Despite having been available in Japan for many years prior, Intelligent Systems made a name for themselves in western territories with the launch of Advance Wars on Game Boy Advance back in 2002. The success of this somewhat muted debut opened the door for a number of sequels and, thankfully, the Fire Emblem series followed suit. A similarly turn-based strategy experience, where Advance Wars made its number through the development of military might, Fire Emblem concentrates on small skirmishes with lasting consequences.
In its purest form, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a punishing experience. Your mistakes today will have consequences tomorrow, as not only do items have limited uses but also those characters who fall on the battlefield are gone for good. Fire Emblem: Awakening does feature the option to remove this mechanic for a gentler introduction to the Fire Emblem gameplay, but in Electronic Theatre’s opinion this blunts the experience somewhat: Fire Emblem was designed to make you think about your actions before committing to them, and Fire Emblem: Awakening is best when you are set to face significant hardship should you choose to rush in. Only fools do so, and Fire Emblem does not take pity upon them.
One the decision of how great a challenge you will entertain has been made – with only a shirt description of each of the two deciding factors available – the player is tasked with creating their avatar. The male options range significantly in height and age, yet the females all end up looking like a child. An odd design decision certainly, and one that can actually leave you feeling a little uncomfortable. Fire Emblem: Awakening then throws more options at you that can significantly affect the way your adventure will play out without any explanation or examples of what the result of your decision may be, in that of the ‘asset’ and ‘weakness’ of your character. For the established gamer of many years all of these options so far will most likely be self-explanatory, but to Nintendo’s ‘blue ocean’ audience it could be quite daunting. Electronic Theatre has regularly questioned the reasoning behind the difficulty settings menu, and Fire Emblem: Awakening is the perfect example of why the standardised arrangement needs to be addressed in more ways than one.
Once into the videogame the standard of design changes significantly. The tutorial offered by Fire Emblem: Awakening is a wonderful introduction to the deep strategy action and also the storyline. That the above introduction acts as a stumbling block is disappointing, but the fact that this is the most significant criticism Electronic Theatre can level at Fire Emblem: Awakening is evident of it’s remarkable quality.
Much of the action in Fire Emblem: Awakening is fairly predictable: troops have classes which vary wildly in all their capabilities. It starts you off gently which a brute, an all rounder, a healing magic and an attacking mage. The brute is your front man and the all rounder is the protection for your two mages; especially when lining up those long range attacks. So far, so Fire Emblem – and for that case, the standard high fantasy archetype – but Fire Emblem: Awakening does have a few tricks up its sleeve to complicate matters.
The introduction of new elements is so carefully paced that you’ll always be welcoming of them. Weapon equipped, weapon skill, ally bonus, magical attributes, character relationships, environmental effects and more impact outcome of each exchange of blows, fight and battle. Just as you master one rule and feel comfortable with another you’ll have a new one introduced, ensuring that a new element of experimentation is introduced without setting your knowledge back to the point where the challenge is unwelcome. This is clearly many years of experience delivering such detailed turn-based strategy titles that the balance has been near-perfected. After a bumpy start it would seem that Intelligent System can do almost no wrong.
The story of Fire Emblem: Awakening is delivered between 2D caricatures and fully 3D sequences. The latter of these is highly impressive, especially when using the Nintendo 3DS’ stereoscopic 3D functionality, but sadly the story is nowhere near as interesting as the combat, despite being just as dense. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a videogame about tactical and strategic thinking – planning and execution within a defined ruleset – and as such the storyline is most certainly surplus to requirement.
With its brilliant balance of pace, challenge and intrigue, Fire Emblem: Awakening remains just as addictive an experience as its predecessors. The storyline is delivered in a much more direct and impressive manner than those which have been before, but this is not what makes Fire Emblem: Awakening the best titles that the series has yet offered. In truth, the story is actually a significant weakness as after a few hours it becomes a significant irritation between bouts of hugely compelling gameplay. Fire Emblem: Awakening is exciting and challenging, mentally stimulating and perfectly balanced, enduring and practically essential for all Nintendo 3DS owners.