Fire Emblem is one of the longest running tactical RPGs ever, if not thelongest, and I've felt that it never got quite enough of the recognition it deserved. Hiding in the shadows of other, more famous tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea in terms of name recognition and popularity, Fire Emblem has been around since the original Nintendo system. The last entry in the series was Radiant Dawn for the Wii in 2007 (Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS in 2008 was a remake of an older title), and since then myself and other Fire Emblem fans have been eagerly awaiting a new one. Well, it finally came, and after sinking over 45 hours into the game, believe me when I say I think it was worth the wait.
The first thing that caught my eye in the game, and what will probably catch yours, are the graphics. The graphics in the game are an amazing mix of old and new, satisfying long-time fans' nostalgia and managing to utilize the graphical capabilities of the 3DS at the same time. On the main battle map, characters are displayed as little SNES looking sprites, which I feel is a nod to the series' past and to long-time players. Actual battles between units use normal 3D polygon character models, as well as some cut-scenes. Special cut-scenes and events are shown in an anime style, pre-rendered movie, and they are oh so beautiful. I always turned the 3D on during all these anime cut-scenes, and they were so well done and had so much depth that I am now firmly convinced that all animation needs to be done in 3D from now on. They are still pretty even when the 3D is turned off, but they are so much better looking in 3D that I implore you not to deny yourselves the chance to see it. If you have a hang-up about using the 3D because it gives you a head-ache or hurts your eyes (which it does to me after a while), then all I can say is that's what pain-killers are for. Trust me on this.
Fire Emblem plays a little bit differently than other tactical RPGs, in that you don't have to just worry about positioning your units on the map (although of course you have to do that too). The game uses a sort of rock-paper-scissors battle system, where swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. Arrows and magic are also particularly devastating to all mounted flying units, such as Pegasus Knights and Dragon Knights. (If you've never played a Fire Emblem game before, a quick side note: it's a fantasy series, and as such the warriors available to you are more awesome than they ordinarily would have any right to be. Case in point: knights on flying dragons. Oh yes.) Because of that rock-paper-scissors system, you always have to keep in mind which type of warrior would be best to send against an enemy unit, and also that once they've attacked that unit, another unit they're weak against won't come and one-hit destroy them. It adds a bit more of the 'tactical' to this tactical RPG series, and I've always appreciated it.
In addition to the rock-paper-scissors gameplay, there is also a friendship and support system which is important to keep in the back of your head. How it works is basically like this: friendly units in adjoining squares when a unit attacks, or is attacked by, an enemy unit, receive a friendship boost, and have a small chance of assisting that unit in battle. This assist can be either a dual-attack with that unit, or actually stepping in front of the unit and blocking the hit for them. I can't tell you how many times this feature saved my butt in battle; I would do something stupid like putting a Pegasus Knight in reach of an archer, realize too late I'd just sent someone to their death, watch in horror as the bow was drawn back, then breathe a huge sigh of relief as the armored knight standing next to the Pegasus Knight covered them at the last second.
You might be wondering why I'd be that upset at the possibility of losing a character. 'Just bust out those Phoenix Downs and bring that baby back to life!" Problem is, there are no Phoenix Downs or similar items in Fire Emblem. One of the most unique things in the Fire Emblem series is that once a character falls in battle, they are gone for good; if you care about a particular character at all, you have no choice but to re-load your game from your last save and re-do the battle from the beginning. At least, that's how it always was before. Fire Emblem Awakening has a new feature, most likely to try to make the game more appealing to new players. You can choose two different play modes in the game, one being the normal ‘a character falls in battle, they are gone for good’ mode, and the other being a casual mode, where you can save anywhere, anytime, and are given the option to immediately re-load your save if you mess up and lose a character, instead of having to re-do the whole freaking battle again. Enough explanation about the game mechanics though, let's talk about the most important aspect of any RPG worth its salt: its story.
Fire Emblem Awakening follows the adventures of Prince Krom and, well, you. Awakening has something called the 'My Unit' feature, which allows players to choose from a pre-set amount of face and hair choices to create their very own character, allowing a level of immersion into the story most other Japanese RPGs lack. Once you've made your character, the very first cinema in the game shows you seemingly betraying Prince Krom and killing him; he tells you, his friend, that it's not your fault before he falls to the ground. Then the screen goes black, words are said about how this fate must be changed, and your character wakes up in a field, with no memory of who they are or where they came from, only to be happened upon by Prince Krom (who you just watched your character kill) and his little sister. As they are talking to your character, you all suddenly get attacked, everyone saves each other's lives, and you are welcomed into their little happy band of adventurers. Your character obviously doesn't remember the event you just saw, but you, the player, do; this makes playing through the story, watching your character get closer with Prince Krom and his friends... uncomfortable. It is also, however, very compelling. You keep pushing forward through your own awkward feelings, wanting to know more about Prince Krom and all the other characters, and how the events in the opening cinema could have possibly come about, or if it will come true. All the characters also make you keep going, as they are well-written and likeable, and you become invested in what fate awaits them. I don't want to spoil anything about the story (in fact, the only reason I mentioned that the game starts out with you killing the main character is because it's literallythe first thing you see once you start the game), but all your questions will be answered, and the ending is very satisfying. In fact, the only complaint I had about the story was there was a bit too much of the 'oh, you defeated that bad guy, but he's not the realbad guy... go kill the real bad guy now!' going on, but that's relatively minor. It's a well-written and enjoyable story, and the characters make it even more worthwhile.
One more quick note on the characters and the story: remember earlier where I mentioned the friendship and support system in battle? Well, if you do that often enough with characters of the opposite sex, they will become friends, get closer, and eventually get married. You can even marry your own character off! This might seem like a lame addition to this Fire Emblem game (although the Harvest Moon fanatic in me ate it up like candy), but there are very big incentives for you to pair up as many characters as possible. The first is in battle, as a married couple has a crazy high percentage of assisting each other when attacking/under attack, so much so that I eventually had one pair that could almost clear a whole battlefield by themselves, they just combo attacked so often. The second benefit I can't get into without spoiling a major plot-point, so it will have to suffice when I say that the more characters you pair up in the first half of the game, the more characters you will have available to you in the second half. That's really all I can tell you about that.
Fire Emblem Awakening is a great entry into the series, and well worth the wait. Unfortunately for US fans, you guys will have to wait until sometime early next year before you get a chance to play it. Fire Emblem Awakening is a fantastic game, and will appeal to fans of the series and new-comers alike. When it finally makes its way to American shores, I highly recommend you pick it up and enjoy the crap out of it. I know I did.