Fire Emblem: Awakening functions as a pseudo-sequel to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Players join Chrom, the prince of Ylisse, in a bloody struggle. Ylisse is recovering from the reign of Chrom's father, a warmongering man whose battle splintered the continent. Only Chrom's sister, a pacifist and saintly woman, is holding things together. Unfortunately, the mad king of a neighboring kingdom wants to see the fragile peace shattered. Chrom and his army, the Shepherds, must stop the king and save Ylisse. The task is made more difficult by the mysterious masked Marth, who brings tidings of a great doom should Ylisse fall.
To those who've never played Fire Emblem, it's a turn-based strategy RPG where you and the enemy take turns moving and attacking one another. Each character automatically attacks during a combat action, with the number and success of the attacks determined by statistics. Fire Emblem is about positioning and mechanics with a small helping of luck on the side. You win or lose fights based on where you position your characters, which weapons you give them, and your mastery and knowledge of where and how the enemy is fighting. It may sound simple, but there's depth to be found, especially if you delve into the higher difficulty levels.
People have likely heard that Fire Emblem's difficulty can be rather punishing. One of the series' trademarks is "permadeath." A character who dies in battle remains dead. There are also no in-level saves, so the only way to save a character is to restart a level or soldier on without him or her. Fire Emblem: Awakening offers a few options for making the game easier — or harder, if you desire. There are two basic modes: Classic and Casual. Classic maintains everything mentioned above. Casual is friendlier, allowing defeated characters to return at the end of a stage. The multiple difficulty modes range from easy to insanely difficult.
New to English-speaking gamers, although not to the franchise, is the avatar mechanic. Previous Fire Emblem titles had a "lord," who functioned somewhat as the player's surrogate. Chrom is Awakening's lord, but he is joined by a player-created avatar. By default, the avatar has the Strategist class, which can use both swords and magic, but it can be converted to any other class. You're not obligated to use the avatar if you'd rather focus on your existing party members, but it's a nice feature.
The biggest addition to Awakening is an improved support mechanic. In prior games, support was a secondary mechanic unless you played on the harder difficulty modes. Two characters who fought alongside each other for a while could form "support" bonds that increased their joint stats. However, you had a limited number of supports, and it was easy for players to overlook the mechanic altogether. In Awakening, there's no longer a limit on supports. As long as two characters are compatible personality-wise, they can forge a friendship, and as long as they fight together for a while, they'll earn a support rank, ranging from C (good friends) to A (best friends). Form a lot of friendships, and your characters will be way more effective at fighting together.
When a character attacks while standing beside a friend, there is a chance the friend activates a Support Action: a support attack (attack together) or a support defense (negate damage or counter-attack). The activation rate is initially very low, but as characters form bonds and level up, the chances of activating Support Actions drastically increases. People who fight together tend to continue to fight together.
As for the new Pair Up mechanic, you can pair up two units at any time, causing one to become the "main" unit and the other to become its support unit. The latter functions as the permanent Support Action partner, granting the main character a tremendous stat boost.
Another big difference in Awakening is in the leveling. In most Fire Emblem games, you have a set and linear progression: each character has about 40 levels, with about 20 levels of a basic class and 20 levels of a promoted class. Awakening makes this more complex by adding Second Seals. At any time after you acquire a Second Seal item, you can use it to "reclass" a character into another available class. Second Seals allow you to learn skills from different classes, and this unlocks special attacks that can help you survive fatal blows and reduce enemy statistics, among other bonuses. Most importantly, these skills are not lost when you change to another class or level up.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is shaping up to be the best Fire Emblem to date. It combines a staggering array of new mechanics with a customizable difficulty that should be easy enough for newcomers but meaty enough experienced Fire Emblem vets. There's a lot of content even without the DLC, and the mechanics are varied enough that newcomers and long-time players alike should have little trouble hopping right in and having fun. Fire Emblem: Awakening is due Feb. 4, 2013, for the Nintendo 3DS, and it will be available through both digital and physical distribution.Preview Gamespot:
Fire Emblem: Awakening Aims to Keep the Series' Flames Burning
January 11, 2013 5:59PM PST
By Carolyn Petit, Editor
Despite a few new options and features, Awakening strives to remain true to the Fire Emblem formula.
