It begins in the midst of a heated and crucial battle. Snippets of dialogue make it clear that your character and your ally Chrom have fought alongside each other for quite some time to reach this point. A maniacal laugh from the imposing Validar leaves no doubt that he is an evil figure who must be stopped.
By letting you create your own character--a Fire Emblem first--and then immediately tossing you into this high-stakes situation, Fire Emblem: Awakening grabs you right away. Who are these people? What are they fighting for? How did they reach this point? The answers to such questions will have to wait. After a brief skirmish with Validar, a shocking turn of events occurs that you may wish to experience for yourself. At this point, the game flashes back to your character's first meeting with Chrom, the proper beginning of Awakening's tale. It's an intriguing start that makes you eager to experience the journey that brought the heroes into that fateful encounter with the villainous Validar.
Awakening aims to be a good entry point into the series for those who have found it intimidating in the past. This is evident in the casual option, which disables the series' famous system of permanent death for characters who fall in battle; with this option enabled, characters defeated in one battle return in subsequent ones. But of course, this is just an option; anyone who wishes to fight battles in which the threat of death hangs over their troops can do so. Decisions are sure to feel far more meaningful when you know that the wrong one could cost you a character whose skills you've built up and whose personality you've grown attached to.
You might worry that a game that lets you disable permadeath wouldn't be a true Fire Emblem game, but Awakening's early moments exhibit all the hallmarks of the series. The quality of the writingis immediately apparent, and characters speak with the alluring formality that is typical of noble warriors in Fire Emblem games. (They rarely use an insult any more crude than "dastard," for instance.)
But despite their highborn sense of propriety, the characters' use of language is anything but stiff or off-putting. Your created character is suffering from the all-too-common video game ailment of amnesia when he or she first meets Chrom and his companions, but refreshingly, Awakening demonstrates a sense of humor about this predicament. Frederick, Chrom's rational, skeptical right-hand man, doubts the veracity of your claims of memory loss, advising Chrom that your amnesia is "a load of pegasus dung!" In quick, sharp strokes, Awakening gives its characters distinctive personalities that immediately make you want to get to know them better, and to keep them alive throughout the battles ahead.
Those battles seem poised to maintain the delicious balance between accessibility and tactical depth that has given Fire Emblem its reputation as an excellent series of strategy games. The weapon triangle is still in effect here (swords are good against axes, axes are good against lances, and lances are good against swords), and positioning your troops in these turn-based conflicts is more important than ever. When allied characters are near each other, they can provide each other with stat bonuses, and can pair up to perform coordinated attacks on enemies. As in earlier Fire Emblem games, the relationships between characters can strengthen over time, and in Awakening, it's even possible for your created character to marry certain other characters. Of course, seeing characters level up and learn new skills is rewarding, but it may be just as interesting to learn more about them as people and see their connections with each other evolve.
In most ways, Awakening appears to stay true to the Fire Emblem legacy, but there are a few new elements here that have the potential to enhance the experience without compromising what the series has always been. Random opportunities for battle appear on Awakening's world map; these give you a chance to earn some experience, but you're always free to avoid them if you choose. At a certain point in the story, you gain access to the Outrealm Gate, from which you can access downloadable maps that offer various rewards, if you can win the challenges they face you with. The first such map will be available for free and rewards you for your victory with the hero Marth as a member of your team. Other well-known characters from the series will be available rewards from future DLC. (Those interested in Fire Emblem's fiction may be glad to know that these characters don't naturally exist in Awakening's world; the Outrealm Gate functions as a gateway of sorts to alternate universes.)
For inveterate StreetPassers, the most exciting new feature Awakening brings to the series will likely be StreetPass functionality. This allows you to put together a team of 10 characters who appear in the worlds of other players you StreetPass with. Their teams also appear in your world, and if you can defeat them in battle, or afford their price in gold, you can add their members to your own forces. Provided that anyone you encounter in your travels actually plays Awakening, this could keep the game's world feeling spontaneous and alive.
Awakening's first 30 minutes exhibit a good deal of promise. The question of whether or not the game delivers on that promise will be answered soon; it's scheduled for release here in the US on February 4th. If you'd like to get a taste of Awakening yourself and do battle with some brigands and dastards, a demo will be made available on the 3DS eShop on January 17.