Spoiler-Free Fire Emblem Awakening Review
I like to consider myself a Fire Emblem fan. I’ve played every title to have an official English release up until Awakening1. I intend to play every English localized title in the series, and in an ideal world, play Japanese exclusive titles via fan translations at some point. Simply put, I love what Fire Emblem does as a series.
That brings us to the big question. How does a long-time fan of the Fire Emblem series feel about Fire Emblem: Awakening, a title that shook up the series in a number of big ways?
Before we get any further, I will be keeping this review spoiler-free in regards to the game’s story. I will divulge details about many of the game mechanics and changes, but no plot spoilers.
What is Fire Emblem?
Fire Emblem is a series of strategy RPGs from Japanese developer Intelligent Systems, who have had close ties to Nintendo for many years. Gameplay consists of turn-based battles on a grid-based map, where the player is tasked with controlling their units in order to defeat or defend against AI-controlled enemy units. The series has RPG elements such as level ups, stat-driven battles, and storytelling, and has always had a focus on medieval fantasy settings. Another staple of Fire Emblem gameplay has been permanent death, or permadeath, where a unit who loses all of their health in battle is lost forever.
The Big Changes
How does Awakening differ from its predecessors? The obvious change that comes to mind, and the change I’ve probably seen criticized most, is its handling of permadeath. In all prior Fire Emblem games, when a unit loses all of its health in Fire Emblem, it’s gone for good. For many units, the character actually dies on the battlefield in game, though there are those who are too important to the plot and are just wounded to the point of being unable to fight ever again.
Fire Emblem: Awakening has permadeath. But only if you want it to. For the first time in the series2, the player is given a choice between two modes when beginning a new game: Classic, and Casual. Classic means you play with permadeath, in classic Fire Emblem fashion. Casual is a new mode wherein a unit who falls in battle is only unusable for the remainder of that battle, after which they return, ready to fight again another day.
The introduction of Casual Mode does not bother me at all though. In fact, I’d say it’s actually a really smart move for the series. Allowing the player to choose between Classic or Casual modes is a way to make the game more accessible to new players or those who play video games less seriously, while still allowing the game to played with permadeath just as long-time fans know and love. I played through the game in Classic mode, on Normal difficulty, because that’s how I’m used to playing Fire Emblem. The fact that Casual mode exists did not detract from my experience at all, since I could pick how I wanted to play. Putting a choice like that in the player’s hands just gives them more freedom to tailor their experience to fit their preferences, and I don’t think that’s ever a bad thing.
Speaking of freedom to tailor the gameplay experience, Awakening also introduced the ability to customize an avatar3. The player can customize the gender, appearance, and voice of their avatar unit at the beginning of the game. Character creation with the Avatar system was something I didn’t know Awakening had going in, and character customization is something I always enjoy in games, so I was pleasantly surprised. The player also gets to pick a stat for their Avatar that will have enhanced growth during level ups, and a stat that will have decreased growth. The Avatar system is a welcome addition, and I think even players who detest character creation can get through it pretty quickly by accepting the default appearance and voice.
Having addressed the biggest changes in Fire Emblem: Awakening compared to its predecessors, we can now move on to the heart of this review: analyzing the game piece by piece.
Story (No spoilers!)
Awakening’s story is solid, and makes excellent use of pre-rendered cutscenes to highlight the biggest points. These are incredibly cool and memorable moments. Of course, the biggest drawback of the character creation mechanic is that the Avatar can’t appear in any of the pre-rendered cutscenes, since it just wouldn’t be technically feasible. The game gets around this by having some of the pre-rendered cutscenes happen from the Avatar’s point of view, cleverly getting around the issue, and technically having the Avatar “appear” in the pre-rendered cutscene.
On several occasions, the game presents a choice the player needs to make, which was surprising to me, and made certain moments feel more real. These are used sparingly, but when they popped up I was really drawn in and weighed each option carefully.
For setting, the game takes place in the same universe as the original Fire Emblem game, which was originally Japan only until it was remade into Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on the Nintendo DS. This world is where Marth, a Fire Emblem character Smash Bros. fans will recognize, originates from. Awakening takes place 2,000 years after Marth’s time, so he’s long gone. However, he’s a legend due to his heroics in Shadow Dragon. Anyone who’s played Shadow Dragon or the original Fire Emblem game will probably enjoy when the characters make references to Marth or his companions. The references are nice inclusions for long-time fans, but I think Marth’s name is recognizable enough due to Smash Bros. that even players new to Fire Emblem will enjoy hearing him referenced.
