"With colourful visuals, no shortage of engaging characters, and gameplay that welcomes you in one moment and punishes you the next, the game is sure to satisfy your SRPG cravings for hours on end next month."
Fire Emblem is a series very near and dear to me, and it has been for a long time. If you thought these titles were a bit unforgiving when they finally crossed the Pacific and into the West ten years ago, playing the older GBA and Super Famicom entries beforehand was a whole other level of difficult. Regardless, the first few English titles were very well received and followed by Gamecube and Wii installments. On the other hand, the two recent Nintendo DS remakes didn't fare as well — in fact, they did poorly enough that Shadow Dragon's sequel didn't quite make it overseas.
But now, we have Awakening, a Nintendo 3DS entry with a new setting and characters — well, for the most part. I recently had the chance to play through the first dozen chapters, and so far, the title stays true to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' strategy RPG series in every way while still feeling fresh. After creating my own avatar using customization options that go right down to her voice, I immediately made her a sword-and-magic-wielding tactician (with a mysterious past, of course) to Prince Chrom and the Shepherds, his band of soldiers. As the game's Lord unit and sibling to Emmeryn, ruler of the country of Ylisse, Chrom leads the group in defending their country against an invasion from the neighboring Plegia. And if war wasn't enough, a mysterious undead race called the Risen suddenly arrives to present more problems.
Awakening invites fans old and new by letting the player choose between making deaths permanent with classic mode or simply a battle-length inconvenience with casual mode. This is separate from the actual difficulty levels, of which there are three. Over the span of several chapters, I have seen my army grow with a multitude of new units, equipment, and ways to utilize the battleground. Of course, moving units around the map is not unlike a game of chess, where you need to position everyone carefully, cover weaknesses, and keep a watchful eye on all the foes. That means equipping wyrmslayers when you see wyvern riders lurking across the mountains, and keeping your pegasus knights far away from anything that resembles a bow or a wind tome.
Making its return — much to my delight — is the support system, now expanded and given a more key role. For those unfamiliar, "support" gives your units stat boosts from adjacent units on the battlefield, boosts which are more significant the stronger the relationship these units hold. After a pair of units have spent several battle turns beside each other, you increase these levels by carrying out conversations between the two. Not only do I appreciate having these chats between chapters rather than in the middle of a fight, but every character has support potential with everyone else, leading to endless possible friendships and yes, romances. Best of all is the visual aspect: the supporting unit appears alongside you in battle shouting words of encouragement and occasionally following up your attack with one of his or her own or blocking the enemy's hit.
The new feature to "pair up" units works somewhat similarly, only they share a single grid space and move as one. The leader attacks with several stat bonuses while the other acts like a supporting/adjacent unit who usually jumps in. You have the choice to switch leaders or to trade off one of the two to form a different pair, and this came in useful when I had someone within enemy range whom I didn't want attacked or when I wanted to go up against a stronger foe. However, they can't act independently until they separate, and I often preferred my characters to attack different opponents, so I opted to use the support boosts instead.
While the 3D graphics give the maps more depth and provide fun battle animations, what truly caught my eye were the animated cutscenes (courtesy of Mad House) that serve to emphasize major story events, key characters, and moments. The score here is very much your standard Fire Emblem fare — fitting for medieval wars involving knights, magic, dragons and the like, yet predictable all the same.
Overall, Fire Emblem: Awakening holds plenty of promise for both series veterans and new players. With colourful visuals, no shortage of engaging characters, and gameplay that welcomes you in one moment and punishes you the next, the game is sure to satisfy your SRPG cravings for hours on end next month. And if that isn't enough, you can put your army up against a friend's through wireless play, or there's also the planned post-release stream of weekly DLC maps and characters — such as Roy, Leif and Alm from Fire Emblems past.