Ask someone to name a major Nintendo series, and the chances are they'll reel off a list of the company's most well known games - Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and Kirby, with the odd Pikmin or F-Zero thrown in for good measure. The chances they'll mention a game like Fire Emblem, however, are somewhat slimmer - but that's not a reflection on the quality of the series. Starring "that guy with the sword from Smash Bros that's not Link" and "that other guy with the sword from Smash Bros that's not Link", the Medieval themed turn-based strategy games have always been something of a moderate success story in Japan, with each instalment garnering rave reviews, but never really getting the mega sales figures to match. In fact, the game didn't even see a release outside of Japan until 2003 - but Fire Emblem: Awakening, the latest instalment in the series 23 year existence, and the first Fire Emblem on the 3DS, is certainly trying its best to pull in a whole new audience.
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Although turn-based strategy games, and Fire Emblem in particular, may not be famed for being particularly user friendly, Nintendo have gone to huge lengths to try and make this the most accessible one yet. Set in the land of Ylisse, a world of swords, sorcery, and dragons, the first few levels effectively serve as an interactive tutorial, introducing you to a drip feed of new features and characters wrapped up in a story, as you slowly find your way around how the game works.
It's perhaps easiest to think of Fire Emblem as being similar to a digital game of chess, as both ask for a similar amount of thinking, planning, and foresight as you try to stay one step ahead of your enemy. Presented with a map that's divided into a grid, you'll usually start out with your units huddled together at one end, while your enemy's spread out over the rest. With a selection of different units at your disposal, from Mages to Knights, Pegasus Knights (like the former, but with a flying Horse), and even a Taguel, a rare species that can transform into a giant, angry rabbit when push comes to shove, you then engage with your foe in what's effectively a giant game of cat and mouse, as you try to outmanoeuvre, out think, and out flank your opponent. As you slowly move your squad around the battlefield, taking turns with your opponent, you'll have to keep thinking several moves ahead, as you try to lure your opponent into a trap without falling into one yourself. "If I move them there, will I leave my troop open to attack? If so, how many people can actually get to them?"
It may sound confusing at first, but it's surprisingly easy to get into, thanks to a well made tutorial, and a surprisingly straightforward concept. Select one of your units, and the squares they can move to will be highlighted in blue, while squares they can only reach with an attack will be highlighted in red. Find an enemy that falls within either, and stroll up next to him, and you'll be able to choose to attack, which will present you with an easy to understand, well laid out screen that tells you exactly what's going to happen next, should you choose to proceed. Your unit's HP (health) is displayed at the top, while their Atk (how much damage they'll do), Hit (how likely their attack is to hit, in percent), and Crit (how likely the attack is to be a critical hit) are shown below. Press A, and you'll be treated to a nice cutscene of your soldier whacking their enemy, which lets you know if your roll of the dice paid off.
The way it tells you your chance of hitting before you commit to a move is incredibly useful, as it means you don't end up wasting your turns as much as you otherwise might. If you stand no chance of hitting the enemy, it'll tell you before you attack, so you can press B to cancel, and shuffle your units around as you try to find a more effective character. Effectively letting you have a dry run of each and every move, Fire Emblem's a lot easier to get into than most people think.
As you're only able to take a limited number of units into battle, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses, it pays to consider how balanced your team is before you head onto the field. Clerics can heal people, but are incredibly weak - so you'll likely want one on your team, but you'll want to keep them at the back of the battle, away from any danger. Mages can cast spells that can hit enemies that are two spaces away, while Knights are mounted on horses, are incredibly tough, can move a large number of spaces, and pretty much form the backbone of your team. Different units also have their own weaknesses, too - flying units are weak against arrows, armoured units are weak against hammers - and as each unit can only use one or two different types of weapon, it's how you use your units together that'll decide the flow of the battle.
Luckily, Fire Emblem has lots of nice little touches to make your strategic planning that much easier. If you want to make sure a weak unit's well out of range of any enemies, a press of the X button will bring up an overlay that highlights all the squares enemies can reach in pink, so you know exactly where to avoid. Meanwhile, your knight character is also incredibly useful, as he's just so ridiculously tough. A reliable strategy we found was to use our Knight, called Frederick, to lure the enemies towards us. Position him just within striking range of a few enemies, and he'll likely shrug off the blows, but will lure a number of enemies forward for you to pick off. There's strength in numbers - and it's up to you to exploit it.
