Fire Emblem: Awakening

The 3DS Fire Emblem is an okay game, generally boring and unfulfilling, but with a couple of great features. The story is typical stuff, although the use of time travel and the unique conceit of its “in media res” opening deserve some praise. The character interactions are where the magic happens, although the translator pushes the wackiness a bit too much sometimes and though I couldn’t make my own comparison, my instincts say that these scenes are more rewritten than translated. The soundtrack never grabbed me either, although I may have been spoiled by Etrian Odyssey IV.

More importantly, the turn-based squad combat felt shallow. This was my first Fire Emblem game, and a number of clunky design choices and mechanics gave me the hunch that I was interacting with legacy systems that nobody had the guts to change. This is Fire Emblem 13, after all. While it may or may not have borrowed a thing or two from Yatsumi Matsuno games along the way, it still could use a deeper rehaul. The near-meaningless character levels are probably an easy fix, but the flat maps are another thing entirely. It’s closer in style to Advance Wars than Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, but when it lacks the fog of war, base capturing, and unit-building mechanics offered by Advance Wars, the only strategy here seems to be to grind until you have the most damaging skills and then to throw your units directly at theirs (Advance Wars’ terrain advantages are present, but more trivial in value). Admittedly, I played on Normal difficulty, and that comes with some strategic babying, but I’m confident in my assessment that it’s basically a grind-off on any difficulty.

There are some deeper rules, most notably the “Pair Up” tag-team mechanic, which is apparently new to Awakening, but after Tactics Ogre, with its Rampart Auras, arrow trajectories, cliffs and chokepoints, MP regen and a dozen magic types, there’s no comparison. There was also the fact that you actually had to account for and respond to character death on the field, instead of just resetting as soon as it happened. I had pages of complaints about Tactics Ogre, but there’s less to complain about in Fire Emblem because there’s so much less there to begin with.

The RNG is another annoyance. What shocked me was that there was some interview revealing that even the developers would soft-reset when they got a bad level-up. So why is it even there? I’m positive it’s another legacy/nostalgia nonsense thing. I played on the mode where my killed characters were only out for the current fight, to minimize pointless resetting, but without any associated cost or timed revival period, it felt like an underthought implementation of non-permadeath. It still could’ve done more to discourage high-risk strategy.

Weapon durability and destruction is a cool feature, and presents an interesting contrast with games like Crimson Shroud where weapons are everything, but since you can’t repair items when reforging them, improving their stats is a complete waste of money (unless players have the infinite money DLC, but I’ll complain about that a few paragraphs down). I think if you could repair all gear, it would just force an optimal but tedious strategy where the same improved items are used in perpetuity, but either way it just isn’t affordable within the existing non-DLC currency balance, so it was probably a waste of time to implement the forge at all.

There is one feature I’ve yet to mention, however, and it makes up for a lot of the game’s shortcomings. Listen closely: you can marry your characters to each other and create children, who will, at some point in the future, time-travel backwards and join your current-day army as adults. These aren’t generic combat units, either: they’re story characters, usually associated with their mothers, who only see minor changes based on who you picked as their father, such as a palette swap. Since your main character can marry a time-traveller, there’s some potential creepiness, because you could reload an earlier save and become the wife of the girl who was previously your daughter. But this freedom is cool as hell, ridiculous, amazing, and highly ambitious, because the support conversations get multiplied based on whether characters are siblings or potential love interests in the current playthrough (though from my understanding, the parent-child conversations are often a “fill in the blanks with your dad’s name” kind of deal). Even if I had several more paragraphs’ worth of complaints to make about the tactical layer, this one mechanic would still undoubtedly affirm Awakening’s position as an “okay game” instead of a bad one.

Another thing I do like is that you can’t really mess up your characters (apart from maybe choosing the wrong parents). You can only make it take a little longer than you’d like to max them out. Unlike Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s no job-based limitation on permanent stat growth, and you can reset their class levels for a small cost repeatedly until they hit their stat caps, which are pre-defined.

The DLC, however, is a sour point. Shocked and pleasantly surprised as I was at first to see a wealth of DLC available in a Nintendo game, I still didn’t buy any of it, as I took a closer look and saw that it was an unashamed cash grab. I couldn’t do it. It’s absurd–there’s like $50 worth of the stuff, and it all seems to fall into the following categories:

  • Cheats (or close enough). Stages you can repeat for free money and experience, breaking what little sense of balance the single player has.
  • Advanced challenges, meaning, “grind more” challenges, basically requiring the purchase of the cheat levels.
  • Fan-service bonus levels where the female characters show off their swimsuits. Anyone paying Nintendo for wank material is living in an incredibly strange bubble.
  • Nostalgia traps where you can add Marth, Ike, Roy, etc. to your party! But that this is my first Fire Emblem, so I’d be paying six bucks just to see a Smash Bros. character. Ha ha. How much did Crimson Shroud cost, again? Oh, right: five bucks during the last sale.

I encountered some glitches as well, with the Japanese audio getting switched back to English whenever I loaded a save (I can’t live in a world where Chrom’s daughter isn’t voiced by Kobayashi Yuu! Is that so wrong??) and certain sound effects wouldn’t play after I loaded a pre-battle save. I’d get dead silence when I struck an enemy, which irritated me far more than I would’ve guessed, and this would persist until I loaded a world-map save with English audio active and re-saved. I feel like the developers could’ve and should’ve patched these issues in a world where they managed to figure out DLC on a Nintendo system, but then again, there was money in that. At least both problems were only temporary.

For someone who likes a tactical JRPG, shallow or not, and isn’t afraid of a long grind–I think I’m just describing Disgaea fans–the breeding mechanics and character interactions can probably carry this whole game for you. I’m happy to hear that the success of the game meant that it wasn’t the final entry in a canned franchise, but I also think that tradition and a relatively ancient intellectual property–FE1 came out in 1990–is worth little in the grand scheme of things. If the eventual “Fire Emblem 14” remains insular with its nostalgia traps and vestigial parts, I won’t buy it.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

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