Oftentimes we talk about certain games that must be in your library if you own that particular console. Even before I dive into the review, I can tell you that this is the case for Fire Emblem: Awakening. With a game so fantastic and fully featured, you would be doing yourself and your 3DS a disservice for not owning it. However beyond being a must-own title for 3DS owners, Awakening is also reason to buy yourself Nintendo's stereoscopic handheld, because it simply is, a system seller.
Fire Emblem games have had the unfortunate history of catering to a specific type of crowd. On the surface, to those unfamiliar with the series, Fire Emblem looks like a typical tactics RPG, with some finely drawn, anime-styled characters. However, the series' goes far deeper than just that. The games are extremely involved, and no slouch when it comes to content either. Thankfully, it looks like it's time for the series to break out of its shell, and invite a whole new generation of gamers into the frey, to finally experience just how rich, story-driven, and fantastic the game is, while retaining the hardcore roots the series was established on.
There are a myriad of aspects to Awakening that make it feel fresh due to their new inclusion to the series, and others that make it feel familiar to those coming to it from past titles. Upon starting the game, players will be able to choose from various difficulty levels (Normal, Hard, and Lunatic with a fourth, unlockable difficulty) as well as playing the game in Classic mode or the more forgiving Casual mode. Emblem veterans will undoubtedly play the game on Classic, as every move you make counts. Characters who fall in battle are gone forever, and players will have to strategize accordingly. The game's Casual mode doesn't kill off your characters permanently upon falling in battle, making the battles a bit easier to stomach.
The beauty here is that the game lends itself to be customized in a way that fits a player's particular style. Veterans will most likely start the game on Hard or Lunatic difficulty in Classic mode, but won't ever penalize their difficulty by starting on Casual mode if they so choose. On the opposite spectrum, players who might want to experience the game's perma-death but don't feel completely comfortable with taking on the higher difficulty, can opt to play on Normal with Classic Mode on. Sure, the game becomes much more of a nail-biter when your decisions govern whether characters live or die, but it's nice to know that newcomers can still enjoy the game's hardcore offerings without the punishing difficulty.
Much of the game's story is told through conversations, all of which are genuinely entertaining to read. It is important to note that the game doesn't have full voice acting, but rather characters say a word or two, leaving you to read the rest of their conversations. Normally I'd look down on this, but given the amount of content the game has, I can forgive the lack of full voice acting.
Characters do come alive in the game's gorgeous and cinematic cutscenes. These have to be some of the most beautifully animated sequences, that almost make me wish I was playing this game on my big screen TV, rather than my 3DS XL screen. Guess I'll just have to wait for that Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem crossover for the Wii U.
Where the game seems to forgo beauty in favor of strategic accessibility is the battle screen. Nothing new for the series, but units and environments alike lose the beauty that you get from conversations and cutscenes, and are reduced to pixelated chess pieces of sorts on square battlefields. It's all for the sake of strategy.
Battles take place in turns, whereas you move all your Allied units, and then the enemy does. Think of it as a less complicated chess match with a lot more strategic options. Each character has a varied set of movement options, as well as attacking options. Mages and archers can attack their enemies from further away, while melee classes have to be directly next to them. Each character levels up individually based on their contribution to the battle. Your healer won't level up unless you're constantly healing all your allies, and likewise for all your combat classes. Not only does this make you carefully choose who to bring into battle along with you to maximize efficiency, but ensure that all your units are being put to use.
The battles themselves play out in 3D as they show the action up close. It can get pretty repetitive though after seeing your characters attack similarly for the 100th time, though luckily the game does offer some options to speed up these animations. In fact, the entirety of battles can be customized to your liking. Skipping enemy movements and battle animations entirely if you're in a hurry, or allow you to savor each battle and take the time to take it all in.
Of course the strategy goes far beyond just moving your units around a battlefield. Certain units do better against others in a rock-paper-scissors sort of mechanic. All new to Awakening though is the ability to pair units together. This has two separate benefits. For one, it allows these units to work together in battle, back each other up, and offer follow-up attacks. Each time you pair units together, their bond grows stronger, and in Awakening, this is one of the most important factors.
Possibly taking a cue from the Persona series, friendships and relationships can form through pairing characters together, which also opens up various dialogue avenues to go down. Furthermore though, it allows you to delve deeper into each character. The best part is that no two pairs are predetermined. You have the power to make a certain set of characters grow fond of each other, while another person can choose to pair them up with completely different characters. These relationships eventually build into marriages, which also result in lineages of characters that will actually join you on the battlefield. Pair this relationship aspect with the game's Classic mode, which means characters can be lost forever, and you'll have drama a-plenty.
This is Awakening's biggest asset. You yourself are building and contributing to (or taking away from) the game's overarching storyline. My story can differ from yours simply by the relationship choices I make, or by the various units that fall in battle, never to come back again. It's a realization that you don't quite get the feeling for, until after a few hours into the game, but once it clicks, you'll find yourself extremely immersed in the events and relationships.
Also new to the game is game's class change/advancement system. Using Seals, each unit can change their class at level 10 to a whole new class or further specialize their class. Keep in mind that not every character can be come every class, though your Tactician (player created character) will have the ability to choose freely. There are a number of benefits from changing classes frequently though. Everything learned from the previous class is retained as far as certain stats and skills go. That means once you reach your max level of 20, you can use the Seal and start back from level 1 again and continue raising your stats. Seals are essential for stat maximizing.
Aside from Awakening's extensive story, the game is filled to the brim with content. Side missions and skirmishes, friendship/relationship building and conversations, unit and class management and more await you in this massive game jam packed into a tiny 3DS cart. As if that wasn't enough, the game will be further supported by DLC missions which will undoubtedly take your playtime and multiply it.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a near flawless example of how to jam pack hours and hours of fun, tactical combat, and a deep story onto Nintendo's handheld. While this game would have shined on the Wii U, as it stands, it is one of the best, if not the best offerings on the 3DS.