I’ve always preferred turn-based tactical RPGs to real-time strategy games. One reason is that I’m pretty horrible at making quick decisions under a lot of pressure, so I prefer having more time to analyze the situation and plan things out. Another way they appeal to me is that many turn-based RPGs, especially those developed in Japan, have impressive narratives and strong, complex characters, which help compensate for the lack of exploration. Some of my favorites in the genre belong to franchises: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyria Chronicles, and the most popular in the United States, Fire Emblem. Created by Intelligent Systems, an internal developer for Nintendo, the series has seen a release on almost every one of the company’s consoles since the original Famicom in 1990, each title featuring large, rich casts and challenging combat. I gained an interest in the series after Marth was featured in Super Smash Bros. Melee, checking out the first title to be released in the US, The Sword of Flame for the GameBoy Advance. It was impressive, but I wasn’t exactly blown away by it, or the three following entries I tried (The Sacred Stones, Path of Radiance and Shadow Dragon). I enjoyed the impressive, if somewhat predictable plots, though I was put off by how punishing some of the later battles could be. When the latest entry in the franchise, Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS, was announced for a US release earlier in 2013, I was unsure how it would fare compared to the few others I’d played. Having played through it twice now, I can say it’s become my new personal pick for the best in the franchise.

The Halidom of Ylisse is under siege from numerous deadly threats. Hordes of bandits regularly ransack the countryside, terrorizing or slaughtering innocents in pursuit of illicit gains. Plegia, a rival nation, has initiated several incursions into the kingdom, seeking revenge against Ylisse for pains endured in a past war. But the greatest dangers the kingdom faces are far from human. Some malevolent force is resurrecting the dead, creating an army of powerful warriors known as the Risen. A masked warrior taking the name of the ancient hero Marth arrives along with the Risen, delivering a dire warning to prince Chrom. These undead soldiers hail from a nightmarish future where most of humanity has been wiped out. The fell dragon Grima, thought slain by Chrom’s ancestors, has returned to life. Marth traveled to the past in order to prevent the resurrection, unfortunately followed by many Risen and soldiers loyal to the dragon in order to ensure history stays on its dark course. A horrible fate awaits not merely Ylisse, but the entire world. The only hope to avert destiny may lie with a stranger Chrom found unconscious on the kingdom’s outskirts. This mysterious figure, afflicted with amnesia, has natural magical talents as well as a strong tactical mind, attributes that may prove invaluable in preventing Grima’s awakening.

As with previous entries in the Fire Emblem series, Awakening has a strong rooting in European medieval mythology, with a few alterations to make it a wholly unique experience. It possesses several of the elements common to the genre: kingdoms ruled over by noble houses belonging to a strong bloodline, heavily armed conflicts between rival nations, fantastic creatures like dragons and pegasi, sword-wielding knights, wizards, and roaming bands of barbarians. However, it ignores the more traditional fantasy species like elves and dwarves for original creations like the taguel, a race of rabbit-human hybrids, as well as manaketes, humanoids capable of transforming into dragons. Another interesting note is that some kingdoms like Regna Ferox, Plegia and Chon’sin have ethnically diverse populations, with several positions of power held by characters who aren’t white, which is rarely seen in  fantasy games.

Concerning the series’ internal mythology, Awakening takes place on the continent of Archanea, the setting of the first Fire Emblem game, with Chrom and his sisters Emmeryn and Lissa said to be descendants of Marth. It also includes aspects from games set on other continents in that world, such as the kingdoms of Valm and the Deadlord warriors of Jugdral. Oddly, some characters introduced through DLC or side missions hail from games that take place in parallel timelines, such as Ike from the Tellius series. Since these aren’t part of the official game and are simply additional features, I don’t consider them canon, but instead as bonus content to appeal to long-term fans of the franchise. Thankfully, even with intertwining continuities and histories, Awakening is still readily accessible to newcomers without the need to delve deep into the history of the entire series to understand what’s going on, making key plot points like the titular Fire Emblem and Marth’s legacy easy to comprehend.

Since the main focus is on character interactions and tactical combat, Awakening doesn’t have much of a large world to explore. You mostly move from one battle to another in the order pre-determined by the plot. There are some side missions that can be approached in any order, unlocked through DLC or meeting a certain criteria, but for the most part it’s a very linear title. Some chapters offer a choice regarding an important decision, though all but one of these are irrelevant since the outcome is the same either way. The only meaningful decision occurs at the end to determine whether you get the positive or depressing conclusion. Even though there’s little freedom to explore, though, the game still does a stellar job at world building. Cutscenes in every new kingdom or village you visit help provide a look at how they function, the laws or norms they uphold, and how they differ between nations, such as how Regna Ferox places a great amount of value on military strength, while Rosanne put a greater emphasis on diplomacy, which did not serve them well when they were besieged by the Valmese army.

