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Over the years strategy RPG has become a genre that gamers seem to have a love hate relationship with. If you are able to make the time investment and crack into these “thinking man” games, then often you’ll find both a satisfying and rewarding experience. Developers often struggle with how to make these titles accessible to new players while keeping the core crowd pleased with the genres complex and rigorous systems. Thankfully Intelligent Systems has struck a near perfect balance with Fire Emblem: Awakening and in turn created one of, if not the best portable RPG experience to date.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is the latest entry in the storied Nintendo franchise. To many in the West, like myself, this may be your first experience with a Fire Emblem game. Personally this was due to my somewhat timid approach to the previous installments based on the “hardcore” nature of them. These fantastical battle strategy games have always been at the top of my “to do list” but the barrier to entry created by their complex systems always seemed intimidating. In previous installments, permadeath was at the core of the gameplay and I just never wanted to subject myself to that. Losing teammates and ultimately gameplay assets was just not interesting to me even if the narrative potentially was.

largeThankfully with Fire Emblem: Awakening, Intelligent Systems has given players the option to play in what suits them best. First of course is choosing the difficulty. Normal, hard, lunatic, and eventually lunatic plus all provide the proper challenge to all walks of experienced players. Beyond that is the most important option and that is the ability to play in either classic or casual modes. Classic mode delivers the permadeath ridden Fire Emblem experience that players either love or hate, while the casual mode allows fallen characters to revive after the battle is over as well as allow saving during battle. This option alone completely opens the game up and helps encourage new players to jump in and learn the complex systems without the crushing consequences.

Either choice you make in the game mode will deliver an intense experience that will potentially span 30 to 40 hours based primarily on your attention to detail. The game features a main campaign which tasks your party of heroes to venture around a map taking on the many chapters. Littered around the map are paralogue chapters which are missions that each have a small self contained story that essentially act as side missions. Randomly the game will also spawn challenge characters along the path that are completely optional battles but that will help level up your party and may score you some new loot and gold. These are all optional but help progress your characters and are just down right fun to play.

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As for the gameplay itself it is much of what you would expect from a strategy RPG such as moving units around a battlefield with turn based combat. The chess like nature of the gameplay quickly becomes addicting. It is the many new elements that help add to the strategy, course of battle, and make Fire Emblem: Awakening feel like a new game all together. The ability to form relationships between characters just by battling side by side helps boost stats and make each stronger. These relationships are progressed through dialogue outside of battle through the support system. I found myself purposely making one or two combat choices per battle to make sure certain characters battled next to each other just so I could see how their relationship would progress in the downtime between battles. These relationships can even lead to marriage between characters as well as to children who can then be recruited as playable characters.

The game also features a new character creation screen which allows you to create and customize your own playable character. You are given limited options for your appearance and voice as well as for strength and weakness. From what I could tell, these choices may initially seem impactful but as the game progresses, my play style and weapon choices had more of an immediate effect on the development of my character. Skills also unlock throughout play and can be changed to help further customize your characters and their gameplay.

Each character in your party levels up independently which can lead to even more interesting decisions during the course of battle. Immediately killing a unit with your overpowered Knight Frederick may not be the best choice because your player created character may need the XP that would be rewarded to achieve their next weapon level. It’s the metagame systems like this that really make the game shine. It may seem overwhelming at first but the game does an excellent job of introducing them throughout the course of play through tutorial windows that effectively convey the information. Just winning the battle was not always the reason I found myself wanting to progress.

The narrative and characters of the game are also extremely engrossing. It’s the classic story of the kingdom coming under fire from an outside threat but the likable characters and witty dialogue help deliver an entertaining experience that kept me wanting more throughout. The relationship system kept narratives rolling between characters throughout and in classic mode a fallen character during battle means their story ends. I will admit that I ended up playing on casual mode just to ensure I was able to see all of the story. I enjoyed what was at play narratively as well as between each character and just could not accept missing out on any of it.

Fire-Emblem-Chrom-WorriedThe presentation of the game is the best of any on the 3DS to date. With its sweeping orchestral soundtrack to the visually stunning 3D cutscenes you can’t find a better visceral gaming experience on the system. The game actually has a few different stylings for each character. Some of the dialogue is delivered via static portraits of characters with text dialogue while some is presented via fully 3D rendered, full motion cutscenes. The in-battle map features 8-bit looking sprites that you move around the map but when turns are taken 3D modeled characters carry out the attacks. This flipping between art styles at first is odd but eventually becomes second nature and honestly helps give the game it’s own character providing a throwback to the previous entries in the series.

Not all is perfect with Fire Emblem: Awakening however, with it’s inventory management system being its weakest spot. Between battles characters must be equipped with weapons, healing items, and other items that help the flow of battle. I found the implementation of this to seem cluttered and unnecessarily tedious. Having to flip between multiple screens and scroll through what seemed like tons of items in my convoy quickly became tiresome. The system is definitely effective but I can’t help but think there is a better and faster way it could have been implemented. The constant grunts and groans form characters during full conversations delivered via text boxes also gets old real  fast. Why go through the bother of putting some voice acting in and not go for it all? I’m sure it was due to the size limitation placed on the title  but a bit more would have been nice.

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Starting on launch day Nintendo has already committed to providing DLC for the game. After Chapter 5 a gateway is opened up on the map that brings players to an online store where new maps and characters can be purchased. Currently one of the series long standing heroes Marth is available as a free DLC. You don’t just immediately unlock the characters but have to successfully complete a battle to unlock them. Marth’s map features some 8-bit music from the old games and it is a joy to play. Seeing the new visuals coupled with the old music is just fantastic. With more DLC on the way players will be playing Fire Emblem: Awakening for a long time.

I can’t say it enough that Fire Emblem: Awakening is hands down one of the best portable RPG’s ever. I absolutely loved this game and that’s coming from a guy who generally doesn’t play this genre. The characters kept me invested while the minute to minute course of each battle had me thinking about my next move based off the many metagame and combat systems built into it. The many layers of its systems, when conquered, provide an amazingly satisfying experience that I didn’t want to end. This game is a must buy for 3DS owners and could potentially be a system seller for fans of the previous games. With the promise of DLC and the sheer content already packed into the game, I will be playing Fire Emblem: Awakening for many months to come. Do yourself a favor and do the same.

FEA