Fire Emblem: Awakening Review

I haven’t exactly made it a secret that Fire Emblem is my absolute favorite game series of all time, but despite my zeal for it, I had some fairly serious issues with the last game, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. That game represented a move to appeal to a wider audience by making everything pitifully easy, and I couldn’t help but feel that the gameplay suffered for it. Naturally, this made me a bit nervous going into Awakening—while I had heard that the game was challenging like older Fire Emblem entries, I wasn’t so convinced that would actually be the case. My first playthrough of Awakening was on the “hard” difficulty, which is actually Fire Emblem code for the “normal” difficulty, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t love it; the new elements add a lot to the series’ tried-and-true formula, the new characters are all surprisingly interesting, and the jump from sprites to polygons (a first for a handheld Fire Emblem) is surprisingly problem-free.

These characters are for pairing

The big new feature in Awakening is the ability to “pair” units together, effectively stacking two units in order to allow them to confer stat boosts to one another. This comes with downsides, of course—while there’s a (shown) percentage chance that the paired unit will also attack and/or block all damage from an enemy’s attack, it’s by no means guaranteed, so you can potentially end up with a single attack rather than the two attacks you would have had from those two units otherwise. Pairing is also a great way to protect your weaker units. For example, say a pegasus knight needs to get to a certain part of the map quickly, but flying there would mean facing several bow-wielding enemies (who do bonus damage to flying units). Pairing said pegasus knight with a character who has a high defense means having the ability to fly to that part of the map and then switch to the high-defense character. Those bow-wielding enemies would then be unable to hit the pegasus knight no matter what, instead hitting the other unit. This adds a whole new dimension to potential combat strategies.

The more two units work together (even if it’s just fighting side-by-side rather than being paired), the more support conversations you’re able to unlock between them. Support conversations work much like in previous games, unlocking dialogue and then conferring hit/avoid/dodge bonuses when those two characters are next to each other on the map, but unlike previous games, it also increases the probability of each getting a bonus attack or blocking all damage when those characters are paired up or adjacent. In a nutshell, two characters who have had no support conversations together aren’t likely to work together, while two characters who have gotten to an A-rank support level are much more likely to work in tandem, greatly increasing your odds of a favorable outcome in battle.

The future, but today

Characters can get married to pretty much any other opposite-gendered character by working their way up to an S-rank support with them, and those two characters’ mix of skills (which I’ll get into later) will get passed down to their kids, which is relevant because said kids show up from the future to fight alongside you. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it somehow works and makes sense in the context of the game. What all of this means is that you’re not only combining certain units because of how well they work together, but also as part of a creepy selective breeding program that ensures that the next generation is comprised of unstoppable killing machines. It also means that your player-created character (“My Unit”) can get married to your best friend’s future daughter, which is hilariously weird. The whole mechanic is a ridiculous amount of fun, though, and it’s definitely a love letter to Fire Emblem 4, which features a similar mechanic.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

There must have been a six-fingered enemy.

The same great Fire Emblem as always

If you’ve ever played through a Fire Emblem game, you’re bound to be incredibly familiar with how everything works. Just like in The Sacred Stones, you move around on an overworld map and can choose when to continue on with the story. The actual map you fight on is still a square grid, and you still have information on how likely you and your enemy are to hit, how much damage you’ll both do if you hit, and how likely both of you are to get a critical hit (which triples the damage). Basically, the series’ strategic core that’s remained virtually unchanged over the years remains intact, and that’s a very good thing.

Some things have changed

Naturally, Awakening has some slight differences from other games, which is to be expected since each entry adds or subtracts an element or two. One change from previous games are the “paralogues,” which are basically sidequests that can net you helpful items and characters. These are unlocked over the course of the story and can be accessed at any time once they’ve been unlocked.

Skills are beneficial combat effects that randomly trigger during combat, and they’re also different than in previous games, being unlocked at certain levels by certain classes. For example, a character who’s a “hero” class gets the “sol” skill (which takes half of the damage you do to an enemy and adds it to your health) at level 5, whereas a character of the “sorcerer” class gets the “vengeance” skill (which adds any damage you take that turn to the damage you inflict back). Much like in Shadow Dragon, you’re able to reclass, giving you the opportunity to pick up new skills as you level up in your new class, though this requires a “Master Seal” or a “Second Seal.” Unlike in many previous games, you don’t upgrade to a new class automatically once you reach level 20, but rather through the use of said seals, and you can continue to use them until your stats are maxed out. Sadly, this can make the later portions of the game incredibly easy.

Downloadable content

One of the things I found interesting about the game was its free DLC. While I’m usually fairly anti-DLC, having the ability to download characters from previous Fire Emblem games was a nice touch of nostalgia, and there are a few free paralogues and items that can be downloaded, as well. What I didn’t like was how the DLC characters have no support conversations whatsoever. Basically, you can fight or pay a character to recruit them, but once they join you, they’re just a generic unit with a portrait. This makes the DLC characters feel incredibly pointless.

You’re also able to download DLC “xenologues,” which are end-game “alternate universe” chapters. This is DLC you have to pay for, though, which is a bit disappointing, and even more so because there’s a huge amount of it that you miss out on by just having the base game. I miss the days when you could just pay for a game and then have that entire game, but you’ll have to pay more than the game itself costs in order to acquire all of Awakening’s DLC. That being said, the xenologues don’t seem to add anything to the story, so this won’t be that big of a deal for most people. It’s a discouraging move for the franchise, though.

