Bumpin' up production value, keepin' strategy goodness, makin' babies
As venerable as the Fire Emblem series is, I've only played bits and pieces over the years, partially because of how few entries in the series have been brought stateside. When, ten years ago now, a buddy showed me this Game Boy Advance title pithily named Fire Emblem, the novelty of seeing the series localized didn’t get me invested enough to switch from getting my handheld strategy fix from another Intelligent Systems title, Advance Wars.
Strategy fans who know little outside of Super Smash Bros.’ Marth and Roy -- or Marth and Ike, I guess -- have a treat coming up in Fire Emblem: Awakening, however, as the 3DS is getting a new Fire Emblem that features plenty of nods to the long-running franchise’s history, but has its own, contained story.
It’s a perfect point of entry for newbies and will likely sate and delight existing fans just the same. From what I played, it’s going to be a pretty awesome point to jump in at, regardless of your experience with the series, and it marks another great release for the 3DS, which is looking like it’ll be on fire this year with cool things to play.
Fire Emblem: Awakening (Nintendo 3DS)
For the uninitiated, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a fairly straightforward turn-based strategy RPG, but with some of the strongest visual flair I've seen in a sprite-based game. It’s not uncommon for these games to feature dazzling cutscenes, and Awakening ticks that box with its drop-dead gorgeous cinematics that feature the best use of 3D I’ve seen on the system. But the game doesn’t stop there.
Sprites are still gallivanting around maps, for example, but they're not haphazardly slashing a sword up and down and making numbers fall off opponents. After an attack is initiated, fully animated 3D models do battle in glorious fashion. During the text-heavy conversations, uniquely detailed 2D models and text boxes sit in the foreground while 3D character models will generally be emoting and the like in the background.
Where I was most impressed, however, was on the traditionally simple battlefield, which featured some particularly crisp sprite work. During one particularly climactic battle in a forest engulfed in flame, I actually had charred ash floating over the scene in the foreground, both an interesting use of 3D and an otherwise unexpected visual note to what could’ve been a more boring-looking strategy battle. It's nice to see such a leap in the tried-and-true genre which typically gets away with being aesthetically simple, especially on handhelds. It feels like Nintendo realizes this is a chance to foster a new wave of Fire Emblem fans and has told Intelligent Systems to go all out.
Present from the beginning are Normal, Hard, and Insane difficulty levels. After that choice, you can choose between Classic and Casual mode. The latter allows you to save anywhere and units lost in battle won't be permanently lost -- typically a series staple, but casual mode is assumedly meant to accommodate new players.
Next is the newly introduced character creation screen which lets you choose your character's gender and other defining features, which is sort of especially neat given that this 3D model translates into a 2D model as well. You can even change the voice. Cutscenes are fully voiced, while text sections and battles have bits of spoken dialogue. The Japanese voice track is available in addition to English.
To accommodate the character creator, cutscenes featuring your character are in first-person, which actually proved an interesting choice that makes good use of the 3D. The game starts with you and your brother (or you and your sister, if you choose the male) fighting a decadently evil-looking dude in a brief tutorial section, after which your character revives in a wooded area with genre-staple amnesia. This is the basis for hooking up with Chrom, prince of Ylisse, and his gang of shepherds, along with some more tutorials.
One important wrinkle to Awakening's battle mechanics is the support system, in which allies positioned next to each other offer various stats boosts (attack if attacking, defense if being attacked). A character on standby can even block a blow for their compatriot or team up in attack. On top of this, positioning characters next to each other helps their relationship grow and, for male and female characters, can lead to marriage, hot sex, and even children.
Outside of battle, there is a traversable overworld where you can jet between story missions. Additionally, the map is dotted with paralogues -- sidequests -- which can yield interesting story bits or new characters, like Donnel, a simple farm hand with the potential of being one of the stronger characters in the game. There are also random battles, meant to give you some breathing room in training up characters outside of your mainstays, while other players’ characters can show up via Street Pass. You can recruit these characters for money (scaled depending on their level), fight them for a chance to win them over, or just buy (possible rare) items from them.
Though Awakening is going to be a typically content-heavy game, Nintendo is also planning to roll out paid DLC likely to abet players seeking some variety after playing for dozens if not hundreds of hours. A new map will be offered each week, price to be announced, for a number of months; the first will be free for the first week of release.
These new maps will offer various perks -- some might have extra gold or yield more experience points -- but most enticing is the ability to recruit characters from Fire Emblem's past. Free content via Spot Pass is also planned and there will be local multiplayer. Sticking with advancements on the digital front, the game will be downloadable from the eShop in addition to retail availability and a demo will be hitting the eShop on January 17, 2013.
I’m stoked for Fire Emblem: Awakening. It’s looking to be a solid handheld strategy fix, but the little touches, unique art direction, and detailed, lively presentation put it over the top. The cutscenes were far beyond anything I expected and I love all the 2D character artwork I’ve seen thus far. I’m ready to sink some serious time into Awakening next month.