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Feature: 12 Days of Christmas - Fire Emblem's Awakening

Posted by Jon Wahlgren

Long-running strategy RPG dodges permadeath with one of the year's best

There were greater commercial and critical successes than Fire Emblem: Awakening's in this Year of Luigi, but none could be as sweet. The underdog series finally saw the acclaim that it deserved from a mass audience for a banner year, one in which the stakes couldn't have been higher.

Little did we know it ahead of time, but Nintendo was this close to shelving the Fire Emblem series of tactical RPGs. Having made its début on NES in Japan, Fire Emblem was perhaps best known in this part of the world for originating a handful of Super Smash Bros. fighters until its first entry released to western audiences on Game Boy Advance in 2003. Ten years and four games later, the series' dwindling sales forced an ultimatum on developer Intelligent Systems: move a quarter of a million units, or the series would be put on indefinite ice.

It isn't difficult to see why Fire Emblem had previously failed to set a mass audience ablaze. The series had rightly acquired a reputation for hardcore challenge and high-stakes gameplay in a relatively intimidating genre that itself barely lifts a finger to ease new players into the fold. Fire Emblem particularly was sink-or-swim: losing a unit on the field meant that the character you had spent so much time learning about and grooming on the battlefield was dead and gone forever. New characters would enter the picture with regularity, but refilling your ranks couldn't bring back a beloved character from permadeath. Not only did the series smack you around on the battlefield, it would regularly try to break your will in the meantime. Only the strongest players needed apply, and only the strongest of strong would stick around for another go.

Now Fire Emblem itself was surrounded and overwhelmed in hostile territory, facing its very own permadeath scenario. As the potentially final entry, it was time to put up one hell of a last stand.

And what a spectacular fight it was. Intelligent Systems lived up to its name with a downright miracle of game design, and Nintendo put its full weight behind marketing the thing. So, so much could have gone horribly awry with Fire Emblem: Awakening, and it's amazing how with such elegance the game dances above it all. To survive, the game had to expand its audience, which meant making one of Nintendo's most devilishly challenging and mature expressions palpable for somebody who had never played a turn-based strategy game before. To please long-time fans, that same level of intensity had to be present while evolving and adding on to the formula in satisfying ways. To encourage players to stick around, Nintendo devised a strategy for downloadable content — an area relatively new to the gaming giant, and at the time it remained to be seen whether the Big N would repeat or learn from the DLC growing pains of other consoles. Nintendo wanted the game to succeed so much that they even released a special-edition themed 3DS to put at the forefront of their advertising campaign.

Accomplishing all of this would be no small feat, and for all of the numerous new directions that Intelligent Systems pushed the game into, the studio pulled off each and every one. If the rise of Nintendo's beginner-friendly Super Guide experiments have taught us anything, it's that by allowing players to skip the most egregious challenges a game can make said challenges even more demanding. Giving players the choice between a softer path — one in which defeated characters would sit out the fight instead of keeling over forever, and allowing mid-battle saves — or the traditional one filled with booby traps and cold-hearted punishment meant that players of all skills and commitments could enjoy Awakening on their own terms.

The real-world narrative surrounding Fire Emblem: Awakening's development, release, and subsequent commercial success is fascinating in and of itself, and were the game itself simply good then the end product would still have produced one of the most compelling feel-good stories of 2013. (A beloved franchise on the brink was saved to fight another day! Hooray!) But the flesh and bones of Awakening aren't "simply good." They are engrossing, compelling, captivating, punishing, rewarding, encouraging, and a whole host of other hyperbolic adjectives that our incredible enthusiasm for the game just can't seem to stop pumping out.

Awakening is remarkable for its expanse, yet the game never feels as if it is stretched too thin. The campaign is impeccably balanced, constantly upping the ante and challenging you to dig deeper into your strategic arsenal. First looks at battlefields are often designed to be intimidating, but through careful consideration of the map and enemy units you'll find yourself after 10 turns pushing forward in ways you wouldn't have predicted eight turns prior. Awakening doesn't play around but is always fair, so the sense of accomplishment that comes with vanquishing a map's final foe can be incredible. You did that, it credits.