Side missions, or paralogues, further flesh out the world by offering a look at how average citizens are suffering during wartime as their villages are onset by enemy soldiers or opportunistic bandits. Several dramatic twists occur at various points throughout the story, and while some have predictable outcomes (such as when a character is thought dead but later turns out to be alive), a few will genuinely have you stunned by the revelation (such as the true identities of the player avatar and the figure who took the identity of Marth.) Introducing time travel into the plot was an interesting twist which added a greater sense of urgency to the game, providing a definitive goal of a great disaster that needed to be prevented. Regretfully, it’s hindered by overdone discussions about the struggles of changing the course of history, whether or not destiny can be averted. The concept has been addressed before in many different media, and here it does nothing new with the idea, coming off as uninspired.

Awakening’s greatest narrative strength, like those in the titles before it, is the rich, massive cast. Excluding downloads, there are 43 characters that can be added to your party in the game’s campaign. While only a handful get truly significant development due to their importance in the overall plot, a strong effort is made to give each of them a distinct, outstanding personality. Chrom, the prince of Ylisse and central character, is the most well-rounded and the most-conflicted of the protagonists. On the surface he tries to present a strong, stoic demeanor to give hope to the people and inspire his fellow soldiers the Shepherds. But his status weighs heavily on him, making him question at times whether he is truly fit to lead a kingdom or an army effectively. When he learns of the dark future that may come to be, this pressure affects him even more, forcing him to gain a greater self-confidence in order to alter destiny. Chrom is fiercely loyal to his allies, selfless and noble, yet blunt when the need arises. The player’s avatar, whether male or female, is a skilled strategist able to come up with winning battle plans even at short notice. He or she is very humble in spite of success, and cares deeply about friends and allies, yet still feels unsure about his or her place in the Shepherds given the strange circumstances of their initial meeting. When the truth behind the Avatar’s identity is revealed, it fuels concerns about whether he or she truly is a companion to the Shepherds, or would be best left behind.

Though the rest of the cast isn’t as well developed as the two central heroes, they do have their own unique traits and personas that help them stand out. Several of them fall into stock roles (Sumia is the good-natured ditz, Virion the vain braggart, Sully and Basilio are brash, unapologetic warriors), but the engaging manners in which they carry themselves, along with the aspects to their characters that can be revealed as you progress, keep them from becoming clichéd. Dialogue is tailored to fit their personalities in cut-scenes and in combat. For example, the reverent monk Libra will frequently offer prayers of thanks to Naga when something good happens, or call for an enemy to repent for their sins before striking them down. Regretfully, it is difficult to make more than 40 characters equally compelling, leaving several characters whose behavior makes it seem like they were just given a quirky personality for the sake of having one, like sweet-toothed thief Gaius’ obsession with candy, or Anna the warrior merchant frequently making shopping related puns in combat. This inconsistent characterization also extends to the enemies; primary antagonists like Validar, Aversa and Gangrel are presented as serious threats, each with their own complex motivation for causing suffering, while lesser foes like Excellus and Cervantes come across as cartoonishly villainous. There’s a lack of fully voiced cut-scenes, with most dialogue consisting of repetitive, simple voice samples, occasionally throwing in a full sentence. Considering that acclaimed voice actors including Richard Epcar, Tara Platt, Stephanie Sheh, Kyle Hebert and Yuri Lowenthal were tapped to provide such insubstantial lines, it seems like a waste of talent.

Further fleshing out the cast is the support system, a mechanic that has been in place since Mystery of the Emblem. By pairing up specific characters in combat, you can forge a relationship between them, either platonic or romantic. After two members of your party have been in enough battles together, they’ll reach a new level in their relationship, leading to a conversation between the two which reveals more about their thoughts and secrets, as well as how they get along together. The most strategic option is to aim for pairings that will provide the best advantage in combat with battle skills that compliment or enhance one another, but I found there’s some enjoyment in putting together characters with personalities that contrast with one another. Some amusing scenarios I found were the interactions between the perpetually cheerful, borderline sociopathic mage Henry and more serious-minded warriors like Tharja, Miriel or Frederick, the Avatar getting caught up in boisterous Vaike’s perverted hobbies, the almost ferocious love-hate relationship between Basilio and Flavia, two of the greatest warriors from Regna Ferox, and the awkward situations that arise when the womanizing Virion mistakes the feminine-looking Libra for a fair maiden.Some of the interactions aren’t well planned out once a romantic relationship has been achieved though, since there were a few cases where one character would flirt with another even if one or both of them were already married.

