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Fire Emblem: Awakening review: burning love

by Steve Watts, Jan 30, 2013 9:30am PST

Despite a ten-year history in the states and more than double that time in Japan, Fire Emblem has been one of Nintendo's under-the-radar franchises. It's enjoyed its releases and Smash Bros cameos with a quiet but devoted base of support. Fire Emblem: Awakening is coming relatively early in the 3DS lifespan, before many of the company's heavy-hitter franchises make their debut. This is well-timed, as it allows Fire Emblem to step out of the shadow cast by other franchises and prove itself. To that end, Awakening is a near-perfect encapsulation of the series' unique charms.

In the most vital ways, Awakening is very similar to its predecessors: an anime-inspired, sometimes brutally difficult turn-based strategy game. Those attracted to the punishing nature of last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown should find this game perfectly comfortable, as much of the same deliberate thinking defines a play session. Your characters can die, at least in Classic mode, and that makes every move matter.

But unlike XCOM, Fire Emblem leans heavily on its cast of colorful characters. Your troops aren't faceless, replaceable grunts, but individuals with their own stories that are integrated into the lengthy campaign. A mismanaged turn could result in the loss of a character that you've gotten to know over the course of hours. I genuinely liked each of my regular team and didn't want to see them harmed. These connections made each loss meaningful, and created greater tension as I struggled to avoid death.

Optional story sequences are rewarded with gameplay bonuses, and characters that have spent some time interacting in the Barracks fight better alongside each other. By the end of the game, a few pairs of my best soldiers were nearly unstoppable if they were standing side-by-side. But aside from the gameplay benefit, these dialogue sequences made me familiar with the characters, and all the more devoted to protecting them.

The game features a large band of heroes, in part to substitute for any you lose, but you could also turn on the Casual option if the prospect of dying troops causes too much stress. That will simply keep dead units out temporarily, ready to fight again for the next battle. This is a series first, at least for a North American release, and is one of the refinements built to make the experience more welcoming. Simple access to a threat assessment view and a multitude of options for the game speed and battle animations help streamline the experience. The game eases you into its multitude of interlocking battle dynamics and equipment managing systems, and I never felt overwhelmed.

Your own place in the tale is partly determined by creating your avatar and determining your relationships. Even though the story boasts a superb localization with its own good-natured sense of humor, it takes an unfortunate and sustained foray into concepts more sci-fi than fantasy. It's the most infuriating kind of sci-fi, in fact: the kind that is never adequately explained. But the characters dealing with these issues are so wholly likable, so differentiated and fun to be around that its easy to enjoy their journeys and forget that the math doesn't always add up. Plus, it doesn't hurt that important moments in the story are punctuated by lush 3D animated sequences.

These parts -- the story, characters, and systems -- may seem disparate, but they coalesce beautifully. Caring about the characters made me invested in their safety, which in turn impacted how I approached missions, which made plot beats carry a more satisfying pay-off. The experience on the whole is an expertly-tuned piece of gaming machinery, each part turning the gears of another like clockwork. It's one of the most addictive games on the 3DS, and a treat for any who appreciate deep, lengthy video game experiences.


This Fire Emblem: Awakening review was based on a digital version of the game provided by the publisher.





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