Nintendo has created some of the most beloved, ground-breaking and enduring titles to ever grace the gaming industry. To suggest a recent title from a niche series is among the ranks of their classic titles seems almost like hyperbole. Make no mistake though; Fire Emblem: Awakening is a damn masterpiece, and not only is it the best game on the 3DS [sorry The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds], but one of the legendary developer’s greatest accomplishments.
While Intelligence Systems’ previous installment in a long-standing role playing series may have been riddled with faults, this one game does so much right that it’s honestly hard to contain the praise it deserves. With a new Fire Emblem game just released, now is a good time to look back at how the mechanics of the franchise brilliantly tie into its narrative themes and what Awakening added to them to make that particular experience so potent.
Awakening doesn’t exactly change that much from the core gameplay Fire Emblem is known for beyond making it more accessible to a new audience; it’s still a turn based RPG where you recruit characters to strategically place around a map to attack or defend against enemy fighters. This series is notable though for its permanent death mechanic where characters killed in battle stay dead and cannot be used again [barring a reset of the game]. This on its own creates a natural attachment for the player. Your soldiers have different roles and special attributes based on their class, so they don’t just seem like disposable clones of other characters. Additionally, the amount of time it takes to raise their stats makes it a genuine blow they if fall in a mission. Not only does it nullify a lot of the progress you’ve made, but it will make the rest of the game harder since you’ve got one fewer character to resort to.
Granted, it’s still not a perfect means of fostering a meaningful attachment. From a cold-hearted management perspective, getting new workers for specific jobs may have a rough transitional period but won’t really hurt you in the long run. This is why, to make each loss feel uniquely devastating, the developers put a great deal of focus on character. Every soldier you can recruit has their own unique personality, motivation, and backstory, and though some may have varying degrees of good/bad compared with others, they all manage to be very likable. This may all seem like Basic Character Writing 101, but given that Awakening juggles dozens of playable characters, making each of them interesting in their own way is a seriously impressive feat.
On top of that, they manage to have their multiple characters dynamically interact with each other via the support conversation system. As you frequently pair up the same characters to fight battles together, new dialogue exchanges between them are gradually unlocked. The stories told here are all delightful and funny thanks to the excellent writing, but their ultimate purpose is to depict the gradual development of a relationship. Each of them starts off awkwardly (as any new relationship would) but then nicely transition into one where a mutual trust is established. Following that natural arc, the realtionship blossoms into a deep friendship, and potentially concludes with the two falling in love and having children. They wisely avoid the tendencies of some games to treat romance/relationship-building as just being a means of correctly navigating a dialogue tree. As well-written as those can be, simply knowing the right thing to say doesn’t foster the sort of long lasting bond that sharing time together does. Since these situations play out more realistically makes their situations more relatable to the player.
These charming scenes are also crucial to making the player care about the individual characters themselves. Since one of the game’s main features is that anyone can be killed off at any time, only a small handful of them can carry significant weight to the main plot. Otherwise there would be infinite possibilities for the story, which would certainly derail the narrative being told. As such, these side conversations are tangential at best to the big picture and don’t fundamentally change the experience if you don’t view them all. Since they are removed from the main plot, these conversations provide a nice space for the characters to breathe and reveal themselves through their relations with others. It allows you to spend more time with the ones you already liked while finding more depth to the ones you may have prematurely dismissed.
Granted, having a likable cast of characters isn’t quite enough in a video game. Though Lara Croft in the recent Tomb Raider has a perfectly pleasant group of fleshed-out friends (in spite of their small screen time), since they contribute next to nothing outside of the game’s cut scenes, it’s hard to care when they gradually get picked off. Fire Emblem swiftly avoids this problem by the simple virtue of making them all playable, but they go further by incentivizing the player to foster these relationships. Beyond offering significant stat boosts to pairs in good standing with each other, married units will also trigger new missions where you can recruit your children that have traveled from the future (don’t ask). Any player enjoying their game will naturally be stoked at the idea of uncovering extra levels, and in a game where your party members can be permanently wiped out, you may need every fighter you’ve got.
Now, much of these ideas and mechanics have been present or been steadily introduced throughout the series. In that sense, Fire Emblem: Awakening could be seen more as an expertly executed greatest hits compilation. Thus, to figure out what made this experience so captivating, one has to look at the specific story the developers chose to tell with this established framework.
Just to say, this will require diving into character arcs, plot revelations and overall themes, so be prepared for SPOILERS if you’ve yet to play it.
