Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fire Emblem Awakening: A Masterpiece Among Strategy RPGs

Join us in welcoming a new reviewer to the site! Apprentice Nine has come out swinging with his first review, Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS. You can read more about him in the "About Us" section.
Fire Emblem is a franchise with a rather complicated past, and one that fans in North America and Europe have struggled with. The first six games of the series were never released outside of Japan, and although the next four installments were released internationally, they catered to a very specific niche audience. To many gamers, the name “Fire Emblem” merely prompted a discussion of Marth, Roy, and Ike in Super Smash Brothers. To die hard fans like myself, the name meant a game with a deep, sweeping storyline, engaging turn-based tactics, and the certainty of a good challenge. After years of waiting, Intelligent Systems has not only released a game which caters to the die-hard Fire Emblem fan, but also to gamers who have never touched a strategy RPG.

Without spoiling anything, you soon find your customized Avatar unconscious in the middle of a field, with no memory of anything but your name. However, you are rescued by Prince Chrom of the Halidom of Ylisse, and his band of Shepherds. After helping Chrom protect a small town from a group of bandits, you are adopted into the Shepherds as their tactician. You will find yourself constantly faced by new enemies while rallying new allies to your cause. It is nothing short of an awesome adventure.

Awakening’s combat system is relatively intuitive and easy to grasp, especially to gamers who have picked up games like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics. Each battle takes place on a grid system, which your units move along like pieces on a game board. After all of your units have taken an action, the enemy’s turn begins, and so on. It’s a combat system with a surprising amount of depth, and you will have to think carefully about how you position your units, what weapons they equip, and what actions the enemy AI might take. There will be times when you have to weigh the risk between using a character’s turn to heal, or to risk death and attack a weakened, but dangerous, enemy in order to finish the chapter. Some battles may challenge you, but the feeling of success you experience as you watch your characters grow is unparalleled.

In the majority of past Fire Emblem games, characters could use a Master Seal to “class up” once they reached a certain level. For example, an Archer would be able to class up into the more powerful Sniper, a Pegasus Knight into a Falcon Knight, a Myrmidon into a Swordmaster, and so on. However, Awakening borrows two class up mechanics from previous Fire Emblem titles: branching classes and reclassing. Now, when a character classes up, you will have two class options to choose from (i.e. A Myrmidon can either become a Swordmaster or an Assassin). Or, you can use a “Change Seal” to become a completely different unit while retaining learned skills. This system has a complexity that allows you to customize each unit to meet your army’s needs!

Perhaps the most interesting new development that Awakening brings to Fire Emblem gameplay is the Dual System. In previous installments, characters would fight opponents one on one. In Awakening, if two characters are placed adjacent to each other, they will join each other in combat and boost each other’s stats. If those two characters have a support relationship, the status boosts are increased! You can also use the Pair Up command to join units together in combat for great status boosts (at the cost of the support character losing the ability to move freely and gaining less experience). It’s an amazing tactic, as you can pair a fragile Mage with a sturdy Knight and receive a substantial boost to the Mage’s defense stat!

One of the greatest things about Awakening is the amount of gameplay customization that is available. You can choose the difficulty level at the start of each new safe file, with the option of playing on Normal, Hard, or Lunatic. (Beating the game on Lunatic unlocks Lunatic+, which is basically designed to test every aspect of your sanity). You can also choose between playing the game on Classic or Casual mode. One of the trademarks of the Fire Emblem franchise is that when a unit falls in combat, he/she dies and is gone from your army forever. The exceptions are the main character or “Lord” of the game (in this case Chrom and your Avatar), whose deaths will result in a game over. Classic mode retains this battle mechanic, while Casual mode allows fallen units to return in the next chapter. However, Chrom or the Avatar’s death will still result in a Game Over.

While there are definitely benefits for new players opting to play on Casual mode, that sense of risk definitely takes something away from the Fire Emblem experience. At one point in an early chapter, I moved one of my units (a powerful but frail Mage) one square more than I had originally planned. Not only did I place her out of range of her support partner, but I had also placed her in range of three enemy Cavaliers. There was no way to correct my oversight, and so I could only watch in terror during the enemy phase, as they rode down on my fragile and friendless Mage. The first attack took away more than half of her health, and she responded by killing the enemy. The second would have killed her, but her Miracle skill activated, and saved her with only one health point remaining. My heart stopped in my chest as the last cavalier readied his lance for the fatal charge...and miraculously, my mage dodged the attack and struck down the opponent. At the start of my next turn, I felt only relief as I healed my Mage and continued my offensive. If her support partner was adjacent to her, she could likely have dodged every attack with ease. If I had not moved her that extra space, she would not have been in any danger at all. In Awakening, one single action can turn the tide of battle, or cost a loved character his/her life. It’s a feeling only Fire Emblem can produce, and Casual mode mitigates it somewhat.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is likely the series’ most well presented title, if it doesn’t possess the highest production value of any game in the 3DS’s library. The animated cutscenes are beautifully rendered and fully voice-acted, and characters also have brief soundbites throughout the text-box dialogue, as well as during battle. Every member of the large cast feels unique and memorable, and you will want nothing more than to watch their stories develop through the support system. Supporting characters can also eventually marry, and possibly result in a child you can later recruit to your army!

The story is also perhaps one of the most engrossing I have experienced in a strategy RPG. What starts off as a simply fighting off a small pack of bandits turns into a story where entire nations are fighting for survival, with Chrom’s gang caught in the middle and struggling to save their world. There are moments of pure laughter, triumph, heartache, and loss. The soundtrack is one of the highest quality, as each track captures the emotion of the scene perfectly. Even early in the game, one tragic moment, highlighted by the lamenting soundtrack, had me in tears.

This is a game whose depth can keep you going almost indefinitely. If you wish to play with the various class-up mechanics and create the strongest possible army, you can expect to put a minimum of 60 hours into this game. For those of gamers who wish to simply experience the story without micromanaging the strategic depth, you can experience it all on a lower difficulty in 30-40 hours without being punished for it. There are plenty of optional sidequests with new characters,  as well as paid DLC chapters and free Spotpass teams all featuring former Fire Emblem characters to recruit. With the complexity of the support system and all of the online add-ons being released every week for the next few months, this game has insane replayability. I haven’t even fully completed my first play through, and I’m already anxious to start my second.

Verdict: This game is one of the greatest additions to the 3DS library, and one of the best strategy RPGs ever made. Fans of the Fire Emblem franchise absolutely must get this game, as it not only gets everything right, but it also contains wonderful references to previous titled peppered throughout support conversations and storyline, as well as the DLC chapters. Newcomers to Fire Emblem will still find Awakening to be a fantastic introduction to the series, and a great addition to their gaming library.

Long story short, if you have a 3DS, get this game. You absolutely will not regret it.
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