I realized that it’s been months since wrote up a gameplay critique/analysis sort of thing for a game I played, and I’ve been wanted to do some more of these. After my most recent Fire Emblem binge, I decided to start with the 3DS entry into the series. Being a longtime fan of the games(Played all but 2, 4, 5, and 12), I was eager to see what they did with it. I’m happy to say that I was far from disappointed. Just as a quick note, I tend to only focus on gameplay when I do these kinds of things. It’s not really a comprehensive review so much as it is looking at the gameplay and giving my thoughts on how its mechanics work together to make a cohesive experience.
Fire Emblem Awakening is a turn based strategy RPG in which the player takes command of a group of units and issues them orders in order to complete a series of mission objectives. They begin the mission in the preparation menu, where they can outfit their units with new equipment, rearrange their positions on the map, among other options. The player uses their turn to move their units around the chessboard-like levels and defeat the enemy forces. It is the 13th game in a long series of turn based strategy games that for long time was never released outside of Japan. So, let’s get dig into the game’s mechanics and see if it stands up to its predecessors.
The meat of the gameplay takes place on the battlefield. Players have a wide array of unit types to select from, from infantry and mages to heavily armored knights and flying mounts. Units themselves use swords, axes, lances, bows, and magic to attack from up close and afar to defeat enemies. The unit type and equipped weapon play a huge role in combat, as each has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Swords, axes, and lances actually form a triangle of advantage/disadvantage with each other, meaning that there is never a best choice for what to go into battle with. The weapon triangle is a longstanding feature in the series, giving way more meaning to weapon choice than you might see in other RPGs. A poor match-up can easily lead a unit’s curbstomping, and characters are gone for the remainder of the campaign once they are defeated in battle. The magic triangle from previous games been removed, which does a nice job of keeping magic important while streamlining the gameplay for newcomers. In addition to weapons, players also need to be aware of where they are, as terrain can play a big part in combat advantage. Careful attention must be paid to all of these factors and more across the field. Seriously, battles can go from “I’m invincible” to “Time to reset” pretty quickly.
The RPG elements come into play with the management and customization of each character. In Fire Emblem, the usable cast consists of unique characters that you gain as you play through the campaign. Some join of their own accord, and some must be swayed from the enemy forces to join your cause. They can be changed into a number of classes, but character has unique growth patterns that affect their effectiveness in certain class roles. It is up to the player to train them the best way possible. In addition, each character has their own dynamic personality that reveals itself through support conversations with other units. Support conversations have the added bonus of building relationships between characters that makes them stronger when they fight together. Unfortunately, building relationships requires units to be standing adjacent to each other during battle (literally fighting alongside one another), which can be a nuisance when trying to developing strategy. It’s an instance of story aspects conflicting with gameplay. While it makes logical sense, the support mechanic worked better in the console titles, where the units only needed to be in the same mission together. The constraint of who to bring into battle was far less restricting than having to have certain units stand next to each other for 40 turns .
So, more on the class system mentioned earlier. The class system determines the weapons that a unit can use, stat caps, and affects stat growth during level ups. Every base class has two possible higher tier choices for what they promote to. The classes that are available to change to are unique to each character. How you go about changing base classes will be addressed later. New to this game are dual magic/weapon types, and the classes themselves have been increased in number and adjusted so each feels more distinct. These changes allow for a greater level of role customization in units. Fewer classes have an “everyman” feeling to them, giving the player more reason to experiment with all of them than they had in previous games.
A refined version of the skill system from the Gamecube/Wii FE games has made an appearance as well. The point limits/values assigned to characters and skills respectively has been removed. In this game, every class has two skills, gained from reaching levels 5 and 15 respectively. A character is capable of having 5 skills actively equipped at any one point. They have a wide variety of uses, from extending the durability of weapons used to providing a chance to dodge fatal blows. With multiple class changes, incredibly powerful combinations of these skills can be created to give form to monstrous warriors. This might not sound ideal, but the positive side is that the characters now sit on a more level playing ground. As opposed to certain units automatically be chosen over others for skills unique to them or having higher point caps, every unit gets the same amount of the same skills.
In between missions, the player will navigate the game world via the overworld map, a feature brought over from FE8. In past games, players were instantly sent from one level to the next, creating for an extremely linear experience. Now, the player is free to explore the world map as they wish. This opens up the door to Awakening’s plethora of side quest content. Fire Emblem Awakening contains almost as many side quest missions as it does in the main campaign, a drastic increase from previous entries. There is also the ability to enter into random skirmishes as they wander the map. Skirmishes can be between random soldiers, camero characters from older games, and teams from other players via Spot Pass. All of this is before you start buying the DLC maps. Not only does Fire Emblem Awakening have an unprecedented amount of content, there is also a great level freedom given for the player to experience the world that did not exist before. The “stuff to do” factor is probably one of the greatest improvements in Fire Emblem Awakening over previous games.
