Oh man. Fire Emblem. I love me some Fire Emblem. Here's my review for Fire Emblem: Awakening for the 3DS.
I've had an on-again-off-again relationship with Fire Emblem over the years, and I've talked about Fire Emblem at length on this blog. Long story short, I like a lot of them and have beaten six of them, counting Fire Emblem: Awakening (henceforth called "Awakening"). Here are my reviews for FE6 (Fuuin no Tsurugi, or The Sealed Sword) and FE9 (Path of Radiance):
Fuuin no Tsurugi
Path of Radiance
Awakening is the thirteenth Fire Emblem game, but only the sixth that has been made legally available in English. Nintendo didn't start localizing them until the seventh game, and skipped over the 12th game. I've played some of those, plus FE4 and FE6, both via emulator. Anyhow, Fire Emblem is a series of hardcore strategy RPGs full of traditionalism, series references, and character interactions, and has a *very* dedicated fanbase. I'd say I'm not even in the top thirty percent of the most devoted FE fans.
Awakening is the latest Fire Emblem game, having launched in early 2013 in North America. It's already the most popular game in the franchise, beating sales records in all territories. Multiple of my friends were RABID about it when it first came out, and it was on my to-buy list shortly after obtaining a 3DS. I ended up buying it in late 2014 when I happened to have some GameStop rewards points saved up, and I ended up playing the **** out of Awakening in the first few months of 2015.
Story and Characters
Fire Emblem: Awakening is about your player-character (called the "avatar" or "My Unit" or by the default name Robin) and his (or her!) chance meeting with Prince Chrom. Chrom, his sister Lissa, and a few of their subjects form the Shepherds, a small peacekeeping force in the kingdom of Ylisse. Ylisse used to be an oppressive government, but that was long before Chrom's time. The neighboring kingdom of Plegia is ruled by the, uh, eccentric king Gangrel, and a clash between Plegia and Ylisse sets the stage for a global conflict that (eventually) threatens the entire world. Chrom, Robin, a mysterious stranger named Marth, and the rest of the Shepherds become the heroes of this story.
Now, like all Fire Emblem games, Awakening has a large cast of appealing characters whose personalities are exposed through (mostly) optional dialog. For example, Kellam is an early recruit (an Armor Knight with pretty good defensive stats) that has some expository dialog when he joins, but will likely have no dialog the entire rest of the story if you don't use him and interact with him. But by deploying Kellam in battle, you'll unlock Support conversations that provide in-game bonuses (when he's nearby his supported units) that provide additional character moments and develop relationships with his supported allies, which will result in a marriage proposal if you raise the ranking all the way to S with a character of the opposite sex. Unlike prior Fire Emblem games, you can create as many Supports as you want (usually you're limited to five conversations total), but only one at S-rank.
SPOILER WARNING - The next paragraph has some spoilers up to the halfway point of Fire Emblem: Awakening. You have been warned.
Now here's where things get crazy. Around the 40% mark of Fire Emblem: Awakening's story, Marth takes a bride (which can be one of five characters, including Robin if your avatar is a woman). Shortly thereafter, Chrom and his wife meet their daughter Lucina, who's a teenager that's traveled back in time from the future! The future Ylisse has suffered a world-destroying apocalypse, so Lucina and some of her friends traveled back in time to find their parents to prevent the calamity from occurring. Naturally, her friends are the children of your units. Once two of your characters form an S-ranked support, their future child can be recruited in a special gaiden map (!?). Your children's stats and abilities are determined by the parents, and are usually VERY strong units. Playing matchmaker with your Supports and building strong children is a fascinating optional sidequest, and I found it extremely satisfying to dive into it. It also unlocks more Support options between parent and child, Avatar and child characters, and even the different children hooking up with each other for more S-ranked Supports! (but no grandchildren). It's a delight.
Playing the Game
Fire Emblem: Awakening's basic gameplay is the same as the series' staples from 1990. Combat takes place on a top-down grid (i.e. not isometric like FF Tactics or Disgaea) of squares comprised of different terrain tiles. You have an army of varying size depending the map (the highest is in the range of 20-25 characters), to defeat enemy units and ultimately conquer the base tile, guarded by a boss. There's a rock-paper-scissors system in place for different types of weapons, spells, and units being more effective or less effective against others, and a HUGE unit diversity to work with (50+ classes and 40+ characters).
That class system is another key piece of Fire Emblem traditionalism that's blown up for Awakening. Like Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones for GBA, each class has two possible promotions, which form branches in a sizeable, semi-complicated network of possible upgrades. Unlike Sacred Stones (or any other Fire Emblem before the Japan-only DS version of Shadow Dragon Part II), each character has between three and five "base classes" other than their starting class. Using special items, any character can be "reclassed" into one of their base classes. On top of that, characters can retain skills from classes that they've already leveled up in, and all children characters inherit the base classes of both parents. The avatar (and his or her children) can use any class in the game, other than a few unique ones (like Chrom's Lord class).
