Almost a decade ago, the original Fire Emblem came out on the Game Boy Advance. This was actually the 7th game in the series due to limited international releases. For many gamers outside of Japan this was their first experiences with this strategy RPG: recruiting and equipping a team of characters, moving them around on a tactical grid and lamenting when one of them would die, permanently. The series has hallmarked its rock-paper-scissors fight mechanics, sometimes brutal difficulty and recurring systems of characters growing stronger as a team as they fight together and support each other. There have been a few other titles in the series over the years, with the last 2 on the home consoles, but now Fire Emblem finally returns to the handheld with Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS and the game stands to capture all your free attention with its fun characters, challenging gameplay and clever game mechanics. Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those handheld games you'll play despite of having a console or PC on hand.
Fire Emblem: Awakening primary narrative focus is on Chrom, the brash but kind hearted prince of Ylisse. He leads a group of peacekeeping soldiers, who just so happen to be really capable at non-pacifistic problem solving, called the Sheperds. I don't want to spoil much, but tensions are high with neighboring nations due to Ylisse's prior warring nature, and then a whole new problem gets dumped into the mix. The story does suffer slightly from Fire Emblem: Awakening trying to put too many features in one game. See, while Chrom is arguably the main character, the player is actually experiencing the game through a custom created avatar. The custom character is a key point in Fire Emblem: Awakening's StreetPass interactions, but during the campaign it does lead to this weird sense that you're playing second fiddle to everyone else's story and everything from cut scenes to dialogue has to be delicately ambiguous in order to make you fit in as seamlessly as possible.
Thankfully while Fire Emblem: Awakening's central plot drives the narrative, it's the characters that really flesh the game out and really helps to gloss over any issues with who the main character is. You're encouraged and rewarded for getting to know all the characters and likewise having them talk to each other. As characters fight together, their support level will raise, which will then unlock new dialogue scenes between them and increase their effectiveness when fighting together. All told there are over 40 recruitable members, some of which are actually the children of others that will only show up if you pursue specific pairings, which ought to keep any completionists satisfied for quite some time. The large cast does mean that characters tend to be a little one sided, like the young boy trying to prove his worth or the school teacher-esque mage, but considering the wide variety these simple characters traits keep everyone feeling unique and endearing, which makes it all the more gut wrenching when one of them gets permanently killed off.
Permadeath has been a bit of a staple for the Fire Emblem series, and everyone but Chrom and the player character, which cause Game Over if they die, can meet their untimely end. There's a unique tension to be felt when the life of the clumsy but sweet Pegasus Rider you've been pushing Chrom closer to is hanging on by a few percentage points. 5% one way or the other might make the difference between happily ever after with marriage and children or a grisly fate at the hands of some axe wielding bandit. If this all sounds a bit much for you, you can select the Casual option when creating a new game which simply causes the characters to leave the map when reduced to 0 hit points. If you're playing on Classic, with permadeath, you're going to find it a tad annoying that there's not an easier method for restarting a battles. The only method I found was quitting out to the home screen and restarting the game.
Quick loading saves might not be the most respected method for getting through this game, but Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn't pull any punches when it comes to combat and game mechanics. If you like a lot of in depth number crunching in your RPG you're going to like this game. There's a multitude of base and advance classes that determine stat growth, skills and weapon usage for the characters. On top of that, weapon types have their own experiences meters for each person and form a rock, paper and scissors against the other types. This is also in addition to specific weapons being further weighted in effectiveness to certain unit types, like arrows and wind magic being particularly adept at knock flying units out of the air. Even what terrain you're currently in will have an effect on your attacks and defense, and the enemy AI is more than happy to take advantage of this and will always go for your weakest units or where they can maximize damage. It's not uncommon for your best and most powerful character to be one-shot because you were not paying particular attention to the enemies, but the hardcore tactical RPG fan will love every minute of it.
One new feature to the series to help you fight back is a system that allows you to pair up your units. Pairing gives you some interesting tactical choices to consider. A paired unit fights together with one character supporting the other in combat, usually this is simply a boost in stats, but there are chances for the support to also beat down on your foe or block an attack completely. Pairing can also let faster units ferry your slower characters across the battlefield to get in a key position. There's a natural balancing to consider though, because while your units get stronger as they're paired, supporting characters receive less experience and will gradually fall behind in power and also you're greatly diminishing your flexibility. If your entire force is paired with another unit then you've effectively cut your available actions in half.
Also because it absolutely needs to be brought up, the soundtrack is simply fantastic. The sweeping and epic score sets an appropriate tone for the clash of swords and sorcery. It will make you always remember to have headphone for times where you'd need to silence the 3DS.
Bottom line: Fire Emblem: Awakening is a game worth buying a 3DS for. If you're a fan of RPGs at all don't miss this game.
Recommendation: Buy it, play it, love it.
The DLC and StreetPass offerings were not available at the time of review.