Game Review: Fire Emblem Awakening

Yeah, yeah, I know Fire Emblem Fates just came out, but I don’t have the game yet! (And I’m very sad about that.) However, in anticipation of Fates I decided to play Awakening again to prep myself, and I’m glad I did.

Released in North America in 2013, Awakening has retained its appeal both as a game and as an immersive story that sucks you in right from the beginning. The focus of this review will be on the two primary hallmark features of the Fire Emblem series: the grid-base strategic style of the game, and why it is so easy for us fall in love with the characters. In the very last part of this review I will consider what exactly holds these two elements together, ultimately producing a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The Gameplay of Fire Emblem

The beauty of Fire Emblem is in its simplicity. The goal in just about every level is to wipe out the enemy on a grid-style map (sometimes you’ll get some variety with defense missions or rescuing certain NPCs). You send your units out one by one and attack enemies one at a time when you’re close enough to them. This is the most basic description of Fire Emblem’s mechanics, and serves as the foundation for a magnificent gaming platform.

It's like Wizard Chess, but better.
It’s like Wizard Chess, but better.

In addition to getting close enough to attack, you must be aware that on the enemy’s turn they’ll be able to move against you, and so your offense must always have defense in mind as well, because leaving your units wide open after an attack will guarantee their death. Every unit can be attacked (usually) from four sides, unless you place them by a wall or next to another unit, and this is key. Two units beside each other not only reduces their vulnerability by one space apiece, but if you’re lucky, sometimes they’ll negate attacks for one another. Thus, placing your units in a position where they can attack and cover each other afterward requires careful planning and foresight, and it is precisely because you get to choose their exact location that makes this game so fun. Everything is under your control, and you’re free to build your attack/defense in any way you see fit. There are of course subtle and not so subtle gameplay restrictions, but with the way it’s presented to the gamer, it really feels like you are controlling every aspect of the battlefield.

On top of this, the variety of units and weapons available add another layer of strategy on top of the rich and decadent cake that is Fire Emblem. Swords do extra damage to axes, axes to lances, and lances to swords, and archers cannot strike back against direct attacks, and so it’d be reckless to simply line up your units to form a blockade. You must be careful about who can get attacked by what, and then position your units accordingly.

Or you can always just have Leeroy Jenkins here soloing up front. Seriously, Donnel's a beast.
Or you can always just have Leeroy Jenkins here soloing up front. Seriously, Donnel’s a beast.

There are, however, some unfair moments in certain missions where enemies will spawn right next to you or behind you. You’re always notified when enemies reinforcements are pending, but it’s unclear whether they’ll arrive immediately next turn, or some time later. It is maddeningly frustrating, especially when you’re near the end of a mission, when enemies spawn and are able to kill your healer or aerial unit. If there was one thing that needed to be changed somehow, it would be how enemy reinforcements are communicated to the player. Thankfully, this situation doesn’t occur too often.

I also have a gripe with the game’s Lunatic mode. Early on, it is literally impossible to complete a chapter without following a specific method for your units and/or counting on luck for critical attacks and dodges. If I haven’t made it clear already, the strength of the Fire Emblem series is that it lets you form your own battle plans and finish the chapters with whatever strategy you deem appropriate. In Lunatic mode, it is so difficult that in the beginning you need Frederick and Chrom to be in specific spots just so everyone can survive. Constricting the solution to a specific placement for my units takes away the whole point of Fire Emblem. I want it to be challenging but not so much so that the solution is merely figuring out a step-by-step list of unit placement and attacking patterns. After you get past the first few missions on Lunatic, it becomes a grind just to level your characters so that they’re strong enough not to die in one hit. Unfortunately, Lunatic mode completely misses the mark on what makes Fire Emblem so fun, but Hard is challenging enough as it is.

In summary, it is the core gameplay mechanic of moving and positioning your pieces that makes Fire Emblem so fun. Awakening builds on this formula by adding new types of maps, as well as the highly useful pair up and dual-combat systems, opening up new tactics and methods to victory.

The Story and Characters

A video game is an interactive medium whose main purpose is to entertain. To be entertaining, a good game will feature good gameplay (redundant, but bear with me). If we only consider gameplay, then, all a good game needs to do is have functioning and consistent controls, well-thought out levels that are challenging and creative, and a basic system of interactivity that is simple and engaging (this can be either jumping on goombas’ heads or stacking blocks neatly against each other as they fall down). The previous section described what makes Awakening a good game, but I believe the story and the game’s characters is what makes it a great game.

Tharja. Tharja is what makes Awakening a great game.
Tharja. Tharja is what makes Awakening a great game.