Look, the incredibly diverse selection of characters, classes, skills, and relationships in Awakening makes it the most customizable Fire Emblem game ever. Almost any character can be almost anything; Chrom's Lord class is an exception, as are the avatar's Tactician class, the female-only Pegasus Knight class, and the male-only Barbarian class. But even with a few limitations, the volume and potential here is incredible. I ended up doing a lot of grinding to level up relationships and create (very) powerful child characters. My MVPs for this playthrough of Awakening (maybe not my last playthrough) were Chrom, Cherche, Lucina, Gerome, Kjelle, and Morgan. I think I soloed the entire last chapter with those last four plus a healer. Not joking.
But I mentioned grinding - the grind is totally optional in Awakening. There are several optional side chapters that turn up at various times - some are to recruit children as I mentioned before and others are for recruiting optional characters. The world map has "random encounters" pop up on it to complete as you wish, and you can also use the 3DS's Street Pass function to fight teams uploaded from other Awakening players! AND THE DLC! There are about twenty paid DLC maps to download and another fifty-plus free DLC maps (!), which give you access to more special characters and items, mostly throwbacks to old Fire Emblem games. Yeah, it's ridiculous. You can ignore all the optional stuff if you wish, but MAN. There is so much stuff in Awakening. You can be as hardcore no-extra-leveling or as obsessively must-get-everything as you want. It's incredible.
Visuals and Audio
The graphics are very good for a 3DS game, and there are more costumes and animations than just about any Fire Emblem game ever made, other than Radiant Dawn. The character models look great, and critical hit animations and combos look fantastic. There's occasionally slowdown when the moves get really flashy, but it's not a disaster (especially compared to, say, the Final Fantasy Tactics PSP port). Most characters have unique models for at least 4 or 5 classes, and move to generic models only when you move them to a class WAY out of their wheelhouse.
The voice work is excellent, and surprisingly thorough. The main cast gets voiced cutscenes and dialog for most of the game, and there bunches of neutral expressions for segments that aren't fully voiced, like combat and Supports. The character designs are, well, really solid. It's always amusing seeing Donnell's pot helmet even when he's in an advanced class, and fans like Lucina, Cordelia, and Tharja so much that each of them had detailed statues and figurines made. Like most Fire Emblem games, the designs of the cast are colorful and appealing.
The music is really impressive. Fire Emblem: Awakening has a unique song for every map, and in some cases villainous "entrance themes" for major antagonists. Each map song has two versions: a "field" and "battle" version, that transition from one to the other during combat cutscenes. It's a cool detail that's incorporated smoothly and effectively, and brings the number of items in Awakening's soundtrack to a hefty 94. One exception is the "Don't Say Her Name!" track in chapter 11, which is persistent throughout the stage without transition; it's such a powerful song, that this is the exception that makes the overall impact of the track stronger. There are also a few musical selections from older Fire Emblem games in some of the bonus maps. That's pretty dope. Overall, Fire Emblem: Awakening's music is perhaps the best in the series, based on quantity AND quality.
The Final Word
Do I have a new favorite Fire Emblem? Maybe. My personal ranking of the Fire Emblem games isn't set in stone. I still have a lot of affection for the story and characters in Fire Emblem 7, probably moreso than for Awakening, and I feel that Awakening is less "pure" a Fire Emblem game for having repeatable encounters and a wealth of DLC; Path of Radiance has the best framework for a linear Fire Emblem story, with bonus EXP awarded after each battle in a linear story path. I'm not even sure if I had a favorite Fire Emblem *before* playing Awakening.
But am I complaining that a game has too much fun stuff? Fire Emblem: Awakening is the most gameplay-rich game in the entire series, with an ABSURD level of customization and optional content for a Fire Emblem game and several cool, meaningful adjustments to classic Fire Emblem conventions. It has great characters and story to boot, and is a must-play for fans of the series. This review barely scratches the surface of all the great stuff in Awakening. It's immediately in my top three Fire Emblem games, and possibly my overall favorite. In my future "top 15 of the 15 in '15" article, Fire Emblem: Awakening is tentatively in first place.
Games Beaten: 2015 Edition
1. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies
2. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim
3. Fire Emblem: Awakening
4. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (NG+)
6. Persona 4 Golden
7. Ys: Memories of Celceta
8. Her Story
9. Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
10. Persona 4 Golden (Platinum)
11. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
12. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
13. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
14. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
15. Mega Man V
16. Far Cry 3
17. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
18. Kirby Triple Deluxe
My backlog is behind, my writing is behind, my rent is behind; the only thing that I'm not behind is my actual behind. That doesn't even make sense. Hopefully I'll have a Persona Q review on this blog in the next week or two, but we all know how likely it is for THAT to happen, pfft.