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'Fire Emblem: Awakening' review (3DS): Tactical excellence

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Released on Tuesday, Feb 19 2013

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo


Release Date: April 19 (Europe), February 4 (North America)
Platforms available on: 3DS
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Tactical role-playing

Fire Emblem is one of Nintendo's most enduring series, yet it has long been overshadowed by many of the games it inspired, like the Shining Force, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea series.

3DS iteration Fire Emblem: Awakening may help to change that though, bringing hardcore strategy and a lot of heart for the most robust game to hit the handheld so far.

Where Fire Emblem: Awakening excels is through its characters. It starts with a small band of adventurers, introducing players to Prince Chrom and his knights of the Ylisse kingdom.

Typically, this sort of tactical role-playing game rounds out the roster with a supply of faceless recruits who work well as soldiers, but are devoid of any personality or weight in the story of their own.

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS



But Fire Emblem: Awakening continues the series tradition of making characters that matter, both on and off the battlefield. Every character has a distinct personality, from a bulky but overlooked knight to an overzealous merchant and the blissfully naive farmer boy Donnel.

Even the sole fully customizable protagonist, who players get to name and choose their appearance and gender, has a defined script and character arc rather than simply acting as the mute avatar of the player.

It should be noted that, yes, first and foremost Fire Emblem: Awakening is a strategy RPG. Players take turns with the enemy army positioning their troops on grid-filled maps.

Units attack with fantastic cinematic duels, as they clash swords, spears and axes in the traditional Fire Emblem rock-paper-scissors weapon hierarchy.

Each unit has their assigned class dictating the types of weapons and spells they can wield, as their proficiency in those weapons advances with use, until the unit can graduate to a new class and learn even more skills. The strategy mechanics of Fire Emblem are as strong as ever.

It really is impossible to separate the mechanics of Fire Emblem: Awakening from its strong roster, though. This is because of the game's support system, where characters build relationships by pairing together in battle.

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS



Performing actions like attacking or healing while positioned next to other characters will gradually build a bond between them. The bonds start simple, with a small stat boost when two characters are next to each other.

Gradually though, the stat boosts grow and eventually characters will begin defending each other or combining their attacks as their relationship grows.

While characters can be paired by moving them next to one another, it is also possible to pair them as a single unit so that they only take up one space on the map's grid.

This opens up entirely new tactical possibilities since you could, for example, pair a slower character like a mage with a flying Pegasus knight to bring a spell-caster into the thick of battle, or make for a speedy escape.
    Fire Emblem: Awakening continues the series tradition of making characters that matter, both on and off the battlefield.
Out of battle, these character relationships continue to play out through small skits and conversations.

The parallel as characters become friends both on and off the battlefield is tremendously rewarding, and even more so once characters start to propose to one another.

There are few things more thrilling than a character coming to the aid of their spouse on the brink of death by blocking all damage, and then watching as the duo counter-attack in unison.

In the second half of the game married couples will even help expand your army, with their children inheriting their parents' skills to become a new generation of plucky soldiers to command.


Between the specialized combat role of each unit and their rich relationships with other characters, it is easy to become attached to certain characters and pairings.

This is where another tradition of the Fire Emblem series comes into play, as death is permanent for all characters. It is devastating when a character dies, and will probably prompt more than a few players to restart a battle rather than suffer the loss of a beloved character.

Death is practically inevitable though with the game's steep difficulty curve. The lowest difficulty setting in Fire Emblem: Awakening is 'normal', and that is not just an easy mode masquerading as a harder difficulty for the sake of humoring novices.

In a first for the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening does offer a slight reprieve from the challenge with 'casual' mode, an option which revives dead characters after each battle. With the removal of perma-death, the game becomes significantly easier, and also somewhat more enjoyable since it is possible to fully explore all of the character arcs.

At the same time, there is also something powerful to be said for the tension caused by worrying that any move could be a character's last. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best of both worlds for offering the choice without detracting from the experience of either decision.

Fire Emblem: Awakening, while intensely challenging, is mostly fair about it. While character deaths can be frustrating, it can almost always be traced back to a poor tactical move on the player's part, and a lesson to be learned for next time.

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS

© Nintendo

'Fire Emblem: Awakening' for the 3DS



There are, however, some less than fair encounters as well. Occasionally there will be missions that require you to protect an AI-controlled character, who is usually surrounded and facing overwhelming odds. These characters will die more often than your average soldier, and often due to no fault of your own.

It is especially frustrating because this situation predominantly shows up in the game's second half, where optional side-missions pop up as a means to recruit the children of your happily wed characters.

These missions seem to be more based on trial-and-error than the main story missions, as if the developers expected players to restart the stage half dozen times or so, until they discern the proper way to compensate for the nearly-suicidal AI's moves.

The other low point of Fire Emblem: Awakening, aside from the odd stylistic choice for none of the characters to have feet, is its archaic inventory management system.

With five tiers of every weapon type - and sometimes multiple weapons per tier - there is a lot of equipment to manage. All weapons and spellbooks also have a limited number of uses, so you will constantly have to dive into menus to adjust each character's inventory.

The actual menus are certainly not the worst to ever grace an RPG, but there is really no reason why players should be scrolling through long inventory lists with the d-pad or analogue stick when there is a perfectly good touch screen that could make menu navigation a breeze.



Underutilizing the touch screen is the biggest complaint that can be put against Fire Emblem: Awakening. The interface seems like a natural fit for positioning units and tapping through menus, and yet it is never used for either of those.

However, the fact that practically non-existent touch screen implementation is the game's weakest aspect speaks volumes of how well Fire Emblem: Awakening accomplishes nearly everything else.

It should also be mentioned that Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of the few 3DS games to actually support DLC. While there are paid DLC packs, which can unlock the most iconic heroes like Marth and Ike, there is also a wealth of free spotpass content.

The free content includes nearly every character from past games in the series, with a few new ones added each week, all of whom can be battled against and recruited.
    "There is something powerful to be said for the tension caused by worrying that any move could be a character's last."
The DLC characters can't build relationships with anyone else, but it is a nice nod to long-time fans that also offers a chance to fill out your ranks if any units have died.

For fans of the series, Awakening is still true to the roots laid out by past games, while seamlessly incorporating the new pairing mechanics for a fresh experience.

Meanwhile, Awakening also makes a perfect entry point for new players, as its well-paced story gradually introduces new mechanics and allows for players to still discover new strategies long into its 50 or more hour-long campaign.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have re-awakened the Fire Emblem series in top form, merging its story and tactical combat as a masterful accomplishment for strategy RPGs.

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