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Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of the deepest and best 3DS games (review)

Fire Emblem has never achieved the popularity of Nintendo’s biggest franchises. It doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of Mario, the merchandising potential of Pokémon, or the cutting-edge technology of Zelda. But Fire Emblem: Awakening, a turn-based strategy game coming out Monday for the Nintendo 3DS, easily matches the quality of those legendary series.

What makes Awakening so special, especially considering it’s the 11th game in the series (the sixth to come out in North America)? Sure, the gameplay will feel familiar to fans of the franchise, but this newest entry complements those great mechanics with impressive production values. Developer Intelligent Systems has refined and molded the core experience into an incredible portable game.

You play Awakening on a small screen, but the adventure you’ll experience is anything but tiny. This quest is an epic, complex test of your skills as a military commandeer.

What you’ll like

Hardcore strategy

Awakening is like a complicated game of chess (or, if you already find chess difficult, a really complicated game of checkers). You take turns against the computer positioning your army around a grid and attacking your opponent. A number of factors decide the outcome of each battle, including your unit’s level (which increases from experience earned while fighting), the weapons you wield, and your relationships with adjacent allies. (For tips, check out our Fire Emblem guide.)

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Any one of these things can make the difference between life and death, which is a huge deal in Awakening. Death is permanent. Any character you lose in a battle is gone for good. Actually, you do have the option in the beginning of the game to have dead fighters respawn after a battle (a first for a U.S. entry in the series), but I recommend against it. Permanent death may seem like a rough penalty, but it forces you to act extra thoughtfully. Are you really willing to risk a character’s life against 50/50 odds of survival? The strategy aspect becomes a lot more … well, strategic. You can’t just throw units against a wall of enemies and hope for the best.

If you want to keep your crew alive, you have to act intelligently on and off the battlefield. You want to fight those optional skirmishes so you can earn some extra levels. You have to buy the best equipment and make sure your characters will have enough weapons to last a battle (most items only have a set number of uses, after which they break and disappear). You need to figure out how you want to upgrade your units, making sure you have a good mix of fighters, fliers, ranged attackers, healers, and more.

If it all sounds complicated, that’s because it is. It’s delightfully complex. If you love to pour over the details and plan for the bigger picture, then you’ll find Awakening incredibly rewarding.

Love can bloom on the battlefield

Characters gain bonuses to their stats by standing next to an ally, but those gains increase the more the two units like each other. Fighting alongside a friend can unlock conversations between the two outside of battles. After watching these often hilarious skits, their relationship will increase. A paired-up character also sometimes offers an additional attack. Again, the odds of this happening increases the further along their relationship is, so it’s smart to position friendly characters next to each other as often as possible.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Many characters can even marry each other. Spouses gain astronomical stat bonuses when fighting together, and marrying your fighters can lead to new side-missions that unlock powerful new recruits.

I actually spent days just playing matchmaker for my army and pairing off characters that I thought looked cute together in skirmishes just so that they would hook up. You can also pair units on the same square of the battle grid, which only lets one of them move and attack but makes it easier to increase their love for each other while saving some space on the field. This is also a great way to protect weaker units.

It was like playing a Japanese visual novel. Just, you know, with a lot more swords and fire spells. It also opens up a large variety of possible coupling, and each marriage comes with special dialogue. Who you hook up your main characters with can even have an impact on the game’s story, adding incentive to play the game more than once for completionists looking to see every possible conversation.

An epic adventure starring you

One of your fighters is literally you. Well, at least it’s your avatar. You create your own character from a few customizable options at the beginning. Not only can you take this personalized unit into battle, but they actually play a major role in the story. Arguably, you are the main hero in Awakening, which does a lot to immerse you in the epic story.

Awakening’s tale spans continents and years, focusing on wars against rival nations and (of course) a mysterious evil. The plot is typical fantasy stuff, but like all good genre fiction, it’s made great with a strong, likable cast of characters. Some of my favorites include a knight in giant armor who seems invisible to his allies and a thief who cares more for candy than gold.

Each fighter has their own personality that’s expressed in multiple conversations and in-game cutscenes. You really grow to like them, which makes the prospect of losing one all the more horrifying.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Artfully crafted

Awakening has amazing production values for an original 3DS game. Just look at that beautiful image taken from the cover art at the top of the first page. Character portraits done in that same style pop up during dialogues, but even the 3D models used in cutscenes and the awesomely animated battle sequences have an appealing, exaggerated look. It also features a few computer generated cut-scenes, which look like a stunning cross between anime and a CG movie.

Even the system’s 3D effect impresses. I was actually startled once while scrolling across the battlefield when a flock of birds seemingly flew right by my face. You can choose to view battles in a first-person mode, which is a fun showcase for the screen-popping technology (although it gets a little disorienting).

A great soundtrack complements these visuals. The score matches the epic scope with triumphant themes and exciting battle music that actually grows more intense when you transition from the field to a battle sequence.

What you won’t like

Critical hits

One of the stats that factors into every battle is the chance for a critical hit, which does a great deal of extra damage compared to a normal attack. Now, this is extremely helpful for you, especially when a nearby friend or spouse greatly enhance your fighter’s critical hit ratio, but your enemy also has a chance to deal massive damage (insert giant enemy crab joke here). Not much of one, really. Usually just 1 percent. But when you fight hundreds of battles, you’re going to have a couple of them trigger, and they almost always kill your unit in one hit.You can’t do much to defend against them, and it’s a big pain when it causes all of your plans to become undone 30 minutes into a fight.

If you’re obsessive-compulsive about keeping all of you characters alive — like I am — then you’ll want to restart the skirmish. I never found an easier way of doing this outside of turning off the entire game and loading my save file from just before the battle started. Still, this is more of an annoyance than an actual flaw.

Conclusion

Fire Emblem: Awakening completely engaged me while I was playing it, whether I was connecting with its well-written characters or taxing my (limited) intellect as I tried to win a difficult battle while keeping everyone alive. It’s hard to ask for much more from a strategy game, but Awakening goes beyond that by supporting its great mechanics with immersion and beautiful art.

This is one of the best games Nintendo’s released for the 3DS yet.

94/100

Fir Emblem: Awakening will be available on Feb. 4 for the Nintendo 3DS. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a digital copy of the game for the purposes of this review.

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