the artistry and psychology of gaming


Fire Emblem: Awakening

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Review in Brief
Game: A strategy RPG with a deep, varied cast of characters set in a medieval-themed fantasy world.
Good: Incredible, varied, flexible, well-developed cast; deep short-term and long-term strategies; huge replay value.
Bad: Weak, meandering plot; significant contradictions between gameplay and plot; almost requires a second playthrough; incomplete information to the player.
Verdict: Not the game for me, but certainly the game for some other people.
Rating: 6/10 – “Fair – game is okay, but there are many better”
Recommendation: Whether you think you’ll like it or you think you won’t, you’re probably right. If you don’t know, try it.

“Flawed, but fans of the series probably won’t mind.”

I didn’t care for Fire Emblem: Awakening, but I can appreciate its appeal. You can probably stop reading this review right now, that pretty much summarizes everything I’m going to say about the game. I have a lot of legitimate complaints about the game, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them design flaws or outright errors. For most of them, they’re trade-offs, a drawback that was necessary to bring to light a certain asset, a feature that comes with a sacrifice. Personally, I don’t like the decisions, but I can appreciate why other gamers with other tastes, other preferences, and other styles enjoy the game.

So, read the rest of this review with that in mind. The criticisms I cite might not bother you. Heck, some of the criticisms might be assets in your mind. For example, I don’t consider replay value a huge asset for a game to have because I rarely replay games; Fire Emblem: Awakening goes so far as to almost make replaying the game a necessity to get the full experience. For me, that’s a drawback, a forced retread over some repeated content in order to experience the other content. For others, it will be an asset, allowing the game to be played over and over without getting overly similar.

The Game
Fire Emblem: Awakening is the latest in Intelligent Systems’ long-running strategy game series, the thirteenth installment overall and the fifth to see a release in the United States. The game is constructed, though, to be a standalone title, and while it does make references (I’m told) to past games in the franchise, it exists with a self-contained world and plotline. In this story, you follow protagonists Chrom and DDJ as they deal with the rise of a sequence of threats to their home kingdom of Ylisse. As they progress through the various conflicts, they gather allies and form quite a large army, up to over 40 characters total (although no more than 16, and typically no more than 13, are ever seen in a single battle).

In terms of gameplay, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a fairly standard turn-based strategy RPG taking place on a battlefield grid. The player and the opponent take turns moving all units around the field, attacking, healing, and repositioning. Combat takes place on a cutaway screen for animation’s sake (and the animation can be disabled) and is based on the stats of the units and weapons present at the individual skirmish. Characters earn experience based on their actions in battle. Most battles are won by defeating either all visible enemies or one particular enemy. During battle, units also build up support points, enabled units that are often next to one another in battle to develop better relationships and complement each other better in future battles. Outside of battle, these relationships also lead to deep character development and even romance in separate cutscenes.

These battles take place on a broader world map, spanning the regions of Ylisse, Valm, and Plegia. Each city on the map has a shop, and can also be visited by special salespeople selling special wares. Each city can also be attacked by an enemy force, allowing the player unlimited optional battles in which to engage for experience and training. There are around 25 total required plot battles which each taking place in a new city (and, thus, each city is only added to the world map once a battle has taken place there). There are also over 20 sidequest battles (some available only through SpotPass), most of which give the player a new character. There are also 25 downloadable chapters, none of which I personally bought. The player is free to move around the world map, shop, play optional battles, and finish sidequests between every plot battle.

Disclosure of Biases
I’m not a fan of the Fire Emblem series; that’s not to say I actively dislike it, I’m just not sufficiently experienced with it to have an overall opinion one way or another. I know about it well enough, I think, to identify the elements that are traditions of the franchise and thus likely to be overlooked or even appreciated by the game’s fanbase, but those particular elements do not really appeal directly to me. My lack of familiarity with the franchise, though, means I’m also not equipped to comment on how much Fire Emblem: Awakening improves on the previous games in the series; it may just be an incremental improvement, the likes of which I’ve personally berated the Pokemon franchise for relying on for some time.