Marriage also fits into the time travel aspect, as children of the couples will gradually appear in the past to assist their parents in the battle against Grima. Descendants are usually pre-determined based on who the mother or father is, but depending on who their default parent is married to, their stats, siblings and physical appearance can differ. Strangely, first generation characters can form a romantic bond with second generation characters and even have future offspring of their own, leading to a rather confusing temporal paradox. There is a lot of replay value in finding the partnerships that produce the best outcomes in battle, the most amusing cut-scenes, or creating the strongest second generation party members.

Awakening’s gameplay follows the same format as previous entries in the series with a few new features as well as elements from other titles. Each chapter presents a battle against enemy forces that must be defeated, either by wiping out every rival soldier or simply taking out their commander, in order to progress. You get to survey the area before each fight, observing the positions and attack range of your foes, what weapons they carry and how strong they are, as well as any environmental hindrances. Different terrains will often require different strategies; soldiers on flying mounts can travel a long distance over mountains and open water, while party members on foot or horseback have their movement hindered in rocky or sandy terrain. You can also use this knowledge to tailor your party’s ammunition based on knowledge such as what weapons or magic enemies are more vulnerable to according to the Triangle strength systems (swords are strong against axes, axes against lances, lances against swords; fire is strong against wind, wind against thunder, thunder against fire). Certain weapons are exempt from the systems due to their own special traits: bows almost always guarantee a critical strike against flying soldiers, while dark magic deals high damage but has a low hit rate. Before engaging an enemy, you’ll be presented with a screen outlining the probability both you and your enemy have of hitting the target, dodging the attack, or dealing a highly damaging critical blow.

Every enemy killed provides experience, with a new level gained after 100 experience points. However, you can’t control what stats to increase after reaching a new level; the experience is allocated automatically, which takes away some of the control in customizing party members. Some items are available to enhance specific attributes, allowing for some specialized development. Leveling up also allows for a greater proficiency in whatever weapon class the fighters used, allowing them to wield stronger weapons, or unlocking skills that can add substantial advantages in combat. After reaching Level 10, you can use certain items to change a character’s class, granting them new skills or the ability to use a wider range of weapons. It will also reset their rank to Level 1 for their new class, allowing them further opportunities to level up and boost their stats. This is helpful in shaping your army towards your preferred specifications. I shaped my central team to include flyers for long travel and bypassing environmental blocks, along with archers and mages to deal damage from a distance or through walls. While combat is mostly enjoyable, and quite addictive at times, there are a few frustrating moments in the later half where the game can be unfair, summoning enemy reinforcements at the end of every one or two turns. It puts you at an unfair advantage, making you an easy target for new foes with full health while you may have lost a lot battling through the rest of the horde. It’s the biggest flaw in an otherwise stellar game, turning difficult but rewarding challenges into punishing wars of attrition.

As mentioned earlier, the most impressive new addition to Awakening is the Pair Up system. Placing two complimentary party members together, either side by side or as a team, will enhance the stats of the primary attacker. This affects how far a unit can move, and most importantly, how they’ll fare in battle. The right alliances can turn the odds of battle in a soldier’s favor by giving them a better chance to deal damage, attack multiple times, achieve a critical hit, or dodge an attack. As bonds grow, paired units can assist in battle by attacking after the soldier they’re assisting, or by deflecting an enemy blow so that neither party receives damage. The rest of the central elements have been taken from past Fire Emblem entries, such as the class change which was introduced Shadow Dragon, and the world map first used in The Sacred Stones. While the map doesn’t offer much freedom to explore, it does allow you to proceed at your own pace as to whether you’ll do a central mission, paralogue, or other side mission without following a set order.

Occasionally the map will spawn armies of Risen in a previously cleared area to battle for additional experience, or a traveling merchant where you can stock up on extra, often rare and powerful items. It’s crucial to have spare ammunition available since every weapon has a limited number of times it can be used; every attack, even missed and retaliatory, count as a use. Once it’s depleted, the weapon breaks. Some of the most powerful weapons (gained either through defeating enemies, unlocking chests, or finding a merchant) deliver substantial damage in exchange for a low use count and hit rate. Again, it’s a personal call as to whether or not you think the risk is worth the reward. One aspect that I wish would have been removed is the instant game over if Chrom or the Avatar are defeated in a battle. I’ve always found it annoying in an RPG where you can make significant hours of progress only to lose it all simply because the main character dies, even if the rest of the party is still able to fight. Hopefully we’ll see less of this in future games.

