An Instant Classic
From one angle, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a game about resetting your 3DS. A unique feature of this top-down strategy game is that its units are named characters, rather than faceless masses - and if they fall in battle, that's all she wrote. When anyone you're controlling can be lost in a moment of carelessness, resetting the console becomes a tool to reverse fate.
Fire Emblem is a long-running series from the Japanese developer Intelligent Systems, a studio that's been creating fabulous strategy games for Nintendo since the 1980s - and Awakening may be the best yet. It introduces new mechanics that wind the story's personalities around the battlefield tactics more tightly than ever before, the greatest being the relationships that characters form by fighting alongside one another.
This system comes into play when you place units adjacent to one another, or pair them up on the same square. The units then boost each other in all combat, and over the many battles characters will get better at fighting together. It's a perfect addition to Fire Emblem's turn-based engagements, because this has always been a game about good unit positioning - so the combat boosts lay atop the old system, accentuating every aspect of it.
The 3D effect is at its best during the battles, which are rendered with 3D character models whacking away at each other. Some fights will just be an exchange of blows, but if combat boosts are being used then the support characters have a chance of getting in a cheeky free shot - plus there are critical hits, blocks, and dodges. The fights build in intensity as your characters grow and face tougher enemies until, by about halfway through the game, they're maximising every attack and boost in extended sequences.
None of this interweaving of personality and mechanics would count for much if the characters were dull, but Awakening's localisation is a peach. Everything comes together during those critical attacks; the battle freezes for a moment, a 2D shot of the eyes flashes across the screen, and one of many unforgettable lines precedes a devastating attack - the cocksure bowman Virion asks simply "Shall I make you famous?"
Awakening is single-player only, although it does include indirect Streetpass battling against other players, and its campaign starts gently before turning the screw viciously. Each chapter takes place on not just a battlefield but an environment (sand, for example, slows down cavalry), and the enemy forces steadily increase in number and skill. The AI can be summed up easily: it goes for exposed units ruthlessly, and will pile onto any character it has a chance of killing before the turn's over.
These opponents are expert at finding weak links, and as Awakening hits its stride the maps begin to stretch your forces thin; castles often need to be occupied in order to prevent enemy reinforcements, for example, meaning a unit's effectively stuck in position and isolated. As the enemy forces become ever-more numerous and deadly, moving your units in sync, as part of a grander pattern, becomes not merely efficient but essential. There's a wide range of difficulty settings that cater all the way from newcomers to pros, and there's even the option to turn off the permanent death feature.
Awakening has a clear campaign path, but also a world map that's dotted with distractions - side stories where new recruits can be added to your merry band, the barracks, travelling merchants, random battles against the omnipresent Risen, and the Outrealm Gate to download additional content (much of which is free).
Not that you even need extra content - finishing Fire Emblem: Awakening will take a long time, and straight away you'll want to start over and try a different bunch of characters (there are around 40 in total). It's an experience of overwhelming quality as well as huge value for money, and you'll never carry the 3DS around with you so much.
This is a special game. The kind that makes you think for a long time about when it's ever been done better. Fire Emblem: Awakening might be the best game its developer Intelligent Systems has ever made, and that makes it a must-buy if you have any interest in strategy gaming.
- Brilliant turn-based combat
- Unique character growth
- Huge replay value
- No multiplayer
- Unforgiving at first
- Erm... no multiplayer?