If you've played a Fire Emblem game, you know exactly what to expect from Fire Emblem: Awakening, on the the Nintendo 3DS. If you've played an Advance Wars game or a strategy RPG other than Fire Emblem, you have a partial idea of what to expect from Fire Emblem: Awakening. The game, like other Fire Emblem games before it, is a strategy role-playing game that emphasizes strategy far over the obsessive, carefree grinding of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and the Disgaea series. It uses an Advance Wars-like grid to move units across maps to beat enemies and accomplish objectives. Different units have different classes, and almost everyone in your army is a named character with a unique art style, voice, personality, and story
A big part of Fire Emblem is the fact that one wrong move can lead to disaster, and like every other game in the series this is because when your units die, they die for good. This simple change over being able to revive units or get them back at the end of battles in other strategy RPGs puts much more of a focus on strategy, forcing you to treat every unit as potentially vulnerable. This change in the dynamic of the game is what makes it Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem: Awakening offers three difficulty settings and two modes: "Casual" and "Classic." Classic is the standard Fire Emblem gameplay, where you lose your units when you die. Casual lets you get your units back at the end of battles, and it's an abomination. Even the act of "save scumming," saving and reloading whenever a unit dies or you screw up, is a far more noble way to play through the game than Casual mode, which completely ruins the cerebral, strategic beauty of Fire Emblem. This was never meant to be an easy series, and losing units from one mistake is a big part of that. If you play in Casual mode, the dishonor will haunt your family for three generations.
The gameplay seems simple at first, with each unit having one class, one or two types of weapons, and no real options besides "Attack" or "Staff" (use a heal spell) or "Item." However, after a few rounds the game really opens up with powerful growth dynamics. Each character gets normal class levels, but once they hit level 10 they can get promoted to a higher level that gives them more abilities, like more movement or the ability to use more weapons or items. They can also switch to another basic level to get even more skills and start over after reaching the level cap of 20. Each character has a compatibility level they can raise with other characters, either through fighting next to them and triggering their assist attacks or pairing up with them into one unit, which gives gives stat bonuses, allows assist attacks and grants constant compatibility growth but only lets one of the units function per turn. The more compatible units get, the more likely they'll assist each other in combat. You can even get two units so compatible that they can marry and have kids, who benefit from both parents' stats and classes. If you like tweaking your army to perfection, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the game for you.
Graphics and Side Quests
The game looks great, which is surprising for a series known for being a top-down, sprite-based strategy game. That's because every fight in the game is animated in 3D, with different, fully-modeled units attacking with weapons and magic. In 3D it looks very good, even if it's just a pretty way to say that one number is higher than the other. The map itself is modeled in 3D, even if units are sprite-based, so the units seem to pop slightly off of the battleground. A handful of animated and 3DS cutscenes add to the game, moving the story on with epic moments.
Besides the main quest, there are several side quests that can get you additional units and items. That's just a fraction of what Fire Emblem: Awakening offers, though. You can engage in random battles on the map to build up your units, spawn "Bonus Box" armies based on characters from previous Fire Emblem games to get additional units and give yourself a challenge, play DLC challenge maps available for purchase at $2.50 each, and fight other players' armies, shared over 3DS' StreetPass feature. The DLC missions are a bit pricey, especially considering there will be a total of 25 of them (based on the Japanese version), but they're not necessary to enjoy the game and will hopefully be bundled together into cheaper packs in the future.
If I have one complaint about Fire Emblem: Awakening, it's that it leaves me wanting more. More maps, more side quests, and more battles would make this great game even better, and as it is there's already plenty to do. It's a shame additional maps are paid DLC, but the game offers enough out of the box to keep you doing for at least 20 hours. This is the best strategy game on the 3DS so far, and is an Editors' Choice for 3DS games.
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