One of the most interesting changes Awakening makes is to a mechanic that has been a staple of the Fire Emblem series since its inception – permanent character death. Traditionally if a party member falls in battle, then they are removed from play for the remainder of the game, treated either as dead or, if that character is relevant to the plot, too injured to fight anymore. With rare exceptions, there is no way to revive a dead character. This feature adds greatly to the challenge of the games, forcing players to think ahead carefully if they want to get through a battle with little to no casualties. But it can be frustrating to lose one of your best fighters because of a careless mistake or if you need to frequently start missions over again to achieve a no-death run. Awakening, thankfully, offers some leniency in its difficulty. It’s the second entry in the franchise to offer a casual mode where fallen units are revived after every battle (the first to do this, New Mystery of the Emblem – Heroes of Light and Shadow, was never published outside Japan). I personally like this addition; it offers a less aggressive style of gameplay for newcomers or players like me who want to get through a game without having to worry about losing some of their best soldiers, while retaining the classic option for those who appreciate a greater challenge. Casual mode also helps improve the narrative. In past titles, whenever a party member died, they would simply be mentioned as a casualty of war, then never brought up again. I prefer that if a character dies in a game it have some impact on the plot, such as in the Mass Effect trilogy or Final Fantasy VII. This is a case where death restricts the potential of the story rather than expanding on it.

Character design was handled by Yusuke Kozaki, a manga artist who had previously done design work for Grasshopper Manufacture’s No More Heroes. He was hired due to his expertise in bringing a character’s inner personalities to the surface through lively, varied facial expressions and subtle touches, both of which shine through here. Most dialogue scenes show which character is speaking through a still image with changing expressions to match their emotions, from drastic contortions to subtle lip movements. Most of the characters, both protagonists and antagonists, have a compelling design to them. The only ones that seem weak are the Risen, mostly appearing as humanoids with purple-tinted skin, though some have grotesque masks that make them appear more inhuman. Cut-scene animation is very dynamic, with the most action present in combat scenes. Weapons change to reflect what’s equipped, spells and dragon fire have an impressive shimmer to them, and characters move smoothly whether they’re attacking or reeling from a blow. One design choice that’s struck many players as odd is that the characters don’t have feet, just a tapered boot below the ankle. This was intentional on the part of the developers, who wanted to add a unique deformation to the character designs. They succeeded, though I think they should have chosen a design feature that wasn’t so nonsensical. Pre-rendered cut-scenes are an impressive amalgamation of cel-shaded animation and traditional CG artwork, brimming with movement and color, and achieving a great level of depth even without the 3D option. Finally, some effort was put into making the battlefields varied by having different sub-sections of each chapter’s environment. Fighting in the forest, for example, will provide a different arena of battle depending on whether you’re out in a field, by the river, or deep within the trees. It’s a nice touch that keeps fights from feeling repetitive.

The soundtrack was composed by Yuku Tsujiyoko, who scored all the previous Fire Emblem games, with assistance from Rei Kondoh and Hiroki Morishita. Every musical piece has an epic, orchestral tone to match the situation. Scenes with the protagonists planning or preparing for battle are accompanied with uplifting, hopeful tracks, while enemy assaults have a faster pace and higher trill to sound more threatening and intimidating. If a character falls in battle, dies in a cut-scene, or if there’s a general feeling of hopelessness, the music fittingly becomes slower and mournful. High audio quality extends to the sound effects to make the battles seem more intense and realistic. Combat scenes are filled with clashing metal, crackling fires, even the subtle twangs of a pulled bow string, all of which help draw you into the scene. Taguel and manakete party members will even speak with slightly distorted voices when transformed to emphasize their abandonment of their human bodies. Again, though, there’s one minor aesthetic factor that can detract from the sense of immersion, and that’s the exaggerated clunky sound made when an attack misses. A gust of air or even no noise at all would better reflect the situation; what they used sounds better suited for a cartoon.

Fire Emblem Awakening continues to uphold the Japanese game industry’s record of developing strong tactical RPGs. It’s not perfect, but the excellent overall presentation is enough to overlook some questionable or lackluster narrative decisions and occasional sucker-punches. This entry is actually credited with saving the franchise, as Intelligent Systems was prepared for Awakening to be the last game in the series if it didn’t sell enough copies. Given its wide international success, it seems to have guaranteed more installments. Hopefully future entries will continue to improve upon the formula. I’d like to see the casual option remain in place for players who want a less stressful experience, permanent character deaths to have a greater impact on the story, and less random enemy spawning in tougher battles. Until then, I’ll be content to keep playing this for many years to come.

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