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Fire Emblem Awakening BoxWhat do the two best handheld games ever made have in common?

They both have ‘Awakening’ in the title. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, that miracle of an emotionally touching adventure on the original Game Boy, remains, for me, the best gaming experience to be had with a handheld system. But now it is joined by another titan of the small screen that squeezes everything out of its host hardware to deliver a deeply rewarding and decidedly hardcore experience – Fire Emblem: Awakening.

My most anticipated game of the year is finally here after what seems like years of waiting and it arrives in a blaze of glory. Finally this fantastic old series, once restricted only to its native Japan, is getting the attention it deserves in the west. Nintendo has placed a lot of emphasis on the game in their recent Nintendo Direct broadcasts and marketing strategies including the decision to bundle the game with a Fire Emblem branded 3DS XL. Better still the reviews have been universally adoring.

The series has always stayed in the shadows, occupying a niche status. This 3DS iteration represents the franchise’s first serious effort to break into something like the mainstream. One of the key ways in which Intelligent Systems has aimed to achieve this is by introducing a new beginner mode that switches the series’ trademark permadeath off. In this mode any units that fall in battle will be removed from play only for the duration of the map in progress, returning fit and well for the next mission. It’s a smart move and one that will surely ease a new generation of less hardcore players into the addictive mechanics of the game without forcing the stress and frustration of seeing carefully-raised characters taken away. Classic mode keeps the intense threat of permadeath and the countless soft resets that come with it. With both newcomers and long-term fans catered for, this is the Fire Emblem game for all tastes.

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Since this is the sixth game in the series I’ve reviewed to date I won’t repeat the details of the gameplay verbatim except to say you play through a succession of grid-based maps organising your various characterful units, making strategic use of their weapons and advantages to defeat waves of enemies. The depths of the strategy come from unit placement, weapon choice and careful planning. There’s an awful lot more depth I could go into about the intricacies of play but I’ll leave it to you to uncover it all for yourself. Suffice to say you must diligently train a balanced team and progress carefully. Enemies will pick you apart if you make a mistake. It’s stimulating and challenging.

Awakening sets itself apart from the rest of the series with its relationship mechanic. Building support relationships between units that fight alongside each other is nothing new to the series but here the idea is placed front and centre. When entering a fight if you have an ally in  an adjacent space they will join you to lend a stat boost and maybe even offer a second strike at the enemy or block an enemy attack outright. Any time this happens the relationship between the two units improves and they will eventually be able to have a support conversation, an amusing text skit that develops the many colourful personalities, so improving their relationship. You can develop the friendship between countless combinations of characters until they have formed a very strong affinity, even to the point of marriage between male and female units reaching the S rank. Seeing your units bond this way is gratifying enough but marriage brings an extra special reward I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

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You can accelerate the bonding process by having two units pair up on the battlefield and move around as one with one unit in an active role and the other passive. This is a very smart concept as it comes with balanced advantages and disadvantages. You can protect a weaker unit by keeping them passive and gain the benefit of having two units double-teaming enemies but the passive unit will not be able to gain much experience this way and it means you can only ever attack one enemy unit with two characters. This whole system revamps the Fire Emblem experience in a smart, thoughtful way that only adds to the depth of play without sacrificing the core identity of the series. In short, it’s superb; rewarding and satisfying to delve into and full of new tactical implications to keep fans engaged.

It helps that this is a fabulous group of characters to get to know. The main Lord is Chrom, the prince of Ylisse and head of the Shepherds, a group of fighting people dedicated to protecting the Ylissean people. The story opens with him, his sister, Lissa and lieutenant, Frederick (who fulfils the traditional early tank role and is summarily ditched by most long-term FE players) finding your amnesia-suffering created character in a field. This avatar character plays a vital role in the story and will be a welcome addition for any fans of customisation. The rest of the group are a ragtag bunch of soldiers, mercenaries and villagers, each one given great personality through vivacious character art and especially the superlative writing. Standout characters include the amiably cocky fighter Vaike, amorous archer Virion and especially the deliciously twisted dark mage Tharja. Every interaction these characters have oozes with life and you will become extremely attached to them, a fact that only serves the power of permadeath all the more.

