Since first coming to North America on a wave of unexpected buzz thanks to Super Smash Bros., Fire Emblem has always stayed true to its hardcore roots. The turn-based strategy games are tough; they demand dedication to complete, and team members that fall in battle are gone forever. That’s why fans love FE and why others have been slow to embrace it, but Fire Emblem: Awakening, the first 3DS entry, attempts to satisfy both groups, and thanks to a variety of new additions, it might pull it off.
When we first dove into an early map in Awakening, we wanted to experience FE just as we had on the GBA and GameCube. The core Fire Emblem experience seemed completely intact. We moved our character around the tiled map; we attacked enemies while noting the offense advantages certain weapons have over others; and we racked up XP until our squad members leveled up. Still, some of the changes quickly became clear once we left the initial battlefield.
Fire Emblem games have always been very practical, limiting storytelling to a collection of talking heads on static backgrounds, and using the simple graphics to keep the gameplay front and center. Awakening turns that around in a big way, including the gorgeous CG cutscenes and in-game visuals that--while not ostentatious--do take advantage of the handheld’s horsepower and give some real depth when using the 3D functionality. Both in and out of battle the game looks better than even the Wii entry from a few years ago, partially due to character designs that aren’t as straightforward as previous FE art.
After digging a little deeper into the demo, some long overdue gameplay updates were obvious. Characters now aren’t just limited to their class, but instead can grow and learn new skills in a class system similar to other strategic classics like Final Fantasy Tactics. You can equip up to five skills to a soldier, though you can earn many more than that through class leveling. Adjusting the skill loadouts of each team member to fit the upcoming battle has the potential to pack way more adaptability into your crew than was previously possible.
The same spirit of adaptability is in the cards for the game’s overall challenge. There are multiple difficulty levels available at the outset, but no matter which you pick you can also switch on the Casual mode to omit franchise traditions like permanent death for teammates and the inability to save during a battle. Hardcore FE fans can still enjoy those conventions in Classic mode, but having the option to forgo those retro limitations might finally open up the series to new people.
No matter the game’s difficulty, Awakening has a lengthy campaign that covers more than one continent, and the map is often dotted with side quests and optional battles to hone your skills and unlock new characters. Awakening also promises a large amount of DLC (at least by Nintendo standards). Starting with a launch day pack that adds franchise star Marth to the title, Nintendo promises a steady, weekly stream of new DLC every week for months to come.
Nearly out in the US, Fire Emblem: Awakening looks to keep many of the franchise’s cherished traditions, but softens the edges for fans that want to enjoy the tactical gameplay without all the quirks that may have put them off previously. We’ll see how well the title appeals to both potential audiences when the game hits stores and the 3DS eShop on February 4.