It begins in the midst of a heated and crucial battle. Snippets of dialogue make it clear that your character and your ally Chrom have fought alongside each other for quite some time to reach this point. A maniacal laugh from the imposing Validar leaves no doubt that he is an evil figure who must be stopped.
By letting you create your own character--a Fire Emblem first--and then immediately tossing you into this high-stakes situation, Fire Emblem: Awakening grabs you right away. Who are these people? What are they fighting for? How did they reach this point? The answers to such questions will have to wait. After a brief skirmish with Validar, a shocking turn of events occurs that you may wish to experience for yourself. At this point, the game flashes back to your character's first meeting with Chrom, the proper beginning of Awakening's tale. It's an intriguing start that makes you eager to experience the journey that brought the heroes into that fateful encounter with the villainous Validar.
Awakening aims to be a good entry point into the series for those who have found it intimidating in the past. This is evident in the casual option, which disables the series' famous system of permanent death for characters who fall in battle; with this option enabled, characters defeated in one battle return in subsequent ones. But of course, this is just an option; anyone who wishes to fight battles in which the threat of death hangs over their troops can do so. Decisions are sure to feel far more meaningful when you know that the wrong one could cost you a character whose skills you've built up and whose personality you've grown attached to.
You might worry that a game that lets you disable permadeath wouldn't be a true Fire Emblem game, but Awakening's early moments exhibit all the hallmarks of the series. The quality of the writingis immediately apparent, and characters speak with the alluring formality that is typical of noble warriors in Fire Emblem games. (They rarely use an insult any more crude than "dastard," for instance.)
But despite their highborn sense of propriety, the characters' use of language is anything but stiff or off-putting. Your created character is suffering from the all-too-common video game ailment of amnesia when he or she first meets Chrom and his companions, but refreshingly, Awakening demonstrates a sense of humor about this predicament. Frederick, Chrom's rational, skeptical right-hand man, doubts the veracity of your claims of memory loss, advising Chrom that your amnesia is "a load of pegasus dung!" In quick, sharp strokes, Awakening gives its characters distinctive personalities that immediately make you want to get to know them better, and to keep them alive throughout the battles ahead.
Those battles seem poised to maintain the delicious balance between accessibility and tactical depth that has given Fire Emblem its reputation as an excellent series of strategy games. The weapon triangle is still in effect here (swords are good against axes, axes are good against lances, and lances are good against swords), and positioning your troops in these turn-based conflicts is more important than ever. When allied characters are near each other, they can provide each other with stat bonuses, and can pair up to perform coordinated attacks on enemies. As in earlier Fire Emblem games, the relationships between characters can strengthen over time, and in Awakening, it's even possible for your created character to marry certain other characters. Of course, seeing characters level up and learn new skills is rewarding, but it may be just as interesting to learn more about them as people and see their connections with each other evolve.
In most ways, Awakening appears to stay true to the Fire Emblem legacy, but there are a few new elements here that have the potential to enhance the experience without compromising what the series has always been. Random opportunities for battle appear on Awakening's world map; these give you a chance to earn some experience, but you're always free to avoid them if you choose. At a certain point in the story, you gain access to the Outrealm Gate, from which you can access downloadable maps that offer various rewards, if you can win the challenges they face you with. The first such map will be available for free and rewards you for your victory with the hero Marth as a member of your team. Other well-known characters from the series will be available rewards from future DLC. (Those interested in Fire Emblem's fiction may be glad to know that these characters don't naturally exist in Awakening's world; the Outrealm Gate functions as a gateway of sorts to alternate universes.)
For inveterate StreetPassers, the most exciting new feature Awakening brings to the series will likely be StreetPass functionality. This allows you to put together a team of 10 characters who appear in the worlds of other players you StreetPass with. Their teams also appear in your world, and if you can defeat them in battle, or afford their price in gold, you can add their members to your own forces. Provided that anyone you encounter in your travels actually plays Awakening, this could keep the game's world feeling spontaneous and alive.
Awakening's first 30 minutes exhibit a good deal of promise. The question of whether or not the game delivers on that promise will be answered soon; it's scheduled for release here in the US on February 4th. If you'd like to get a taste of Awakening yourself and do battle with some brigands and dastards, a demo will be made available on the 3DS eShop on January 17.