Developer: Intelligent Systems
Killer App: A computer application of such great value or popularity that it assures the success of the technology with which it is associated; broadly: a feature or component that in itself makes something worth having or using.
Fire Emblem Awakening is magnificent. In a year when the 3DS has finally found its feet with any number of fantastic exclusives, Intelligent Systems have delivered its undeniable killer app: a gloriously deep strategy RPG that's perfect for stolen minutes on the train or long nights spent bathing in the glow of your dual screens. Infinitely complex high-level tactical planning goes hand in hand with a compelling storyline that unfolds over the course of sixty hours, and an unforgettable cast of characters who bring personality to what is sometimes a sterile and clinical genre.
You'll furrow your brow in concentration as you set up the perfect assault. You'll laugh at your comrades' antics, empathise with their plight and fall in love with their quirks even as they dynamically fall in love with each other. And every once in a while, you'll burst into tears when your dear friends fall in the heat of battle.
For many players, myself included, Fire Emblem Awakening makes a strong case for the best game of 2013 thus far. Love and death may be common videogame themes, but rarely have they been so exquisitely intertwined.
As you'd expect from a Fire Emblem title, Awakening is underpinned by a sprawling narrative that deals with heavy-handed themes of loss, betrayal and loyalty in a surprisingly lighthearted and playful way. Few studios manage to mix pathos and humour so effectively as Intelligent Systems, but here, they've excelled themselves in what is probably the most thought-provoking plot from the series to date. For the first time, players create their own avatar in the game, a mysterious outsider with a flair for tactics who teams up with a noble prince and his entourage on the eve of several years of bloodshed that makes Game Of Thrones look like a Sunday picnic.
This deceptively elaborate storyline gradually pushes players through an ever-expanding overworld of essential story missions, a staggering abundance of optional sidequests, shops and random battles. However, it's primarily a means of introducing a cast of characters who'll become your best friends throughout the lengthy campaign. From the grimly determined knight Frederick (who's embarrassed about hating food caught in the wild) to a disturbed Dark Mage stalker and clutzy Pegasus Knight who just can't manage to impress her beloved Prince, and thirty more besides, Awakening's characters are brought to life by utterly superb dialogue that carefully picks out their unique quirks without ever overstaying its welcome.
With plenty of lighthearted banter to enjoy, both in-game, cutscenes and randomly generated back at the barracks (a fun feature to dip into every few hours), you'll quickly come to love your new companions, and dip into multiple playthroughs to find optional characters you missed the first time round.
Sooner or later, however, your pals will have to risk their lives in an enormous selection of deep and versatile turn-based battles.
This being a Fire Emblem game, you can expect superbly intuitive grid-based combat that's fast-paced and fun, yet offers the kind of strategic depth that makes armchair generals go weak at the knees. Units can move a set number of squares and deal a single attack before your turn ends, but your victory hinges on a subtle interplay between different weapons, abilities and forty unit types. Swords trump axes, but are vulnerable to lances. Mages can dish out ruinous damage against slow-moving knights, but can't take much in the way of punishment. Archers shred aerial troops with ruthless efficiency, yet become totally powerless when engaged in melee. There's a lot to get your head around, especially once you factor in the wealth of equipment types, spells and skills, but an accessible touchscreen interface arms you with the intelligence you need to position your forces effectively. If you fail, it's because you messed up, not because you weren't presented with the correct information.
Throughout hundreds of different engagements, Awakening revels in throwing exciting new combinations of enemy troops and formations at you, with differing terrain types providing unique obstacles and opportunities to overcome. Crucially, thanks to the turn-based mechanics and customisable interface, Awakening is uniquely well-suited to short bursts of play and a great fit for the handheld system.
Awakening favours the classic sprite-based Fire Emblem or Advance Wars-style battle map for the strategic side of things, but attacks and skills are rendered in full 3D, bringing you closer to the action. Whisked away to a virtual studio, you can pick your speed and camera angles as your units pose, strike and issue a plethora of just perfect one-liners. "Pick a God and pray," intones Frederick as the axe comes crashing down, while foppish archer Virion courteously offers to make his latest victim famous before driving the arrow home.
After the first few opening levels (many of which can be scraped through by relying on Frederick, who's wonderfully over-levelled for the occasion), Awakening's campaign takes off the kid gloves and ramps up the challenge. The AI is adept at throwing forces against weak or vulnerable units that you've left unguarded, but on normal difficulty, will sometimes wait for you to take the initiative and can be lured out of position by dangling tougher tanks inside their engagement range. However, Hard mode will give hardened veterans a run for their money, while the appropriately-named Lunatic setting utterly crucifies players for any tiny mistake.
In a move that will delight RPG fans, Fire Emblem's class system has received a substantial overhaul. Units can be upgraded into advanced classes once they earn enough experience, or optionally reclassed to fulfil different roles, pursue new skills and acquire weapon proficiencies. Since characters can retain any passive skills they learn regardless of their new vocation, there's plenty of scope for creating a nuanced and flexible force to be reckoned with. Some of the weaker starting characters end up much more powerful than their advanced counterparts when levelled intelligently, while the early heavy-hitters can be classed back to more basic roles to buff up their stats. A vocal portion of the fanbase has criticised Awakening for the relative ease with which you can now grind for experience and gold, as opposed to having to carefully balance your units throughout preset story missions, but we personally feel that it's a change for the better.