There is more strategy to keep in mind than simply how to get the drop on an enemy unit. By positioning characters to fight side by side they can help each other out with team attacks for more powerful offensive and defensive results. Characters who fight together develop bonds and become more powerful when fighting together, so figuring out who works well together and eventually marrying them off is a deep mini-game in and of itself and is the game's emotional anchor, weighted by 8-4's fantastic localization. Characters are brought to life with strong personalities, great senses of humour, interesting histories, and, through it all, gentle humanity. Attachment is easy, which makes it all the harder to see them killed in action. If you're anything like us, you'll have shouted an expletive and slammed the soft reset combo to restart the game more times than you'd care to admit because of the untimely death of a unit.

Even if a challenge seems too steep for the time being, Awakening's side activities are more than able to keep you entertained for hours. There is always something new to learn, strategize or tweak, which is why nearly a year after its release — in the U.S., it arrive slightly later in Europe — we're still hooked. Well, that, and the stream of fun downloadable content. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 first led the charge on 3DS DLC, Fire Emblem's plans were far more ambitious. On offer weren't mere level packs like Mario's expansions to Coin Rush mode, but instead miniature stories that fit within Awakening's fiction as well as the greater Fire Emblem universe at large. Characters and conflicts from every game found their way in, creating a great opportunity for long-term fan service while introducing the older games to new players in memorable ways. DLC was perhaps somewhat costly, but Nintendo played it smart by offering the first one free — both as a show of good faith, but also to get people to connect their 3DS and find out exactly where to throw more cash. In addition, the execution showed that Nintendo is capable of keeping a game alive and well with worthwhile add-on content, lessons that have informed subsequent releases like Pikmin 3.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a shining example of character empathy, empowerment and excellent game design. Honouring the series' hardcore legacy while expanding its audience and helping establish the benchmark for downloadable content, all while delivering one of the most rewarding campaigns of the year. That's some feat, and audiences recognized it: total sales in the U.S. alone breached 390,000 by September, according to Nintendo of America.

2013 may have been the Year of Luigi, but Fire Emblem: Awakening stole the show.

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User Comments (57)

snoox

#3

snoox said:

Wow this was so expertly written, very very thorough & smart, I must say Nintendo Life is firing on all cylinders, great thing u guys got going, I feel blessed to have found this place, truth ^_^

Great_Gonzalez

#5

Great_Gonzalez said:

Awakening is a great game but not my favourite Fire Emblem. The original we got on the GBA will always be the best mainly because it was restrictive and you only had x amount of maps and to get things right which made the game even more tense and strategic :D

So happy for Awakening though if this series was put on hold I would be a very unhappy bunny.

Speaking on intelligent systems when we getting advance wars 3D???
Where's the next Paper Mario?? Get to work guys ;)

SkywardLink98

#6

SkywardLink98 said:

I found the no-perma-death thing actually made the game harder. I lost (on easy) after clearing it on the same difficulty with permadeath. I lost taking the fort because I decided I would take a riskier strategy, and well, it didn't pay off.

hurrdurr

#7

hurrdurr said:

the same way people seem to crave a new earthbound or 2d metroid (which i'd take with both hands thanks very much) i'd love to see another genealogy of the holy war style game, minus the incest. that game was a freaking masterpiece, beats even ff tactics and tactics ogre imo. sadly don't think it'll ever happen, oh well, awakening was fantastic as well, very glad to see the series march on

komodo182

#8

komodo182 said:

favorite 3ds game and favorite fire emblem. I am really hoping for another one. Great story in this one. I bought a 3ds just to play this game. Also bought a Wii U just to play Earthbound (and the girlfriend wanted one too)

Pokefanmum82

#9

Pokefanmum82 said:

this is one of my favorite games. So much so that I downloaded it onto my XL so I would have it with me always.

