First Impressions: Fire Emblem: Awakening

Could this be the best entry in the Fire Emblem series yet?

The Fire Emblem series has long been famous and hugely successful in Japan. With a long string of titles stretching back to the days of the Nintendo Famicom, the franchise is now starting to catch on in the west. Arguably the most famous tactical RPG in the world right now, Fire Emblem fans have long waited for a new entry to represent the series on the 3DS. With the Japanese version already on the market and the thorny question of English localization finally answered, fans can sit back and wait in comfort knowing that they will soon be able to enjoy this new game. They need not fear disappointment, as this title truly delivers an epic and rewarding experience that players will be able to enjoy for a long time - and after playing the Japanese edition, we're about to tell you why.

The game differs quite a bit from previous instalments in terms of both pacing and story. It starts out simple enough; players create their own 'My Unit' character, meant to represent their place in the games monstrous setting. Players can chose their unit's gender, facial features, voice, hair, and even overall tone of expression when they talk (for example, using more or less formal speech). Without spoiling the story, everything kicks into high gear pretty quickly once the campaign starts. The plot has more twists and turns than most Hollywood movies, and in the interest of avoid all spoilers, we won't be delving into the story too much during this preview.

Actual plot points aside, Fire Emblem: Awakening features some of the most expressive, endearing, and funny characters seen in recent gaming. The game's huge cast only makes it even more obvious that there is a very talented group of writers and programmers at work here. No two character's personalities or actions are alike, and while each player will have their favourites, the cast is packed with genuinely appealing individuals.

Character animations are just as fluid and bright as the personalities. In the full motion videos, the in-game battles, and still-animation dialogue scenes, each character is beautifully rendered and given a wide array of emotions and facial expressions. Whereas previous Fire Emblem games might have looked a bit static, Awakening is bursting with movement and detail. Even the tiny little battle sprites on the game maps move with more personality than would be expected from something so small.

Also of note is the music, which is just as epic and memorable as the story. The game features sweeping arrangements that at times make the player feel as though they've stepped into a concert hall, and even the pieces that are clearly made with computers instead of actual instruments feel as though they wouldn't be out of place in a big budget film. Of course, there are smaller, less memorable tunes in the game, but the large amount of powerful songs greatly outnumbers the few straggling pieces sporadically laid across some of the game's dialogue scenes.

In comparison with previous entries in the series, Awakening's pace is practically frantic. Battles are fast-paced, and the much talked about 'Pair Attack' system deepens the battle segments to a level not attained in previous instalments. The main battle map is clear and detailed, and when the 3D effect is turned on, sunsets, glistening water, raindrops and other similar effects appear to burst out of the screen. This might not sound like much, but in action these features really do make the battles come alive. When transitioning from the map screen into the battle screen (which is achieved though a zoom-in effect that is pretty cool to watch, and smoothly transitions between the map and battle animation styles), the music goes from a softer background noise into a pounding arrangement. The animation, music, character expressions, superb voice acting and fun gameplay all come together to make the combat in Awakening the best of the series so far.

A quick note about the voice acting in the game; at least in the Japanese version, the acting in Awakening in some of the best heard on a portable so far. In actual dialogue scenes most of the spoken dialogue is limited to short bursts, but in the full motion videos and battle animations the characters really come alive though the quality of the vocal talent featured in the game.

If there was one complaint to be had with Awakening, it's that there are a few moments in the 'My Unit' character's story that could be conceived as slightly clichéd. To be honest, the nature of the central protagonist makes him/her necessary in only a few moments in the game, even though a large part of Awakening revolves around the character. In fact, compared to most of the other individuals in the game - who are interesting and boast their own unique personality quirks - the relatively blank 'My Unit' character appears somewhat boring. Because of the nature of his/her place in the story as the player's avatar, the main character is mostly relegated to a reactionary role - a common complaint with many RPG titles.

That small issue aside, its not hard to see why Fire Emblem: Awakening as been such a huge success in its native Japan, and we hope that it meet with similar success when it reaches the west in just a few months. Trust us: the wait really is worth it.