The Fire Emblem series of strategy role playing games is known for its well-developed characters, emotional storytelling and perhaps most notoriously for its brutal difficulty. That difficulty is largely due to the fact that when a character is defeated in battle, they actually die (permadeath). There are no spells of revival or magical life restoring potions. Fire Emblem: Awakening, the latest entry in the series for the 3DS, is arguably among the most challenging of Fire Emblem games.
A Difficult(y) Decision
Fortunately for those who are more interested in the story and characters than combat, there is a “Casual” difficulty option that removes permadeath from the game (and allows the player to save during combat). Instead of a character dying when mortally injured, they will instead retreat from the battle, and will be as good as new for the next fight. Still, to most Fire Emblem fans, permadeath is an essential part of the experience. For them, the “Classic” difficulty is the way to go.
Beyond choosing “Classic” or “Casual” to determine whether or not there will be permadeath, before starting a new game the player must also select an overall difficulty. “Normal” is recommended for players new to the series, or those who would prefer not to be overly challenged while enjoying the story, and is appropriately easy. For experienced Fire Emblem players, “Hard” is the recommended setting. When combined with “Classic” mode, “Hard” can be a serious challenge which made me wish there was another difficulty setting somewhere between “Normal” and “Hard.” There is also a “Lunatic” level for the true Fire Emblem elite and even “Lunatic+” for those rare experts that have already completed it.
What makes Fire Emblem: Awakening so difficult is not just the use of permadeath (if selected). It’s also the very nature of the battle engine. The odds are heavily stacked against the player. The enemy forces almost always outnumber the player’s army, and by an ever increasing number in the later stages of the game. And as if the numbers at the beginning of the battle weren’t overwhelming enough, waves of reinforcements are often added to the fray. These enemies can appear in obvious places, such as from forts, or from completely unpredictable places, like the edge of the battle map. When they appear, they attack immediately, so short of playing a level twice, there is no way to prepare for these reinforcements. If they appear near the back lines, it’s almost a certainty that the weakest characters in the player’s army will be slaughtered. For “Classic” players, such a loss of life will usually result in resetting the game and starting the battle over.
There’s also a variety of other obstacles that can lead to the untimely demise of a character. If a character’s weakness is exploited (such as an arrow hitting a flying unit) or if the enemy gets a critical hit, it’s pretty likely that the character will be killed in a single blow. Also, the AI in Fire Emblem: Awakening is programmed to attack the weakest unit in the player’s army that is within range. A clever player will take advantage of this tendency, however.
Round 1, Fight!
The battle engine in the Fire Emblem series plays in a similar manner to most strategy role playing games. The player first moves his or her units around a battlefield that has been divided into a grid, and may attack enemy units that are within range of the selected character’s weapon(s). Once the player has moved all of his or her units, the enemy team gets to take their turn. This is another source of difficulty, as the enemy will frequently send all of their units to attack a single vulnerable character.
As enemies are defeated, the player’s characters that participated in battle will level up and become stronger. Fire Emblem: Awakening uses a very low number scale for all of the stats in the game, so leveling up can be very rewarding since every point matters. Characters can also learn abilities that can either increase their stats or trigger during combat for extra damage or bonus effects.
Characters can also be promoted to a more powerful version of their class, or change classes entirely. Each time this is done, their experience level is reduced to 1. The important thing to note is that they retain any stats they gained while leveling up their previous class as well as all of their abilities, so though they become a level 1 character, their strength is equal to what it was before. It’s great that the characters can continue to grow even after reaching the level cap of 20 by changing class, but the side effect is that you can never really tell how strong a character or enemy is by their experience level, as a level 1 character could have 50 levels worth of stats from previous classes. A detailed inspection of the character screen is required to really understand the strength of an opponent.
A unique feature of Fire Emblem: Awakening is the Pair Up system. Two characters adjacent to each other on the battlefield can Pair Up, effectively combining the characters into one unit. The lead character in the pair will be the first to attack or defend if an enemy is engaged. The second character is safe from attack, but will provide bonus stats to the lead character. The second character may also join the lead character in an attack for extra damage, or defend the lead character from an incoming assault.
