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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo

Fire Emblem: Awakening is reason enough to own a 3DS.

I don't throw that phrase out lightly, especially because it's hard to convince someone to plunk down $150+ just to play one game. However, when the game in question is as deep and engaging as Fire Emblem: Awakening, it's absolutely true.

Awakening is the latest in Nintendo's long-running series of turn-based tactical RPGs. In Fire Emblem games, you move your characters around a grid-based map, select which enemies they're going to attack, and then watch the battle play out. There are three types of weapons: Swords, axes and lances. Swords are better than axes, axes are better than lances, and lances are better than swords. There are also magic powers, some which are more useful against certain types of enemies than others. Characters that fight alongside each other will also build up friendships. The stronger the friendship, the higher the combat bonus that they generate.
Fire Emblem is also known for having permadeath: If one of your characters dies in combat, they're dead and they're not coming back. That means you have to carefully plan your strategy and protect your spellcasters and archers so that you don't lose them forever.

The most recent entry was Shadow Dragon, released for the DS. It was OK, but certainly not a system-seller. You'd be excused for thinking that Awakening was something similar. I certainly did. However, Awakening has so much more going for it.

The gameplay in Awakening is just as tight as other games in the series, but with an extra graphical sheen that will make it difficult to go back to previous games in the series. I know of what I speak, because I tried going back to Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones and couldn't do it. Awakening is just too pretty. The cutscenes are tremendous, the maps are gorgeous and brightly colored, and the 3D is used to excellent effect.

You can also get characters to marry and have children in Awakening. I won't spoil how it works because a large chunk of the plot hinges on it. However, exploring the romance options for your various characters isn't a superficial waste of time like some other games with romance options. In Awakening, it actually has real gameplay benefits for your characters.

Speaking of those characters, they're all exceptional. They have excellent personalities, which makes it easy and fun to match them up. You can ask yourself questions like, "Should I match up the stoic and gynophobic Lon'qu with the tough and terrifying warrior woman Sully or the scientific and Aspie-esque Miriel? What about Donnel, the country bumpkin? Should I torment him by matching him up with the uptight Maribelle?" You can make these decisions in the best interests of the characters themselves, or just match up completely incompatible characters and see what happens, which is frequently hilarious.

The story is also pretty great, too, full of surprises and twists. In contrast to many video game stories, the characters actually have good motivations and make good choices, and the story fits together really well.

There's also a lot to do in Fire Emblem: Awakening. I've been playing for over 30 hours and I'm still not finished with the main quest yet. I've been dabbling in romance options, doing sidequests, optimizing items, and all sorts of other things besides actually finishing the game just because it's so much fun.

If there are flaws in Fire Emblem: Awakening, they're flaws that are endemic to the series as a whole. For example, just like other games in the series, weapons and magic tomes have a limited amount of uses before they're spent. All Fire Emblem games have this feature, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

It would also be fantastic if Awakening would allow you to restart a battle from the beginning. Some previous games had the "Restart Chapter" option, so I don't know why it's missing here. Maybe they didn't want it because they were afraid that people would abuse it, but let's face it: Most people who play Fire Emblem are going to restart the game when they lose a character anyway. Since they're going to do it anyway, you might as well give the player the ability without making them jump through hoops.

All in all, though, Fire Emblem: Awakening is in the conversation as the best game on the 3DS. That's heady territory, considering some of the great stuff that's out there for it.

If you own a 3DS, get Fire Emblem: Awakening. If you don't own a 3DS but have been on the fence about it, get off the fence and get one for Fire Emblem: Awakening. If you don't want a 3DS at all for whatever weird reason, suit yourself. Just be advised that you're missing one of the best tactical RPGs ever.

Final Rating: A-