Interactivity with the gamer doesn’t have to be limited to just gameplay. Every gamer is a human being with experiences, memories, and feelings. That is why games that can make us laugh or cry are special, and feel different from other games like Tetris or Candy Crush. When a game can engage us through more than just beating a level, that’s when it becomes a different kind of experience altogether, potentially something akin to watching a great movie or reading some profound book.

The story of Awakening is a traditional good vs. evil story, wherein our playable character is a tactician for Prince Chrom and his army. It begins with two kingdoms at war with one another, and as the story pans out, new characters are met, an awesome plot point occurs that simultaneously affects the story and gameplay, and the conflict escalates into a battle to save the entire realm. There are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, and the story never slows down even for a moment.

What drives Awakening’s story is its characters. I think Awakening is perhaps the most qualified video game to be described as Dickensian. Like Dickens’ stories, this game has a lot of characters, but each of them are unique and alive, with their own vibrant personalities that clash and complement one another. The superb writing within this game also makes it possible to fall in love with them in a short amount of time. While the primary story is about Chrom and Lucina’s struggle against Grima the Fell Dragon, the supporting cast gets the spotlight during their support conversations, some of which reveal motivations and backstory, while others provide a quick laugh, and I believe it is the character support system that elevates Awakening up and above its competitors.

Lucina-Gerome ship for days.
Lucina-Gerome ship for days.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to Awakening’s storytelling as well. In addition to the main missions, there are several bonus missions that can be downloaded via SpotPass. These missions allow you to recruit several major NPCs from the main story into your army, and therein lies the rub. These bonus characters are either antagonists or they are supposed to be dead, given the events of the main story. While it is cool to have them be playable, this move seriously detracts from the story, trivializing the character’s death and/or undermining what made them appealing in the first place: their unmitigated evilness. There is an easy out to this problem: have these paralogues take place in an alternate dimension or timeline, then it would’ve been more believable if not still cheesy. All of this is completely optional, however, and SpotPass is unnecessary to enjoying the game as a whole, nor would I recommend going near it. The story and characters are fine as is.

Awakening’s Secret Sauce

If Awakening’s gameplay and story/characters are the building blocks, then I believe the character support system is the glue that holds everything together, because it directly affects both, starting with the individual stories.

My two favourite characters happen to both be dark mages: Tharja and Henry. Tharja is a goth chick who is into curses, hexes, and just about anything to do with the demonic, but she falls head over heels for your character, and slowly develops a fondness for the rest of the army. Henry is also into killing and mass bloodshed, occasionally butchering cute animals and playing with zombie arms, but he has a childish sense of humour and isn’t above making a cheesy joke every now and then. Every character has a unique quirk, each representing an interesting aspect of themselves (Lon’qu has a fear of women that stems from his guilt of losing his lover, Cynthia’s zealous enthusiasm exists because of her grief and idolization of her mother, Gaius likes candy), and not only is the variety intrinsically valuable, but you are very likely to admire and/or relate to certain characters.

Henry is my spirit animal. Nya ha ha!
Henry is my spirit animal. Nya ha ha!

This in turn motivates your strategy on the battlefield. The only way to find out more about the characters is to get them to talk, and to get them to talk you need to initiate support conversations by having them battle side by side with specific units, bringing us back full circle to the core aspect of Fire Emblem’s gameplay: positioning and maneuvering. Not only are we trying to survive and finish the mission, but we want see support conversations as well. This is the genius of Fire Emblem Awakening: its ability to weave gameplay with story and characters, all the while allowing the player to control the pace.

Awakening is a great game because it simultaneously provides a rich narrative (which further engages the gamer on top of the game itself) while adding a voluntary and self-imposed battle plan during missions, the completion of which is immensely satisfying.

In Conclusion…

Fire Emblem Awakening is a jewel of a game. It is obvious the designers put a lot of love into their work, giving us a substantial amount of content (25 main missions + 17 paralogues, with tonnes of DLC) and 43 main characters to play as backed up by solid writing all around. Any writer just starting out would benefit from analyzing how Awakening can introduce and make us like characters so fast, but that’s a whole different blog post.

I would highly recommend Fire Emblem Awakening to anyone who is a fan of strategic gameplay and RPG style worlds. I think anyone who enjoys a good story would enjoy this game, since not only is there an easy mode but also a casual mode that brings characters back to life after they fall in battle. With the exception of Lunatic mode and the sometimes unfair enemy spawn locations, Awakening is very close to being a perfect game within its genre.

This has been a gamobo review.

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