Sweeping accessibility has never been the Fire Emblem series’s strong suit, as its primary calling card since its 1990 debut is its rapidly increasing difficulty level and the ever-present threat of perma-death. Meaning that if one of your characters expires in any particular duel, they’re gone for good—and so, too, is the opportunity to continue their specific storyline. Fire Emblem: Awakening, the first new mainline Fire Emblem entry in more than half a decade, reintroduces this vintage series to the world by catering equally to both hardcore SRPG fanatics and casual gamers alike, and in a manner that retains the nostalgia-inducing spirit of the earlier games while exuding an unarguably modern feel by way of towering production values and impeccable attention to detail. Intelligent Systems has seemingly done the impossible by making an SRPG that’s a necessity for any gamer over the age of 12; Awakening isn’t only the most masterful Fire Emblem title in recent memory, but it just might be the best game to grace the 3DS yet.
On the surface, Awakening’s gameplay model represents standard grid-based strategic fare, as each battle is a war of tactical maneuverability that plays out like a brutal chess match between swords, lances, axes, bows, staves, and magical stones/tomes. Choosing the correct acquired attack units, weapons, and backup strategies in case things go rapidly awry is just the tip of the iceberg. In the heat of combat, on any variable map, chaos can unexpectedly ensue when enemy cavalry rushes in or tough-as-nails boss characters suddenly appear. This is all typical Fire Emblem sleight of hand, but where Awakening’s advancement comes in is that it, finally, allows for several different modes of play: Normal, Hard, Lunatic, and, for those who can withstand its unmitigated torment, there’s the unlockable Lunatic Plus scenario. In addition, there’s the charitable option to choose between Classic and Casual settings, the latter of which disables the notorious perma-death, allowing teething Fire Emblem players to experience all Awakening has to offer without constantly worrying about saying goodbye to a character they’ve come to care for. Pairing squad members as symbiotic teammates, fiddling with relationship-building functions, and the class-switching Seal system are also generous touches that add extra layers of complexity to the already deep dynamics Fire Emblem is known for.
Consummate customization is key to Awakening’s resounding success, as every experiential aspect, major or minor, can be tweaked and modified to your heart’s content. Most notably, creating a personal avatar to take part in the narrative amplifies the emotional attachment already provided in spades. Unwavering Japanophiles can relish in the excellent original-language track (though the English dub is more than satisfactory), testy speed-runners can bypass lengthy, albeit often dazzling, cinematics and expedite battlefield animations on their initial playthrough, and various informational hints and tutorials can be lessened at the drop of a hat. These magnanimous options speak to Awakening’s extraordinary degree of approachability, and Intelligent Systems deserves the utmost praise for bringing such fashionable alternatives to the table without sacrificing the old-school SRPG, overly ballbusting methodology Fire Emblem will forever be associated with.
Awakening’s epic allegory is one for the ages, a much more moving take on the traditional good-versus-evil corrupted-kingdoms yarn that weaves its way through each Fire Emblem installment like an immortal serpent. The writers never rely on tired plot devices or cookie-cutter characterizations, frequently taking the path less traveled when it comes to the moral compasses of their hominal creations. It doesn’t take long to become fully invested in the tale of virtuous prince Chrom and his quest to protect his homeland, Ylisse, from shadowy forces. Thanks to superb localization, the eccentric cast exudes a potent humanism; non-spoken dialogue is actually a joy to read, making each character worth the strenuous efforts it takes to keep them alive.
Awakening doesn’t just excel in the areas of gameplay and storytelling, its graphics comfortably surpass any other reputable 3DS title as the most beautiful game on the platform. The cutscenes pop with a spectrum of vibrant colors and fluid movements, the 2.5D maps and 3D battles are exquisitely rendered, character models look fresh while still paying homage to the series’s pioneering designs, and even the text boxes are easy on the eyes. The score, by Hiroki Morishita and Rei Kondoh, is also to be celebrated, expertly covering all the aural bases, from energetic war anthems to slower, more melancholy dramatic arrangements.
With StreetPass, SpotPass, and DLC aplenty on top of its many excellent upgrades to the Fire Emblem mold, Awakening is an indisputable must-have for any 3DS owner, and perhaps, because of Intelligent Systems’ unmatched dedication to crafting an SRPG that anyone can instantaneously enjoy, it’s the definitive reason for those still waiting for another price drop or the elusive “better set of games” to cease making excuses and procure one immediately.