Reviving a Classic - Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Nintendo SPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: April 2012 (JPN), February 2013 (US)

Fire Emblem has always been a classic staple of the Japanese Strategy RPG genre since the early days on then Nintendo platforms, but has seen a steady decline in sales and/or overall quality over the years. As a result, the world has largely moved on. Facing the very real prospect of making their studios final game, much like Square Enix's Final Fantasy, the development team decided to pour every ounce of effort and resource they had and applied every lesson learned in prior games into what was to be the 13th main installment, their magnum opus. Fire Emblem Awakening was that game, and it completely blew all expectations, both critically and commercially.

The default female avatar, Robin
The story takes place in the medieval continents of Archanes and Valm. The player controls a custom avatar that is amnesiac, who is found by the crown prince of the Kingdom of Ylisse, and is promptly added to his personal armor army after he witnesses his/her considerable martial and strategic talents. From there on, the player aids Chrom and his army in combating the various foreign threats facing Ylisse, as well as strange monsters known as Risen that have appeared through mysterious portals around the world. The story itself is simple and classic, with many of the narrative tropes, cliches and twists that have become staple in JRPGs in recent memory, but it is plenty serviceable, and I can't say I didn't enjoy the simple but effectively storytelling either.

Of course, the story itself is greatly helped by its colorful cast and excellent writing to back said cast. Every single unit you command is a named character, complete with their own backstory, relationships, and romance opportunities. What separates this from most other games of the genre before it is just how must work and detail has gone into these interactions, as each and every character
not only has specific dialog scenes with the main character, but also many, many of the other members in the cast, which really helps to flesh them out as more substantive characters that have a personality and life outside of just the plot and the main characters (I'm looking at you Sword Art Online). The personalities of these individuals would appear to conform to typical anime and JPRG stereotypes at first glance, but fleshing them out through interpersonal relationships really does help give them a lot more charm and garner a lot more attachment than you would have for otherwise mere chess pieces in a strategy game, and that makes plenty of difference.

While not new to Fire Emblem, something featured more prominently in Awakening is the inter-character bonds and romance system, where units that are used in conjunction often with one another will have their relationship improve, granting additional in-game buffs when the same two characters fight together. Raising relationships beyond a certain point will put them in an official relationship, and later grant access to a playable children character. The children are unique characters (specific to their mothers) in and of themselves and are some of the most entertaining in your entourage, but game-play wise they will inherit stat growths and skills from their parents, making them easily some of the strongest units. This addition to the franchise is extremely popular among many players and the amount of discussion and fan materials regarding waifus/husbandos and shipping is widespread among certain circles, and is jokingly nicknamed "Waifu/husbando Simulator 2013". I myself reeeally enjoyed shipping specific pairings of side characters together, often because they're absolutely adorable together or just plain hilarious. In fact, I had a bit too much fun with that my own avatar ended up single by the end of my first play-through because I haven't given him much thought. Oops!

On the technical side of things, Awakening mostly passes with flying colors. Initially launching on the 1st generation of the 3DS, Awakening aesthetically still matches up to par with many of even the newest offerings. What particularly stands out is the character art and designs, which are loaded with generous amount of detail and look really pleasing on the eyes, be it their hand drawn portraits, in game sprites or their combat models. The tactical map used in this game is on the bland side, but it serves its function well enough, and individual sprites are instantly recognizable. Combat animation between units is fast and snappy, and the models used are generally well detailed and well animated (no feet though!) Also worth mentioning is their downright gorgeous pre-rendered cut-scenes. Using something akin to Live3D animation (before Live3D was even a thing), the CG animation used in those cut-scenes, aside from looking good, just feel... right, having the right amount of balance of 2D and 3D while having a general smooth feel to it. Whatever techno wizardry was used in making those scenes would have been great to see used in 3DCG anime, someday perhaps.

Awakening is also pretty decent audio-wise, with a nice if not especially memorable soundtrack, and some decent sound effects as well as foley.  Voice acting in this game comes with dual audio, which is nice. The English voice actors do a pretty decent job at their roles, but personally I felt the Japanese VAs did sound a lot more in character  most of the time and quite a bit less hammy.

Regardless of all those bells and whistles though, the game-play is where Awakening really comes into its own. The game plays out much the same as any classic SRPG in that you control a group of units of various classes to defeat enemies and reach objectives. The objectives themselves are simplistic, but the scenarios themselves are varied enough to keep things interesting. Each and every unit under your control belongs to one of many available classes, each with the own strengths, weaknesses, and skills. The characters gain levels as they participate in combat, and at some point you will be able to convert them into a upgraded version of their class, or to an entirely different class. Being able to coordinate the various classes in missions while planning out the level development of each unit is crucial to succeeding in the game.

New to combat is the aforementioned pair-up mechanics, where 2 units standing adjacent to one another or on the same tile can assist one another, granting them minor stat boosts, as well as occasionally providing an a follow up attack and blocking enemy attacks. Being able to abuse this new powerful mechanic (sometimes a little too powerful) will give players a big advantage in combat, as the enemy AI does not seem to actively use it that often. 

Difficulty wise, the game is pretty easy on the normal difficulty setting, but playing on the harder difficulties can prove a solid challenge, especially on the Classic settings. You see, Classic is an optional setting whereby players cannot save mid-mission (but can load before the mission) and character deaths are permanent. Losing characters this way can be absolutely devastating, as it not only robs you of a unit you spent time to train and development while potentially severely damaging your party composition, they are also removed from the story, where you will never get to know more about them. I must admit, I have reloaded some missions, not being able to stand the heartbreak, but playing on Classic really does up the stakes and every movement you make matters a lot more, something I think all players should give a try after their first play-through.

Overall, I think I really loved my 50-60 hours playing with Fire Emblem Awakening. Between the tight strategic game-play, developing a powerful party and managing character relationships, I gladly played hours upon hours of the game, sometimes into wee hours of the morning, something I haven't done often since my middle school years. Awakening is easily one of my favorite modern classics in recent memory, and I highly recommend this game to anyone, especially if you enjoy strategy games that are deep but not overtly complex.


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