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Video Game Review: Fire Emblem: Awakening

War, what is it good for?


Two hundred and twenty six. That’s how many times I started up “Fire Emblem: Awakening” before I beat it. Two hundred and twenty six different times, with an average play time of 10 minutes before I hit the power button and started over again. Across the 40 and a half hour adventure, that’s a lot of resetting. The game now sits at third place (only behind the Mii Plaza and the Notifications menu) among my most frequently opened 3DS titles.

But it also took the top slot as my most played 3DS game yet, a crown “Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition” has held since the console launched. Restarting that much can incredibly frustrating (frustrating times 226), but there’s also a lot going on here. How did I fare against my first “Fire Emblem” game? Sheath your sword, and let’s get into it.

“Fire Emblem” is Nintendo’s long running tactical RPG series that many Western fans (myself included) may know as that game with those sword fighters (Roy was my boy!) from the “Super Smash Bros.” series. Grid and turn based, the game gives you control over an army of knights, archers, mages, clerics, and mount riders (dragons, pegasi, and griffins, oh my!). Turn by turn, you engage enemy units in battles that range from a variation of rock/scissor/paper strengths and weaknesses, hoping to either defeat the opposing army’s commander or clear all their units from the field. And any game that lets you have a mage riding on a dark Pegasus is worth giving some attention to in my book.

The game’s story is told through abundant dialogue, and takes the player across two continents in an effort to keep peace in a war struck land and to prevent the return of the fell dragon Grima. Parts of the story are told through brilliant anime style cut scenes (that you can have subtitled and voiced in their original Japanese, for you purists out there), but the game’s graphic style is a mix of a few worlds: the actual battles take place in small sprite driven maps (which frankly aren’t that pretty), the majority of scenes (and battle animations) are in a polygonal world that is rough and jaggy around the edges, and the aforementioned cut scenes are beautiful works of art that really shine on the system. The different looks don’t mesh together very well; creating a weird graphical disparity.

The defining (and I would say, most controversial, or unnecessary) feature of the series is its permadeath approach to battles. This is war, and the costs are real. Unlike other games, in which a character dies and you can bring them back, in “Fire Emblem” if one of your characters falls in battle, it is never coming back. Unless you restart the whole battle again. (Hence the 226).

“Fire Emblem: Awakening” does make the series a little more accessible with a “casual” mode that allows characters to return after battle. I, being the cold hard gamer I am, refused to go anywhere near a mode that had the word casual attached to it, and felt that to get the true “Fire Emblem” experience I had to play the hard way.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t be a hero. Go with the easier mode, which also lets you save during battle and restart if someone dies. Which they will, and you will be ever so thankful you don’t have to start the battle all over again. Of the 40 plus hours of game time, my save files only counts around 18. The rest was spent playing and losing and restarting.

Now now, I understand that this is war. People die in war. And I get that some people will defend this as a crucial part of the series. But restarting a game should never be an accepted game mechanic, and I can’t help but feel the AI would purposely seek out and only attack my weakest units (even it would put the AI in horrible positioning for a counter attack), just because it somehow knew I would restart if someone died. It’s horribly frustrating, at best, and many were the times I wanted to throw my 3DS across the room. There are few things worse than hours and hours not actually getting you closer to the final goal, as over half of the time I spent with the game was wasted and sent off into here-we-go-I-have-to-restart-again land. Occasionally some class switching will help, but there are too few opportunities to level grind, and battle and death oft can come down to luck, or large amounts of trial and error. (Or, you can just let people die).

The 3DS hardware also forces several odd choices: since only the top screen is rendered in 3D, the battles are all on the top screen, with the bottom reserved for other information and a map. Given that it’s a grid based game, I really wish that moving your characters was functioned to the bottom screen via touch: the 3DS seems so naturally fitted to this type of game and movement, it’s odd to force everything to take place on the top screen and have movement mapped to button controls when it just screams for click and drop options.

There’s so much more to the game that there just isn’t room to fully delve into: Switching classes, relationship building, character placement, time travel, Downloadable Content, wives, children, side quests, and more. There’s a lot here, and a lot to enjoy, but "Fire Emblem: Awakening" isn't for everybody. And while at times on the surface it may seem overly complex (the game doesn’t do that good of a job of explaining elements of the series to newcomers) the skirmishes never really deviate too much from a given formula, and even though 25 different chapters make up the main campaign, the battles never really progress that much from one to another beside being on different maps (except for the very last level, which is a great set piece), and the game, at risk of having my cake and eating it too, seems to stay too simple in areas it shouldn’t (variety of weapons, class switching, leveling, and other RPG staples), while yet retaining a brutally frustrating difficulty in other areas.

Weapons break, people die, but life, and the story, must go on. For many, “Fire Emblem: Awakening” is probably a sure fire buy, a game that will delight tactical RPG fans and give 3DS owners hours and hours to sink into. It’s a great game, have no doubt, but just know what you are getting yourself into. It’s an enjoyable world, and a great story that will make you care deeply about your characters, your choices, and who you let live and die. It’s just a shame that decision was thrown in my hands so many times. And that then I had to restart and weigh that decision, restart, rinse, and repeat. And then do it 225 more times.