The Good
In Fire Emblem‘s long history, it has developed quite a fanbase as well as lots of franchise traditions. To be honest, I think many of these stylistic traditions are silly and distracting, but I don’t consider it valid to critique them given their history in the series. Instead, I look more directly at what contributes to and detracts from the game. In terms of contributions, there are three points on which Fire Emblem: Awakening shines.

Incredible Cast
Without a doubt, the best feature of Fire Emblem: Awakening is the incredibly strong and varied cast. I’ve heard that the Fire Emblem series is well-known for having strong casts, and I have no way of knowing if Fire Emblem: Awakening‘s cast is just par for the course or if it’s good even by the series’ standards themselves, but regardless the game has one of the best casts of characters I’ve ever seen assembled in a video game.

However, it’s important to note the phrasing there: the game has one of the best casts of characters, but it does not have nearly the best individual characters. Rather, it is the structure, flexibility, and variety of the cast as a whole that makes it so strong and memorable. For starters, there are over 40 available playable characters, as well as likely another dozen or so non-playable characters you’ll encounter throughout the game. It is extraordinarily difficult to create that many characters and have them each not only be individually unique, but also individually memorable. I’m terrible with names, and in many games, I find myself very confused about the plot of the game as soon as the game starts relying on my ability to remember a character’s history just by their name. Somehow, though, Fire Emblem: Awakening creates such individually memorable characters that even after only a momentary interaction with them, I can remember their personalities. In a game with 40 or more playable characters, that’s crucial; you’re going to go several hours without seeing a certain character, so when they pop up again, it’s important that the player remember who they are. Somehow, Fire Emblem: Awakening accomplishes that: it has an enormous cast, but each cast member is individually memorable.

Not only are the individual members of the cast extraordinarily memorable, though, they are also extraordinarily flexible. A major part of the game hinges on developing relationships between members of your party, and in many cases, those characters can marry one another and even have children (who themselves can come fight for your party). The number of potential pairings for this, though, is astounding; many of the characters can marry any of the members of the opposite gender with no restriction whatsoever. It’s like a Harvest Moon game cubed: each character has numerous spousal options, and there are dialog cutscenes sufficient to make every single relationship seem believable and real. In a couple instances I intentionally paired off people that made no sense together just to see how well the game presented the couple, and it actually did a remarkably good job in every instance. So, not only are the characters individually unique, each character is actually as many as a dozen subtly different characters based on what relationship they choose to be in.

All of this combines to form a deep and varied cast of characters, each characterized by dozens of different dialog conversations in several different situations. The character development is not like what you see in most games, where characters are exposed to expected events in a predetermined order and can develop like a literary character; instead, the character development here is much more ongoing, emergent, and dynamic. For that reason, it’s also shallower for each individual character, but given the variety and flexibility of the cast, the overall result is one of the strongest casts I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Deep Strategy
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn-based strategy RPG, and as such, it darn well better have good strategy. Fortunately, it does. If you want a very deep analysis of exactly the multitude of strategy options at play in the game, I invite you to check out some of the other reviews that have experimented more thoroughly with the different options – or for that matter, checking out an FAQ might be even better, given that they go to great lengths to outline the different strategies and options available. Instead of getting very deep, I’ll instead look over broadly two of the ways in which the game creates rich strategy options, what I describe as the short-game and the long-game. The short-game is the strategy at play within a single battle, while the long-game is the strategy at play with regard to developing one’s units.

