a less horrific battery life, AND there’ll be a ton of games available”. For once, Past Me seems to have been dead on the money. Good job, Past Me! I rarely congratulate Past Me (he always seems to mess up so bad) and I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve done so in writing. Now I’m having a raging internal debate over whether to capitalise. Pushing that excruciating mental struggle aside for what I’m hoping will be forever, I will instead redirect my thoughts to one of the 3DS games that came out in that 2-year interim.
I actually heard about Fire Emblem: Awakening during the last couple of months of my mission. It was from a much more recent addition to the mission field, who I’d discovered shared quite a few common interests with me. I have an amazing talent for forgetting who said what, but that particular recommendation was so hearty that now it’s the only one I’m sure came from him in particular. Even if he hadn’t been so relentlessly positive about it, I would almost certainly have been pretty excited at the news alone; I’m no stranger to the Fire Emblem series, and thinking about it I’ve only missed two entries that were ever localised. In case that sounds too impressive, I should mention that they only started localising Fire Emblem games at the seventh in the series, and Awakening is number eleven. And in case two out of four sounds too unimpressive, I should also note that I played the DS remake of the first game, released as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. There, I played three out of the five localised Fire Emblem games that came out before Awakening. According to the rules that I just made up, I am now an authority in the field.
Upon my return, Awakening was one of my first 3DS purchases. It’s one of the only games that I’ve bought at anywhere near full price since I came home. I bought and downloaded it straight from my 3DS using actual currency and not points. A simple, un-obtuse online transaction with Nintendo!? What on earth happened while I was gone? Fast-forward a couple of months and I’m now in the midst of my second playthrough. Before I get into the review proper, I think the following says a lot about my overall feelings on this game; My modus operandi for these past months has been “avoid any games that require a significant time investment and get in as much variety as possible”. That, on top of my many, many options, is not stopping me from going through it a second time. In the past, I have had no such rule and a lot less choice, yet I haven’t immediately replayed any other Fire Emblem game.
With that overall “yes this game is good” mood established, let me quickly summarise what the Fire Emblem series actually is. If any variation on the word “tactics” triggers a shutdown in your brain to the extent that the only functions left are ‘close tab’ and ‘also you should probably keep breathing’ then you’re probably already gone since I actually just said that word. If your reaction is slightly less severe but still negative, then allow me to engage in a contrived metaphor. Yay, metaphors! Imagine that I am swinging a baseball bat at your head. It’s not too hard. Go on. Now, imagine that the bat is one of those cheap foam baseball bats that you can buy at a 99p store. That’s… still super dangerous but a lot less likely to kill you! Next, imagine there are nails in the bat. Wow, this got dark! OK, fine, I can take the nails out, but I’ll think less of you for not being cool with the foam-bat-with-nails-in-it experience, because, man, that’s the only real way to do it.
Now let’s unravel this masterpiece of a parable. The baseball bat is the cold hard fact that Fire Emblem is a Tactical Role Playing Game. You move your knights, archers, mages and whatnot, and hope you didn’t make a really silly oversight when the enemy turn comes around. The 99p foam-ness of the aforementioned bat represents that it’s simple and easy to get into, regardless of how inaccessible “Tactical Role Playing Game” sounds. The nails symbolise a defining characteristic of the whole Fire Emblem series; the units that compose your army are well characters, and you will slip up and get someone killed, often. Killed completely and thoroughly, unless the felled unit is plot critical. Even then – depending on who went and got an arrow in their gut – it will either result in said unit being unable to participate in battle henceforth, or a good old-fashioned Game Over. The ability to take the nails out of the bat is a first for Fire Emblem games, or at least those that have made it overseas. Awakening includes a “casual” mode in which your characters will only be put out of action for the current chapter, should they fall in battle. Those that take this option should know this; my crushing disappointment in you is not a metaphor. It is more real than you could possibly imagine.
Great characterisation and “Permadeath” are the two ingredients that make Fire Emblem. Take away either one, and you have a perfectly serviceable but somewhat average RPG. The characters make the whole experience more pleasant and enjoyable, and the fact that those soldiers with backstories and families can potentially croak it adds much-needed tension. The fact that the previous western release, Shadow Dragon, was a remake of the original and thus lacked in the characterisation department, is an excellent demonstration of this. Despite having some of the strongest gameplay the series has offered, it felt somewhat… empty. This goes a ways toward explaining why Awakening is so dang good. It jacks up its strong suits to eleven, revives and reimagines some older mechanics, and makes some important new steps that will doubtlessly stick with the series going forward. Indeed, if it hadn’t been such a commercial success, there would have been no forward, as it was developed with the prospect that it could be the last in the franchise.