The game’s cast is also full of enjoyable characters, but to avoid spoilers I won’t be covering any of them here, save to say there are some great personalities, and a diverse range of them to boot. Chances are everyone will find some character in the cast that resonates with them.
That’s all I really want to say to avoid spoiling anything. The classic Fire Emblem story elements are present, warring nations, etc.. It doesn’t disappoint!
Level design was very solid. There wasn’t a single map where I found myself thinking it was a chore to get through. Even the maps I struggled on were enjoyable, the struggle wasn’t due to the map employing a tactic that felt cheap or annoying, but rather due to shortcomings in my strategy. Several maps had unique quirks to add a bit of welcome variety as well. For instance, one map had a “spooky” feel, and walls would disappear and reappear on alternating turns. This lead to the layout map changing significantly between turns, and meant that enemies who were out of reach one turn might be within reach the next.
I realized one thing only after finishing the game: there are no fog of war maps in Awakening. Fog of war maps have been present in majority of previous Fire Emblem titles, at least the ones that saw English releases. Moving your units around a map where you can’t see more than a few tiles around you livened up the maps that utilized the fog of war effect in that past. Looking back, it is a little weird that Awakening never utilized it, as I think it could have helped add further variety to the levels.
The victory conditions for a map in Awakening always boiled down to 2 things: either Rout, where you win by defeating all enemies, or Defeat Commander, where you intuitively win by defeating a special enemy unit. Prior Fire Emblem games such as Path of Radiance mixed up the victory conditions now and then, by having conditions like “Defend” where you had to survive a certain number of turns as enemies advanced upon you, or some variant called either Arrive or Seize, where you simply need to get a unit to a specific tile on the map. Admittedly, some of the conditions could be rather tedious, so perhaps it is smart for Awakening to stick to conditions that involve defeating enemies. But, I think a Defend map or 2 wouldn’t have been amiss in Awakening, just to add a little more variety to the victory conditions.
This game looks good, for the 3DS. The part most players will probably spend the most time looking at, the tactical overview during battle, looks great and does everything it should. It’s easy to see at a glance a unit’s health, and having their stats and inventory displayed on the bottom screen is quite convenient. The pixel art for units is also quite nice, differentiating different classes of units is possible even though the art is small.
Battle animations likewise look good, though I admit I didn’t spend all that long watching them. I skipped the majority of them most of the time and disabled them during enemy turns as well. They tend to get repetitive after you’ve seen them enough times, which can be said of any Fire Emblem title, but luckily Awakening, like many of its predecessors, allows you to control if and when battle animations play.
One unusual thing Awakening does is with the proportions used for the 3D character models. During cutscenes, when visiting the Barracks, and during battle animations, the player sees 3D models of the characters. However, their legs are very short, while their arms reach down to their knees! I imagine this was done to work around the small resolution the 3DS has, adjusting proportions so that more detail could be seen. It’s not off-putting, in my opinion, since it works in game and looks fine, but it is worth noting. Compare this to the earlier 3D Fire Emblem games of the GameCube and Wii, where the proportions of the 3D character models were much closer to that of a real human’s, since they had a significantly higher resolution and screen size to work with.
The music in this game was good. I can’t say I really remember any individual tracks though, but that maybe be because it’s on a handheld device, I often had the sound kind of low as I played. Had I worn headphones for more of the experience, the music may have stuck with me more. That said, I do remember having one of the songs that played frequently during levels stuck in my head for quite a while during my playthrough!
One thing about the audio in Awakening I loved were the little voice clips that played during dialogue sequences. It’s not a full voice over, and often times what the character voices doesn’t match what the text reads. Awakening is definitely not the only game to do this; it’s something I really enjoyed in Persona 5 as well. When I realized Awakening had the mini-voice-clips, I was pretty excited! It’s a great way to make a character and a conversation seem more real, and more engaging.
The tactical combat of Fire Emblem remains just as engrossing and fun as ever. Being on a portable system is also a huge benefit, as you can start playing at any time, and if you need to stop you can either create a save mid-battle to resume later, or put your 3DS to sleep. Besides the addicting combat, there are a number of other gameplay features at work here, some of which relate closely back to combat and make it even more exciting.
The new “Pair Up” system worked very well in the context of this game. Essentially, if you Pair Up two units, they will occupy one space on the map, with one unit being the primary unit to both deliver and receive attacks, and the other manning a supporting role, increasing the primary unit’s stats, occasionally delivering followup attacks in battle or defending the primary unit from all damage. Needless to say, this opens up a plethora of doors for strategy. One of my favorite pairings in the early game was that of a Knight and a Dark Mage. The Dark Mage has reasonable defense on its own compared to normal Mages, but when combined with the Knight their defense was increased to allow them to weather far more attacks than previously possible, making the pair much more flexible than either unit would be alone.
