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PLATFORM: Nintendo 3DS
PRICE: $39.99
DEVELOPER: Intelligent Systems

Warning: This review contains very mild spoilers for the game’s plot, in order to better discuss one of the key gameplay elements of the game itself.

How did this game happen?

As Nintendo keeps marketing their latest console generations to the casual and family crowd, how can something like Fire Emblem: Awakening be released by the same company? It makes no sense even in retrospective, as the Fire Emblem series of strategy games, despite more than two decades and countless games in its native Japan, has only been imported to the Western world for a relatively short time, and that started just because two characters from the series became popular in Smash Bros. Despite releases on the Gameboy Advance, DS and Wii, the Fire Emblem games in the west were more of a niche, small cult market for Nintendo, as its genre and style are in strong contrast with the company’s image of casual and family gaming. This makes it all the more amazing that the latest release in the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening, is not just one of the best games Nintendo has released in ages, but it might actually be the best first party game in the whole 3DS library.

Plot wise, the game initially tells the typical story the series has thrived on: rivalries between age old kingdoms and a diverse cast of different characters, classes, abilities and personalities, elements which quickly develop into an epic storyline that ends up overshadowing the initial conflicts and character motivations. This is Fire Emblem 101, so to speak, the formula Awakening both follows and strays far from.

In the role of an amnesiac tactician (a character whose gender, looks and overall abilities players have to customize at the start, a very rare occurrence in the series), you find yourself joining the ranks of the Shepherds, a band of warriors of the Kingdom of Ylisse who, under the command of the young  and charismatic prince Chrom, enforce the peace in the kingdom and look out to protect its citizens, a task that quickly becomes an all out war as two threats emerge: the vindictive Kingdom of Plegia, who seek retribution for past Ylissean acts of war, and the Risen, undead warriors who seem to have no other objective than the destruction of the living. A masked warrior who uses the name of the hero of old, Marth, seems to be linked to both threats and carries an agenda of his own. As your avatar and Chrom battle these threats and the plot advances,  an entire cast of warriors join your ranks,  and soon the Shepherds  embark on a grand crusade. Chrom and his army are soon destined to battle an ancient evil that threatens the world, with hope arriving from a most unexpected place, through the bonds of battle.

That last line is to be taken literally. While gameplay is based on the series classic system of  moving units with different abilities and weaknesses over grid-based overhead maps which contain different elements,  and each unit’s choice of weapon, from axes to swords, spears and more operates on a rock-paper-scissors system, units level up and become more powerful, you can use special items to change a unit’s class or have it evolve to a superior class, and so on; the surprise element of strategy in the game comes as you you pair up and have units/characters join together in battle, as you do this, their affection together will increase, resulting in better chances of both units acting together when on the field; either defending each other from attack or joining together to take on the same target, pairing units together and raising their affection levels is essential not just to survive in battles were you will be outnumbered, but to experience the best surprise of Fire Emblem: Awakening; see, when two units of different genders reach their maximum affection levels, they actually become a couple; this not only makes pairing them together on the battlefield a force to be reckoned with, but also provides a huge time-travelling surprise in the midpoint of the game, as the actual sons and daughters of various members of Chrom’s army actually appear as recruitable characters. This happens through  a series of side missions that will put your strategic  abilities to the test, since you can actually miss recruitable characters if you do not follow the path to have them join you, including characters who pop up during the initial storyline, which means using an online guide to recruiting here is not just recommended, its pretty much mandatory here.

These character additions not only will boost your army with new units, but also provide some of the best story and character moments in the game, as the interactions between the members of each couple, families and even friends/comrades are presented as mini skits of drama, comedy and everything in between, which results in one of the best and most original ways to add personality and charm to characters in a game that I’ve seen to date. The fact that all of this is optional adds to how endearing the whole affection and descendant systems are; as there are only “hero” units in the game, you will need to pair characters together and have them grow into couples and eventually families in order to bolster your ranks and improve your army’s efficiency. Sure, you could just thread on with the handful of heroes you initially get and those you can recruit through the story, but with each character having well-defined personalities and dialogue, its impossible not to find yourself suddenly charmed and building affection for characters you personally feel seem “right” together. It’s a bizarre twist of gameplay that takes elements from dating simulations and visual novels and despite cutting them down to basics, it’s one of the best narrative-extending devices in a game to date (the game even includes an unlockable skit theater and character pairing prognosticator as extras).

This system, despite its charm and originality isn’t perfect though: Some characters are bound to be prevented from being together as required by the plot,  and missing out on the requirements to recruit a character due to the game being obtuse makes consulting a wiki/guide an actual part of the game. Also, while not surprising given Nintendo’s history, there are no same sex couples options in the game (which does make sense when you do consider the whole “descendants” thing), but this is kinda baffling when both a female character that pretty much fills the “Lolita” trope is justified by being from a long lived, non-human race (this still doesn’t account for her wardrobe choices, if you ask me), and both male and female characters with animal DNA appear in the game. These small blemishes basically come from the series anime and manga style and inspirations, and while they do not affect the quality of the gameplay and overall experience, they will  end up puzzling gamers not used to Japanese popular culture.

The presentation and controls are impeccable, as expected of both the series creators and long time developers Intelligent Systems and Nintendo’s standards of quality. While the game uses the same tried and tested overhead interface that has been with the series since its origins, the clashes between units on the field and most plot scenes are represented in detailed yet fluid 3D polygon scenes or amazing 3D styled anime scenes. The character designs for enemy units are limited and follow the usual color palette swap, but the variety in hero units and characters more than make up for it, especially when you consider the HUGE variety of extras the game throws at players in that regard. Thanks to the 3DS online abilities and the Spot Pass system, the game offers huge amounts of free content, from extra maps, weapons and bonuses, the ability to fight with friends using your personalized army and the Street Pass system, and, above all, dozens of recruitable extra characters from Fire Emblem’s legacy of games, which you can summon to your game to fight and recruit to expand your army’s numbers and renown. There are also several additional map packs with their own stories and extras available as paid DLC (both in packs and single maps) that offer exclusive characters from other Fire Emblem games, missions and even extra classes, but none of these actually affect the story or prevent users to enjoy the game to the fullest. It’s a class act all the way in providing DLC for a game, and given its pricing and content, I’d say that if you become enthralled by the game, you’ll probably end up buying it regardless, as its reasonably priced and it enhances the overall experience, instead of making it feel trimmed down.

With a long, enjoyable campaign that is based around gameplay that combines classic strategy and RPG elements with visual novel styled innovations that make for an extended narrative where characters, instead of plot, adapt to player choices, Fire Emblem: Awakening  is not just the best strategy game on Nintendo’s current portable, but its pretty much one of the most original and addictive games the gaming giant has released in years, resulting a rare release that despite coming from an obscure, niche place in Nintendo history, emerges as one of the shining jewels in the 3DS catalog. It’s a must play, either as an introduction to strategy or as new challenge for veterans of the genre. Its anime stylings and visual novel based innovations might not be your cup of tea at first, but once you get over it, you won’t find a more charming, polished and original experience on the system.

This choice will haunt you for the rest of the game, so think carefully before making the choice; if you want the purest, most demanding yet challenging experience, go with Classic mode, but when you replay battles for hours to save a character’s life, don’t you blame me.

4.5 out of 5