Random events happen throughout the day

As the hours pass, random events show up in the game. These are accessed by going to the “barracks” (which becomes available in chapter 5) from the overworld map, at which point there will be up to 5 events saved there for you. These events range from random (though often cookie-cutter) conversations between characters to temporary stat boosts and even helpful items. Events aren’t limited to the barracks, either—each map you fight on has a sparkly space or two on it, and landing one of your characters on these spaces has the same effect as an event accessed through the barracks. While these sparkly points are rarely worth putting your units in danger for, it nonetheless feels amazing when you end up acquiring a powerful weapon that helps you turn the tide of combat. All in all, random events make for a nice distraction, but they’re really nothing mind-blowing.

Differences between casual and classic

“Casual mode” is a new addition to Fire Emblem: Awakening that allows you to play without the fear of losing your characters to a bad move. Not only is permadeath turned off—any characters you lose will return at the end of the chapter rather than being killed off permanently like in previous games—but you’re also able to make mid-battle saves at any point. “Classic mode,” on the other hand, is the Fire Emblem fans have grown to love: permanent death and no saves in the middle of chapters (though you can make a “bookmark” during battle, which is a save that quits the game and gets erased when you resume).

There are serious balance problems

I wouldn’t hate the inclusion of casual mode if it didn’t affect the balance of the game, but it very clearly did. This wasn’t obvious on my first playthrough because I was playing on the easier “hard” difficulty, but once I switched to the “lunatic” difficulty (which is Fire Emblem’s name for “hard”), the balance problems became abundantly clear. Now, I’ve played through several of the harder Fire Emblem games on the most challenging difficulty, and one of the things I loved about them was how well-balanced everything always is. That’s to say that those games challenge your ability to strategize without ever forcing you to resort to pure luck to pass a chapter without losing any characters. Fire Emblem: Awakening on “lunatic” difficulty (and presumably “lunatic +”), however, forces you through an absolutely painful first few chapters where your only way of making it through is to hope for an enemy to miss an 80% chance to hit at least once or twice. I couldn’t fathom why the difficulty was so clearly unbalanced, but then it hit me: the harder difficulties were clearly designed to be played on casual mode.

This is obvious because getting through these chapters is much easier if you’re willing to sacrifice a few of your characters. If you’re not, however, then you’d better be prepared to soft-reset your 3DS or 2DS about 30-40 times before finally getting lucky. Incidentally, chapter 2, which was by far the hardest chapter on the “lunatic” difficulty, takes 26 seconds after a soft reset to get back to the actual gameplay. That’s mashing the start button to skip all of the cutscenes and everything, and “annoying” doesn’t even begin to describe how maddening this can become.

Class-changing is cheap

Another serious problem I have with the direction the Fire Emblem series is heading revolves around class changing, which is something that returns from Shadow Dragon. While it’s a bit more complicated than in that game, being able to reclass your units into virtually anything takes away from the need to plan around their unique qualities. In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, for example, I would often have to use my faster characters to form a wall to protect my aerial units from archers when they got close. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, however, it’s easier to just class-change your aerial units into something that’s not weak against bows. This takes away from the strategy quite a bit by not forcing you to consider the unique pros and cons of each class, and I sincerely hope that they remove the “everyone can be anything” feature in future entries.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

In other words, having Astra activate and hit this enemy 5 times
comes back to haunt you as you end up literally killing yourself.

Game length

I checked to see how long it took me to get through other Fire Emblem games, and I apparently spent 32 hours on my last playthrough of Radiant Dawn, 22 hours on The Sacred Stones, and around 20 on the self-titled Fire Emblem (which is actually Fire Emblem 7). Surprisingly enough, Awakening lasted me 38 hours on the “hard” difficulty, which is kind of amazing since I got the impression that it was shorter than Radiant Dawn. Now, 5-6 hours of that was eaten up by summoning enemies to the overworld map so that I could grind support conversations and marry all of my characters together, but the paralogues also helped contribute to how long the game managed to last. All things considered, you definitely get your money’s worth in Awakening despite the main story only being around as long as the one in The Sacred Stones.

The first 3D handheld Fire Emblem

Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn were the first two games to translate the sprite-based series into polygons, and Awakening not only follows suit, but is arguably even better in terms of character animations; while the fairly limited power of the 3DS means that there’s a lot of aliasing compared to the more refined models in the console games, there seems to be more (welcome) variance in the combat animations. There are also pre-rendered cutscenes that are stylized much like the cutscenes in the console entries. In fact, the only notable difference between the console games and Awakening is that your characters in the latter are still represented by little sprites on the overworld and battle map. The scenes that play out between chapters, however, have characters appear in all their polygonal glory, and it makes several scenes quite a bit more interesting than the text-only approach of the Game Boy Advance games.

As for flaws, you may have already heard that the character models don’t have feet. This is true, and though you won’t notice it most of the time, it does occasionally look like everyone’s waddling around on peg legs. Whether that’s a bad thing or not comes down to personal taste, but I pity you if you can’t pretend that they’re a bunch of pirates with wooden legs and enjoy this game even more for it.

Dynamic music

The music is actually one of the most interesting game elements; not only does Awakening have one of the better soundtracks in the series, but it also has two versions for the tracks you hear playing when you fight a battle. These aren’t different songs like in previous Fire Emblem games so much as the “combat animation version” and “battle map version” of the same song; the two are always identical when it comes to their notes and timing, but one is far more upbeat than the other. Because of that, the music is never interrupted by a separate battle theme, instead drifting effortlessly between the “soft” and “hard” versions of each track depending on whether you’re on the battle map or attacking an enemy. It’s a great usage of the music, and it really stood out for me because its creativity.

Here’s what you should do:

Fire Emblem: Awakening

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