For those who might be oblivious as to what the Fire Emblem series offers, to sum things up, it's all about giving orders to a leader and its squad of characters on battlefields. While doing so, the player must carefully plan their movements. This means paying attention to things such as the effects of terrain, the position of enemy units, each characters' unique weaknesses and strengths, avoiding getting a unit killed lest it be lost forever, which enemy units might be turned into an ally by talking to it, and so on...However, rather than explaining yet again what makes the Fire Emblem series so pleasant to play, since this might take a while, it is strongly recommended that the following reviews are read: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem for Nintendo DS, for more details on the basic gameplay elements that defined the series over the years since its inception in 1990.
This 3DS instalment follows the adventures of Chrom, brother of the ruler of Ylisse, helped by a tactician made up named by the player (a feature borrowed from Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem) as they wage war against another nation across the world. This is standard Fire Emblem fare and, as always, the story gets interesting quickly, mostly thanks to the varied cast of loveable characters and the relationships that develop between them the closer they get to each other. This time, relationships take an even greater importance than ever since characters can fall in love with each other... and make children! The latter doesn't get depicted or talked about in too much detail in the game, so as not to offend any parents or traumatise any children, so the game keeps all of its decency, so as to suit all ages starting from 12. This is yet another case of them finally bringing back an old gameplay idea from a past instalment. This one was first tested in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (aka Fire Emblem 4 or Seisen no Keifu in Japan) and fans have asked to see it again for a long time. Depending on who falls in love with who, the children will take one of the parent's physical likeness and inherit some of the other's stats and abilities. Just like in Fire Emblem 4, the possibilities are all already programmed so they are not exactly endless, but there's ample room for testing through multiple play-throughs.
Another great innovation in terms of character relationships is the fact that the effects of two characters having reached a certain affinity level are directly visible on-screen during battle. In the past, there would be a need to manually check every unit to see who has affinities with whom, and who will get a stat bonus from battling while standing next to a close friend. Now not only are close friends directly identifiable on the map thanks to little bubbles of text hovering over their heads, but what exactly the bonus they get is is displayed on-screen as soon as a battle is initiated, which is very helpful and makes devising strategies all the more pleasant. However, it also makes gamers want to develop character relationships even more than in past instalments, since the whole system becomes crystal clear this time. Support conversations happen at the barracks, outside the main chapters, à la Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, and it is also possible to check on how everyone's been doing while not actually playing the game, à la Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem.
This was refined even further because now characters can be seen talking to each other on occasions and strengthening their relationship, despite not battling next to each other. This means that, with a lot of patience and a bit of luck, all the support conversations can possibly be seen without having to do multiple play-throughs, even those of characters with catastrophic stat growth rates that nobody would normally ever bother to train because they are simply useless, per Fire Emblem tradition. Finding out what ones are worth keeping in the team and training is still part of what makes the recipe of this Fire Emblem instalment.
Progressing through the game is done in a manner very close to Fire Emblem: Gaiden, or rather even closer to its spiritual successor, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. In-between chapters it's possible to roam the world map, going back to shop in previous locations and battling enemy groups that pop up randomly around the map, to grind a couple levels before moving on with the story. This time these groups of enemies are more varied and more interesting than in Sacred Stones, where players would only battle the same monsters over and over. Here, all sorts of enemies appear. In the same fashion, merchants who sell rare goods also randomly appear on the map and on some even more rare occasions they appear in the same locations as the enemy groups.
In those instances, it can't be bought from unless it is saved from the group of enemies. Succeeding in doing so will even grant a reward of a rare item. These rescue missions have yet more flavour than the Fire Emblem recipe in an excellent way. This possibility of training units almost as much as desired, and grind a bit more than otherwise would be allowed to by the limited amount of chapters in the game, makes the game more accessible for newcomers, which is a good thing since otherwise, unless referring to a walkthrough of the game, it would be hard to know which units are worthwhile and which ones are not. Figuring that out would require starting the game over and over, which is something that less dedicated fans of the series would perhaps rather not put up with.
Speaking of rare items though, another novelty in this episode is shiny spots that can be seen on every single map battled on. Standing on those squares will reward the character with either a bonus in experience points, weapon experience...or even some rare items. The reward is random and restarting the chapter usually means the next time getting the same thing is not likely.
A big change that comes into play is the new "pair up" action that can be performed on the battlefield. This replaces the old "rescue" command that would let you pull another unit one square back and carry it around, protecting it from harm. Now, rather than pulling the other unit back, the unit that needs to be teamed up with will be moved one more square forward, and rather than getting a malus for carrying someone, the other unit will get a stat bonus instead. Only the unit that's in the front of the duet will get damage from battles, while the one in the back "cheers" for the other unit…and on rare occasions the one in the back will help the other by attacking as well! How often this happens seems to be determined by the affinity between the two and so is the stat bonus. Dual attacks may also happen when two units are standing on adjacent squares of the map. This new element of strategy brings its load of versatility, making the gameplay that much more diverse.
This even makes battle animations much cooler to look at when those two units charge on the enemy to strike it with force, more often than not resulting in the enemy being defeated due to both attacking and the stat bonus they get from teaming up. The visuals are extremely cool to look at indeed. Although the characters on the map are still 2D sprites, each is easily recognisable and unique in look, which is a nice change and is actually more pleasant to look at than the low polygon models from the other 3D episodes. The 3D models used in battles and during cut-scenes, however, are pretty much on par with those in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on Wii...although strangely they lack feet! In an interview, Art Director Toshiyuki Kusakihara explained that they underestimated the amount of CPU power available and thought they couldn't animate the whole character model's body with what was available, so they simply didn't implement any feet, although they realised afterwards that it could have been achieved, then stating that if there's another Fire Emblem game on 3DS they would implement feet. It looks weird at first, but is barely noticeable after a while.
The game sports the usual online modes that allow for shopping for rare items online, battling against other players and loaning personal units or even rent other players'...as well as download extra content, which was first made available in New Mystery of the Emblem for Japanese DSi owners, is now back with even greater force and an even greater wealth of content on offer, a first for the series in the West. Free SpotPass content also seems to be planned however, although Nintendo didn't make any of these available for reviewers in Europe before the launch date. StreetPass is also part of the package, letting players hire other people's teams, buy stuff from them...yet with literally nobody in Europe owning the game yet - at time of writing - this couldn't be tested in time. The same goes for local multiplayer, which now allows gamers to battle in co-operation with another player.
All these improvements and novelties, along with even more that could not all be detailed in just this review, mean that this is the most definitive Fire Emblem experience to date. The bottom line is that Fire Emblem: Awakening took all that was good about previous episodes, refined everything, and then added even more great new ideas on top. For that reason, it can't be faulted on anything it tries to achieve because it succeeds in all areas!