The Support system, which made its debut in Fire Emblem: Binding Blade, adds yet another bevy of meaningful strategic options. Units can be stacked together for extra bonuses or swift transport, or simply positioned next to each other to benefit from buffs, blocks and even extra attacks when battle is joined. As units consistently work together side-by-side, they'll grow to like each other, unlocking extra tiered bonuses and swathes of optional dialogue to enjoy when you get back to base. Due to the insane amount of support permutations and backstory details, you'll likely want to replay the campaign several times just to discover more about the cast.
Awakening takes things one step further thanks to the addition of 'S Rank' support tiers. Characters of the opposite sex can fall in love in the heat of battle, marry, and even bear children who eventually become playable characters in their own right. Despite a huge amount of unique marriage dialogue, none of these events are strictly scripted, meaning that practically any combination of pairings are possible within each playthrough. The heart wants what the heart wants (my avatar ended up proposing to an anthropomorphic rabbit warrior), and to answer Solid Snake's famous question, love absolutely can bloom on a battlefield. This addictive visual novel/dating sim aspect deepens our attachment to the characters and offers another level of meaningful choice... but as in real life, happiness can be fleeting.
As you probably already know, Fire Emblem's most famous unique selling point is permanence. Not only do weapons permanently degrade when used, requiring you to jealously hoard your most powerful legendary gear for the most opportune moment, but any character who's taken out of action dies. Forever. This has always provided an extra layer of strategic depth, in that you'll have to decide whether to field your best units or shield them with cannon fodder who may never realise their potential, but the newfound sting of losing a wife, husband or even a son is exquisitely painful. Keep a box of tissues handy.
Beyond occasional awkward narrative oversights where a dead character crops up in a cutscene (whoops), this bittersweet tale of love and loss is at its best when enjoyed on the classic difficulty setting. And yet, for many of us - newcomers and veterans alike - the urge to simply reload a save file and wish away the heartache is sometimes just too tempting to ignore. We're only human and our willpower will be tested to its limits. Which is where the 'Newcomer' difficulty setting comes into play. This new addition to the franchise completely removes permadeath in favour of making downed units sit out the rest of the battle, which reduces tension, but also reduces the amount of time you'll spend grinding away on the same mission until everyone survives. If, indeed, that's your bag.
Just be honest and ask yourself what kind of gamer you really are. Awakening is your game, and you can play it however you please.
As if this wasn't already enough, Fire Emblem Awakening also happens to boast the best Streetpass functionality we've yet seen on the system. Players can create and send out a platoon lead by their avatar, which becomes an army in someone else's world map. Featuring the ability to recruit another general's avatar as a playable unit by paying an extortionate sum, or fighting them in battle for extra experience, support and eventually taking them hostage for free, this mode adds genuine value to the experience and will doubtlessly lead to any number of embarrassing moments as Awakening players scamper around their local high street rubbing up against all and sundry.
Unfortunately local multiplayer is nowhere near as elegant. This bizarre co-op only mode resembles a fleetingly entertaining if stripped-down version of Pokemon, an odd departure for a series that really ought to have provided some tense competitive 'hotswap' battles for two or more players. Personally I'd consider multiplayer to be a fun optional extra rather than an integral Fire Emblem gameplay component, so I won't mark it down.
I do have to ding Awakening for its inventory interface, though, which is one of the most cumbersome and aggravating I've ever encountered in the genre. Each character has to equip items individually, with no means of easily transferring items between them beyond a straight trade, and an 'optimise' button proving markedly useless considering that you'll want to save your best gear for a handful of the toughest story encounters. The sheer amount of unavoidable busywork is vexing to the extreme, especially since properly outfitting your troops is absolutely essential.
It's also worth touching on the visuals. Though the sprite-based battles, animated cutscenes and character portraits are gorgeously sharp and expressive (thankfully, this is the majority of the game), in-engine 3D cutscenes are clumsily animated and painfully primitive due to their reliance on re-purposed combat models. An odd artistic quirk might also rankle with some players, in that feet are tiny to the point of being non-existent, giving the constant impression that every character model is clipping through the floor. It's a personal hang-up, but tough to get used to even after dozens of hours of play.
But in the grand scheme of things, who cares? These are just tiny niggles in a triumphant, emphatic and utterly essential experience that you won't be able to put down long enough to forget.
- Accessible, infinitely deep and fast-paced strategy
- Compelling storyline and unforgettible characters
- Inspires genuine emotions of love, triumph and despair
- Infinitely replayable freeform campaign lasts 50-60 hours
- Horrible inventory interface
- Rare narrative oversights regarding dead characters
- Clunky 3D cutscenes
The Short Version: Fire Emblem Awakening is an absolute masterpiece, whether you're a series veteran or rank newcomer. As one of the finest Strategy RPGs available on any handheld format, not to mention the best game on the 3DS thus far, you owe it to yourself to plumb its tactical and emotional depths.
Do not, for any reason, miss this triumphant saga of love and death.