Though the game begins with a glimpse at a climactic fight in a foreboding castle against a powerful foe, a far more pivotal moment actually occurs immediately afterwards, in a peaceful meadow of all places. This is where your custom player avatar (henceforth referred to as “Robin”) meets two siblings: Chrom and Lissa. They don’t know you, and the fact that your character has no memory of who you once were only makes you more worthy of suspicion. Nonetheless, their inherent goodness makes them more than willing to trust you and help you in your predicament. As you spend time with your new friends, their strong sense of justice and morality rubs off on you, and makes you want to return their kindness by helping them in their times of need. Though your memory is hazy and incomplete, you do appear to be a naturally gifted tactician, and in turn assist them by using your tactical prowess to “even the odds”.
While this moment is significant after weighing some of the later plot developments, what’s most important about it is how it establishes one of its primary themes: that friendship is powerful force that can rewrite the future. As unbelievably corny as that sounds, what makes this idea ring true is how frequently it pops up when actually playing the game. As stated, relationship-building is a big component of the game, and one of the perks of pairing up units involves your partner having a chance to attack alongside you and/or protect you from damage. Sometimes this will occur in non-threatening scenarios, but other times these fortuitous occurrences (which improve in odds based on the strength of said friendship) can happen in high stakes situations where a character’s life is on the line. Because these moments are felt organically through the gameplay, it makes the similar high stakes situations in the plot all the more impactful.
Interestingly, while Awakening presents a more uniform take on the value of friendship, it does present contrasting views on the role that family represents. On the one extreme, you have Chrom’s daughter, Lucina, one of the all-time great female video game characters (step aside Lara Croft). She’s so determined to save him that she chooses to travel back in time to prevent the future where the ancient dragon Grima awakens and destroys the world. But she’s not solely concerned about her father’s safety; Lucina uses her knowledge of the future to try and save everyone that she cares about. She knows the destiny and fates of her loved ones, and refuses to let that control her.
On the other extreme, you have the player character Robin, who it turns out actually is Grima, albeit in human form and with no memory of his true identity. This revelation comes courtesy of Robin’s father, Validar, who exposits endlessly about how becoming the fell dragon is your destiny and how you must live up to your family’s lineage. They push this motif so hard that Validar is able to actually take control of you because the two of you share the same family blood. Yet much like Lucina, Robin has no interest in being bound by destiny, and he chooses to break away from the fate his family imposes on him. Instead, he falls back on the friends and relations that he’s made over the course of the game and views them as his true family. That said, the specific way Robin cheats his fate isn’t merely through force of will, but through sheer cleverness, which is appropriate considering how the game itself is played.
It’s only natural that the player-insert character is a tactician given the strategic nature of the gameplay, and as the game introduces new ideas and gives you tougher enemies to fight, getting through each mission requires improving your decision making skills. Since Robin doesn’t exactly start out knowing absolutely everything, this creates a shared journey for both the avatar and the player. In essence, you grow smarter together, which makes Robin’s triumph over Validar all the more satisfying.
Before being found in the field, both the player and Robin recall a premonition where Validar forces you to kill Chrom. And as that moment in the plot draws nearer, your foe’s speeches about destiny and the inevitable ring all the more true. Instead of going along with that though, Robin exploits Validar’s fixation on the preordained by seemingly replicating what was foreseen so he wouldn’t catch on to the avatar’s real plan. This leaves him blindsided to the fact that the powerful Sacred Stones in his possession are fake and that Robin’s blow to Chrom was non-lethal. The great irony of this was that this plan was only possible because of the premonition in the first place. It gave both Robin and the player enough information to know exactly what to look out for and how they could sneak around it. And really, looking at the particulars of a battle, knowing what will happen given certain choices and figuring out the ones that will lead to victory is how the game is played in a nutshell. It makes it all the more fitting that the true villain, the only one capable of outsmarting you, turns out to be yourself.
After defeating Validar it’s revealed that when Lucina and friends traveled back in time to save everyone, the version of Robin that did kill Chrom traveled back as well to ensure Grima’s awakening. Doing so somehow caused the player avatar’s character to lose their memory, and effectively become a blank slate until found by Chrom and Lissa. This is why that seemingly small scene in the meadow is so important, and why it’s reprised at the very end of the game. With the influence of your original family gone and replaced with the warmth and kindness provided by the royal siblings, Robin transitions from a character who would destroy the world to one willing to sacrifice himself to save it. Unlike many stories involving destiny and a chosen one, Robin’s strength does not come from solely from himself, but from his friends and allies. If that’s not indicative of the power of friendship, what is?
Fire Emblem: Awakening may not be a particularly innovative entry to the series, and hence easy to dismiss as just another Nintendo game in a long line of sequels and franchises. However, that does disservice to the game, as it managed to take the best elements from the series’ history, analyze what made them resonate and told the best story possible from that foundation. In that sense, it serves as a great example on how to cohesively integrate all the various components of a game to deliver a thoroughly sublime experience.
Needless to say, Fire Emblem Fates has a tough act to follow…