Given the difficulty of the game, I found myself favoring characters (or pairs of characters) with high levels of defense or speed, so that they could either withstand enemy attacks without taking damage or dodge them completely. In fact, by the end of the game, I had three of four nearly invincible units, while the rest of my army was little more than bait. It is unfortunate that the game rewards using a “one man army” more than a wide array of weaker characters. Still, my small collection of powerful units was enough to get me through the “Hard” difficulty on “Casual” (after my disastrous attempt at “Classic”).
The battlefield in Fire Emblem: Awakening is not the prettiest thing to look at. The maps are filled with mostly unremarkable features, and the characters themselves are mildly animated sprites. The game does make fair use of the 3D capabilities of the 3DS with certain parts of the map popping up appropriately.
When characters engage in combat, the view switches to a close-up of the skirmish, and it is here that the game’s best visuals can be enjoyed. Detailed and properly proportioned characters will charge at each other, swinging their weapons, defending, dodging and generally trying to make a mess of each other. The animation isn’t great, but compared to the sprites on the battlefield map, it’s Fantasia. Sadly, I played most of the game with these animations disabled, as they can easily double or triple the amount of time it takes to play a level, and they become rather tedious.
Outside of the battlefield, storyline sequences are also animated rather crudely. Rarely does the animation consist of more than characters walking to the spot where they will stand still and talk for the remainder of the scene. They may turn to face another character from time to time, but don’t expect much more excitement than that. If the scene calls for action, a battle close-up takes place, but again, the animation leaves much to be desired. I did like the character portraits, however.
Happily, the most important scenes in the game are actually professionally animated movies. These moments of high production value are most welcome, and are very well executed. It’s a good thing too, because Fire Emblem: Awakening does justice to its heritage, and features an engaging storyline with memorable characters. I’m glad that there were a few beautifully animated moments with the most important of those characters.
Stay a While and Listen
The storyline in Fire Emblem: Awakening focuses on a character that the player designs when starting the game. This character has no memory of his or her past, but is an experienced tactician, and ends up responsible for commanding the Shepherds, an army protecting the Halidom of Ylisse. As in many strategy role playing games, it isn’t long before conflict engulfs the land, and sure enough, it’s up to the tactician and a prince named Chrom to deliver peace back to the world via a campaign of war. The overall plot does a good enough job of keeping the player engaged, but where Fire Emblem: Awakening really succeeds is through its character development.
A variety of characters are introduced right at the outset, and more are added to the roster throughout the game. New characters are introduced in nearly every major battle, and most of them can be recruited under the right circumstances. These characters are all given lengthy introductions that go a long way towards character development. Assuming they survive the battle in which they are introduced, the new characters can then interact with the other characters in the army through the Support system.
The Support system allows characters that have battled alongside each other to participate in special conversations that improve their relationships. These conversations are actually my favorite part of the entire game. It’s great to see how the huge cast of characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening interact with one another. After an initial chat, a pair of characters will reach a Support level of C, and that can be improved to B and A after more combat and additional conversations. In battle, characters that know each other well will be more effective while pairing up and fighting together.
A fourth Support level, S, is available in circumstances where two characters are ready to get married. Most characters have a variety of possible spouses, and Fire Emblem: Awakening allows you to eventually recruit their offspring into the Shepherds. This increases replay value immensely! Each new game, the player can choose entirely different romances, and there will be new Support conversations between the kids and their parents. Not only that, but playing matchmaker can be fun not only for setting up the perfect couple, but also for forcing the unlikeliest of pairs to get married.
In addition to the Support system, characters can also interact in the barracks. As real time passes, random events can occur in the barracks, and the player can observe. These are usually just brief dialogues, but they help to develop the characters and occasionally reward the player with items or other bonuses.
