Whatever the cause, the gaming industry has seen a surge of permadeath in modern titles. The concept remains fundamental to Spelunky, FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and the rest of the roguelike genre, though the characters respawn at the end of each session no worse for wear. Releases like Dead Space 3 and Darksiders II carry the weight of death one step further, negating hours of work by erasing the save file the instant you perish. XCOM: Enemy Unknown established a good middle ground between these two extremes, allowing players to continue the campaign despite losing squadmates during previous missions.
Fire Emblem has always handled permadeath similarly, which contributed to a smaller fan base for over two decades. In this post-XCOM world, however, Fire Emblem: Awakening may herald the series’ separation from niche shackles, as the game now includes two combat settings to test veterans and newcomers. Classic mode delivers a true Fire Emblem experience: Characters that die here are lost forever. That over-leveled Bow Knight you thought could evade any threat will not miraculously revive. Every death leads to heartbreak, and while you could simply reload an older save, shutting off the 3DS will not remedy the shock.
For players too intimidated by the perpetual character loss, Casual mode remains the way to go. Heroes who sacrificed themselves only disappear from the current skirmish, but setting the difficulty to Casual still diminishes the essence of Fire Emblem, lessening the gravitas, the tension, the feeling that any moment could be your ally’s last. Awakening offers a wealth of champions to recruit, and their dynamic personalities and backgrounds move the story forward through humorous everyday interactions. For instance, Kellam acts as the shy, silent type despite his ironically large size, and after leaving his friends to travel the world, years pass before they notice Kellam’s absence.
The polygonal sprites and animated cutscenes may stand out in this trailer, but the soundtrack is equally mesmerizing.
The writing’s creative synergy drives players to preserve every possible protagonist, because their untimely ends wipe out narrative side arcs and unique conversations. But none of the excess dialogue has a bearing on the grander story. The tale begins nearing its conclusion, with a skilled swordsman and hooded mage fighting a demonic sorcerer. Is this antagonist the true threat to the lands of Ylisse? The premonition soon fades, and your created avatar awakes under the effects of a typical RPG plot device: amnesia. Meanwhile, undead shadow soldiers start ransacking settlements around the capital city Ylisstol, and Chrom, the prince responsible for interrupting your slumber, would have you join his party of Shepherds as lead tactician to combat these netherworld forces.
Battles commence in turn-based form. As players move individuals of varying classes around a tactical grid, attacks initiate one-on-one duels between allies and adversaries. That sounds simple, but fights become a little more complicated when breaking down Fire Emblem’s rock-paper-scissors percentages. Characters carrying spears strengthen their hit chances against enemies wielding swords, while swords best axes and axes crush spears; archers inflict more harm to flying units, yet they need to be distanced from their targets and cannot counter adjacent opposition; and magic users can attack from several spaces away, though they often possess less health. The sword and sorcery triangles then feed back into the game’s strategic number crunching any JRPG fan will love, and keep the tedium to a minimum.
Players must factor in the terrain when positioning units.
Of course, not all fantasies are created equal. After several introductory skirmishes, Chrom seeks to end the brooding war marching across Ylisse. That involves mending wrongs with neighboring countries, sacrificing one life to save thousands more, and the anime trope of challenging one’s fate. The developers know when to cue the softer harmonies to accentuate more poignant moments, though the melodrama pulls too tightly at the player’s heartstrings. No matter how well-adapted or grammatically correct the localization appears, deaths that occur during the crisp CG cutscenes result in dry, almost emotionless reactions. It’s a limitation of the visual novel text, and I cared less for the protagonists when their fates were out of my control.
Losing a favorite character due to poor battlefield maneuvering riles emotions more than any cinematic. Allies gain experience with each duel survived, and once they eclipse level ten, players spend Master Seals to upgrade or alter their classes. (The Archer, for example, becomes a Bow Knight or Sniper.) But those two dozen hours of outfitting an individual with the best gear, ensuring he or she strikes the killing blow on the enemy commanders, and establishing friendships with initially antisocial team members can end in a single turn, and the other 30-odd heroes may never replace their fallen comrade.
I will hear no complaints about Awakening's multiple presentation styles.
Still, the odds are rarely stacked against you. Selecting an enemy highlights its movement range, and the game compares your combatant’s attack power, hit percentage, and critical rating before you instigate a duel. In addition, adjacent champions instinctively aid each other, granting stat boosts and a chance to shield teammates from retaliatory strikes. The developers then take this tag teaming to a whole new level. Players may pair up heroes, which buffs one fighter’s abilities (since he or she does all the attacking and dodging). Pairs also move together and can be switched around or separated at the cost of their turn, which poses a risk once the game piles on the hostile reinforcements.
The longer two individuals fight side by side, however, the stronger their relationship grows. If characters of the opposite sex achieve an S rank in their relationship, they will marry, and their children can be recruited to your party for narrative reasons I will avoid spoiling. This leads to an important question. Do you play matchmaker between your most cherished fighters, or pair potential partners based on the abilities their offspring may inherit?
Donnel turns out to be a real underdog. Wait until he ascends to a higher class.
Most of the characters join your group automatically, though some story battles contain neutral individuals reluctant to die for the enemy’s cause, and Chrom can convince these rogues to have a change of heart before allies unknowingly slaughter them. Paralogues (side quests) and Xenologues (DLC missions) are a great source of new and powerful warriors, too. These chapters require certain victory conditions be met before the protagonists join Chrom and his Shepherds, such as leveling up a simple farmhand before the end of the fight.
Players will want to complete as many Paralogues that appear on the world map, as well as any Xenologue missions they can afford. The last six chapters lead to an almost off-putting difficulty spike, and the enemy AI ‒ which already pours through openings in your measly defenses ‒ starts exploiting weaknesses it previously ignored. The antagonists’ luck often hits the jackpot too, wherein attacks with only a 20-percent success rate seem to connect every time. I considered restarting the campaign (20 hours in) on Casual mode during this final stretch, because losing better units can be a serious detriment to the party’s melee/magic balance. Except, a solid afternoon of grinding levels rectified the problem, and the combat’s harrowing back and forth nature never made the ordeal a chore.
JRPGs require a significant time commitment, though few reward that investment like Fire Emblem: Awakening. You grow attached to your fighters, you pick favorites, and you punish those that annoy you by “accidentally” leaving them exposed in battle. The AI will challenge your strategies and test your resolve each step of the way, and not even the occasional instance of awkward storytelling can sully a recommendation. As a game of chess with a hint of chance, Fire Emblem: Awakening deserves to be played by every 3DS owner.
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Local Multiplayer)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)