After what seemed like a promising launch back in 2011, the Nintendo 3DS has been gathering just a little dust, but earlier this year the cobwebs were truly blown away by Nintendo’s long-awaited sequel to the under-appreciated Gamecube game Luigi’s Mansion. For the first time in two years, the 3DS wrestled its iOS and Android siblings out of our hands and instated itself at the top of the handheld food chain.
But now that we’ve sucked the life out of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – what’s next? Thankfully, Nintendo has another trick up its sleeve – Fire Emblem Awakening – and this new game not only inspires similar Gamecube nostalgia, but it’s also getting some of the best reviews for any 3DS game to date.
Despite being one of Nintendo’s longest running series – starting way back on the Famicom in 1990 – it wasn’t until 2003-2004 that a Fire Emblem game (the seventh instalment, confusingly titled Fire Emblem internationally) snuck outside of Japan. However, this GBA game wasn’t the first time that Westerners had come across the franchise, as the sword-swinging heroes Marth and Roy had both appeared in the wildly popular beat ‘em up crossover Super Smash Bros Melee on the Gamecube.
Out of the Smash Bros.’ legendary roster, these two stuck out because, next to the Kirbies, Marios and Links, they were an unknown quantity. At the time, the best we could do was deck out Marth in his dashing white alternate costume, watch his cloak rustle in the wind as Great Fox sailed across Melee’s Corneria stage, and wonder: what was this Fire Emblem nonsense all about?
But we soon found out. Hot on the heels of Fire Emblem came Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones on the GBA, while the Gamecube’s Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance and its Wii sequel Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn brought with them 3D graphics and gorgeous, cel-shaded animated cutscenes. Before long, we learned about the series’ focus on tactical, turn-based RPG gameplay, its punishing difficulty and its attention to character development that found depth and drama in epic, folkloric narratives.
Awakening, though, finds the series returning to handhelds to tell the story of Chrom, who’s not a Cimmerian deity, but rather a prince who rallies a motley band of troops (including the player’s own, name-them-yourself character) to defend his kingdom of Ylisse against undead aggressors called the Risen. In the process, Awakening not only improves on the series’ conventions, but it tinkers with the formula with a new audience in mind.
It’s still a Fire Emblem game at heart: turn-based battles are fought over strategy-inspiring grids, and its countless characters belong to one of dozens of classes (from Swordmaster to Sage, from Troubadour to Berserker), but many of the praiseworthy reviews of the game (from the likes of IGN, Gamespot and Polygon) talk about how ‘accessible’ the game has become. This is mainly due to a new gameplay mode, ‘casual’, which strips out one of Fire Emblem’s key features: permadeath. Past Fire Emblem games were unforgiving if characters died in battle, and unlike the majority of JRPGs, they couldn’t be revived, making every tactical choice important and every encounter incredibly tense – now, that doesn’t have to be the case.
However, this is not a choice to make lightly, because permadeath – one of the perennial hot topics in game criticism – brings an extra emotional dimension to a game that already wants you to grow to love your little, pixellated warriors. Another new feature allows you to pair up characters in battle – by simply positioning them next to each other on the battle grid – so that they can offer stat boosts, extra attacks and defense, but what is most interesting is that using certain characters together develops their relationship, leading to small subplots of romance, marriage and, if you play your cards right, children – beautiful, bred-for-battle children that inherit their parents’ skills and abilities. It’s a neat addition that ensures that your finely-crafted avatars are much more than bundles of stats, and when it’s twinned with the ‘classic’ mode’s potential for permadeath? Well, that’s a recipe for what the kids on Tumblr call ‘so many feels’.
This unique approach to the character roster (one that goes further than, say, Bioware’s fondness of sexual side-quests), certainly looks interesting, and it seems to give Awakening an edge over tropey, similarly-plotted JRPGs. Unfortunately, the demo on the Nintendo E-Shop (which you can grab yourself by scanning in the QR code below), only covers the opening two encounters of the game, and so the interpersonal aspects don’t come into play, but its more than enough to sell us on the strongly-defined characterisation (with some great English-language writing and economical voice-acting), as well as the battle gameplay itself, which suits the platform perfectly, recalling developer Intelligent Systems’ other strategy series Advance Wars. It even, whisper it, uses the 3D quite well, with some nice visual interplay between 2D sprites, 3D backgrounds and info-box overlays.
Whether Fire Emblem matches Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – 2013’s 3DS game to beat – is yet to be seen. But we’re keeping our 3DS at arm’s reach, because Fire Emblem Awakening’s release on the 19th is just around the corner…
Fire Emblem: Awakening‘s available for the Nintendo 3DS from the 19th April. You can download a free demo by using the QR code below:
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