Of course, if playing on “Classic,” most of the characters can be permanently killed. In most cases, they are entirely removed from the storyline, though there are a few characters that will simply be retired so that they can still fill their mandatory role within the plot. But whether playing on “Classic” or “Casual,” if either the tactician or Chrom dies, the game will be over. In any case, Fire Emblem: Awakening got me to care about its characters (especially those developed through the Support system), so I really didn’t want to lose any of them! That significantly added to my enjoyment of the story as a whole.
Make It Stop
If there is one way in which Fire Emblem: Awakening fails in its storytelling, it is through the use of voice acting. The game features both English and Japanese voices (though there is a bug that occurs when resetting the game that changes the audio to English even after setting it to Japanese). Though there is effective use of voice talent during the animated movies and in combat, the rest of the game is entirely devoid of voice acting aside from random phrases that are repeatedly uttered during text-based dialogue.
I can only describe it as bizarre. As the characters talk, they make noises. Sometimes it’s a grunt or a giggle, but other times it will be a spoken phrase that may or may not have anything to do with the dialogue in the text box. In one case, during an S rank Support conversation, one of my characters said, “I’m in love with you,” to the other, but the voice that spoke out loud shouted, “Now I’m angry!” It was entirely out of place and turned what could have been a touching moment into a joke (admittedly, a hilarious one). That kind of awkwardness is present in both the English and Japanese voices, though I imagine to a person that hasn’t studied Japanese, the Japanese voices would be less distracting.
On the other side of the audio experience, the music in Fire Emblem: Awakening is wonderful. The soundtrack doesn’t take many risks, as it sounds very much like other strategy RPGs. But considering Final Fantasy Tactics is another strategy RPG and that it has one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, comparing the Fire Emblem: Awakening soundtrack to it can only be a compliment. The music does an excellent job of fitting in to the atmosphere of the game, and matches the story elements effectively. The way the music changes and becomes more intense during the close-up battle scenes is also very enjoyable.
Please sir, I want some more
Fire Emblem: Awakening features a campaign that averages about 20 hours, but which may be significantly longer when played on one of the harder difficulty settings. The game doesn’t count the time spent in battles that are lost! There are also a variety of side quests called Paralogues which can add another 5 or 10 hours of playtime to the game. I hesitate to call them side quests though, because they contain content that is relevant to the main story of the game and should not be skipped.
In addition, there are a variety of other features to further increase the replay value of the game. Through a menu called the Bonus Box, players can summon a Bonus Team to their world. The Bonus Team is made up of phantoms of legendary heroes from previous Fire Emblem games. The player can view their stats, buy items from them, and recruit their leader by spending gold or attempting to defeat them in combat. Characters recruited in this way cannot participate in Support conversations, but they do add a lot of fun to the battle engine and provide a good dose of nostalgia. There are over 20 heroes to recruit in this way, and more may be added later.
Then there is the Outrealm Gate, which allows the player to “visit other worlds.” That’s just another name for the downloadable content in Fire Emblem: Awakening. The challenges available in the Outrealm Gate are more substantial than the Bonus Teams as each map is unique and also includes some storyline dialogue and a recruitable character that would not be otherwise available. There is one map available for free and several others ranging from $2.50 to $6.00 (at the time of this writing).
Fire Emblem: Awakening also includes an interesting feature called Double Duel which allows two players to team up against the computer. Unlike the regular game, there is no battlefield map. Each player chooses three characters from their armies and then selects one of those characters to pair up against a computer controlled enemy, 2 vs. 1. There are a variety of prizes to be won, and casualties are only temporary, so it provides a fun and safe diversion from the main game.
With a variety of challenging difficulty levels and the Support system enhancing character development, there is plenty of replay value in Fire Emblem: Awakening. The storyline is good and the characters are great. All and all, it is a respectable strategy role playing game and a welcome addition to the 3DS library.
Ari finished Fire Emblem: Awakening on Hard/Casual difficulty in 29 hours and 15 minutes. He completed all of the available side quests in the game in that time. He also played 4 hours on Hard/Classic difficulty. He did not receive a copy of the game for review purposes.