In the short game, Fire Emblem: Awakening is actually a bit different than most turn-based strategy games I’ve played; turns are by entire faction rather than by unit, there are no area of effect spells, and the system of strengths and weakness is a bit more ambiguous and ill-defined. There are places where this has major weaknesses, but in many ways it is also responsible for the rich short-term strategy of the game. The nature of interactions between enemy units and your own tend to be relatively narrow, allowing for more focused and specific strategic options. Formations, division of troops, and movement speed all factor in not just to winning battles as quickly as possible, but also to winning battles at all. There were many battles, especially early in the game, where I restarted the battle specifically because I learned a major strategic ploy that I wanted to use. Among the most common examples of this are partnerships: units that are alongside each other fight together in battle, and there is an abundance of ways that one can combine different classes and strengths to dominate battles most efficiently. While some strategy games allow individual units’ powers to be the main drivers behind the gameplay, Fire Emblem: Awakening really does rely on strategy.

In the long game, the game similarly has some rich strategic development. The game does lack a formal class tree (as far as I can tell) like one might find in other turn-based strategy games, but the skills and weapons available to the different classes make up for this to a large degree. Each class is quantified on a number of metrics, and characters can change classes, allowing the player to strategize about which past skills lend themselves best to certain new classes. There is an abundance of classes as well, although no two are overly similar; in many cases, two classes might be differentiated only by the weapons they use, but even that can have significant influence over the way the battles go. An extra element of this is that relationships build between units long-term, too; a major element of strategy is in determining which units will complement one another most often and raising their support level to maximize the extent of their teamwork. In many cases, two strong units with maximum support are nearly unstoppable, but a lot of long-term strategy goes into making that happen.

Perhaps the best part about these two distinct types of strategy, though, is the interplay between them. In the short-game, you’re confronted with decisions to make about which units to pair together and have complement each other, and generally these decisions can be somewhat emergent; in my game, anyway, I made specific decisions to pair off certain characters for either plot or strategy reasons, but other characters just emergently and naturally ended up working together more often than others. The game, then, in the long-term strategy complements and rewards these emergent behaviors by increasing those characters’ support level, thus leading to them being more effective in partnership than they were when they were naturally complementing each other in the first place.

Nearly-Mandatory Replay Value
As referenced above, the game has over 40 characters. Each and every character has dozens of dialog boxes, conversations, and relationships that can be developed. There are likely hundreds of pages of such dialog and character development. Yet, in any given battle, you can only bring around 14 characters. How do you develop that many characters when you have so few active slots?

The simple answer is, really, you don’t. If you want to get everything out of the game, you’re going to have to play it more than once in order to really get to know all the characters, see the flexibility of the relationships, and try out different strategies. What that means is that the game has an astounding amount of replay value through its characters and cast; no two playthroughs will be alike because of how many decisions go into constructing the team the player uses most often. Through those decisions, the gameplay experience largely fundamentally changes, like choosing a new team for a playthrough of Pokemon. The game has so much replay value that when I asked a question on the Fire Emblem: Awakening board, several people commented with advice about my next playthrough: it’s not even optional, it’s assumed you’ll play through again.

The Bad
Like I mentioned in the introduction, though, I actually didn’t personally care for Fire Emblem: Awakening. I can see its appeal, and I definitely enjoyed elements of it, especially surrounding the character development, but overall it fell kind of flat for me. Some of these critiques are trade-offs where other players will be glad that the game was designed in this way, but others are a little more objective, starting with the first one.

Small, Lackluster Plot
I’m not going to call the game ‘short’ because it isn’t short by any definition; I spent 25 hours on it and I only completed half of the sidequests and participated in very few optional battles. However, the game is small. The battles themselves can take around a half-hour to complete, and having completed around 50 battles, you can see that almost the entire time spent with the game is spent in battle. The plot is, quite simply, relatively short. Part of this is a flaw in the way the plot is expressed (detailed more in the next section), but part of it is a flaw in the plot itself. The story it tells is really very small and simple. A sequence of threats arises, and the player has to address each threat in turn.

The main problem here is that the plot really lacks an overall plot arc. Through the first few battles, you’re fighting one enemy. Then the game shifts and you’re fighting another one entirely. Then, another shift, and now you’re on to another enemy. While the game later makes an effort to stitch together these game events into a more compelling overall narrative, it never feels compelling at the time. During the game, it just feels like the game is inventing new excuses for you to go to new places and fight a slightly different combination of enemies on a slightly different playing field. It introduces some mystery and questions at some places, but they are so blunt and cliché that it really does not equate to a good plot. Storylines are left dangling, enemy characters are poorly developed, and it is never really clear who you are even really fighting against.

