I’ve cared about game characters in the past, no, really I have. But not in the same way as the latest Fire Emblem made me care about them. Because as much as Fire Emblem Awakening is a game about war and strategy, it’s also about relationships, friends and family.
In realtime strategy games it’s fair to say that the objective is to generally conquer the map without suffering many losses, and the same could be said here. But Fire Emblem’s characters are so well designed and realised and relationships are so ingrained into the game that your emotional strings will be tugged when one of them is lost in the heat of battle. Yes, you can turn off the ability to kill off characters, but the option is a game changer that ensures you make every move as carefully as you possibly can.
In terms of general gameplay, Intelligent Systems haven’t deviated too far from the path of the turn based war game and fans of the genre will feel right at home with stats, strengths and weaknesses banded about here. New weapons are won in battle from fallen enemies, spells are picked up in the same way and every stat can be increased through practice or a trip to the shops that pop up throughout the campaign. Side quests are another way to improve your heroes defence and attack, as well as building on their relationships. These are important in pairing up characters, who will work better together if they have a good relationship with each other. Pairing is an essential skill to learn in order to progress through later missions.
Another sort of pairing is available later in the game, too, and one that took me a little by surprise. Characters can marry if they are compatible and this will allow them to have children. Since the children take on the major skill of their parents, a good player will be able to work on a single important skill for potential couples to create the best offspring.
The story helps to push players in the right direction, too. Beautiful animated cutscenes allow you to get to know each of the characters in turn and their general traits, as well as their allegiance. The odd well timed curveball makes up for some obvious plot devices early on, though there’s little in the story that will surprise you, but the important thing is that you’ll form a bond with the major characters and this is what makes Fire Emblem Awakening so unique.
At first, battles will be easily won, allowing newcomers to learn the ropes and helping to level up characters before they face the bigger challenges later on. Different classes are introduced gradually, along with the rock-paper-scissors approach to weapon combat, where axe beats lance, lance beats sword and sword beats axe. In the field of combat, though, there isn’t always the option of fighting with the best weapon available if your army is spread out across the map, so careful planning is required. Use of the three game save slots may also come in handy and you should be prepared to replay some battles many times to come out of them with your troops intact.
Then you start to lose people. Characters you’ve watched grow and have nurtured through ongoing battles will die at the hand of an over-powered or mis-judged foe. Do you carry on without them or, as seems to be common practice in Fire Emblem games, go back and start the battle again, giving them a second chance? I’m guessing you’ll do the latter, because that’s what I did. But despite the time reversal to save a beloved character, it’s no less jarring when they fail you in the next fight (or sometimes over and over in the same battle).
But if you’re up for the challenge and don’t mind the thought of replaying battles over and over again to come out the other side with an intact army then the game is about as good as any turn based RPG has ever been and future DLC means that you’re looking at possibly more than 30 or 40 hours. That’s before you start again from the beginning and replay the whole thing, of course.
For Fire Emblem fans this game is the next stage, a fitting game for Nintendo’s current generation of handhelds. For those new to the series it provides the option of a gentle learning curve before turning up the heat. In short, another must-buy for 3DS owners.