There’s plenty of connective tissue between Fire Emblem Awakening and Intelligent Systems’ other beloved turn-based strategy series, but that only makes the differences seem even starker. Put it this way: in all our hundreds of hours of Advance Wars play, we never once fell in love with a tank.
In Awakening, our tank is actually a Great Knight, and like all the units in our party, he has a name and a personality, too. Frederick is ineffably polite, all ‘milord’ this and ‘milady’ that, and has a phobia of bear meat. He’s indispensable, but especially so in the early hours of the game. Right from the word go you’ll be sending him off ahead of the group to one-shot enemy grunts and soften up tougher foes for his relatively weedy supporting cast to finish for much-needed XP.
The rest of the group will soon level up enough to catch up and even surpass him – another Knight, Kellam, is as good as invincible later on – but Frederick will be your first love in Awakening. He’s strong. He’s dependable. He’s perfect marriage material. So once we’d helped him get over his phobia, we married him.
Just like the recent Persona 4 Golden, relationship management is a prerequisite for success in Awakening. Send a unit into battle with a friendly in the square next to them and the two join forces, with the adjacent companion granting stat bonuses, sometimes leaping across to block an enemy’s strike, or if you’re lucky, even launching an attack of their own. Pair up the same units enough times and you’ll unlock a conversation between them, revealing a little more about each character and ranking up their relationship. The stronger the bond, the bigger the stat bonuses; reach S rank and, gender permitting, there’ll be a proposal.
As you build relationships between party members, so you deepen your connection to them. In Advance Wars, we would happily send squad after squad of infantry out to die in the name of holding a position until the big guns arrived. Every unit was expendable. But how could you do something like that to Donnel, the farmer you rescued in a side mission who’s proven himself so handy with a lance? Or to Ricken, who’s grown from timid young mage to fearsome mounted Dark Knight, and who you’ve been helping compose letters home to his worried parents? You’re not just the commander in Fire Emblem, you’re a protector, too, and it’s a role given even greater import by the fact that when a unit’s gone, it’s gone for good.
Permadeath (though units don’t die per se, but are ‘retired’ and never seen again) naturally demands that you take a distinctly less gung-ho approach, and in that sense Fire Emblem is perhaps closer to XCOM than Advance Wars. The map overlay that shows every square on the board that’s currently susceptible to enemy attack is perhaps your most powerful weapon, helping you ensure that your weaker units stay well out of trouble while the Fredericks and Kellams of your group stand invitingly in range. Perfectionists will reach for the 3DS’s Home button to reset the game after a fatal mistake, though that becomes less of an option in the later, lengthier stages when victory’s in sight and a restart might set you back an hour. A Newcomer setting – first introduced in Japan-only 2010 release Heroes Of Light And Shadow, but new to the west – allows those who find permadeath a turnoff to, well, turn it off.
Even without the threat of losing a unit for good hanging over you, Awakening’s tough from the off, and maddeningly difficult at times. Nothing sets alarm bells ringing quite like a game’s lowest difficulty setting being called Normal, and what most games would call Hard is here labelled Lunatic (and with good reason). Hit a wall in one of the main campaign’s 25 chapters and you can head off the critical path to level up, either via Paralogues – self-contained side stories that see you clear out an enemy threat with a new addition to your party as reward – or Challenges. These small battles see you return to areas visited earlier in the campaign that have been reinfested, typically by low-level enemies. A Reeking Box, purchased from the merchants that set up shop in cleared parts of the world map, provides further scope for grinding, summoning a band of foes to your current location.
Depending on difficulty level and the number of times you hit the Home button after an untimely death, there’s at least 30 hours of play here, while another 25 chapters, many featuring characters from previous games in the series, are due as DLC. It’s lavish stuff, with frequent anime cutscenes, and in-engine battle animations that, while lacking Advance Wars’ pleasing chunkiness due to the complexity of the character models, have a charm of their own. It’s a fine tale, too; standard fantasy stuff, admittedly, but well told, seeing your created character help safeguard the titular Fire Emblem from those who would use this all-powerful MacGuffin for their own devious ends. And if you’re only here for the strategy, fret not: every cutscene and line of dialogue can be skipped, and battle animations sped up or switched off entirely.
Awakening offers an excellent game of strategy, but it’s the relationship system that makes it. It’s why your heart will rapidly find its way to your mouth when you realise you’ve left your last remaining healer one square away from safety. It’s why you’ll grip your 3DS tight as an enemy bears down on a beloved mage who’s down to a sliver of health, and punch the air as the knight in the adjacent square leaps across, blocks the incoming blow and one-shots the attacker. It’s a game where care and attention off the battlefield is as much a winning tactic as canny unit placement on it. Awakening is a richer, deeper game as a result.