Better Late than Never: Fire Emblem: Awakening

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Fire Emblem is one of those series that is spoken of with quiet reverence, in the dark corners of the collective gamer consciousness. Mostly, this is due to the first several games of the series not getting an American release and, as everyone knew at the time, games which weren’t released over here were infinitely more awesome. The series has always been one that has captured my interest, because it combines a whole bunch of things that generally draw me to games: plot, strategy, stat tweaking, and soul-crushing difficulty. For some reason that I cannot quite put my finger on, though, the most recent couple of games in the series, Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn failed to hold my attention the way previous games had. I was hoping that the series wasn’t in full decline, what with some of Nintendo’s other questionable offerings as of late. However, other people told me that Awakening really was worth playing. And so, keeping with my trend lately of playing games at least six months after they’re cool, I ventured forth to see if the game could renew my interest in the series.

Well, first, let’s assume I haven’t played ANY Fire Emblem game. Tell me why I should care. Well, the original Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was, as previously mentioned, only released in Japan for the Famicom system. Whether it was because of the small size of the development team or the game’s extreme difficulty is unclear, though it also could have been because RPGs were generally not seen as games which could be marketed to American video game audiences. Regardless, Fire Emblem was quite possibly the first strategy RPG series, predating Sega’s Shining Force (which borrowed quite a few of its gameplay mechanics) by at least two years. The series began to gain demand in the States after a couple of the characters from it appeared in the massively popular Smash Bros. series, and each game since the seventh, Fire Emblem: The Burning Blade (which was just shortened to Fire Emblem for localization), has received a release here. As for why you should care, I mean, well, it was one of the first, and definitely the longest-lasting, strategy RPG series, so really, that alone is cause for caring.

But you mentioned difficulty. Oh, yes. Soul-crushing. See, one of the key mechanics in the series is that when a character dies in battle, that character is killed permanently. There are no revives. There are also no generic characters. Each character has a backstory and dialogue, though obviously there are varying degrees of plot relevance. Imagine a game of chess, where there is no way to get your pieces back other than by promoting other pieces, except that each piece on the board, from the pawns to the queen, has a personality.Additionally, the AI is traditionally very, very unforgiving. This has the effect of forcing you to use actual strategy when making moves, selecting characters to go into battle, and even which characters to focus on leveling.

That was a good intro to the series, but let’s say I’ve played the others before, how does this one hold up? Well, I can understand your concern, as the general trend, especially in Nintendo games in particular, is to gravitate toward making games easier and more accessible. And this happens in Awakening as well. There is the option to alter some of the game’s more brutal mechanics, like permanent death. However, any of those options are completely, well, optional. If you want to experience Awakening the same way you’ve experienced the previous games, go right ahead and play it in Classic Mode. There are three difficulty options as well, though I’m not sure how they map to the difficulty of previous games. Playing on Normal has given me plenty of challenge, though I believe the intent was for Hard to be equivalent to the default standard difficulty of the past. Lunatic mode has been added for people who really hate themselves. Another addition to this game is the ability to fight somewhat random non-story battles in order to get extra gold and experience, when in the past, both gold and experience were finite resources because there was no such thing as an ‘extra’ fight. Personally, I think this doesn’t so much make the game easier (though it does do that, a little) as it does keep your party options a lot more open.

As a series veteran, what else can you tell me? Like, where and when does it take place? This series changes setting every few games or so, though not quite as often as, say, Final Fantasy. The first five games took place on the same world, though, and it’s this world that Awakening returns to. The game is set several centuries after the events of Shadow Dragon, and really doesn’t assume very much, if any, previous knowledge about the world, so not having played that game shouldn’t put a person off from playing this one. If something is important, it is adequately explained.

Are the mechanics the same as in the past? Yes, pretty much exactly. There is still the same ‘rock-paper-scissors’ mechanic with regards to the three major weapon classes, with swords beating axes, axes beating spears, and spears beating swords. Pretty much every other nuance you might remember from other games is carried over here as well, with most previous character classes and promotions returning as well. Thankfully absent from this game are the beast-folk mechanics from the Radiant games. Instead, there are a couple of characters who transform using stones that function just like any other weapon in the game.

Combat is handled pretty much how you’d expect in any strategy RPG, so it’s pretty easy to grasp the basics.

The one difference is that the ‘assist’ mechanic from previous games has been greatly expanded. Now, characters who are next to each other have a chance of assisting each other in combat or protecting each other from damage. That chance goes up as the characters build support levels with each other, which increase the more they fight alongside each other. The support levels have an additional function: getting an S-level support between two characters means they will get married.

What does this do for you other than the obvious assist boost? Without giving anything away, throughout the course of the plot, it is possible for the children of married characters to eventually join the party, and who marries who determines the second generation’s stats and skills.

So, uh, it’s kind of like…eugenics? Uh. Well. When you put it that way, yeah, I guess you can pick like, optimal pairings or something, which is actually pretty creepy, you know?

What about support levels between characters of the same gender? This is the failing of that method of doing things: there is no way for similar-gendered characters to get S-level supports, because such a union would not produce children. Also, there are fewer female characters than male ones, so it really makes the pairings and children sort of, uh, matrilineal. I really wish it didn’t have to be that way, on both counts, but as far as the same-sex pairings went, I really wish they would have at least considered that the lack of them might be discouraging to people, succession mechanic or no.

So, let’s get down to it. What did you like the most? I honestly liked the fact that they put in options to make the game accessible to people who might be put off by the series’ traditional difficulty. I am very, very glad that they made them options and not an across-the-board difficulty reduction, as well, but just because I prefer to play the game in Classic mode doesn’t mean that everyone else probably would. I did like the fact that they added more bonuses and more of a purpose to supports, even if there were things that should probably have been considered, from a diversity standpoint. And, finally, I am glad they dropped that awful beast-folk mechanic that they used in the Radiant games.

And what didn’t you like so much? I think that there should have been a few more randomly-generated non-story battles that didn’t rely on the game being connected to the internet. I realize this isn’t generally a problem for a lot of people, but it could be, at some point. Other than that, I really had no complaints about the game. It really is everything I hoped it would be, and more.

Anything else? Well, there is DLC, both free and paid. I did not buy any of the DLC and did not consider it in the review, From what I understand, the paid DLC is additional non-story maps and bonus characters pulled from past Fire Emblem games. The free DLC has a lot of that, too: it provides the ability to spawn teams from past games to barter with, hire, or fight for experience (which is a great way to level up, if you’re connected to the internet). There is also a multiplayer aspect which I have not dabbled into and therefore have not considered in my review, though the mode in which two players team up to defeat groups of enemies seems pretty neat. I appreciate that those modes are there, though strategy RPGs have always been a primarily solitary experience for me, and I don’t see that changing soon.

Heroes from previous games can be recruited, allowing you to make a sort of ‘dream team’, if you wish.

Who would you recommend this game to? Anyone who likes strategy RPGs at all. Previous knowledge about past Fire Emblem games is not necessary, and in fact this game has been made to be a great way for a person to get into the series. I should also note that this game was meant to be a sort of last effort for the series to catch on, and if it didn’t sell well, it likely would have not been continued. However, as it is now one of the biggest-selling games in the series to date, I am hopeful that we can all look forward to more Fire Emblem in the years to come!

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