Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Fire Emblem Awakening Review

Fire Emblem is a series that I have been a fan of for about a decade now, about as long as it has existed in North America. So you can imagine that I was pretty excited at the prospect of a new title on the 3DS, especially considering Radiant Dawn came out way back in 2007. Fire Emblem is just one of those series that speaks to me, it has interesting characters, tactical combat, immersive worlds, and yet remains a pretty simple product on the surface. Unfortunately I had to wait a couple months after it's North American release to pick up my copy of Awakening, but all is well. I have my copy now, and I'm just about done with it, so I thought I would share my thoughts on the latest installment in the Fire Emblem series.

The first thing that makes this title stand out from the rest of the series is simply the degree of freedom and customization one has over their characters. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of Sacred Stones in this, and also in that you can spend time fighting non-integral battles for experience. Awakening has three main systems for customization. Firstly, every character has a pool of classes that they can change to, and subsequently learn skills from. Each person typically has about 3-5 classes they can access, and it's interesting choosing which classes to spend time in, which skills to pick up. Each character also has 5 total skill slots, giving a pretty high degree of customization per character. Even beyond this though, is the ability to marry characters together. Doing so eventually gives you access to a new character in the form of their child, who inherits potential classes, base stats, stat growths and even a couple skills from their parents. It all combines for a pretty complex system that allows for a lot of long term planning.

While I'm a huge fan of the customization Awakening allows, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the positives to this game more or less end there. That's not to say everything else about it is terrible, just not quite up to par with the rest of the series, in my opinion. Ironically, the very things that make the game so fun (to me anyways) also have a lot of not so great repercussions. It all comes down to pacing, really. Fire Emblem games typically ferry you immediately from one battle to the next with some storyline in between. In Awakening you can spend hours messing about, grinding baddies, playing DLC, fighting spot pass teams etc. While having all of this extra stuff to do can add a lot of meat to the game, it also completely removes all efforts at pacing. What's more, how you choose to build your army matters a lot less when you have as long as you need to make up for your mistakes and grind your weak characters. If you are like me, you end up so absurdly powerful that the story missions are a joke. Even the story suffers. Goofing off for hours between chapters removes all intensity from the plot. I really cared about what happened to the worlds of Elibe and Tellius, but the story behind Awakening feels really weak, I don't feel engaged in it.

Beyond the actual storyline behind whatever world Awakening takes place in, I feel like the characters themselves suffer a lot from this games open-endedness as well. For one thing, each character being able to re-class into so many different classes really hurts their individuality. In previous titles, a character's class defined who they were. When you can so easily switch a character's class, who they are starts mattering a whole lot less. They stop being a person and start being "Mercenary #3". It doesn't help that graphically, each character is only distinguishable by their head. In their base class they have a unique body, but as soon as they promote that goes away. Every Sage for example, friend or foe, has the same body, which just gets weird. It's especially odd when that body has physical characteristics that the character in question really shouldn't have, or varies drastically from that of their previous class. I personally consider this a much graver sin than any palette swap ever was..

Sadly, the character issues don't end with individuality, either. One other way that Awakening bucks the series' norms is in how it handles support conversations. Often times in the past, each character would only be able to support a handful of other characters. What's more, each character could often only get a limited number of supports. Neither is really the case in Awakening. Characters can support just about anyone else (from their own generation, anyways), and there is no limit to how many supports a character can have. This also ties into the marriage system, in that marriage occurs when two characters reach an S level support. At first this seems like an overwhelmingly good thing. It means support options aren't so restrictive, and each character has an incredible amount of dialogue with which to build their personality and relationships. What's more, Awakening doesn't resort to having pre-canned generic conversations like Radiant Dawn did. However the sad truth is that in the end of the day, the result isn't significantly better.

The problem lies in the fact that each character has precisely one defining characteristic, and the pure volume of writing that has to be done for each possible combination. Seeing how each character would interact with another is occasionally interesting, but after seeing several supports it invariably begins to tread old ground rather quickly. I get it, the mage is studious. The thief likes candy. The archer is a flirt. It would be nice if support conversations dug a little deeper like that, as has been the case in previous games. When it comes to romantic relationships  things aren't any better, either. Because there are so many marriage options, the pairings are often quite unconvincing. I didn't see a single proposal that wasn't painfully contrived. Yet, each support feels like it's leading towards marriage. Even if a character is already wed, anyone else who gets an A support with that character will seem to be blatantly flirting. It's like characters in this universe don't know how to have a friendly relationship with the opposite sex without throwing a ring at them.

In the end of the day, Fire Emblem Awakening is a very odd game to assess. The level of planning and strategy it affords is significantly higher than previous installments. Yet, every other aspect of the game feels significantly more shallow. If there was ever a question that Fire Emblem should stay a linear game, I think Awakening proves the point. Being able to go off the beaten track totally ruins the game's pacing, both in terms of challenge as well as in removing intensity from the plot. Having characters that are so flexible and support conversations that are painfully generic lead to uninteresting characters that lack individuality. What's more, being able to level up at will removes any danger that your characters will ever die. Combined, I found I just didn't really feel like I cared all that much about my characters, or the world for that matter. Even the battles themselves feel less strategic and more like going through the paces. 

Fire Emblem Awakening isn't a bad game, it just isn't good in the same ways that previous titles were. It's not a game about strategic battles, interesting characters and a tense war for power. Those things are there, they just take a back seat. Awakening is all about planning out your characters, watching them become beastly, and then spending $3 on DLC maps that take 20 mins to beat. A part of me wants to see what the game is like on the more absurd difficulty levels; maybe more challenge would solve a lot of the game's problems. A larger part of me feels like I've had my fill of this particular title. It's a quality title, I'm certainly not disappointed to have played it. It just didn't scratch the itches I expected from a Fire Emblem title.



  2. I'd like to add a few things to the list of issues with this game.
    -Due to the way the game is designed most of the characters receive absolutely no form of attention outside of their introduction. No plot relevance. No development. Nothing.
    -As you've already pointed out, the game is designed in a manner so restrictive that many kinds of characters just shouldn't exist in this game. Well meet Tharja. She's a character who's constantly stalking Robin and really shouldn't exist in this game. Why? Because her mere existence makes the scene in which Lucina attempts to kill Robin one the worst scenes in the game. How can people be OK with this?
    -Child characters are a waste of time. They have no plot relevance and all they do is add more pointless characters to list consisting mostly of pointless characters. Such a wasteful existence.
    -Robin is dum.

    1. I know this is old, "She's a character who's constantly stalking Robin and really shouldn't exist in this game. Why? Because her mere existence makes the scene in which Lucina attempts to kill Robin one the worst scenes in the game. How can people be OK with this?" But what did you mean by that? The fact she should be their stalking you, yet doesn't interject? It's honestly sad everyone is just an archetype some of them had some interesting character angles that were never explored, like child Severa abusing her Father characters love for her own gain(She's really the only child character I like, sad most people love her a generic Tsundere waif.) that I really feel the game should've explored.

  3. This game was beyond bad. If the cringey/bad written dialogue couldn't do you in the extremely generic characters ( appart from a few support indeed) and the even more generic maps will do you in for sure. This game is everything that Fire Emblem should not be. Fire Emblem should be about a WAR, not a bunch of people going picknicking and stuff. in FE4 you felt like you were in a fucking war, same with the tellius and even the GBA game. Even fucking Sacred Stones got this more than Awakening.

    Awakening does't feel like a fire emblem game at all.