Strategy games are not my wheelhouse. My competency with the genre fluctuates at points depending on the sub-genre a particular game falls under, though the shortcomings I face have a tendency to be consistent across the board. There have been a rare handful which clicked for me – Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars – both of which, you will notice, are not real-time or simulations, a fact I’ve become increasingly aware of every time I try my hand at them. It’s the number of moving parts which get me along with the min/max nature of the genre, and though I tend to be okay with these separately, when pushed together, they’re a lot like rubbing your head and patting your belly at the same time. Something just doesn’t fall into place no matter how many times I try to fit a round peg into that square hole. Though Awakening is my first foray into the Fire Emblem series, I’d heard enough praise to know I at least wanted to give them a go, and it appeared take-your-time versus real-time, more or less sealing the eventual deal.
It’s good. I get the appeal. The story isn’t anything to write home about, but it has its charm in that quirky way a fair amount of heavily Japanese influenced games will. The strange makes it a bit of a bipolar thing, however, the backdrop one of war, death, and – as most fantasy tends to mill – total annihilation from an ancient evil, these parts juxtaposed by the goofiness of the characters in your army. Between battles you’re able to stop by the Barracks and listen in on either conversations between characters or the solitary musings of one, both of which may yield either an item, some gained experience, or relationship boost among friends, and after checking there, you might also be able to utilize the Support ability which gives a small cut-scene as two characters improve their standing with one another, a statistic raising their usefulness in battle alongside one another. These meetings are often silly in nature. There’s Frederick who’s the Prince’s knight and so fastidious and particular as to remove every rock from the path prior to the army’s march, or to watch someone bathe in order to be sure they don’t catch a chill. Lissa who cannot cook and is always trying horrible recipes on unsuspecting allies. Kellam, dressed in tank-sized armor who no one appears to ever notice, claiming he crept up on them in spite of being right there the entire time. Tharja, the psychotic Dark Mage in love with the main character. Vaike who cannot stop flexing. You get the idea. These vignettes add a good deal to the flavor, and for a game with a permanent death option (which I used in my play-through), also lead to me making some heavier choices between who to/not to use for sake of not wanting to lose that person in case things went south. But again, played against the attempted heaviness of the story, the result is an uneven one without either side ever really meeting in the middle or melding well. Though I never truly would, a small part of me would almost recommend ignoring the option to speak with your team in an effort to buoy the narrative and make it more focused. I understand the dichotomy is a part of the series’ charm, and not one I can wholly fault as I’m the target market for oddities (Catherine, by example, is one of my favorite PS3 games), only something worth mentioning for those of you heading in blind.
To touch briefly on the story rather than using broad strokes, they do an excellent job with the time travel element. It doesn’t feel horribly tacked on, and though a large part of the narrative, it also doesn’t feel too gimmicky, oddly subtle with more of a background noise approach. Often I find time travel in any medium too heavily explained. Not that it’s bad to have solid reasoning to carry your audience from point A to B (or in the case of time travel, B to A) – the Star Trek reboot handled things quite well, even if there are dissenters – with a fleshed anchor, only saying sometimes less is more, as is the case here. I’m being intentionally vague, I know. Point being: I like its use, and it made what would have otherwise been a bland, other-than slog through bad guys/heroes/save-the-day far more appealing. My only slight is in the enemy camp. For a game focusing so heavily on its characters, they went full cookie-cutter with the opposition. There is a single moment where we get life in the enemy, and for that moment, it rises above even what I expect out of other titles, but just as quickly the characters slump leaving us with generic bad guy who’s evil because he’s evil. Yawn.
Graphics are a mix of Super Nintendo Era and typical 3DS, a bird’s eye view used as you move your troops around the battlefield. There are a few animated clips throughout and these are gorgeous. Many of the cut-scenes are not, unfortunately, more function over style, though I wouldn’t say the game loses any points for it graphically, but many of the parts feel recycled the further you delve becoming familiar with camera placement, sparse landscapes, and three or so characters huddled close to one another. When one piece is so graphically stunning and the other so unimaginative, the disparity only becomes more pronounced.
I’m going to be a little inconsistent here, and for a second I want you to ignore everything I said above about too many moving parts. Okay? Good. Awakening is easy. It borders going through the motions without quite slipping over the edge, but the difficulty curve is more a straight line to slightly elevated straight line than anything. Between Chapters which constitute the main story, there are side skirmishes available from time to time along with a side-story popping up occasionally as well, and you can also purchase an item known as a Reeking Box triggering a side skirmish wherever you choose to open it. As a person who often becomes mired in quests off the beaten path until I’ve exhausted every avenue before plunging back into the main fray, these distractions serve only to placate my OCD and level up my characters to seeming Herculean results. I want to say I bought two, maybe three of those Reeking Boxes in total, getting only into other fights when they appeared on my map, and even following that pattern left me well outside the enemy’s reach. Around halfway through is when I first noticed the gap, and while there were still some elements to each battle requiring a dash of planning, there was little fear of either failure or losing a unit unless I went completely reckless, two points yanking all tension from the experience. Awakening has a fair number of classes available, all of which are able to be upgraded into one or two different advanced classes (Fighter to Barbarian, Archer to Sniper) specializing in a certain style of play. Further, if you find yourself unimpressed with any new units acquired either by the side missions or main story, their classes can be changed as well offering more structure for how you’d like to approach the game. And as you level, new abilities become available to each of your characters which will also change the way you might use them in battle, this coupled with newer weapons unlocking through progression or class upgrades along with those advancements make for a healthy amount of customization. Unfortunately, there’s very little need for it. Oh you should upgrade, absolutely, as the advanced classes are going to be obviously stronger and allow for more options, however the abilities were never something I felt necessary to mess with. I got them, stuck them on, didn’t try to rearrange any specific thing to again min/max, and still managed to steamroll the competition. In spite of how prone I am to easily drowning in “too much” with this genre, I couldn’t help but feel Awakening might have benefited from more purposeful variety. Much of what I found was simple window dressing, nothing I needed to worry about getting right or wrong lest it cause me failure somewhere down the line. Even a narrowing of the number of ability slots each character has would have provoked more interaction, forcing me into either a meaningful decision around my desired “loadout” or, at the very least, a particular leaning toward certain unit types. As it was, I could just roll with whomever the game selected for me and have at it. To be fair, I did personally select who did/did not go into battle, but the argument remains the same. Though I do tend to grind in my RPGs as is the nature of that beast, I never feel overpowered the further I venture, and though the genre has a tendency to over inflate its difficulty near the end, I would have liked a closer struggle here.
Fire Emblem Awakening is a good game. I don’t mean to give the impression it’s not. I’d call it worth the price of admission. Uneven in a number of places, when it shines it shines brightly, and I’m sure those more familiar with the series will find it an easy addition to their collection. I am tempted to go backwards in the catalog to see what nods to fans I likely missed. A number of spots felt self-referential, and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. Overall recommended if you can overlook a few missteps.