The Fire Emblem series, like its developer Intelligent Systems, has a rich and storied history. Technically a turn-based strategy RPG, the games transcend mechanical description to become something... more. Awakening, the thirteenth game in the series (!), manages to tweak the well-known formula in all the right places, creating something worthy and fascinating to behold - despite the fact that it still walks such a well-trodden path.
But let’s step back a bit. If you’re new to the series, don’t let that put you off; you don’t need to know anything about any other game in the franchise to enjoy Awakening to the fullest.
In Fire Emblem: Awakening, you’re a tactician. You dictate battle strategy and, by your decisions, your team will either route the enemy or fall beneath their blows. This all plays out by way of a top-down battle map, separated into a simple grid, on which your troops and those of your opponent are laid out. Turn by turn, you must position your units (like chess, perhaps, but much more entertaining) in a way that gives you the advantage when attacking or, in fact, being attacked. Get it right more than your enemy and you win.
Battles are strung together on an overworld map, with each success opening new areas so that the story can advance. The tale itself is a pretty convoluted affair, but with so many characters (you start with plenty and constantly meet new ones) that’s neither surprising nor unwelcome. It takes a long time to get through the whole thing (40+ hours) so there needs to be a few twists and turns to keep things interesting, and in this regard it doesn’t disappoint.
The combat itself seems initially complicated, then simple, then overwhelmingly complicated again. While there isn’t so much to the basic “this guy stabs, that guy shoots” surface mechanics, underneath there are so many interesting and rich interactions that you really are learning and experimenting the whole way through.
For example, positioning characters near one another impacts how they perform; not only that, but this kind of thing actually builds a relationship between those two characters - the better the relationship, the better the bonuses for fighting them alongside each other. Already a fun, interesting system, it doesn’t stop there; get the relationship to a high enough level between compatible characters and they’ll get married and - wait for it - have kids, which will in turn join your party.
That’s only one of the overlapping layers that make up Fire Emblem’s gameplay onion; you constantly have to decide between all manner of different (and often competing) objectives, many of which you make up yourself. For example, you might deliberately avoid killing the last guy (which would end the level) in order to land that blow with another (currently out of range) character or to open a chest secreted in the far corner of the map.
Tactically, too, the game presents a constantly evolving level of challenge. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, a map comes along with a mix of characters and terrain that surprises you. That healer you thought was safe at the back? Suddenly, they’re exposed and you can’t get back there to save them - which is where the game's items system comes in.
All of your characters can equip a subset of the various swords, spears, spellbooks, and so on that you’ll encounter on your journey. One item lets you pull another character to a square near the character that uses it, rescuing them from danger. In that previous example, this would be a great thing to have in your inventory when your healer is exposed - but then, which character will have this “rescue” item, and what will they then not be able to carry in that inventory slot? Decisions, decisions...
Those decisions are important, too. You can - new to the series - choose to play in a way that ensures dead characters resurrect at the end of a fight (otherwise, death is permanent.) To play this way, however, is to stop yourself having a big part of the intended experience; you get attached to your merry band of adventurers and being forced to play smartly (in order to keep them alive) gives the game an emotional hook and level of intensity matched by few (if any) other games.
Another new feature is the oh-so-commonplace-nowadays inclusion of downloadable content. You can buy new maps to explore now, and there are likely to be new characters at some point in the future, too. You can also oftentimes add new characters to the map via a "bonus box" option, and StreetPass allows your party to travel into other player's games (and vice versa) - an excellent use of the system, should you be lucky enough to find someone nearby who is also playing the game.
While it is a cool looking game, it's not the best looking on 3DS. While the story is certainly good, it's not the pinnacle of narrative on the platform. There are cheaper games, longer games, harder games, and easier games, too. I should know; I've owned many of them (the 3DS is my go-to system these days.) Of them all, though, Fire Emblem: Awakening is now the game I've played the most. More than any other sentence in this review, perhaps, that tells you everything you need to know. If you like this kind of thing, buy it, love it, and trade me your teams - there's battlin' to be done.