The problem with this weak driving plot is that it severely detracts from the replay value of the game. There is lots of replay value in the individual units you choose to use and the characters you choose to develop, but none of that really matters in the context of the game’s plot. There is no nuance, no subtlety, and no intrigue to uncover on a second playthrough. There is some emotion, sure, but the emotion does not increase upon revisiting the scenes, and the way the story is told it’s essentially impossible to really miss anything the first time through the game. So while the characters and units of the game make replaying the game a highly desirable endeavor, the plot offers nothing for that. The plot isn’t good enough on its own to warrant a replay, nor is it subtle or nuanced enough to get anything more out of seeing it twice. It’s nothing but a string of prototypical clichés with no underlying driving narrative or overall plot arc.

No Gameplay/Plot Complement
While the above complaint is, I think, a little more objective, this one is more subjective. It’s subjective in part because whether or not this is important for a good game is actually somewhat questionable; I tend to favor this above all else, but others couldn’t care less. It’s also subjective in that this criticizes not just something that is fairly standard to the Fire Emblem franchise, but is fairly common in the strategy RPG genre as a whole.

In my opinion, a good video game is characterized by a strong symbiosis between its gameplay and its plot: the plot drives and justifies the gameplay, and the gameplay is actually used or noted in the plot. In strategy RPGs, by and large, this does not exist at all. Once the battle starts, there is no plot development at all; there may be some lines of dialog exchanged between characters, but that is more to heighten the suspense than to actually contribute anything. Then, when the battle ends, the player is rewarded with a cutscene advancing the plot a bit. Then, it’s on to the next battle. In terms of gameplay/plot symbiosis, it’s basically like reading a version of War and Peace that requires you to randomly beat a level of Tetris between each chapter. The gameplay and plot have no relevance to one another besides some shared names, and the latter is just a reward for engaging in the former.

Making matters even worse is that because there are so relatively few opportunities for significant plot points that nearly every plot point has to be major. There is no room for subtle expressions of the plot because the plot is contained specifically to certain visual novel-like cutscenes with no player participation. In some games, you can subtly explore the game world and develop the plot through pieces of the scenery, ambient conversations, intermittent dialog, or other more nuanced ways of expressing the story. Throwaway comments can come up more significantly later, and plot events that seemed insignificant can take on a new importance toward the end of the game. But in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the fact that plot points are presented only in self-contained and discrete scenes means nothing is nuanced. You’re paying attention to either the gameplay or the plot, and thus anything said in the plot portion of the game has to have some significance. It’s a weakness of this manner of expressing a story, and although it is common in strategy RPGs, it still is not desirable.

Adding to this problem is that the times when the plot attempts to reference the gameplay, it often is even more unfaithful. In some battles, for instance, the dialog references different sides having hundreds of thousands or even a million soldiers at their disposal; yet, we’re supposed to believe that the battle was turned around by our ragtag group of 14 defeating 40 specific other soldiers? We’re supposed to believe that in a war with stakes these high and with thousands of soldiers around, we still think it’s best to only bring half our detachment to the actual battle? The plot tries to raise the stakes and scope of the game, but the gameplay does nothing to complement or support that scope, and in fact directly contradicts it.

The gameplay and plot contradict each other in other ways as well. In a couple different battles, for instance, the player routes the enemy, only to be told at the end, “Our army is decimated, we have to request help!” Decimated? Help? My units just destroyed the enemy without even taking a blow, yet we’re decimated? Or in another, after defeating a boss, the plot comes along and says, “Oh no, he escaped!” He escaped? We watched him fall down, surrounded on all sides by our units, and yet he “escaped”? In an excellent game, these kinds of plot events are actually depicted or justified in the gameplay; in Fire Emblem: Awakening, though, there is no unity between the plot and the gameplay, and the two often directly contradict each other.

