As I reflected in my final list for Listmas, Fire Emblem: Awakening was initially a divisive experience for me. I purchased a 3DS primarily for Pokemon. With all the positive tweet-chatter (twatter?) about Fire Emblem, I figured it would be a nice bonus. In other words, I was prepared to fall in love on Day One with my first Fire Emblem game ever, and to feel like my purchase of a 3DS well ahead of Pokemon’s release was entirely justified.
That did not happen.
When my 3DS arrived last August, Fire Emblem: Awakening was the first game I booted up. It looked great on my new handheld and started off well enough. My first attempt at playing the game was a positive, though confusing experience. I enjoyed it, but the game was especially daunting. I had imagined it playing closer to Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, but it has almost as much in common with Advanced Wars as it does those RPGs. The rock-paper-scissors approach to unit weapon types left me confused for a lot longer than I cared to admit, and, when paired with the permadeath I refused to turn off, often forced me to turn off the game in disgust after a major mistake.
It didn’t help that the characters, setting, and plot seemed especially plain. While I rarely expect a great plot in any Japanese games, some do exist. And even if Fire Emblem: Awakening had no chance of channeling the political intrigue of something like Final Fantasy Tactics, I was hoping for at least some nuance and depth to its proceedings.
In other words, my first forray into Fire Emblem: Awakening was ultimately five hours of failure. I didn’t get it, and that lack of understanding manifested itself in the exponentially increasing time I spent between turning the game off and turning it back on again. By the time I finally realized I had given up, I had already beaten Donkey Kong Country Returns, Super Mario 3D Land, all Pokemon Y; all of which had led me to name the 3DS a smashing success.
Now that I no longer needed Fire Emblem to justify the system, I decided to try again. Instead of my old save, I started a new one. That’s not something I do often – I prefer not retreading an experience. A new start demanded a fresh attempt, however.
Armed with what I had learned about playing the game the first time and less overall expectation, Fire Emblem: Awakening transformed from ugly duckling to a divinely-conceived swan. It was exciting and challenging and immersive. It’s amazing how expectation changes our perceptions, especially when it comes to games. Expectation was prepared to kill off Fire Emblem: Awakening entirely for me.
That would’ve been first degree murder, however, because Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of my favorite games of 2013, on my 3DS, and stands as one of the best strategy RPGs I have played in years.
Once you have a grasp of it, the game’s combat is absolutely addicting. What I initially perceived as unnecessary complication suddenly seemed simple enough to enjoy while also adding necessary levels of depth to the game’s strategic core. Once I realized how to customize my units by changing their classes around or specializing them, my elite fighting force became specialized to kill in the ways I felt most comfortable killing. Like many other great games, Fire Emblem: Awakening’s learning curve for beginners to the series is fairly steep, but worth the effort once you put in the time to figure it out.
The story never deepened, but it was at least a departure from the usual JRPG narrative. It involves saving the world, but teenagers aren’t in charge of doing it. It gets a bit timey wimey later on, but that’s a major part of the game’s charm and serves as justification for a major feature. Namely, the introduction of your character’s children.
Unlike most games which force character relationships on you, Fire Emblem: Awakening makes an open-ended game out of it. Fighting together on the battlefield gives your units a chance to bond, which in turn improves their chances of helping one another out, as well as improving their off-the-field relationships. It’s no replacement for well-written characters, but it is the perfect alternative. The individual bits of banter you get back and forth while watching a relationship grow are almost always funny, often for different reasons. Once their relationship maxes out and they are opposite genders, they’ll often get married. It’s a nice touch, one that really appeals to my sentimental aside, especially when their marriage is a direct result of my choices playing the game.
After marriage, an additional quest pops up on the world map, which leads you to a fight where you can recruit your couple’s future child, now a combat-ready adult who has traveled back in time. This often results in another layer of comedic fun, with additional characters that are often zany and unusual. Owain, for instance, is a the special move announcing, weapon naming hero you’d expect in an anime, that is instead regarded as being quite weird by both his parents. It’s also a handy way to give your army new units to work with, ones that come with personal ties to characters you’ve already fallen in love with, who can start relationships on their on.
Like the game’s combat, Fire Emblem: Awakening’s approach to character relationships is both innovative and refreshing. It adds depth and replayability, as well as further immersing yourself in the individual pieces of your army. It’s also mechanically justified in every way, as it is far more than fluff. Manipulating the relationships of your units is a necessary way to strengthen their fighting power, as well as unlock even more powerful characters to utilize. And, to be perfectly honest, I hope to see more of it in any future Fire Emblem games I play.
After having truly sunk my teeth into its meaty-goodness, it is difficult not to recommend Fire Emblem: Awakening to every gamer: Nintendo fan, 3DS owner, or otherwise. It is a challenging game that manages to be open-ended enough that it is infinitely replayable. If I had one complaint, it is that the $2.50 price tag for a DLC class I felt compelled to have for Owain was far too much. That’s nothing to slight a game this good for, though. I am so happy that I gave this game the shoot that it deserves, because it really is brilliant.