Like many of the potential audience Nintendo is hoping to attract, I came to Fire Emblem: Awakening as a series newcomer. I'm familiar with the genre of course (turn-based strategy RPG, if you're also a newbie) and even more so with Intelligent Systems' marvelous other franchise - the compelling Advance Wars - but somehow Fire Emblem's dinky charms had escaped me. As an introduction to this beloved series however, Awakening is rarely short of excellent.
There's a danger whenever perfectly coifurred anime characters start talking about levels and numbers and stats that outsiders can become instantly alienated, but Awakening does great work in introducing its relatively simple systems and story simultaneously, and throwing you into the tit-for-tat action with minimal fuss and absolutely no confusion.
You play as yourself, an amnesiac (a much more common affliction in Japan than it is over here, if gaming's anything to go by), who's rescued by Chrom and The Shepherds, a band of military types who are sworn to protect the peaceful lands of Ylisse from the altogether less peaceful guys and girl of Plegia. It's somewhat surprising that Chrom feels so confident in this random hobo that he instantly installs him as the grand strategist of the entire army, but this isn't exactly The Wire. It's better to just go with it.
Indeed, the complexity is saved for the battles, which are frequent - and frequently satisfying. As with Advance Wars, you take control of a small army on an isometric grid, and direct each of your soldiers around the battlefield before you opponent does the same. What separates Fire Emblem from its tank-happy brother, though, is a matter of finality. If you lose one of your soldiers on the battlefield, they're gone forever. And these aren't XCOM style templates that you can name and attribute a personality to yourself - these are fully formed characters, with hopes and dreams and traits and quirks, and when one goes down, it hurts.
In a new addition to the series, you can choose to switch off this option, but doing so is like stripping the heart out of Fire Emblem. Without it, it's just another strategy game. With it on, every action you take on the field is informed not just by statistics, but also emotions. You'll pick favourites, form relationships and formulate tactics based on characters' personalities as well as their attributes.
And while the story itself is simple, it's still compelling. Beautifully drawn anime cut-scenes are brief but engaging, and the dialogue is snappy and often funny. The tale of warring kingdoms and maniacal leaders plays out like a breezy Game of Thrones graphic novel. Don't let the cutesy character design put you off, either - there are scenes that pack a real emotional gut punch, and some surprisingly mature themes.
It's the on-field battling that keeps you playing, though. Awakening is a massive game - some 25 hours - and it consistently throws in new ideas and new tactical elements as you progress across its sprawling world map. The first few scraps just teach you how to move and attack, but before long you've learned that characters can pair up on the field and buff each other's attributes, that weapons can be leveled up, that forts can be captured and that villages can be saved. Oh, and the great knight Frederick can kick everything's arse with seemingly no effort whatsoever.
Yes, for the first ten or so hours on normal difficulty, you have a seriously overpowered character than can do so much damage that encounters are less battles and more massacres. Series veterans would do well to put the game onto 'hard' straight away, but even those without any genre experience will likely walk through a large chunk of Fire Emblem Awakening with barely any resistance whatsoever.
Thankfully, it does get (abruptly) harder and if you do get complacent you can back yourself into a corner with not enough soldiers and an almost impossible task ahead of you. Make sure you use all three save slots and plan each assault carefully.
When the difficulty does step up, each skirmish becomes an extended exercise in tactical warfare, and while it might not have the depth of a hardcore PC strategy game, or the raw action-movie drama of XCOM, every fight contains highs, lows, near misses, glorious victories, and at times, gut-wrenching mistakes. The knowledge that your own idiocy caused your favourite character to die will linger with you for your whole campaign. And if you're anything like me, you're regularly an idiot.
Special mention must also go to the side quests, which deviate from typical RPG nonsense to deliver consistently engaging and innovative story-based battles that introduce both new ideas and new characters. It makes grinding invisible, effectively, as there's always a good reason to investigate (and there are plenty of other grind battles around if you want them), but it also gives the roster of characters further chance to shine.
The 3DS is strong at the moment. Luigi's Mansion 2, Monster Hunter and Fire Emblem: Awakening is a spectacular spring hat-trick for the once-maligned system, and further proof if any were needed that Nintendo and its subsidiary teams still very much 'have it'.
As a Fire Emblem newbie, then, I'm now a fully-fledged convert. Intelligent Systems has never shown a weakness in its strategical prowess, but the fact it also has strong storytelling and characterisation chops came as a pleasant, if not entirely unexpected, treat. Now let's get cracking on a new Advance Wars as well eh chaps?
Played for 20+ hours on a downloaded eshop code version