The quick bits:
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Available on 3DS via download or retail
Total playtime: 39 hours (so far)
Worth it? Hell yeah.
Pro-tip: buy a retail copy while it's still available
I'm a bit late to the party, folks. The die-hard Fire Emblem fans have already bought this game and beaten it a dozen times, whereas everyone else has already written Fire Emblem: Awakening off as...well...yet another FE game. And I was tempted to take my place in the latter group. After all, I've played Fire Emblem before, first on the GBA, and then again on the Wii. I never ended up beating either game. It simply didn't hold my interest, which is bizarre since I'm a huge fan of strategy/tactical RPGs. I'm in love with games like Disgaea, X-COM, FF: Tactics, Devil Survivor, Shining Force, and so forth. I've never gotten into Fire Emblem because the mechanics always seemed simplistic (yeah, call me a snob) compared to the other SRPGs I played. Has my opinion on the series changed? The short answer is a resounding "yes".
Keep in mind that while I may be a self-professed SRPG veteran, I'm not a Fire Emblem veteran. Prior to FE: Awakening, I've invested 5 hours (if that) into the entire franchise. So, if you're like me and you're new to this series, perhaps this review is written just for you.
Let's start with the basics: how does FE: Awakening work? Well, you lead a group of soldiers in grid-based battle. Between each battle you can save your progress, equip characters, and have conversations. Characters gain experience in battle based on the damage they deal instead of who deals the killing blow, which allows you to level up weaker characters. The battle system is very streamlined. In the past (as mentioned above) I kinda turned my nose up and called the battle system "simplistic", but I realize that it's just streamlined. There's a fundamental rock-paper-scissors mechanic at work here. Swords are superior to axes, but they're vulnerable to spears. Axes are great against spears, but against swords, not so much. Magic and ranged weaponry works the same way.
This approach does two things. First, it allows you to immediately assess the situation and decide how to handle certain enemy units. You don't have to juggle twenty different elemental weaknesses/strengths in your head just to make heads or tails of the battle at hand. Second, it also forces you to think strategically, since charging in and killing those swordsmen with your spear-wielding cavalry might leave them exposed to the row of axemen standing just behind them. Compared to games like Disgaea or FF: Tactics (where brute force is often quicker than exploiting weaknesses), this battle system is far more tactical than you might anticipate. I admit, there isn't as much complexity or raw variety in FE:Awakening compared to, say, Disgaea, but that might actually be a good thing. The balance in this game is far better than most of the other SRPGs that I've played. The only other SRPG with a similar level of balance and streamlining would have to be Shining Force II on the Genesis, or of course the other Fire Emblem games. Instead of simply grinding my characters for 45 minutes prior to a battle (a common strategy in a game like Disgaea), I actually had to stop and think through my plan for a battle. I liked that a lot. Add that to the fact that (depending on what difficulty you choose) you will permanently lose any characters who die in battle. You definitely want to think things through at the risk of losing your favorite soldier!
Actually, I like the overall quality of the game, not just the well-designed combat balance. Everything in this game is very well designed and oozes quality. The voice acting, the missions, the graphics, the cutscenes (which have a cool look similar to Valkyria Chronicles), the storyline, everything. Okay, I guess this is the part where long-time FE fans speak up and say "well duh!", but remember, I'm new to this series. Go easy on me!
But even as a newcomer, FE: Awakening was very respectful of me as a gamer. The in-game tutorials never, ever, ever pop up, not even in the first mission. They're accessible with a touch of a button, but the game never forced them on me. The game also gets started very quickly. Within the first 20 minutes, you will have already fought two battles, created your main character, and met your first group of allies. Again, I felt very respected. I wasn't forced to play an hour of cutscenes and conversations *cough*Persona4*cough* before starting the game. The conversations between battles are quick and to the point.
With that said, the storyline is robust and mature. Characters feel realistic (within reason), the voice acting is good, the cutscenes are great, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you intrigued. Outside of the main missions, there are also side missions to help flesh out the characters. One thing I really, REALLY thought was cool is that this game occurs over a long period of time. It has a very EPIC storyline that takes place over many years. Your characters will grow up and you'll see the world of Awakening develop as you play. Only a handful of games (like Agarest War and Dragon Quest V) have pulled off this sort of incredible scale that would be appropriate for a full-blown console game, but the bite-size missions make it feel at home for a handheld. What I'm trying to say is that the developers didn't dumb things down simply because it's a handheld title. They went all out.
