The Fire Emblem series has traditionally been a bit of a non-entity in the UK, the series absent from these shores for the first fourteen years of its existence. Since then, it’s built up quite the following, and fans who’ve grown attached to the fantasy-themed strategy games will be pleased to know that Awakening stands out as one of the best in the series.
Your customisable character begins with trademark amnesia, a plot element that’s overly used in Japanese games and a lazy way to foster mystery. However, the swords-and-sorcery war epic that unfolds is bold and engaging, seeing you battle to save the land of Ylisse from a bloodthirsty rival nation dabbling in dark magic. From preteen mages to warrior rabbit women, there’s impressive variety in the squad members available to recruit, alongside the more familiar assortment of knights and soldiers. The story is replete with nods to earlier entries, some mere fanservice; others hugely important and leading to major plot twists.
Like most tactical RPGs, each round sees you positioning units and choosing actions, though a merciful fast-forward accelerates each individual assault. Newly introduced to Fire Emblem are team-up attacks between party members, which become more potent by improving partnerships outside of battle and co-ordinating efforts on the field. It’s a subtle point, and one no doubt inspired by the popularity of relationship games in Japan, but one that fosters quite the attachment between you and your team members. It also encourages greater consideration of unit placement to take advantage of these combos. Perhaps because of this, a more casual mode is also introduced, eliminating the ‘permanent death’ factor of characters that perish in battle that Fire Emblem is known for.
Annoyingly, there’s no real direction – positioning behind an enemy gives no attack benefit, for instance – which seems counter-intuitive considering the depth given elsewhere. Also, while cutscenes and battle animations are beautiful, the top-down grid format of combat rounds is minimalist at best. Players will need to keep a sharp eye on the battlefield to notice area effects or sparkles indicating hidden treasure. Certain functions (such as an ability to pair heroes together and move as one) are poorly explained, leaving you unclear as to their effectiveness.
Beyond these quibbles, Awakening’s gameplay feels refreshed and speedy despite its turn-based nature, and its mix of deft storytelling and likeable characters will keep you captivated throughout.