Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fire Emblem Awakening Review: A Treatise on the Ephemerality of Life

For the past week, 1UP has explored the role of violence in video games and the fact that far too often games trivialize human life, rendering it as a cheap commodity that encourages wanton killing and casual slaughter. Fire Emblem: Awakening suffers no such defect. Here we have a game in which you will agonize over every move on the battlefield, think long and hard about every action you take, and sweat every encounter your characters engage in, knowing that each duel could be their last -- ever.

Of course, in doing so, Awakening also reveals the fundamental flaw of this sort of game: The computer has no such qualms. Your AI opponents are just as fragile as the army you command, and their deaths stand as equally permanent. But you're tasked with carrying this same small team of warriors throughout an entire campaign of dozens of battles and can't afford to err. Your enemies don't behave like you. You face new combatants in each engagement, and the computer acts accordingly. It sends forward its units with reckless abandon, cheerfully marching a single swordsman alone into a knot of your fighters in order to strike a blow against your weakest mage. No matter that this combatant will certainly die as soon as you're allowed to make your next move; Awakening's AI doesn't need a sense of self-preservation, and as such doesn't have to play by the same limitations as you.

This imbalance can make certain battles -- when you're outnumbered by suicidal foes who don't have to worry about the same long-term consequences you do -- downright maddening. There's a certain unfairness to Fire Emblem's much-vaunted ruthless design, and at times you can't help but wonder if the higher difficulty levels only exist to offer bragging rights to masochists. But when the balance works, it clicks perfectly and reminds you why Fire Emblem remains one of gaming's longest-running RPG franchises.

Awakening's steep death penalties aren't too dissimilar from those of other games, most recently XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but the Fire Emblem style engages on a deeper level than XCOM. You lose a general-rank character in XCOM and you groan because of the time investment that soldier represented; when Sumia falls in Awakening (as all fragile Pegasus Knights eventually do), you reel not only because of the skills and commitment you've made to her abstract statistics, but also because you've lost an endearingly awkward young woman who's managed to overcome her shyness and finally win the heart of noble Prince Chrom.

Then again, maybe that's not how your Sumia turned out. Maybe you can't stand her personality and find her an irritating bundle of anime clich├ęs. Fire Emblem differs from many RPGs of this style in that it invests the characters on your team with the rudiments of a personality -- usually painted in the broadest strokes -- which you can then explore through building up their relationships with their comrades. Every one of Awakening's dozens of soldiers shares unique conversation options with each of their numerous allies, which play out in post-battle chats and during downtime in the army's barracks. These range from silly to downright weird (my avatar eventually married potty-mouthed lady knight Sully after a courtship consisting of bodybuilding and innuendo about diarrhea), but they achieve their purpose: They make your soldiers into something more than an agglomeration of statistics and skills. These conversation-defined traits make your desire to protect your team members more than just a pragmatic tactical compulsion... and, for the less kind, make it easier to sacrifice a particularly annoying character for the sake of the greater good.

The particular genius of Awakening comes in just how deeply this element of the game has been worked into its mechanics. The concept of teamwork doesn't simply apply on an abstract emotional level; it also serves as a fundamental basis of combat tactics. Collaboration becomes the player's trump card to fend off the suicidal recklessness of the enemy: Your heroes can work together to perform more effectively on the battlefield. As in previous Fire Emblems, an acting character will be granted combat bonuses by standing adjacent to allies. Awakening takes this a step further by allowing a character to spend a turn pairing up with a comrade, which places the two characters into the same grid space and greatly increases their synergy. The more two allies work together, the better their relationship becomes; the better their relationship, the more frequently they will confer their partner's stat bonuses, act in tandem, or even negate an enemy's attack. Once my avatar tied the knot with Sully, the two became an indomitable force on the field, teaming up to land as many as four attacks in a single turn while blocking the enemy's pitiful counter.

The avatar isn't the only character capable of building up a relationship to this level, so there's tremendous value in pairing off male and female comrades early and often (though of course you can pair up two characters of the same gender; they just can't reach a point where they change their relationship status to "S"). I hooked up my protagonist with Sully because of her endearing coarseness, but the fact is the two complemented one another well: The main character's ranged spell attacks and sword skills combined with Sully's horseback movement bonuses and skill with a range of lances make for a powerful, highly versatile team. Awakening offers an impressive array of character types and capabilities to suit practically any combat style -- even if the game's lopsided difficulty level does railroad players into a highly defensive mode of play.

And it's not as though players can only play by pairing up their fighters. On the contrary, the pairing mechanic comes with certain downsides. For starters, a pair of characters only gets a single turn per phase of battle, effectively removing one of your fielded combatants from play. Pairing or uncoupling requires a full combat turn. And while either member of a pair can act in their round, whichever of the two takes the pair's action will be the one standing vulnerable during the enemy's phase, as well as the one who determines the couple's range in the subsequent player round. The downsides can be worth the benefits, but that won't always be true.

Impressively, Awakening gives you plenty of opportunity to explore the depths of its combat system. Your characters top out at level 20, but a class-change mechanics allows them to change their role and level up again and again, adding new skills to their repertoire and mix things up. Prestige classes further expand their potential. And while the core story consists of roughly 25 missions -- about 15-18 hours of play time, minus all the abortive efforts in which you reset the game and clock after losing a key player forever -- Awakening offers a considerable number of extra missions. Nearly a dozen optional "paralogues" provide further opportunities to recruit special characters or earn unique items through special scenarios, and Nintendo will be delivering several months' worth of weekly, paid DLC missions to further expand your roster with fan-bait characters and gear. For those who prefer not to pay extra for add-on content, the game still litters the overworld map with both random encounters with challenging undead legions and the chance to best other players' armies gathered by Street Pass.

Fire Emblem remains one of Nintendo's most enduring franchises, and like many other Nintendo series it has changed very little over time. Yet I'd argue that it holds a place in the medium similar to the likes of Dragon Quest, Halo, and SimCity: Games that have defined the baseline of a genre almost perfectly since the beginning and therefore need only modest refinements from entry to entry. Awakening adds plenty of small changes to the series' mix that make for an engrossing title that should enjoy impressive shelf life. I do wish Intelligent Systems would rethink its approach to enemy AI -- why not pit you against more armies that behave like your own and use a defensive strategy to protect their heroes rather than simply bum-rushing your team regardless of the consequences? -- and the continuing lack of an in-game reload feature is one of the most hateful game design choices of the current century. Despite these issues, I have no qualms recommending Awakening to any fan of strategy RPGs, especially those who like a challenge (even the "casual" mode, which removes permanent character death, can be downright vicious on anything higher than normal difficulty). Between this and Etrian Odyssey IV, February 2013 promises to be the month where the 3DS comes into its own as an RPG fan's system. An awakening, if you will.

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