As a long time Fire Emblem player, I tended to think of Pair Up as a replacement for the old “Carry” or “Rescue” system. In some prior titles, a unit could Carry another unit, and they’d occupy a single tile, as in Pair Ups. However, Carrying a unit incurred stat penalties for the primary unit, as opposed to all the boons Pairing Up grants. Carry still had a number of uses though, as you could but it had to be used carefully, lest you leave the Carrier open to attack while their stats are lowered. With the Pair Up mechanic on the other hand, there was rarely a reason not to use it. Both systems are good, but I can’t say I really miss Carry when Awakening has Pair Up to offer, and additionally Pairing Up two units was a great way to build Supports between two units, and Supports played perhaps a larger role in Awakening than in any previous Fire Emblem title.
Supports, Marriage, and Children
Supports return in Awakening. The Support system provides bonuses when characters are near each other, or Paired Up, once 2 characters have established a Support Level. Support Level can be ranked up from C to S, and must be built up over time primarily by Pairing Up units and positioning them next to each other when attacking.
Where Awakening breaks new ground for the series is the introduction of Marriage and Children between 2 characters. Once two characters reach S Support Level, they get married. This Support Level is special in that a character can only have 1 S rank Support. Once a character establishes the S rank Support and marries, an optional Paralogue mission will be unlocked, so long as the player has at least reached a certain point in the main story. Completing this Paralogue mission will unlock a new unit who is the child of the newly married units, and inherits some of the abilities of the parent.
Children add a lot to the game, actually. There’s a feeling of customization, since depending on who you pair up a child can have different parents from playthrough to playthrough. Furthermore, a child has unique Support conversations with their parents, so seeing all the Support conversations would require many playthroughs to give the child every possible parent! The stat growth of the child units is also slightly affected by who their parents are, leading to many possibilities to customize the units through careful planning, to those so inclined, although I’ve read that their stats aren’t affected all that much overall. Of course, since the Paralogue chapters to acquire child units are optional, all of this can be ignored as well by those who are uninterested or offended by the feature.
There’s entire articles out there solely focused on what child characters inherit from their parents, so I’ll leave it to those to fully dive into all the possibilities. Suffice to say, there are plenty of options.
Awakening introduced a new feature called “Barracks”, in which you can visit the army Barracks between battles and view the available events. New Events become available after most levels. Events themselves are mostly randomly generated. They range from temporary stat boosts for a character, to short conversations between characters that give them points toward ranking up their Support Level or extra experience points.
The Barracks is okay, the boosts it provides are helpful. The conversations that occur within aren’t particularly interesting since they are dynamically generated. They seem to be a replacement of sorts for Base conversations that were present between levels in Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. The Base conversations were more interesting, as they are often written to shed further insight into the current goings on of the plot, whereas the Barracks conversations are always more general and have less depth.
Like Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, Awakening features a world map. Between levels, you can freely move around the map, purchasing equipment from shops at locations you have visited in prior chapters. You can also fight enemies that appear at locations in order to get extra experience, items, or gold, depending on what the enemies drop. I enjoyed this feature in Sacred Stones, and I like it even more in Awakening as the map is larger. The optional Paralogue missions also appear on the world map, to be challenged if the player wishes.
Overall, Awakening is just an extremely fun experience, everything just comes together superbly to form a very enjoyable game. It’s not a perfect game, but the critiques I’ve leveraged at it are minor at best.
There’s probably many things I haven’t mentioned in this review, because the fact of the matter is, Fire Emblem: Awakening is packed to the brim with content. I imagine there’s a number of things I missed in my playthrough as well, and there are definitely features I did not utilize. For instance, there’s an Auto Battle mechanic, but I never once tried it, because it’s optional. There are also extra levels and characters that can be downloaded with Nintendo’s SpotPass, but I never did that either. My point with all this is, there’s a huge amount of content contained within Fire Emblem: Awakening, but the player is given freedom to experience much of it only if they want to, and at no point does it seem overwhelming.
I wholeheartedly recommend Fire Emblem: Awakening to anyone, whether they’re avid Fire Emblem fans, or have never played a Fire Emblem game in their life!
Fire Emblem (2003), Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. ↩
Okay, I actually found out while researching for this review that this wasn’t the first Fire Emblem title to feature an option to turn off permadeath. The previous entry, “Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem,” was actually the first to include a Casual mode. But, it was exclusive to Japan! ↩
Again, “Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem” was the true first game in the series to feature an avatar for the player to customize, but Awakening was still the first game released internationally to do so. ↩