The scale is so grand, you can even start the next generation of warriors. What I mean is that if you do certain things on and off the battlefield, members of your group can become friends, fall in love, get married, and even have children. And no, I'm not just talking about your main character and one other person. I'm talking about your party members, too! A ton of them can get married and have kids, which are also available to add to your party as soldiers. To me, this was so, so cool! Not only does it add a lot of replayability to the game, but it forges a strong connection between you and your warriors. I'm a fan of the original X-COM. In that game, it was common to feel heartbroken when your veteran soldier who had been with you from the beginning died in battle. FE: Awakening had a much more profound effect on me simply because my soldiers who died were people who my characters had formed relationships with. In one case, I had just finished a scenario that allowed me to recruit the child of two NPCs in my army. Well, in the very next battle, the child's mother died an unexpected death due entirely to my own reckless choices. I felt...stunned. My mistake stuck with me through the rest of the game. Every time I used the husband or the child, I was reminded of my mistake. Not many games are able to have this sort of impact on the player. And yes, I played on Hard Classic mode, since I felt that was the "proper" way to play a FE game, and when my characters died, I let them die, even though it hurt. There is an option to play "Casual". You can still select Easy, Medium, Hard, or Lunatic, but "Casual" will make it so that soldier deaths are not permanent. If you are willing to play in Classic mode and accept the consequences of your choices, it adds a lot of replayability to the game, since obviously you won't be able to see what happens to someone if they've died in a previous battle.
It would be an oversight if I didn't talk about the graphics. For starters, this is the first 3DS game where I kept the 3D effects on most of the time. Instead of insisting on everything being pop-out-in-your-face 3D, the effects are more subtle here. I really like how 3D is used in battle. Smoke and sparks drifting across the screen really do add a true sense of 3D compared to a game like Mario Land 3D where you just go "okay. Yeah. That looks 3d, I guess". The cutscenes are very well done. They're CGI, but a cartoony CGI, kind of like cel-shading. The closest comparison I can make is that the CGI scenes look similar to Valkyria Chronicles, another excellent strategy RPG title. I also like the color scheme of the game. It may seem like an odd thing to mention, but hey, the last two RPGs I played were Disgaea 3 and Persona 4, both of which are jam-packed with eye-blinding neon colors. FE:Awakening's more muted color palette was very appealing and added to the realistic, serious tone that the game was aiming for.
This is the part of the review where I add the "but...". Sorry, but there is no "but...". This game is really, really good. I can't put my finger on it, because it doesn't FEEL very different compared to previous titles in the series, but for whatever reason, this game really grabbed me in a way that other Fire Emblem games didn't. Start to finish, the game took me just under 40 hours to beat. Well, I guess there IS a "but..." that I'd like to mention. I beat it in 40 hours, but...I'm going to replay it. I'm probably going to replay it at least twice more. Why? Because by the time I got to the end, several of my characters had died (some of them died pretty early in the story, too). I only managed to unlock three of the marriages (apparently there are many more available). I skipped some of the side missions and optional battles. Part of that was because I really wanted to see the ending, but part of me knew that I was going to replay this excellent game again. I'm going to say it right now: this is easily one of the Top 5 strategy games I've played in the last decade. In case I need to remind you again, I am NOT a veteran Fire Emblem fan. This is my first real foray into the franchise, but I still stand by what I said.
The praise for this game isn't just a bunch of Fire Emblem fans being fanboys. This game is incredible, whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer like me. The only complaint I can level against the game is a lack of online multiplayer or player-made maps of some sort, which would add more content to this already content-packed game. Even those complaints seem silly, seeing how Nintendo is already offering DLC maps to those who want some extra missions to tackle.
Because FE: Awakening is coming out during a time when there aren't very many RPGs available on the handheld market, I would expect the series to gain a lot more attention this time around. Heck, Nintendo even made an official Fire Emblem 3DS bundle.
One last thing: do yourself a favor and pick up a physical copy of this game while you can. It always seems to be in low supply when I check Amazon or my local Gamestop, and other games in the series are pulling ridiculously high prices due to the fact that these games traditionally don't sell very much and so there aren't a ton of copies floating around.