Packed with loads of content and powered by its incredible character development, Awakening is a resounding success
Strategy games and handhelds form one of gaming's finest pairings. Gameplay that is centered around grid-based movements and automatic battles does not shine through the addition of frills. On the contrary, games of that kind seem to be at their best when their visuals are charmingly simple and their strategic content is vast, highly flexible, and complex when explored throughly. In addition, their neat division in independent chapters and battles is a perfect match with a portable console's nature of being played in smaller bursts of time. Fire Emblem: Awakening - the eleventh game of the series and the fifth one to be released out of Japan - meets those requirements perfectly and does much more, making it one of the most enjoyable games available for the Nintendo 3DS.
The plot focuses on the chronicles of Chrom, a member of Ylisse's royal family and the next in line to succeed his sister Emmeryn as the country's leader. A loyal and devoted character, Chrom leads a group of soldiers - known as The Shepherds - that lives to protect the country's population and Emmeryn alike. When the neighboring nation of Plegia starts invading Ylisse's borders for no apparent reason, the group is thrown in the middle of small regional combats that eventually escalate to an all-out war infused with politics and treacherous villains, giving more than enough material for the game to present 27 chapters featuring a lot of plot development and battles.
Each chapter is structured on pretty much the same way. Combat is sandwiched between thick portions of dialogue and a few cutscenes that move the plot forward constantly, often making the end of each one of the game's portions as some sort of cliffhanger that will lead into the next chapter. The storyline is nicely written, and even if pre or post-battle conversations can be long, they remain completely engaging. Most of that can be easily attributed to Awakening's impressively remarkable character development. The main plot centers around about ten members of The Shepherds and numerous other NPCs, and although some of the enemies' personalities can be a little bit too one-dimensional, the interactions between the large cast of characters are always extremely interesting due to how intensively players will inevitably come to care about them.
Awakening's combats are certainly not varied in their goal, which is almost invariably either defeating the commander of the troops or completely clearing the map of enemies. However, the scenarios and enemy unities are mixed enough to make a great portion of the missions very engaging and unique. The sole exception can be found on the final portion of levels, on which the game endlessly throws troops at the player in an attempt to defeat them by exhaustion, making a few of the main story's final missions turn into mildly repetitive affairs.
As the story progresses, new units will join The Shepherds, and by the end of the game players will have around forty units to choose from when setting up a team to go into the battlefield. Every member of the team is rather unique not solely due to their personality, but because the game provides a very impressive array of basic and advanced classes - each with their own base stats, abilities and weapons - and even gives players the opportunity to re-class any character they wish. As a consequence, abilities learned by the character on his original class are brought over with him to a different class. Needless to say, possibilities become nearly endless, and such strong unit-building features make it extremely unlikely that there are two identical groups of Shepherds out there.
When in battles, players can pair-up characters or simply put them side-by-side. Both of those actions allow characters to support each other when attacking or being attacked by enemy forces, while pairing them up - which is done by placing two characters on the very same square - has the extra strategical benefit of allowing one character that has a wider range of movement - such as a knight - to quickly carry the other onto a relatively distant area of the map.
When battling as a pair, the supporting member of the duo will always boost one or more of his partner's stats. They might even block incoming attacks or strike the enemy after the lead character hits, making joining characters' forces and knowing how to build your pairs carefully - paying close attention to each unit's weaknesses and strengths - very valuable in the tackling of the game's toughest missions. As they battle together, characters improve their relationship, and - consequently - the stats boost, much like the probability they will defend their partner or attack the enemy, will grow.
Those rewards for creating partnerships, though certainly fantastic and carrying enough weight to change the gameplay, are not the most entertaining or significant. In the game's smartest game design decision, Fire Emblem: Awakening illustrates the growth of the relationship between characters through unlockable dialogues. For each new level that the partnership reaches, it is possible to watch characters develop their bonds in situations that can be humorous, dramatic or simply heart-warming. Some of those interactions might even culminate in marriages, hence triggering the appearance new missions that introduce the future sons or daughters of your characters that - through a plot-related twist - can join your army. To further add to the game's uncanny depth of options, the stats and abilities of those second-generation characters are affected by whoever fathered them.
Awakening is, then, a game that fully acknowledges its stunning ability to develop a very big cast of soldiers. Instead of simply basking in its greatness, it chooses to take advantage of it to increase the value of its gameplay. The dialogues that are unlocked as characters become closer are a delight to watch. In fact, it is relatively safe to state that most players will be so drawn to them that they will grind and battle just so that they can be pleased by a couple of minutes of character-development that will reveal more and more about the inner relationships inside their army. It is such a treat that calling it Awakening's greatest feature would be no exaggeration.
Another of the game's incredible highlights is how much content it holds. Aside from offering, among the main storyline and sidequests, a whopping fifty free missions, the game has dozens of pay-to-play mission packages that can be purchased online, not to mention hundreds of free downloadable units from past Fire Emblem games that can be integrated into your army at will. If that is not enough, the single-player adventure can be conquered in four distinct levels of difficulty, which can be configured to either be “Classic” (on which, like on traditional Fire Emblem games, characters that are killed in battle never return and cannot be used again) or “Casual” (on which defeated units simply retreat and become available once more on the next mission).
For those who plan on facing the game on “Classic”, Awakening offers a bit of a problem though. As every decision counts and any character that is defeated never shows up again, it is only natural that some players will decide to try to clear all missions without losing any units. Doing so will obviously mean that if a character is killed, players will want to start the missions again from scratch. Unfortunately, the game does not offer the option to do so through its menu - a blatant overlook - meaning that resetting the system itself is required if battle is to be restarted. It is a minor annoyance, but a very basic flaw.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is, in the end, an absolute must-have for both veterans and beginners of the strategy genre. Its flooring depth and nearly endless content turn it into a package that offers more than enough value for every single dollar that is spent on its purchase. More than being one of the best strategy offerings of the past decade, it is a game with a lot of heart. Its enchanting characters, their stories, and their relationships take Awakening to a level of its own, something that only the talented folks from Intelligent Systems could have achieved.