An even more frustrating example of the contradiction between the plot and gameplay comes in the game over conditions. The only way to get a game over in the game is to have one of the game’s two main characters – Chrom or DDJ – fall in battle. What’s the best way to ensure they don’t fall in battle? Of course, the best way is just to not use them in battle. If they’re not involved, they can’t die, right? Chrom is mandatory in almost every battle, but you can still put him as a support character to another unit to keep him out of the action. DDJ doesn’t even have to be in most battles at all. Yet, regardless of how you use the two of them, the game’s plot still says that Chrom is the leader and DDJ is a brilliant tactician and battlefield hero. The plot says that they are relevant in the gameplay, but the gameplay encourages the player to keep them irrelevant.

Nearly-Mandatory Replay Value
I wrote in the above section that the game’s replay value is a significant asset… if you want it to be. If you’re the kind of person that likes replaying games, then Fire Emblem: Awakening could be great for you. If, on the other hand, you have dozens of games in your backlog, have to squeeze gaming between being a husband, father, and full-time employee, and really never replay games, then Fire Emblem: Awakening actually works against you. It’s not just a game that has extra things to notice on a second playthrough, it’s a game that makes you consciously aware that you’re missing out on things that you likely can’t get without playing the game again.

About a quarter of the way through the game, the number of units you have available to you begins to exceed the number of battle positions you usually have available. At that point, you’re faced with a choice. On the one hand, you don’t want to just drop the characters you’ve been developing and getting attached to, if nothing else for sentimental reasons (although wanting to stick to and maintain a plan plays in, too). On the other hand, you don’t want to miss out on the interesting new jobs and units that are becoming available. On the mutant third hand, it’s frustrating to try to develop all of your units; that involves playing about two optional battles for every plot battle and that starts to feel like a chore very quickly. No matter what you choose to do, though, it’s very clear you’re missing out on something. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation, and the only remedy is to replay the game. As a result, replaying the game is almost altogether required. If you’re like me and really don’t have time (or desire) to replay a game, you feel like you’re missing out. Don’t get me wrong – to a certain extent, this is true for most games. All good games give you something extra when you replay them, whether it’s learning something else about the characters, something interesting about the plot, or a new nuance to the gameplay. However, in most of these games, it isn’t so obvious what you’re missing out on during your initial playthrough. Those games feel complete, and the extra information you get from additional playthroughs is just icing. For Fire Emblem: Awakening, it feels like one playthrough is just the bottom layer.

Inconsistent Information
On the gameplay side, the biggest flaw I see is an issue with the game giving incomplete information a lot of the time. In battle, for instance, the game pops up a little preview to show you the likely hypothetical battle result. It shows how much damage you’ll do, how much damage your opponent will do, and what each unit’s hit percentage is. The problem, though, is that this information only shows an incomplete subset of the actual information you need to make a decision. For example, imagine two units fighting each other. The battle preview indicates that both units will completely destroy one another, removing all of each other’s HP. The attacking unit goes first, so logical would rule that the attacking unit will win; but wait, the battle starts and you find out that the attacking unit deals their damage in two hits. That means that the defending unit gets to retaliate halfway through, dealing all of its damage in one hit. The game displayed that both units would completely remove one another’s HP, but it gave incomplete information on the number of attacks required. The game does say that the attacking unit will get two hits, but it’s entirely possible that each hit removes more HP than the defending unit has.

On a similar note, as mentioned previously, when an attacking unit is positioned adjacent to an ally, the ally will join in the fight. The ally will add to the attacking unit’s stats, but may also launch an attack of their own. However, in the attack preview, whether or not the ally will launch an attack is not listed, meaning that in these instances, the battle preview is almost always incorrect. The effect of the ally on the attacking unit’s stats isn’t even factored into the equation. Now, of course, one could argue that it’s the player’s responsibility to know their units’ strengths and weaknesses and estimate or predict how much damage they’ll do on their own; after all, in most RPGs, there is no such preview. That’s all well and fine, except that if that’s the case, why is the game giving the information it’s already giving? Why doesn’t it just leave everything to the player’s estimation? It gives a moderately useful estimate, but in many instances that estimate is more confusing and misleading then helpful.

