Despite its focus on more Western medieval settings, the Fire Emblem series spent a large percentage of its life limited to Japan, with American and European audiences sadly missing out on its innovative brand of tactical RPG. Fortunately, the unexpected popularity of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros Melee saw games begin to make the journey west and the series develop a passionate global fan base, although before the announcement of the most recent game its presence did seem to be dwindling. Fire Emblem: Awakening sees the series' return after a four year gap following the release of Shadow Dragon, a remake of the first game in the series for the DS. Thankfully, signs so far point to this return being as triumphant as many of the series' fans are hoping for.
"Signs so far point to this return being as triumphant as many of the series' fans are hoping for."
Awakening looks to keep the core Fire Emblem look and feel, but has freshened things up with a combination of new features and some that have only made passing appearances in the series. The turn-based strategy retains the grid and attack-counter systems that have been series staples, while the "My Unit" system from the DS remake of the third game in the series, released only in Japan, makes a return and allows players to create their own avatar character. Players are able to select a number of appearance options, including gender, for their personal unit, who doubles as the party's strategist and plays a key role in the story. Awakening also contains over forty classes and a large selection of skills, of which characters may have up to five equipped at a time, give a wider variety of tactical options than ever before in the series.
The top screen shows the vast majority of action as well as all conversations and event scenes, showing the standard top-down view of the battle before switching to a 3D view to illustrate individual clashes, while the bottom generally provides any relevant tactical information. Revive items are a no-show; characters who lose all their HP are swiftly removed from the battle. Traditionally in Fire Emblem, this means that character is gone forever but this permadeath can be turned off in Awakening, again a feature that briefly appeared previously in the DS remake of the third game in the series. This may irk series veterans, but on the other hand it could also give the series another small push towards wider appeal. In another break from the norm, instead of advancing directly to the next battle following a brief resupply and rest in camp, players can now move from place to place in an overworld map in order to purchase items and talk to various NPCs.
The support systems of the Fire Emblem series, which allow characters to build relationships, are somewhat expanded for Awakening. The process for advancing relationships remains very similar to previous games, with characters forging their relationships from fighting in close proximity during battles before advancing it through various events and conversations in the time between. Awakening spans two generations of characters, with party members able to marry and have children, who can eventually partake in the party's battles. This includes the player's avatar character, who can marry any available character of the opposite gender. Support levels also confer greater bonuses when utilising the new pair up option that allows one character to assist another in encounters. The supporting character may provide a boost in stats, execute a follow-up attack, or block an attack aimed at the lead character. Videos have shown how the selection of paired up characters can mean the difference between life or death in different situations, adding a further dimension to what has previously been a very strong battle system.
Fire Emblem is known for featuring a cast of well-developed characters, and Awakening looks to be no exception. While the player character is an important part of the story, Awakening's leading man is Chrom, prince of the Kingdom of Ylisse. Unsurprisingly, Ylisse finds itself in a time where tensions begin to run high following suspicious actions from its neighbour, Plegia. In charge of a group of peacekeeping soldiers, the Shepherds, Chrom works to retain calm while investigating a dark force afflicting the country. During his journey, Chrom also runs into a masked knight claiming to be Marth, the Hero-King of legends stemming from previous games in the series. It should be noted that despite this appearance, the story is very much standalone and players will not need any past experience or knowledge of events from earlier games.
The artistic style has been given a redesign and, while the in-game character models are a bit more stylised than the more realistically proportioned models seen in the GameCube and Wii games, the visuals seem impressive. Action in the cutaways for each encounter also seems to have undergone a significant improvement, flowing nicely with plenty of pleasing effects and small touches to the animations. The game still uses the familiar sprites for the tactical, although in keeping with the rest of the game, these have all been given an upgrade from the series' previous handheld entries.
Experimentation with the series isn't limited to just gameplay aspects, with Fire Emblem: Awakening becoming one of Nintendo's first attempts to feature paid DLC. The DLC contains numerous returning characters from previous games in the series, as well as extra episodes and event scenes. Nintendo has stated that DLC will be coming to Western regions upon the game's release, but hasn't yet detailed whether this content will be the same as that released in Japan.
Fire Emblem: Awakening has come at a time when the 3DS is starting to build some decent momentum. With Etrian Odyssey IV following shortly after and a new main-series Pokémon game recently announced, now may be the time many RPGamers consider diving in, and Awakening can only help further the case for the handheld. Fire Emblem: Awakening is due out on February 4, 2013 in North America, with the European release currently slated for April 2013. It will released both physically and as an eShop download.