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Fire Emblem: Awakening is the latest game from the popular Fire Emblem series, which has been going strong since debuting on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in the early nineties. Unfortunately for strategy RPG fans, such as myself, only a number of the F.E games have been localized for the Western market. Thankfully Awakening has been deemed worthy enough to get translated into English, much to my relief, as it would have been a crying shame to miss out on one of the best 3DS games to date and arguably the finest Fire Emblem title since 2004's Fire Emblem 7 graced the Gameboy Advance.
The game begins with the player created tactician awakening in a field with no memory of his/her past. It's not long before our amnesiac protagonist crosses paths with the Shepherds, a group of warriors commanded by Prince Chrom (not to be confused with the Google browser.) The tactician eventually joins the ranks of the Shepherds after showing his/her prowess in battle and a command of war strategy. From that point on the player is tasked with guiding the Shepherd forces in their quest to protect the kingdom of Ylisse from groups of bandits, the undead armies of the Risen and an invasion from the land's hostile neighbor Plegia.
As in other Fire Emblem games, levels take place on maps broken up into grid squares similar to the Advance Wars series (which developer Intelligent Systems also produce.) Players take turns to move their melee units and position them so they take advantage of the game's rock/paper/scissors style triangle tree. Sword fighters are effective against axe users, axe wielders have an advantage over soldiers who use lances whilst lancers have the edge over those brandishing swords. In addition to those units there are also archers, mages and even shape shifters who can transform into ice breathing dragons or ferocious bunnies. Whilst moving your troops, it's advisable to press the x button to show the attack range of the enemy forces in order to avoid moving squishy healers into the danger zone. Killing enemy units earns you experience points and once a soldier earns one hundred points they level up, which beefs up their attributes.
One of Awakenings new innovations is the tweaks to the support system. As usual, friendly units who are adjacent to each other will grant their comrades small bonuses, such as increased accuracy. Fighting in pairs is also encouraged as when a unit goes into combat there is a chance that their neighboring buddy will join them in the assault (for a nice damage boost) or they may even intercept enemy attacks thereby negating any harm that would have befallen their ally. My favorite feature of the support system is the way that units build up relationships as they go into combat together. As friendships increase you get treated to cut scenes ranging from comedic banter between the duos in question to dialogue revealing a particular character's backstory. This helps you become attached to the Shepherd's roster of characters, making them more than mere chess pieces you move across a board.
Couples can even get hitched if their relationship hits a high enough level. This plays a big part later on in the story, when it is revealed that in the future an ancient dragon named Grima destroys the world. The offspring of your married units travel to the past to warn the Shepherds of this fate, encouraging their ancestors to seek out the pieces of the Fire Emblem, which holds the power to vanquish the evil serpent. Playing matchmaker with the units under your command is fun, for all you budding Cupids out there, but it also serves a tactical purpose. The youngsters from the future can be recruited to your army and inherit the skills of their parents. I wonder how many handheld generals will force their units to exchange vows, against their will, just because they have complimentary genes that could produce a child super soldier. Who says romance is dead?
Anyone who is curious about trying out the Fire Emblem series will find that Awakening is a good jumping on point for strategy newbies. The game is easily the most accessible entry in the franchise as it not only offers a difficulty setting, that adjusts the strength of the AI to an appropriate level, but it also introduces a casual mode that can be enabled to remove the series' trademark permanent deaths. If the thought of losing your favorite character, due to a silly mistake, sounds horrible fear not - casual mode is just what the doctor ordered. Units who are defeated will retreat the current battle, but will return to action in the next skirmish. Despite being a Fire Emblem veteran I have to say that I enjoyed the more leisured experience afforded by the casual mode. It's a good time saver as in the older games I would end up restarting levels if one of my favorite characters happened to meet his demise at the hands of an unfavorable random number generator roll (they never die because I made a tactical blunder... honest.)
I have no hesitation in giving Fire Emblem Awakening five stars, as it is almost a perfect game. Only those averse to turn based strategy are likely to dislike it. The replay value of the title is immense for anyone, such as myself, who is obsessed enough to unlock all the support conversations on offer. I seldom replay games, after completing the story, but at the time of writing I am on my third play through, having clocked over a hundred hours of game time. Presentation wise this may be the best-looking Fire Emblem game yet as it utilizes 3D character models, which bring the battle sequences to life. Even the maps benefit from nice little touches such as moving wildlife, that can be seen scampering across wooded areas, or how your units leave footprints when traversing sandy deserts. In terms of sound everything is top notch from the excellent orchestral score to the limited, but well performed, voice acting.
Some Fire Emblem purists may condemn Awakening for dumbing things down too much, but I think it's a small price to pay in order to attract new players to the franchise. Yes, the game can be a tad easy if you abuse optional battles to power level your forces, but those seeking a challenge can simply choose not to exploit those features. The use of smaller maps doesn't bug me as it simply means you get down to the action straight away, without spending pointless turns walking toward the enemy forces. Some variation in battle objectives would have been nice (as victory simply boils down to eliminating all the enemy troops or killing the opposition's commander) but that said I didn't shed any tears over the removal of fog of war. I hated maps that kept enemy placements hidden, as they would frustratingly force you to creep forward slowly to avoid stumbling into an ambush.
My only beef with Awakening is not with the game itself, but how Nintendo of Europe have butchered the translation via needless censorship. One of the downloadable packs has fallen victim to changes in content for being too "saucy." Examples include adding a towel to cover part of an image showing Tharja posing in a bikini and Nowi's dialogue, complementing someone's boingy bits, being altered to read that the character is admiring their pal's shiny hair. Really Nintendo? It's okay to order an army to kill hundreds of people, but a girl in a swimsuit is unacceptable? No wonder hardcore gamers belittle your systems for being too kiddie.