My big review/post for the week. Had a great weekend out and about and played and picked up a handful of used games really cheap at a sale (Dead or Alive 5, Street Fighter X Tekken, Agarest War 2 and a couple of others off of the top of my head).
I recently got an exciting new handheld console in the shape of a PlayStation Vita, but it was another handheld's game I have been most anxiously awaiting. Fire Emblem Awakening checks off a lot of the boxes I look for in a game and has been the most fun I have had with any game on any console in a while, let alone just my 3DS.
Of course, getting my hands on this title was almost an adventure in and of itself, as Nintendo of America seemed to have plenty of issues getting this game shipped out when it was supposed to be. I had it pre-ordered on Amazon but was put on an indefinite wait. Walmart could not promise any sooner than a week after it released, and most of the local stores had no copies. Nintendo's own answer when asked about it was that it could still be purchased digitally, but without any insight into the snafu.
Well, this was a title my son was interested in as well, so physical copy was the way to go. I was in luck as I went grocery shopping, and saw that they had one copy left in stock. I promptly snatched it up and went about logging quite a few hours into it.
What is Fire Emblem? It is a long running strategy RPG series found only on Nintendo systems. I actually never played the older iterations - I had not even heard of this series until a few years ago or so. Still, strategy RPG games are among my favorite games. The Sega Genesis in particular had some memorable ones with Warsong and the Shining Force games. Generally these games are tactical in nature, often being turn-based as you issue a command to one of your units and attempt to kill opposing units. There have been other awesome examples of this genre over the years, from Dragon Force on the Sega Saturn, to the PC series King's Bounty.
There tends to be a bit more persistence in your units than what you see in games like Star Craft, which put an emphasis on things like resource gathering while character growth is a more prominent feature of this game. You control units that gain experience and gold through combat. The experience boosts your levels (and thereby your stats) as you eventually can branch out into new classes. The gold is used for new weapons, modifying weapons or buying supplies.
There is a lot going on in this game, so let's go ahead and take a look at those 'boxes' I mentioned in the first paragraph and break things down a bit more.
Graphics - 10:
Fire Emblem Awakening is not a powerhouse like some other console games, but overall I think it is the most visually appealing 3DS game I have played so far. The majority of the actual gameplay takes place on a gridded battlefield, which in and of itself is not pretty at a glance - merely functional. However, it is always clear who is want and what your terrain is. There is an impressive level of detail that keeps the game moving along very efficiently.
Character models look good during the scenes between battles. Sometimes the character proportions can look just a tad off (some of the female legs taper off to almost nothing at the bottom, making them look perhaps like a pirate with peg legs), but everything is bright and moves along cleanly. Then there are the actual cutscenes, which are all fantastically animated.
The final touch is when you play the game in 3D. Not everyone does use their 3DS for the 3D perspective (my son for example only uses it about a quarter of the time), but for those who enjoy the 3D effects as much as I do, Fire Emblem Awakening is a visual treat. Whether you are watching the cutscenes, viewing layered art and dialog boxes or simply getting a pleasant depth of field from the combat maps, the 3D effects are rendered expertly throughout.
Sound & Music - 8:
For a game like this, where you are essentially are doing the same basic thing over and over again (make this unit move, make him attack this other unit), the sound variety is actually quite good. You are not getting this huge range of effects designed with stereo sound in mind, but it all works well. There is voice content where appropriate, and the music is quite good overall. It does feel like there is a bit of a lack of variety in the music - I hear it getting used and reused on several occasions, but it compliments what is happening in the game so well that I really do not mind.
Gameplay - 10:
I have heard some complaints about finding what you need in the menus from other players, but I never struggled with any of that. In fact, the 3DS presents a unique opportunity because many of the screens that would have been overlays or menus get displayed on the bottom touch screen instead. This saves some time and button juggling as you see the map layed out on the top 3D window. The lower screen can also be navigated by button presses or touch, giving you a choice in how you wish to review the tips and content found there.
The basics are all there - moving units, engaging other units and the ability to browse lots of information while accessing items in the menu. It is also worth noting that Fire Emblem is a series that is known for some brutal difficulty spikes later in the campaign. Even more frustrating was that when a character died in combat - they stayed dead. If it was one of the lead characters, you lost the level - which at times was preferable to losing someone you spent a lot of time and effort developing, only to lose them for the rest of your journey.
There are now some different options when setting up the game that let you change not only difficulty, but whether you want to have this classic hardcore mode active, or if when a character falls you get him or her back at the start of the next level. This really allows purist fans of the series to play this like they have other games in the series, but lowers the barrier of entry for people who are new to this type of game. Maybe the only other thing I would add to this functionality would be to offer better rewards during the game for people who try to complete the game at harder levels of difficulty.
What the gameplay boils down to however, is that despite lots of deep tactical options, the concepts are presented in such a way that they are easy to grasp and never overwhelming.
Intangibles - 10:
I have always been able to get a lot of mileage out of strategy RPG games. I could not even begin to guess how many times I have beaten Warsong or Shining Force II. You can approach a map in different ways, develop characters in different ways and build out your gear in unique ways as well. There is a lot of content here as you battle through a large number of maps in the main quest. There are also side quests which give you the opportunity to recruit new characters and gain more experience and options. There are also DLC maps (I have a couple and plan to get them all) that give you even more chances to add to your team.
Even if this score was just about the amount of content, it would rank high - but there is more to do than just that. Units can pair together and strengthen one another at the sacrifice of being a single turn at once, instead of having two turns available to them. Units fighting side by side gain a companionship rating with one another, meaning that if they fight side-by-side on the battlefield later, they gain boosts. Some units can actually form romances out of this and marry - and have children, which play a part in the story later and become units for your team.
The characters are colorful and fun to watch as they interact with one another. They can share in support conversation that boost their bond. You can also watch them as they have conversations with one another or with themselves, often leading to gained experience or new reward items. Oh, and there is a fairly robust set of Streetpass options and a local multiplayer option as well. I have read that some people since last week's release have already logged close to 100 hours of play and I believe it.
Overall - 9.5:
Upon getting my 3DS a couple of Christmases ago, I proclaimed Mario Kart as my favorite game at the time. Kid Icarus Uprising took that title for both my son and myself when it released several months later. Fire Emblem has quickly become my favorite game for the Nintendo 3DS and one I imagine I will still be playing several months from now. If you are a fan of strategy RPG games, Fire Emblem Awakening should be an easy sell. If you are unsure about this genre, go ahead and grab the demo download and try it out - but there is a lot to do and like here.