If you've never played a Fire Emblem before, imagine Final Fantasy Tactics from an overhead perspective, or a particularly bloated derivation of chess. Nintendo's stalwart helped establish the turn-based tactical RPG genre, and Fire Emblem: Awakening features everything you expect from the series. Dozens of warriors team up to protect the magical Fire Emblem from an ever expanding army of evil miscreants. Each chapter is a different battle fought on a square grid, with your small army of various combat classes fanning out across the terrain to wipe out the opposing forces. The standard array of RPG unit types are present – warriors deal heavy damage with axes or lances, wizards hurl bolts of fire and lightning from afar, archers arch and thieves thieve.
Forget the standard medieval fantasy trappings, though. Forget the swords and arrows, the burly warriors and lithe Pegasus knights, the pointy-hatted mages and high-hatting nobles. Forget the vast array of combat tactics permissible by the game's open-ended approach to strategy. Forget the experience points earned with every attack. Forget the more powerful unit types unlocked once characters hit level ten, and the forges that upgrade your weapons, and the Paralogue missions that provide a secondary story to explore. Those are all vital to Awakening's compulsive allure, but what elevates Fire Emblem above other turn-based tactical RPGs are the deep roster of characters and the relationships that flower between them. You'll get as wrapped up in their stories as your grandmother did with the vengeful harridans and scheming suits of a soap opera.
Per RPG tradition, the combat is dictated by invisible die rolls – all you do is highlight your target, pick your weapon and then hope for optimal results. Units attack the enemy or assist each other during your turn and automatically strike with return volleys while defending against the computer's advances. There's a hierarchy of weapons similar to rock-paper-scissors or Battle Beasts, where swords do more damage when used against axe-wielders, axes do more damage against lances, and lances trump swords. Battles end whenever you meet a mission's specific win condition (which almost always involves killing every enemy) or when the enemy fells one of your commanders. Only the death of two or three crucial characters will end the game, and for every other member of your party death is permanent (although there is now a "casual" mode that undoes that Fire Emblem hallmark).
Again though, it's the relationships – and how they affect Awakening both on and off the battlefield – that really matter. That's not exactly a surprise. Fire Emblem dates back to 1990 and personal relationships have been a crucial component almost from the start. Awakening's dozens of characters includes more than a smattering of genre archetypes ripped straight from any self-respecting melodrama, such as the valiant but humble hero Chrom, the haughty lord Virion and the sassy but naive rich girl Lissa. But there are also such striking idiosyncrasies as the human-scorning rabbit-woman Panne and the silent, woman-fearing assassin Lon'Qu. Even the most hackneyed character develops his or her own personality throughout the game's many conversations, which are triggered between chapters after units fight alongside one another on the battlefield. As these connections grow and proliferate you'll find yourself playing less for the main story than for the next turn in the love life of, say, the studious mage Miriel.
Each new level of friendship unlocks a conversation cut-scene that reveals more about the two characters and deepens their relationship. Male and female characters will marry each other when they attain the S level, creating the Fire Emblem equivalent of a soap opera's supercouple. Eventually their offspring will join your army after some Back to the Future shenanigans. It's all very touching.
Awakening makes those relationships even more important during combat with the new "Pair Up" option. Units can now combine forces and occupy a single space on the battlefield. This noticeably increases their offensive and defensive abilities, creating a single super unit that can plow through enemy lines or better deal with more powerful foes. It's also a handy way to protect weaker units or prevent a favorite character from dying if you can't heal them before the enemy's next turn.
Awakening's story is also textbook soap opera. There are mysterious pasts, secret twins, surprising deaths, even more surprising resurrections, a charismatic but creepy villain, and those kids basically grow up overnight. Chrom essentially fights to keep the family business alive from a number of intruders, but instead of oil or a medical practice that business is ruling over the fantasy kingdom of Ylisse. The only thing missing is the ability to marry about ten different times.
Most importantly, though, Fire Emblem: Awakening resembles a soap opera in how thoroughly addictive it can be. Once you get hooked on the combat and these characters and their stories, you'll feel the overpowering need to keep checking in on them. Instead of an hour a day, though, you can visit Fire Emblem at any time, pulling out your 3DS on the bus or on your lunch break or before dozing off at night.
It's a portable, omnipresent obsession that will devour dozens of hours if you let it. And when, unlike a successful soap opera, Awakening's story finally comes to an end, you can start over again and focus on the characters you let die the first time through. Unlocking the dozens of conversation chains will keep you busy until the next Fire Emblem, assuming it arrives sometime before 2016.
This review is based on an eShop download of Fire Emblem: Awakening for 3DS, provided by Nintendo.
Garrett Martin was once nominated for a Daytime Emmy, but lost to Susan Lucci. He edits Paste Magazine's videogame section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.
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