The support system that has existed in various forms throughout the series has undergone quite a renovation: Characters can join up in battle and assist one another, and in doing so build up their “support level”, which is advanced via conversations that can be accessed between fights. As well as drastically increasing the units’ effectiveness in battle when placed together, it gives the writers a chance to knock out some really entertaining and heartwarming stuff, and allows much more insight into each character’s personality and backstory. This even includes your custom avatar that you create at the outset of the story; rather than go the ’empty shell’ or ‘good or evil choices’ route, the focus is made on making the avatar a fully realised part of the world and story, and it works to the extent that I more or less forgot that other people play through the game with entirely different looking and sounding blokes and blokettes. One new addition to the support system is that characters of opposing genders can marry upon reaching the highest support rank, and in many cases have children that can join the team at a certain point in the story. As well as making possible the interesting scenario of families fighting together in battle, this adds a dating sim/romcom element to the game for those that find that kind of thing appealing. I’m… shamefacedly raising my hand as I type this, which makes things a lot more difficult and slow, so I’m going to stop now.
Another addition that’s a landmark first, not only for Fire Emblem but for Nintendo as a whole, is the inclusion of Downloadable Content, which I have not yet delved to deeply into. Many of the downloadable maps include characters from previous games in the series, but the nostalgia element falls a bit flat for the majority of them. After all, this is the first time a lot of these returning heroes have even spoken a word in the English tongue. I don’t know who this Alm guy is, but it’s cool that he’s here, I guess? That said, There is DLC that adds more in the way of character interaction and overall plot depth, so I’d suggest looking up the stuff that appeals to you. The mere fact that this exists in a official Nintendo game is crazy, and I’m glad their first step in the DLC direction was not a misstep.
A word about the visuals; Awakening introduces a mix of the classic 2D sprites (for the map screen) and 3D models (for the environments and battles), and occasionally throws in a CG cutscene when the story merits it. While these scenes do look genuinely impressive and the 3D models aren’t terrible (about in line with the Wii/Gamecube titles and a huge leap from Shadow Dragon’s stiffly animated eyesores), I do so wish that Intelligent Systems went the Rayman Origins route and made this first 3DS outing a super-slick all-2D affair. There was so much character in those old GBA battle sprites, even though their eyes were no more than three black pixels. The thought of them using the 3DS’ vastly superior technology to that end makes me excited, but also kind of sad, since it’ll almost certainly never happen. At, this point it’s not entirely reasonable to expect it to. But I can always hope.
Finally, I would be doing the game a serious disservice if I didn’t talk up its soundtrack. It would hold up well just on its own merit, but the music makes for some truly unforgettable moments in the plot. The touch of playing a calm track on the map screen and switching seamlessly to a pumped-up, bombastic version of the same piece while in battle is a really neat touch, but bizarrely the most emotionally stimulating moments are the times when the game specifically avoids doing this. Now, that may sound cryptic, so I’ll draw some parallels with a classic to explain the principle without spoiling anything. Or at least, only spoiling something that has been spoiled many times before. Many people have played Final Fantasy 7, and I daresay the most memorable moment of that game for most is the point where Aeris is killed by Sephiroth. I played it several years after it was released, and for some reason I’d already watched the CG movie ‘sequel’, which everything but outright states that particular plot point. But when it happened, what made it emotionally stirring for me was the fact that her theme overwrites the music patterns that the game establishes up to that point. It continues to play her slow, sombre theme through the Boss Fight. There’s no traditional Final Fantasy victory music, either. The moments where this principle is applied in Awakening, to either depressing or exhilarating effect, will never attain the legendary status (like it or not, it’s the defining moment of a hugely popular game) of Aeris’ death, but they serve their purpose so well that the story would be a trivial part of the game without them.
Funnily enough, I could say similar things about most aspects of the game that I’ve talked about. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a game greater than the sum of its parts, yet each part considered alone stands up to examination. Intelligent systems went and put together just the right things in just the right way, and made everything feel important to the point that it’s hard to imagine the game as a complete experience should it lack in any of the fields it attempts, and succeeds, to conquer.