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Fire Emblem: Awakening

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.