With any long running series, there is the fear of how easy it is to jump into for those new to the games. I can confidently say that there is no need for them. Despite being apart of such a long-running franchise, Awakening makes great efforts to be as approachable as possible towards newcomers to the series without sacrificing the depth of its predecessors. The game’s story, while it does contain references to previous titles, is set in its own world, and requires no previous knowledge of the lore to follow along with it. The game’s early levels contain very well designed and thorough (and completely optional) tutorials to quickly bring newbies up to speed. They can reviewed at any point, serving as a helpful guide for players of any skill level. All of the statistical screens have simplified versions for players unfamiliar with game combat systems so as to keep them from being overwhelmed. These too can be switched at any time. Finally, players can elect to start a campaign in Casual Mode, which turns off the “one life to live” feature for which Fire Emblem is known for. This mode may be off-putting for series veterans and purists, but this like many other features is customizable to provide an extremely personalized experience with the game.
A big new mechanic new to the series is the Partner system, brought in to replace the Rescue system. In older games, the Rescue command allowed a unit to “pick up” an ally and carry them around the battlefield. This was useful for getting injured units out of harm’s way, but placed a stat penalty on the unit that was doing the carrying and left them unable to move until their next turn. Ultimately, it punished attempts to protect a unit by placing a second one in danger. In Awakening, instead of a penalty, Partnering awards a stat boost based on the unit in the rear. Furthermore, the rear unit has a chance to defend the main unit from an incoming attack and/or deal out an additional one during combat. The stat boost and chance of assistance can be increased by improving the relationship between the two characters. This allows players to strategically sacrifice two of their units to create one super unit. Of course, this does make it easier to create overpowered soldiers that steamroll everything, especially since the enemy does not utilize this mechanic.
Another major improvement to Awakening is the Re-Classing system. In the past, Fire Emblem games have always had issues with the viability of the units you gain through the campaign. Potentially talented units may arrive too late to properly, units may be uncharacteristically bad due to bad luck with the random number generation for stat growth, and units that arrive already raised to the second class tier and high leveled lose out on too many potential level ups to keep up with unit that arrive younger and less experienced. Previous games tried to solve this problem in a number of ways. The open map from FE8 allowed the player all the time in the world to train up units. However, FE8 also suffered from classes not being all that distinct, and lacked Awakening ability to restart pre-promotes or units that got screwed with level ups. A third tier was added in FE10 to give all units additional levels to grow, but this only reversed the imbalance in favor of pre-promotes who arrive strong and have plenty of time to grow stronger. FE10 also had characterscome and go from the party and very odd times because of its story, making it difficult to train some of them into useful units. With the Re-Classing system, any unit can be reverted to its current class, the lower tier version of the class, or a preset list of other classes at Level 1. When they revert to Level 1, they retain their stats, as well as any skills gained from leveling up in other classes. This gives the player the freedom of a 100% viable cast, the possibilities for a character being more diverse than ever before. This, coupled with the map system, lets the player infinitely train and experiment with new combinations of unit classes and teams.
Now that I’ve spent so much time talking about how the mechanics work/ don’t work and how much I love this game, it’s time we hit the negatives for the gameplay. Fire Emblem’s main flaw come from a clash between the blending of the two genres. Because the player and enemy are not given perfectly equal units to fight with (like the units in Advance Wars, a turn based strategy game made by the same company), the strategy aspect of Fire Emblem can very easily pushed aside to the tactic of power leveling units to force your way through levels. The same systems that create so much depth in character building also allow the player to ignore any sort of strategy or enemy formation and charge through with decidedly superior units. There are some points in the game where character grinding feels almost encouraged. In addition, the game suffers from some issues with how difficulty scales. In the higher level difficulties, enemies are given unique skills and stat boosts that are supposed to allow them to match up with your powerful forces. This is not a problem later on in a campaign with your well trained army, but early levels become virtually impossible. At many points, luck becomes a far bigger factor than skill in making it through the level with your group still breathing.
To finish, Fire Emblem Awakening is well designed turn based strategy RPG. It provides the player with incredible amounts of content, and makes great strides to be open to newcomers to the series while deepening the gameplay at the same time. It retains all of the aspects which give the series its charm while drawing in a huge new audience to the world of Fire Emblem. It has its quirks, but these don’t stop it from being an overall entertaining game.