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Sadly the same praise can’t be heaped on the story which is a somewhat token affair involving warring nations and plots to resurrect destructive dragons which should seem very familiar to anyone who has played a previous game in the series. There is one event in the plot coming about a third of a way through the narrative that is delivered with beautiful emotional heft and makes you wish the same level of care could have been applied to the rest of the story. It’s not a bad plot, just a familiar one and it lags far behind the intricacy and intelligence of Radiant Dawn. The saving grace is the aforementioned quality of the writing, which is nothing short of the best I have encountered in a video game. The script is smart, witty and intelligent, conveys character brilliantly and is enjoyable just to read. To put it simply, as a writer, I’m jealous of how well this game is written. I cannot praise the localisation team responsible for the English translation enough and, given the voluminous content of text to be found in the game, the extended wait for a localised version is completely forgiven.

The same attention to detail also extends to every aspect of the production. Every single facet of this game’s presentation is of the highest quality. The graphics are just beautiful; map screens shimmer with subtle details such as weather effects, ambient lighting and even wildlife. The screen is always full of detail with a colour-scheme that finds the perfect balance between realism and stylised vibrancy. The battle scenes are all well-animated and characters all look unique rather than generic colour-swapped models and the use of 3D is excellent. Some have criticised the presence of 2D sprites on the map screens but Fire Emblem has a long history of brilliant sprite work so it’s great to see that continue. The gorgeously animated FMV cut scenes that crop up in important places in the story are undeniably brilliant.

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Better still is the soundtrack which is simply phenomenal. Every tune is melodious and detailed, full of orchestral splendour and spine-tingling expression. Themes range from the subtle to the grandiose, powerfully emotive and stirring. The idea of keeping map and battle themes separate has been abandoned for a single continuous theme that remains softer whilst on the map screen, growing bolder and more energetic in battles. It works fantastically well and aids the sense of immersion no end. The voice acting is similarly excellent. Most of it is limited to single expressive lines that play either in various battle situations or when characters pipe up during static text scenes but the voice work conveys massive amounts of personality across the board.

So is there anything the game doesn’t get right? Sure, the map design could be more interesting. I don’t mean aesthetically, just that the arrangement of units and landscape could be more varied. The vast majority of missions require you to simply rout the enemy which is disappointing as I like a little more variety in my objectives. These things are not remotely problematic and the design is still very good, just not to the level of something like the more adventurous Radiant Dawn.

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There is, however, a whole lot of content to get stuck into. If you just stick to the main story maps you’re looking at a few dozen hours of play as it is but that would just be scratching the surface. Between missions you will find parties of zombie-like Risen popping up on the world map for you to take down at your leisure. These guys are joined by groups of actual characters that will visit your game via both SpotPass and StreetPass. You can parley with them to recruit the leader (which will be an avatar character) or fight them to add them to your army for free. Then there are the DLC maps which can be replayed as many times as you wish. The wealth of content is staggering especially when you remember there are two modes of play each with three difficulty settings.

However in these optional extra skirmishes there lies what might be a problem depending on your point of view. One of the great things about past FE games is the way the linear progression and finite battle potential limits the scope for grinding quite considerably. The Sacred Stones’ optional dungeons made it easy to train a perfect team but Awakening takes this much further. If you want a greater challenge you can always avoid these extra battles but the mere presence of the option could still be a problem for some purists. Only one thing is certain; you will never want for things to do.

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The big question is; how does Awakening compare to other games in the series? Many reviewers have labelled it the best yet and while there are certain aspects such as the production values that have clearly never been better, I don’t agree. I still hold the double-header of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn in higher regard. I love the characters, the story and the variety in the map design of these games so much it would take something truly incredible to ever supplant them and as fantastic as Awakening is it still doesn’t quite measure up in those regards. But perhaps the best thing to take away from this 3DS game is the knowledge that it has tapped into a wider audience than ever before and garnered a lot of attention. Just imagine the kind of production values on show here applied to a Wii U game. Since Fire Emblem is Intelligent Systems’ flagship franchise I’d be surprised if they weren’t at least planning to develop a new game for the console. We can only wait and see.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is every bit as brilliant as I wanted it to be. Better still it completely transcends the limitations of handheld gaming to deliver an infinitely rewarding game that is equal to a high-end console-level experience. I urge you to buy it and help put the series on the map because it deserves its place in the spotlight and the more successful this game is the better future games can be.

Fire Emblem Awakening

Verdict

Design – 9

Gameplay – 10

Graphics – 10

Sound – 10

Content – 10

Overall

Nothing less than the best handheld video game for twenty years.

9.7

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