I’ve owned my share of Nintendo handhelds throughout my life, as many of us probably have, from the O.G. Gameboy, the Advance, the DS, and now the 3DS XL, which I got a few months ago. I liked my original DS, but I dropped it and the screen cracked badly. Years later I decided to pick up a 3DS XL because I was highly anticipating Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate and the new Paper Mario. I also just really wanted a handheld gaming platform again. Unfortunately, Castlevania was a bust and was nowhere near as good as Symphony of the Night. The framerate was terri-bad and the gameplay was incredibly linear; I know many others felt the same. Paper Mario: Sticker Star was equally disappointing to me. I loved the Paper Mario series, but in the newest incarnation it was really stripped of nearly all its RPG elements and just not as interesting, Why did the developers do this? I’ll never know.
At this point, I was pretty upset with my purchases. Both of the games I had bought the 3DS for sucked, frankly. Then one day I stumbled upon Fire Emblem: Awakening. The most I’d previously known about the Fire Emblem series came from Nintendo’s introduction of two of the franchise’s characters, Marth and Roy, into the Super Smash Bros. series.
I like turn-based, tactics style games a lot. I loved the Advance Wars series and I really love XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so Fire Emblem immediately caught my attention. The game is charming, surprisingly well written (more on that later), and surprisingly deep. As the protagonist, you and your band of Shepherds will fight together, protect each other, and bond throughout the game. There are many possible party members that you can recruit throughout the game, each with their own unique personality, dialogue, and class. You can customize their weaponry, potions, and skills and even modify or upgrade their existing class. For example, with certain items and level requirements met, you can promote a Cleric to a War Cleric, who can kick some ass and heal some…ass! Or, you can even drop your axe, pick up a bow and go from a Barbarian to an Archer if you choose. There is a pretty interesting support system underpinning the game, where two characters share a support grade of C,B,A or S, with C being the weakest relationship and S representing marriage (a very powerful bond, despite divorce rates these days). The higher the grade, the more they will help each other in combat by giving stat boosts, launching a support attack, or even completely blocking damage to an ally. Units can also be paired up, which is a very useful feature. Say you have a low-level, weakling Mage who you know would get one-shotted in a battle. You can take this mage and pair him or her up with a beefy Knight, such as Sully. While this Mage can not be attacked and cannot be ordered to attack, he essentially will piggy back off of the unit you paired it to and will be protected. Pairing can also be done for reasons of mobility: have a slow unit hitch a ride on a mounted unit for a turn to get a tactical advantage. The downside to this is that the Mage will only gain experience in the event it launches a support attack if Sully were to engage an enemy, which may not happen very frequently. This, however, is a tradeoff that is worth taking given the game’s difficulty.
Fire Emblem: Awakening can be pretty tough. This is especially true in the classic mode, which from what I have read, is the way the developers want you to play. This means that character deaths are permanent. You will lose soldiers in a battle, much like XCOM on classic difficulty, and once you do (and you will), they are gone. Now, the first few times your favorite Pegasus Knight gets instakilled by an Archer (a rock, paper, scissors type balance method is in play here), you will probably just turn your 3DS off and try again another day. However, some battles can be quite lengthy and losses are inevitable. It can be hard to deal with, especially after a character has grown on you, but I’ve learned to cope with that after ordeals such as losing an entire squad named after my best friends in XCOM (very traumatic, I assure you).
Also similar to XCOM is the way a Fire Emblem battle plays out. The units’ statistics and pseudo random number generation work together to make the game do its thing. The battle scenes look wonderful and visceral, but I feel that the 3D here is just a total gimmick and it hurts my eyes. Can I fault the game for this? No, not really, as my very first encounter with the 3DS at PAX East involved a Capcom booth guy advising me to turn the 3D feature off.
Unlike XCOM, though, each character in this game has a distinct personality and you will watch them grow and bond with each other via the support system I mentioned earlier. Some characters are utterly obnoxious and you may subconsciously put them in situations where they get killed, but there are quite a few that I really liked. There is a ton of written dialogue in this game and it is mostly good and often quite funny. There are inevitable incredibly awkward conversations that may make you put your head in your hands, but those were the exception and not the rule. After fighting together, your troops can participate in support conversations which can increase their support rank, or you can just see who’s hanging out in the barracks and get some random loot or a stat bonus for someone. There was a lot of care and time put into this system by Intelligent Systems/Nintendo and it shows. Losing units and losing the bonds they may have created is an important part of this game, but not everyone may feel that way. These people can choose not to play the classic mode, where death is merely an inconvenience and the unit can be used again and again.
I am now officially a fan of the Fire Emblem series. If you enjoyed XCOM or Advance Wars or any other kind of tactics game, you will probably love this game. Fire Emblem: Awakening is easily one of the best games I’ve played in recent times and it is portable! Good luck finding it in stores, though, as I had to download it from the Nintendo e-Shop, but maybe it is easier to find these days a bit after it launched.