The Fire Emblem series has always been a bit intimidating. The franchise has been around for decades, but it's never really been able to crack the code of the western market. While the reasons it hasn't broken out in the States are debatable, one thing is clear; Fire Emblem: Awakening, the series' latest release, proves just how good strategic RPGs can be. Hopefully, Awakening will breathe new life into this storied franchise, and encourage a new mainstream appreciation for Fire Emblem, as well as the twenty plus years that have gone into crafting these games.
Awakening follows many of the conventions set forth by pervious Fire Emblem games, but then puts its own spin on the formula. Players take control of army "units," in this case they are called "Shepards" and are led by the noble Prince Chrom, as they wage war on grid-based battlefields. Each unit stands for a character that can be moved a certain number of spaces each turn and can interact with each other, their enemies, and ally NPCs. As players advance, they engage their foes in a rock-paper-scissors style battles, replacing the rock, paper, and scissor with swords, lances, and magic. Combat progresses in turns until the player fulfills the level's requirement (usually eliminating all of the enemy soldiers, or defeating their leader), or one of the two main characters, Chrom or the player's character, are killed in action. If you've ever spent any time with Advance Wars (same developer - Intelligent Systems), you'll likely be familiar with the overall concept and execution. However, the Fire Emblem games have always connected with players on a more personal level since the battles are one-on-one, instead of groups of nameless, cartoon soldiers.
As one of Nintendo's most enduring games, very little about Fire Emblem has changed over the years. Sure, the franchise has seen releases on almost every console and handheld Nintendo has ever released with slight tweaks made to the formula to accommodate for technology, but at their heart, the Fire Emblems have always remained strategic RPGs that forces players to make tough decisions to take down their foes. Awakening is no different, but this time around, you can opt to not have the decisions be so tough.
One of the signature features of the previous Fire Emblem games has been "permadeath," the unfortunate circumstance where if one of your characters dies in battle, they are lost forever. Oddly, it's not such a common occurrence in video games, where players can sometimes have an infinite amount of lives to perform the simplest of tasks. The thought of losing a character that you have invested hours of time into, increasing their levels, forging their weapons, constructing their relationships, has been one of the things that has kept the series inaccessible to your average gamer. However, Awakening offers the option to do away with permadeath, allowing fallen comrades to return to the game after each level is completed. It may seem like a slight tweak to the formula, but in reality, it blows the game wide open. With the feature that has defined the series' difficulty left as simply an option, anyone can pick up Awakening... and frankly, everyone should.
Even though Intelligent Systems and Nintendo have included some options to ratchet down the overall difficultly, that's not to say Chrom's story will be a breeze - even the easiest setting, with permadeath turned off can cause some frustration, even for seasoned gamers. It's not easy, but the challenge is completely worth it, especially when you best an opposing general with only a couple HP left to take the board. If you can master the strategic elements of the game quickly, you'll find that you're more likely to be successful as the game goes on, however, you're still likely to hit a couple of bumps in the road as your foes get increasingly harder.
With the fear of wasting hours of your time out the window, players can pick up Awakening and play it for hours upon hours since it offers so much to do that it's often hard to decide what to tackle next. You can follow the story, and help Chrom and his Shepard's save their world from the potential return of the evil Fell Dragon Grima. You can grind (which is actually enjoyable) through various battles with the Risen across the world map, perhaps taking these opportunities to build up your characters' support system, which in turn unlocks side quests. You can take on those side quests with the hopes of learning more about the world and its characters, and maybe even add some additional allies to your troop. You can parley with other world travellers and recruit them, engage them, or just riffle through all their goods and do a little shopping. You can download additional levels and battle heroes from past Fire Emblem games. The game is an all-engrossing experience, and if you're up for diving it, you'll be amazed just how many hours you can pour into this game and still have something new to do.
The variety of gameplay options, mixed with accessibility of the game, makes for a dangerous combination, especially when everything is done so well. From the gameplay, to the soundtrack, to the dialog, Fire Emblem: Awakening can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone that picks it up. Whether you've dabbled in the world of Fire Emblem in the past, or you're loosely familiar with the series thanks to Roy and Marth's appearances in Smash Bros., Fire Emblem: Awakening is both a great entry in the series, and a great entry point for newcomers. If you've ever been afraid to pick up a Fire Emblem game, now's the time to let all those fears go, and dig into one of the best games on the 3DS.