For the uninitiated, Hard Mode is about on par with the Normal Modes of past FE games released in the States, and Classic signifies that when your units die, they stay dead. There's also a Casual mode, which allows players to regain their fallen comrades after a skirmish. Though I didn't make use of the Casual mode myself, I'm glad to see it added to FE. It's something that has obviously invited in many new players, and this series surely deserves it.
The story follows the exploits of the Ylissian prince, Chrom, and his new best friend (either male or female), an avatar character which you create at the beginning of the game. There are a few twists and turns here and there, as well as ample character development, but honestly, Awakening's story is a mishmash of engrossing, disjointed, and simply ridiculous. There are elements that do a great job drawing you in, but there is also major plot development missing. The dialogue can be over-the-top, and though the overarching story is solid, the glue that's meant to hold it all together is terribly weak.
In spite my disappointment with the story, the characters grow on you. This is due in large part to the huge amount of character building the game affords you. The Support system is a major boon, allowing you to form relationships with units that will ultimately fall in love, marry, and sire children you can later use as playable characters. A lot of this is obviously a throwback to FE4, but it's mostly new to us outside of Japan.
The Support system is also more organic than it perhaps was in games like Radiant Dawn, as characters form bonds based on fighting near one another, rather than simply initiating conversations back at base. Stats are raised when fighting side-by-side, and as your relationships grow stronger, so do the benefits units bestow upon one another. You can pair units together, which completely alters the approach of strategy. Building up relationships not only reaps gameplay rewards but also treats you to some of the most entertaining dialogue the game has to offer.
One major change to the Fire Emblem formula is the ability to pretty much endlessly grind. Though you could level up units in the tower of Sacred Stones, and other mechanics in past FE games may have given players the opportunity to beef up their characters in other ways, Awakening really opens the flood gates in that regard. Random encounters appear periodically, as well as StreetPass battles, and a plethora of DLC (available and on the way) give you the option of gaining quick XP, unique characters and weapons, as well as Limit Breaker, a scroll that boost max-character stats by 10 – all re-playable to your heart's content.
However, none of these additions subtracted from the experience for me, personally. The opposite was true. Though you could probably zip through the story in about 20 hours, much of my time was spent noodling with building up my characters and forming relationships. And you can't really experience everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough…or even two for that matter. There are tons of conversations to enjoy, tidbits of backstory, and loads of cool pair-ups to experiment with.
The game's also quite gorgeous. I enjoyed the visuals and 3D in Ocarina of Time and Resident Evil: Revelations, but this is the first 3DS game in which I found it impossible to turn the 3D effect off. The action in other games often makes it hard to fully enjoy the 3D, since you're inadvertently moving your system around. With a game like Awakening, though, you have more time to sit and enjoy the view.
I also rarely turn off the battle animations, which are comprised of beautiful landscapes and character models. The battlefields are easily my favorite visual highlight. The 2D sprites look fantastic atop the polygonal overworlds that are chock full of wonderful details, such as birds flying above the 3D screen – absolutely stunning.
The same can be said about the music. It seems Nintendo finally "gets it" when it comes to real orchestrations over outdated MIDI sequences. There is an incredible variety of powerful themes littered throughout the adventure, and when you complete the story, you can go back into the extras and enjoy them alongside the Unit Gallery. There's also a cute, little Hubba Tester that can make faux romance determinations for all of your unlocked characters, and if you ever want to go back and watch the story cutscenes (which are amazing in 3D) again, you can do so in the game's theater mode. Intelligent Systems really spared no expense.
Fire Emblem: Awakening may not be the perfect SRPG, but good Lord, if it isn't one of the best this generation. The interface (you can touch on any element of the touch screen for a detailed description of stats, items, etc.) is the best the series has seen, and the helpings are robust. The story is disappointing, especially when graded against such game giants as Final Fantasy Tactics (War of the Lions version, that is), and the DLC is overpriced, not to mention a little bit tasteless at times (some DLC is designed to allow players to pay to make the game easier). Nevertheless, this is absolutely one of the best values I've gotten out of my 3DS. The gameplay is addictive, and the community is abuzz. If you're a longtime fan, jump right in; if you've been scared off by the series in the past, this is your opportunity to finally enjoy a great (and completely unique) SRPG series without being intimidated by unforgiving systems.