As you'd probably expect, the positioning of your characters makes a big difference in Fire Emblem, in two specific ways. Firstly, if you position two characters next to each other, every time one of them attacks, or gets attacked, there's a chance the adjacent unit can help out in the scuffle, either swooping in to take the hit (which means neither of your units take any damage), or getting in a sneaky attack alongside you, letting you deal out more punishment. On the other hand, every time you attack someone while there's a unit next to them, the "relationship" between those characters will increase.
Far from simply being faceless soldiers, each of the units in Fire Emblem has a personality, and a relationship with each of the other characters on your team. With hundreds of characters to unlock, and the ability to only take a handful into battle, you'll have to pick and choose carefully - but you're bound to have some favourites. From the royal dignity of Chrom, to the narcissistic bowman Virion, from the clumsiness of Lucina the Pegasus Knight, to the childhood innocence of Lissa, each and every character has their own traits and beliefs. When the bond between two members reaches a certain point, you'll be able to watch a little conversation between the two of them, which offers an extra bit of insight into their character, sometimes showing a couple getting stronger, sometimes letting you in on a bit of their backstory, while at other times they're just for a bit of fun. One of our favourite conversations took place between the somewhat awkward Gregor, and Nowi, a Manakete, who is effectively a dragon that can transform into a human. Or vice versa. At over a hundred years old, but still looking as young as a teenager, Nowi strikes up a conversation with the somewhat awkward Gregor, who comes across as having an Eastern European/Russian accent. "Weird" Nowi says, "Everyone usually just keeps saying how young I look..." With a confused look on his face, Gregor replies, "Is just, how you say, flatulence. Is that word when people say lies to make other person feel better." As the bonds between your team members grow stronger, not only are they more likely to help each other out when they're positioned next to each other in a battle, but they can even form relationships, get married, and have children too!
With strong characterisation, the chances are you'll start to get attached to at least a few of your characters - and this is where one of Fire Emblem's biggest problems would usually come in. Famously unforgiving, many of the previous games have used a "perma-death" system, whereby if your character dies on the battlefield, they're gone for good. Wave goodbye to that relationship you were trying to help them foster, and bye to all the equipment they'd earnt - if they fell on the field, they were done for, leaving you with the choice of either restarting the level, or carrying on and accepting your losses. And even when you restarted, making it through the game without losing anyone was difficult if not impossible. Luckily, then, Fire Emblem: Awakening offers people a choice, letting them either play with perma-death off (so people rejoin your team at the end of ever battle, even if they died on the field), or on, if they're feeling particularly masochistic. For those new to the series, we'd recommend turning it off, if only because it'll make your journey that much smoother.
That said, there are a few rather annoying things you can't turn off that may rankle newcomers to the series. Perhaps the most significant problem is that your weapons are limited use, so you can only use them a certain number of times before they break. With each character only able to carry five items - a mixture of potions and weapons - you'll have to keep an eye on the state of your party's weapons in-between battles at the very least, paying a visit to a shop to buy an extra sword when you start to run low.
But breakable weapons aside, in terms of almost everything else, Fire Emblem: Awakening gets its accessibility right. For a game to have this much depth, and still feel as though a novice could pick it up and easily find their way around is no mean feat. While there's tonnes of options and choices, you never feel bogged down in statistics you don't understand, or choices you can't follow. Even the levelling system's simple enough. Every time your character attacks another unit, they'll gain experience - and defeating another unit lets them gain even more. The more they level up, the more powerful they'll become - but with a level cap at level 20, there's quite a low limit to how far they can go. Luckily, there's a way to help your team get even stronger, in the form of seals - special, single use items that you can only use when you reach level 10 or above, that let your character "evolve" into a new, tougher form. Letting you turn your units from being fairly-tough into being unstoppable monsters, it's yet another thing for you to think about - but a testament to the game that it never feels overwhelming.
With dozens of missions to play through, countless side quests, free downloadable characters and maps through SpotPass, and dozens of characters to play, train, and even romance, Fire Emblem: Awakening is every bit as expansive as it is impressive. Even if you've never played a turn-based strategy game before, or have always felt a little bit apprehensive because of their complexity, Fire Emblem is a great place to start. With dashings of Nintendo magic, this is a game any 3DS owner with a passing interest in games that make you think should consider adding to their collection.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS