Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

I love the smell of Elfire in the morning

A hint of trepidation arises whenever the "Powers That Be" decide that "Your Cool Thing" needs a bigger audience, primarily because "What They Like" and "Why You Like It" don't always mesh. Take Fire Emblem, possibly the most hardcore of Nintendo's franchises — not "hardcore" in the nonsense term of it appealing primarily to a traditional gaming audience, but because it is by its very nature a beautifully unforgiving beast. Expanding the base tends to mean dulling its claws, and the risk is that it'll no longer sink them in as deep.

Why people fall off Fire Emblem's tactical RPG train is one of the reasons others can't wait to board: stakes are high and consequences of failure are real, all because of the novel notion that death is, get this, permanent. One wrong move in a hard-fought battle can bring the end of a unit. Perhaps a really important one that you've built a winning strategy with croaks, or one that is key in keeping all of your other units alive and stabbing gets a spear in the back. It's like chess in that way, although flinging the game at the wall after frustrating defeat is a far more expensive endeavor (presenting a perfect opportunity to pick up that special edition 3DS you couldn't justify buying before).

To love Fire Emblem is to feast up on the throne of Damocles, but not everyone wants to chow down with a sword over their brain. It's clear that Nintendo would like more people to actually pay money for Fire Emblem: Awakening, so some of the series' idiosyncrasies big and small are smoothed out or tweaked, including the option to switch off the whole eternal sleep thing — and without penalty at that. Doing so may fly in the face of what Fire Emblem fans love about Fire Emblem, but, after all, it's only an option, tucked away safely in the likely healthier Casual mode you can choose to ignore. Or jump straight into. Who are we to judge?

If concessions like that are what it takes to continue to see high-caliber games of this ilk then Nintendo can tweak away; Awakening may be the most accessible Fire Emblem to date but retains its hardcore strategic faculties for those who are already very happy with the franchise, thank-you-very-much, and adds a whole bunch of other modern-day niceties on top of it that anyone can get behind. Damocles can have his delicious cake - and eat it, too.

The events of Fire Emblem: Awakening are set years past that of any other Fire Emblem entry, keeping its legacy at a distance far enough to prevent new players from feeling lost but with enough insider nudges to satisfy series veterans. After creating your character - named Robin by default - they are woken in a field by a group of soldiers led by Price Chrom of Ylisse. Robin doesn't remember who they are or where they came from, but soon finds themselves joining Chrom's cause in the role of tactician, fighting for the future of the kingdom. While we can't say the overarching plot feels wholly unique - if we had a dollar for every time we've seen an amnesiac at the center of an RPG story, we'd be happily shacked up in the Bahamas by now - interest in Fire Emblem: Awakening's tale of heroism and bravery against seemingly impossible odds is propelled in its near-entirety by the relationships between the game's characters - all of which come with difficult-to-pronounce names. Stoic, heroic and witty to the end, each cast member - no matter how minor the role - has a strong presence and unique voice thanks to some really great writing.

Watching these personalities interact and build relationships is its own kind of reward off the battlefield, as are the gorgeous, fully voice-acted cut-scenes for key plot points, although this typically involves an awful lot of reading between skirmishes. Partial voice acting peppers the wealth of dialogue, where a character blurts something audible at the beginning of their lines, but this tends to be hit-or-miss affair as sometimes what a character says doesn't align directly with the on-screen text. Still, it's more interesting than just text and works often enough to grow on you. You can even switch the voice track to the original Japanese, if you're so inclined.

There is certainly enough time for Fire Emblem: Awakening to grow on you as the campaign is quite lengthy, easily breaching 25 hours on a straight-shot through — indulging in the dozens of optional missions and side-scraps can tick up that clock significantly, not to mention the free SpotPass and paid downloadable missions slated to hit from day one. That's a lot of strategizing, and in typical Fire Emblem fashion there is a great depth to fighting that never stops rewarding smart thinking or punishing lapses of judgment no matter how temporary. It can be frustrating to get knocked on your back at the end of a contentious fight, but then again, it was probably your fault anyway.

Each side takes turns moving their dozen or so units of assorted types around the map in a limited fashion, allowing one action per unit - move, attack, use an item and such. The battle mechanics build on a simple Rock-Paper-Scissors-type weapon triangle, and on top of that certain weapon types are more effective against assorted units. It sounds simple, but in practice requires a lot of careful consideration to maximize your turn - not only must you try to figure out the most powerful way to attack your opponent, but also ensure proper footing so you don't get anyone killed when your enemy takes their turn. Successful routings require surveying the terrain, arming with the proper equipment and thinking two steps ahead. The campaign loves to toy with your emotions, often pitting you against what seems like an insurmountable enemy only to throw in an empowering twist somewhere down the line - or a devastating one, if you're unlucky.

As units level up they grow stronger and more capable with their weapons, which in turn yields higher damages and resistances and allows the wielding of more powerful arms. You can change or upgrade a unit's class or abilities with items and Miyagi them to their true potential. Key to this entry are character relationships; while they are fun to watch unfold off the battlefield, how chummy everyone is together matters even more in the thick of it. The buddy system reigns supreme in Fire Emblem: Awakening: placing units next to each other in battle allows them to influence stats like hit, dodge and critical rates, jump in to protect from a blow or themselves swoop in with an extra strike. The more that the same units fight together, the stronger their relationship becomes, which can be crucial in determining whether they live or die.

At the outset of a campaign you can pick between Casual and Classic rules, and once selected you cannot switch. When playing in Casual mode, death isn't such a big deal: your units hit the sidelines for the rest of the battle but are happy to join in with the next fray. Without the fear of permanent loss this style of play allows for more reckless action, although suffering too many losses in one battle is a sure-fire way to not win. Classic is more demanding in this area as a dead unit is, as one might imagine in reality, really dead. A steady stream of new units prevents your roster from depleting too much, but losing a unit you've groomed and become attached to because of a poorly reasoned move is a good way to drive yourself crazy. There are none of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's Save Points on the maps so in Classic mode there is no saving while in battle; you can bookmark a fight and resume it later, but if you want to avoid a death then you'll have to restart the chapter. Considering the stiff challenge of later portions of the game, restarting a map can become a frustratingly common occurrence - this is one of those games where your Activity Log and in-game timer will never align. In Casual mode you can save anywhere at any time, making deaths even less of a setback.

There are other tweaks to the mechanics that a newcomer might not notice but an old-timer will appreciate; legacy quirks have been ironed out by default to make for a smoother experience, like being able to approach an enemy unit before picking a weapon. Since there's already so much on your tactician's plate, anything to help make their life a little easier is very welcome, but grizzled veterans who hate change can switch off a bunch of settings to play the game they want.

Easy on the eyes for the most part, Awakening's presentation is a real step above prior portable outings but not quite up there with the past few home console entries. The aforementioned CG cut-scenes have some of the best art design that we've seen on the handheld so far, beautifully bringing the world to life with vivid anime detail. Half of the exposition makes use of illustrated talking head-style exchanges with slightly tweaked facial expressions — the art is lovely and effective for its purpose but comes off a little static somewhere around the halfway point. The 3D portions are somewhat less detailed and impressive but they too get the job done, lending some much-needed dynamism to battles even if it takes some focus to get past how none of the characters appear to have any feet. The maps don't generally look all that remarkable but fulfill their utilitarian purpose - were they any busier then they'd likely distract, after all, and the 2D sprites used relay information more clearly than a scaled-down polygonal model would on this screen. Plus they look neat and have a lot of personality, making it really easy to spot who is who out there.

Awakening's wonderfully smooth campaign is paired with a suite of multiplayer modes in both local and StreetPass flavors. Alongside an ally in the same room, Double Duel has each player choose three friendly units from their campaigns to march into battle against an AI army, taking turns to send in a hero and buddy unit. Defeat nets you nothing, nor do your units stay dead here, but as it isn't the same type of tactical combat as the rest of the game - more of a stat fight, really - there's little risk involved, and thus a less fulfilling reward. Double Duel victories yield Renown to unlock bonus items and grow a scary number next to your name for StreetPass battles, the far more interesting social mode where you select an army of 10 to send out into the ether to do battle with, recruit or buy wares from visiting platoons. StreetPass Sorties take the place of online multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer to have removed for those who never seem to find themselves around fellow 3DS owners.

Conclusion

Fire Emblem: Awakening's masterful tightrope walk between luring in curious onlookers and appealing to the hardest of cores is a sight to behold. It doesn't matter whether you've been strategizing with Marth since the NES days or only know him as the weird blue-haired guy from Super Smash Bros: Fire Emblem: Awakening's tale of heroism, colorful cast of characters and richly rewarding gameplay are sure to sink their talons in for a very long time. Who knows, with practice a beginner might even come around to the whole perma-death challenge thing. While the multiplayer options may be a little iffy depending on your circumstances, the sheer amount of quality content and replay value make this one icon sure to spend a long time on your 3DS menu. Have no fear: Fire Emblem: Awakening is here.