Confession time: I haven’t finished Fire Emblem: Awakening. I don’t know if I ever will. But, that’s okay, because it’s still one of the best games of the year, and I’m not going to stop trying to finish it.
The beauty of the game is in its mechanics. Visually, it’s nice, but it’s not a powerhouse, even for a 3DS game. The interface is utilitarian almost to a fault, the 3D isn’t remarkable and the character models don’t have feet, which is bizarre. The animated cutscenes are gorgeous, lavishly colored and animated, but they show up so rarely that the time between them almost makes you forget they exist. The in-game visuals could best be described as “functional,” with a retro aesthetic that doesn’t get in the way but also doesn’t break any new ground. It’s not a beautiful game.
But, it’s a beautiful game.
I haven’t played many strategy games in my life. I was too young to appreciate Final Fantasy Tactics, Syndicate, or X-COM at the time of their release, and I’ve never been one to go back and revisit older games. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s just a thing.
Regardless, the point is that until last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I had really never played a strategy game. That game got its hooks into me, however, and I heard enough good things about Fire Emblem: Awakening, a game that I would have never given a second thought to as recently as last summer, to purchase a 3DSXL and a copy of the game.
Since then, I’ve put quite a bit of time into Awakening, and even though I haven’t finished it, I’ve gotten the hang of it enough to feel comfortable reviewing it.
What was I saying? Oh, right.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a masterpiece of design. As I said, it’s a strategy game (with RPG elements), in which you take control of a band of heroes as they attempt to push back against an invading force. The game throws different scenarios at you, typically with the objective of just defeating every enemy on screen. There are optional objectives depending on your anal-retentiveness, too, whether they be protecting potential new recruits, or, more importantly, not allowing anybody in your party to die.
To play Fire Emblem: Awakening properly is to embrace the idea of permanent death. Is it possible to remove this aspect of the game from a playthrough (via the borderline-insulting “casual mode”), but you’d honestly be doing yourself a disservice.
It’s not that the characters themselves are even that good to warrant cherishing their existence. Mostly, they’re typical Japanese characters (the player character even wakes up with amnesia, because Japan), but there’s something rewarding about completing a mission unscathed, and the game makes every effort to give you the tools to do so, even as it actively tries to wreck your shop in every way imaginable.
The AI is aggressive and hits hard. It isn’t neutered or less intelligent than a human player, and it’s entirely possible to have a character wiped out in one turn thanks to some poor planning. The scenarios are constantly testing the limits of your skills, too. It forces you to make the best of your circumstance, to stretch your army in ways that are uncomfortable and terrifying, with the hope that everything will work out. Often, it doesn’t. But when it does, the satisfaction from a successful mission is more exhilarating than most any game this side of Dark Souls. I’ve gone back and played XCOM: Enemy Unknown since playing Fire Emblem: Awakening, and whereas certain aspects of XCOM felt cheap and unbalanced, every battle Fire Emblem feels like a puzzle that cries out to be solved.
The key to success is pairing up characters that like each other. These characters will support each other by bolstering different statistics like movement range, attack power and others. The trick is to find the best combination of characters in order to have the most efficient fighting force. These relationships are built in the downtime between battles, in the form of earnest, if not always entertaining cutscenes that both flesh out the characters’ past and showcase their possible futures.
There’s a lot of trial and error to this, as some characters may have power but limited range, and placing them with a character that’s fleet of foot is a net benefit, even if you lose some things in the process. You’ll learn quickly that any character left alone is doomed.
One problem is that the game never really teaches you these lessons. You’re left to learn them on your own, and it can be frustrating, especially if you’re trying to preserve characters. There’s a bottomless well of depth to the game, most of it buried in text tutorials that pop up unassumingly. Yet, the process of learning feels fair. It’s rewarding and the barrier to entry doesn’t feel insurmountable. You may wind up starting over 3 or 4 times in order to apply new lessons to various playthroughs, but the progression feels earned and real.
I can’t speak as to the coherence or success of the narrative as I have yet to see it all, but even if this game had no narrative, the battles themselves would be worth the price of admission. They’re that good. What I’ve seen of it so far is pretty standard stuff. It seems like the characters are more fleshed out than the narrative, which is fine.
Fire Emblem: Awakening might wind up being my favorite game this year. I think about it constantly, and quite frankly I’d rather be playing it right now than writing this review. It sucks you in with its combination of mechanics that fit incredibly well, and a depth that seems to go on forever (including the possibility of your squadmates to marry and produce a fighting force of their own), which outweigh the relative plainness of its presentation. Developer Intelligent Systems has created something worthy of its namesake and a game worth buying a system for.
A copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening was purchased on the 3DS by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.