Buduski

#10

Buduski said:

I own luigis mansion DM, pokemon Y, Animal crossing NL, Shin Megami Tensei 4, the legend of zelda ALBW and a few other games, Basically almost every big 3DS exclusive to be released in 2013 and I still say with pride andd joy that Fire Emblem Awakening is my 3DS GOTY, truly worthy of being called a masterpiece .

Hunter-D

#11

Hunter-D said:

My 2011 GOTY was Super Mario 3D Land.

Last year Kid Icarus Uprising took first place.

This year Fire Emblem Awakening takes that title.

The 3DS is bloody amazing.

@snoox I completely agree.

Aqueous

#12

Aqueous said:

h@Jon - The game isn't always fair, there are unwinnable maps in Lunatic+

Loved this game. Sold my physical to a friend who's loving it and moved my file digital. Over 450 hours on the game, no file holds the true play time. Still playing for long bursts.

GMo4824

#13

GMo4824 said:

OMG I had no idea the franchise was close to death!!! Wow that makes this game all the better!! I just picked it up yesterday after a 6 month break and it feels like I never stopped playing. I can't wait to beat it and start a new file from the beginning. The DLC is fantastic like you said and a huge reason I plowed through this one.

I am embarrassed to say that even though I am a massive fire emblem fan, I have never beaten one. I always balance my characters EXP too much and then they are all too weak by the end game. But now with the DLC and random encounters I can constantly build them up and get stronger. I wasn't afraid to let my main heroes do all the work in story missions because I knew that I could always bring the weaker ones up to snuff in side missions.

Ps how awesome are Second Seals?! I have re classed my avatar like three times to max out skill points. I finally chose a wife too haha there's just too many options!

Best Fire Emblem game ever! Best Turn Based Strategy too!
If only they could give us an advance wars this good next!!

Kolerius

#17

Kolerius said:

Yea I was really impressed with this game. After playing Radiant Dawn, I thought nothing could top it. I was wrong. Perhaps with the success of this game, Nintendo might consider a Wii U Fire Emblem?

Emblem

#18

Emblem said:

My best 3DS game of the year with Bravely Default a very close second followed by EO4.

CaptOlimar30

#22

CaptOlimar30 said:

Great article and a great game. Fire Emblem Awakening has the perfect balance of story and gameplay both of which are extremely refined. As an added plus, the music is also amazing!

Ronoh

#24

Ronoh said:

Fire Emblem Awakening is my Game of the Year. I was blown away by everything in the game, especially the presentation. Can't wait to see what Fire Emblem x Shin Megami Tensei is like.

Ash_Anne

#25

Ash_Anne said:

I really liked this Fire Emblem. I am glad that it sold well. The one thing that I really liked about Awakening is that they took off the restriction with the conversations.

KCMOTO

#28

KCMOTO said:

I bought a 3DS on Black Friday just for this game. I've heard talking for months about how great the story is and how emotional bonded you become with the characters. I love a good story. So I snag'd a XL on BF, and finally found FE for $15 (new) at Best Buy during Cyber Monday week sale. Was totally stoked!! This is my first SRPG, and I'm enjoying it.

FX29

#29

FX29 said:

I'm torn between A Link Between Worlds and Fire Emblem Awakening as my 3DS game of the year. But I gotta say Fire Emblem Awakening is amazing!

AutumnShantel

#31

AutumnShantel said:

I'm far from a skillful gamer but I've beat all but one of the Fire Emblems that came out over here. (didn't beat PoR because I had to give it back to my friend) Perma-death isn't that bad, and part of what makes the game fun.

shigulicious

#32

shigulicious said:

I'm weary of hardcore RPGs, as I enjoy platformers the most. But this game was on sale for $15 and I picked it up. I haven't played it yet but with all of the accolades I'm sure I'll enjoy it. Regardless of gameplay preference, I can enjoy and recognize great quality when I play it.

moomoo

#33

moomoo said:

This is easily one of the best games of the year, and arguably the best SRPG ever made. Wonderful game.