Another area of incomplete information comes in the game’s job structure. Never, at least as far as I saw, does the game articulate how units unlock other jobs. When you go to switch jobs, the game gives you a list of the different jobs the character can switch to, but it never shows how that list is populated. Is it based on each character’s skills? Each character’s weapon proficiency? Each character’s statistics or former job? Is it specific to each character, predetermined and unchangeable? Any of those are completely valid answers, but the problem is the game never makes it clear which one is right. That leaves the player a bit in the dark when trying to strategize how to level and mold their characters, which in turn handicaps the otherwise strong long-play strategy of the game. The way I refer to all of these issues is that the presentation of the underlying systems is poor. It could be that the game has the most balanced and innovative class structure in strategy RPG history and that the way of estimating hit percentages and battle participation requires an advanced degree in Calculus, but all of that is only questionably desirable if the player is never aware of it.

The other similar problem with the game is that it does a very poor job of making certain things clear to the player. In fact, in many instances, the player can make mistakes without ever knowing they were mistakes at all because the game never gave an indication of what the right thing to do was. This occurs many times in character recruitments: there are several battles where a recruitable unit is on the opposing side, and if you kill them you never have the opportunity to recruit them. The problem is the game doesn’t make these characters very clear: you can only talk to them with certain units of your own, so if you don’t happen to look that unit’s way while having the right unit selected, you might never know they were recruitable. Even if you do know they can be recruited, if they attack you and your characters counter-attack, you could miss any opportunity to ever recruit them unless you reload the game.

Even that isn’t so bad compared to the most egregious instance of this, though. In those cases, at least one could argue that you should do your due diligence in finding the recruitable character and reacting accordingly. In one mission, though, the recruitable character does not appear on screen. Instead, they are in a tent in the bottom-left corner of the battle screen. You know that the tent is there and you know you can visit it, but if you visit it with the wrong character, you lose the opportunity to recruit that unit. You have no way of knowing what the right character is beforehand. There is literally no way to know what you’re supposed to do on the first run through the mission, but not knowing what to do causes you to miss out on a unit.

The Verdict
With thirteen games under the franchise’s belt, Fire Emblem is a series that understands its own strengths, weaknesses, and conventions. Having not played any of the previous games, I’m not in a position to judge whether Fire Emblem: Awakening is a radical improvement or just an incremental adjustment, although everything I’ve heard indicates it’s a significantly updated and improved installment for the franchise. The game has quirks and tendencies, but after thirteen games, those start to become less flaws and more traditions. Things like the largely unnecessary cutaway battle scenes and the open and non-hierarchical class structure might strike newbies (like myself) as odd or frustrating, but they are part of the series’ approach.

However, Fire Emblem: Awakening still does have some significant flaws. The plot is extremely lackluster, meandering, and directionless. Part of that is because strategy RPGs are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to telling a story given discrete and contained nature of the cutscenes, but other games in the genre – such as Final Fantasy Tactics – have showed that it’s still possible to have a great plot in the genre. The game also isn’t very beginner-friendly, leaving out a lot of information that beginners would need and basically forcing the player to play the game at least twice to get the full experience.

But those flaws aren’t likely to bother fans of the series. Those are the series’ modus operandi, and in many ways they’re part of the series’ charm. For the most part, they aren’t objective flaws, but rather elements that just don’t resonate with me personally. Fire Emblem: Awakening is not the game for me, but it is the game for some people, and that’s more than I can say for the rest of the 3DS’s lackluster library.

My Recommendation
A must-play for Fire Emblem fans, a must-avoid for strategy RPG haters, and a should-at-least-try for people that don’t know which camp they fall into otherwise.

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