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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Fire Emblem: Awakening.

Fire Emblem: Awakening.

It'd be fair to call Fire Emblem: Awakening the popular game in the Fire Emblem series, wouldn't it? Even as I write that sentence I can hear long-time Fire Emblem fanboys, of the sort who wheezily rhapsodise on how important perma-death is to the series, start to bubble with rage.

It's true, though, and Awakening is so much more popular than its predecessors for good reason - faced with severely declined sales of the franchise, the staff had been told that if they failed to sell more than a quarter of a million units (which is a pretty measly amount for a game released worldwide on the most popular console on the market, which should tell you just how badly FE games were doing) it would be the last game in the franchise, prompting them to try their very hardest to give the game a wider appeal.

 The game had a 'Casual' mode in which your characters wouldn't permanently die, something which only one Fire Emblem game had done previously; it overhauled your player avatar system so that you would actually be playing a custom character with involvement in the storyline; it had a more accessible interface; and it was very aggressively marketed. The overall result was that in its first three months of release it sold almost half a million copies in Japan alone, and would later go on to be the most popular FE game in the West, paving the way for the next game, Fire Emblem Fates, which has so far sold about four-hundred thousand copies in Japan alone in the month-and-a-bit that it's been out.

So that's a fair amount of hype to live up to. Does Awakening manage it?

Well. I enjoyed it a lot, I'll definitely say that.

Get with the program, Marth.

Set in the peaceful country of Ylisse, Awakening sees your character, an amnesiac, joining the defence force of the halidom, termed the Shepherds and led by the halidom's prince, Chrom. As part of the Shepherds, a rapidly expanding rag-tag band of elite fighters, you are quickly thrown into a war with the neighbouring kingdom of Plegia, led by Mad King Gangrel, who has designs on Ylisse's treasure, the eponymous Fire Emblem, which can be used to awakening one of a pair of magical dragons. 

The game is a grid-based strategy-RPG type schtick, in which you move a select number of units (it goes up slowly over the course of the game, and by the final battle I think you have a battle party of about fifteen) around a large field, and have them engage in combat with enemy units. Units adjacent to your attacking (or attacked) unit can help out, providing stat boosts and sometimes sweeping in to attack your unit's foe themselves. Units gain XP for individual actions, which goes towards them leveling up.

Let's start with the bad: Having units gain experience by the action is a bizarre and wrong-headed system, and it only becomes moreso when you have characters who are exclusively healers, thus making them unable to gain XP unless someone is injured. A Valkyria Chronicles esque system, where XP can be given to any unit type to level them all up, or even just a system where everyone levels up at the same time, would have worked far better - as it is, most of your characters will never get used, and the game almost punishes you for trying to stray outside of a select and set battle party.

The Support system is also a doozy. Units gain support by working together, which can then be built upon by having them engage in support conversations with each other. The conversations are quite often terribly written - this isn't so immediately noticeable in friendship supports, but in romantic ones it becomes painfully, agonisingly obvious, as your characters fumble through romances that sound like they came out of a thirteen year old's Digimon fanfic.

(Not my Digimon fanfic, obviously, mine was always superb.)

"Actually, we found some of your - ..." "NO, IT WAS ALWAYS SUPERB."

In addition, since romance actually confers a stat benefit, it's baffling that the game doesn't have every character be bisexual. I mean, really, you're telling me that in order to get the best stat increases out of this game, I have to pair up every character boy-girl like a particularly angry primary school teacher? That makes no sense in a game where unit placement can be crucial, and even less sense in a game that has perma-death, thus making proper unit placement even more crucial. Yes, it's optional, but the game still has it.

So, that's the bad. The good is that this game is really fun, and has a lot of content: It took me about four days to play, during which I was playing it for six to eight hours at a time, quite happily - and that wasn't even including about half of the optional missions. The gameplay is both a lot of fun and deep enough to keep pretty much any gamer interested, combining elements of traditional JRPGs with turn-based strategy games, and the diverse range of units are both surprisingly easy to remember and keep a track of and very good for making sure that you never feel like you're just going through the same motions over and over again.

I imagine it would have been a lot less fun if there wasn't the option to switch perma-death off, and I would have probably just returned it after the first few missions. I'd have liked to switch off weapon durability too, but fortunately that becomes more and more of a non-issue as the game goes on.

Guess which one of these is the villain. Don't worry, I'll wait.

The story, while often haphazardly written (dialogue writing in particular is very often dire), is a fun fantasy epic that's well-paced and has a lot of nice, sometimes surprisingly emotional, moments. It's not a deep story - the heroes are all stalwart do-gooders who give speeches on the nature of peace, the villains are all smirking and/or cackling wrong'uns dressed in black with massive collars and pre-written monologues, and the story almost always boils down to 'we need to beat up this bad person' - but it is very fun, and it feels like it's meant to be a throwback to earlier Fire Emblem games.

Not to mention that the game has enough characters that you will absolutely find some that you like - again, perma-death could have easily ruined that had I switched it on - so you're never going to end up in what is colloquially called the Bioware Situation, where you hate or are apathetic towards literally every character in your party.

All in all, a very fun game that I strongly recommend. It probably also has great replay value, but the only time I tried was when I was feeling unpleasably bored, and that was about three days after I finished it the first time, so there's that.

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