Giygas_95

#35

Giygas_95 said:

I downloaded this very recently and have really enjoyed it. I love watching the attack animations, and the dialogue is really deep and well thought out. Now I kind of wish I got a boxed copy because I really love the box art, but it doesn't really matter I guess. My game of the year actually goes to Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon though.

sinalefa

#36

sinalefa said:

I got the game during a sale, before they offered the $30 eShop credit. I opened it to register it for said promotion, and never got around to play it. Same with SMTIV, Mario & Luigi, New Leaf and Pokémon X. Thankfully the 3DS has so many good games that I have been too busy to play those yet.

Expa0

#37

Expa0 said:

Awakening is a great game, but I really hope they do away with the infinite resources nonsense it had and the stupid OP pair-up system.

JaxonH

#38

JaxonH said:

@snoox
I feel the same way.

This was a really great piece, and I gotta hand it to you guys for the intelligent header "Long Running Strategy-RPG Dodges Permadeath With One Of The Year's Best". Definitely one of the best headers I've seen in a while.

JaxonH

#39

JaxonH said:

@GMo4824
Second seals are great if you genuinely don't like a character's class, or if you're all about maxing stats. Personally, I didn't use them because I felt I was already OP toward the end of the game as it was- second seals would almost ruin the fun in my eyes.

Although, after getting stomped in one of the DLC packs, I might need to rethink my stance on using Second Seals lol.

Peach64

#42

Peach64 said:

My favourite 3DS game of the year by quite some distance. It was actually my first Fire Emblem game, but I've loved the genre since I played Shining Force as a kid, all the way through Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics on the original Playstation. I hope there's more to come. Many might want to see a title on the Wii, but games like this are perfect on handhelds. I pretty much bought a Vita just to play the aforementioned Tactics Ogre, FFT games along with Disgaea and Valkirya Chronicles II.

mamp

#45

mamp said:

This was the first fire emblem I did not get bored of more than halfway through. They really did do a great job, I still need to finish the DLC though.

Doctor_Pancakes

#47

Doctor_Pancakes said:

First game of the series I could get into with Casual mode. Don't have time for multiple play through and replaying to save fallen characters. Casual made it accessible to the average gamer so it sold like hot cakes! Love it!

2Sang

#48

2Sang said:

GOTY for me, and combined with Kid Icarus uprising and Pokemon B/W, it revived my interest in gaming.
Can't wait for the next one, hopefully one in 2015 will be released.

Frank90

#50

Frank90 said:

Fire Emblem is my favorite franchise, I don't need to say how happy I'm this year.
Awakening is a masterpiece.

RR529

#51

RR529 said:

Yeah, I only had the money to buy one retail 3DS game this year, and I'm glad it was this.

I love the myriad of characters, beautiful art direction, and stiff challenge (especially later on). Heck, I haven't even gotten any of the DLC, yet I play it regularly.

I'd say it's tied with Tales of the Abyss as my favorite 3DS title.

Nomad

#52

Nomad said:

I'd have to say Fire Emblem, Kid Icarus and Zelda: a Link between Worlds are my favourite 3DS games so far. The only thing I didn't like about Awakening where the characters feet, or the lack of them thereof.

Dpullam

#54

Dpullam said:

I just got Fire Emblem Awakening a while back during one of the Cyber Monday deals for $18 new (with tax), but I am putting that game on hold while I eagerly await Christmas for Bioshock Infinite. Still, it was a fantastic deal for the limited time it was available!

MrGranger

#55

MrGranger said:

Not only is this game a deal but I have had NO problem buying all the DLC. Definitely my favorite game on ANY console from 2013. I loved others but few games that I've ever played has such deep re-playability.

Silverfox117

#56

Silverfox117 said:

Definitely going to pick this up with my 3DS that I will hopefully get for christmas :P

Very good article.

Aedr

#57

Aedr said:

Yes! Now we'll be needing an Advance wars 3ds from Intelligent systems!
I was discussing about it with a friend yesterday.
Playing online against players would be very challenging and fun. :D

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