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[Game Review] Fire Emblem: Awakening

I will be the first to say that Fire Emblem: Awakening is easily one of the most divisive games in the franchise’s series: some claim it was the game that ‘saved the series’, whilst others denigrate it as the beginning of the waifu-collecting-anime-esque “modern” Fire Emblem, and there’s very little middle ground. Having now played it for myself, I’ll be trying to avoid both of these extremes in order to talk frankly about my experience of the game. So – what kind of game is Fire Emblem: Awakening really? (Note: this review is probably going to sound pretty obscure to those unfamiliar with the Fire Emblem series, so for those people, feel free to skip to the yay-or-nay at the end.)

Awakening is a game that follows the adventures of the prince, Chrom, as he quests to defeat a number of nefarious villains threatening both his homeland of Ylisse and even the world. You awaken as the tactician Robin, with- actually, the player does get to choose the name, so…

You awaken as the tactician John Cena, with absolutely no memory of who you actually are, what you were doing, or why you’re the most capable tactician, swordfighter and magician on the entire continent. Chrom’s single action of letting you join his vigilante group, the Shepherds, sets in motion a chain of events which will test the bonds between him and John Cena to the limit; only the strength of their friendship and a big fuckoff Falchion will allow them to defeat their mighty foes. I might make a joke about the whole ‘power of friendship’ trope, but I have to say that the bonds between the game’s three protagonists, Chrom, the masked swordsman and John Cena are palpable and at various points, powerful.

Admittedly, John Cena is an absurdly overpowered Mary Sue. Once you get through the first arc of the game, defeating the Mad King Gangrel, you discover a little more about John Cena’s chequered past and his relevance to the story as a whole; what I like is that John Cena has a number of moments of introspection, wondering whether he’s on the right side and whether the strength of his bonds can overcome the inevitable rising of the ancient evil that always rises in a Fire Emblem game. The only issue with this is that is strongly develops John Cena’s character – but he’s supposed to be us! John Cena is very active in the story, as he makes tactical decisions for Chrom, has his moments of introspection and guides the other characters through dangerous battles, and because of this, I genuinely think that making him a personalised player character actually detriments from the game’s experience.

The OG player character is, obviously, Mark from Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, and without going into too much detail, Mark is a tactician who only has a very minor role in the story, serving as a guide for the lords; in Awakening, John Cena is praised for tactical genius that he performs in-cutscene, meaning the player can’t take any credit for it. However, the only role Mark has in Blazing Blade is completing the chapters themselves, where the player has full tactical control – here, compliments to the player’s tactics actually mean something because it was actually the player who strategised and beat the chapter of their own accord. The most egregious example of this is partway through Awakening where John Cena decides to set a bunch of ships on fire and use them to destroy the enemy forces; John Cena decides this in a cutscene, and it then happens in a cutscene, and then John Cena is praised by Chrom and co. for being such a genius. The player just feels like a middle man there.

An improvement would have been to allow the player to perform that strategy on their own. Imagine a chapter where the enemy boats advance on the player’s ships, and there’s an option for the player to set a boat alight. It seems like a really dumb thing to do, but suddenly, the player realises that setting the ships alight and ramming the enemy will drastically reduce the forces that board their main boat, making the chapter a cinch to beat. If the player got praised for doing that, it would actually mean something, because the player was the one who figured it out – not John Cena. It would have been fun and engaging, and nothing like the actual boring boat chapter we get.

The chapters themselves, for the most part, are boring. This game plops you onto a big world map, full of stuff to do – not really, there’s the next chapter and like 2 side-stories every so often – and you advance chapter by chapter, playing through the maps that you get offered. However, most of them suffer from an alternate strain of Fire Emblem 6-itis. Nearly every map in this game, even most of the side ones, are routs: simply defeating every enemy on the screen. Some of them, alternately, are ‘defeat the boss’, but the boss is usually so heavily guarded that it’s just a rout map going through an edgy phase. However, some of the chapters manage to make themselves more interesting by having side objectives. The most interesting ones I can think of are where recruitable characters are involved: one chapter has you rescuing the manakete Nowi and the mercenary Gregor from a horde of oncoming foes, whilst another requires you to move quickly through the map to protect the swordswoman Say’ri, who’s under attack on the other side of the chapter.

These kinds of chapters make things more interesting, but they’re few and far between; most of the time, there’s no strategic disadvantage to beating maps quickly and efficiently, and there’s also no strategic disadvantage in using Frederick to baby Chrom and John Cena for the first ten chapters, then have Chrom and John Cena, as well as their future children, solo the rest of the game with ease – and bear in mind, I was playing on Hard mode. That’s just how ridiculously powerful some of these characters are compared to the rest of the crowd.

Future children, you ask? Yes! As part of the game’s plot, a number of the recruitable characters have their children turn up, having travelled into the past to try and prevent a terrible future where the Fell Dragon Grima lays waste to the world. Characters build affection by fighting near each other, and as their affection increases, they have short and sweet support conversations from C to B to A – once you reach S, however, those two characters, regardless of how well their actual personalities fit together, get married and have a kid. As soon as they’re married, you’ll unlock the optional paralogue map where you can recruit their child.

I like this mechanic, generally. The child units have growths based on the parents’ growths, and they get their classes, base stats and hair colour from their parents. However, the child units are, for the most part, direct improvements over most of the game’s normal cast, with their excessive growths. This is exacerbated once you recruit John Cena’s child, Morgan – John Cena’s incredible power and growths (you know, being a Mary Sue and all) paired with any other characters growths and base stats produces Morgan, a child capable of soloing the game as well as easily defeating the final boss with a flick of their wrist. It’s insane how many characters Morgan completely invalidates; put it this way, if your only use is combat and you’re not a flier or thief, Morgan probably invalidates you.

It’s a shame, because I think Fire Emblem’s greatest strength has always been, well, firstly it’s mechanics, but secondly, it’s excellent casts. Awakening is not much different, but when the child units, who have very little plot relevance as a whole, make using other units less efficient, it makes it less fun. I explicitly avoided a number of child units and only focussed on the characters I liked, and I had a lot more fun even if it wasn’t as optimal as possible – characters like Henry, Frederick, Virion and Sully are great characters even if they don’t have a whole lot of plot relevance, and getting to know them through supports is fun.

Admittedly, supports do have their issues. With such a large cast and so, so many supports to write, compared to older games, characters have ended up flanderizing themselves in their presentation; I truly believe that every Fire Emblem: Awakening character was written with the intent of having a deep and interesting personality, but when you have to crank out 90 support conversations just for one fucking character, I can’t blame the writers for latching onto a character’s more noticeable traits and inserting them clumsily into conversation, regardless of if they fit, like a child with a jigsaw puzzle.

I’m guessing the writing budget was used entirely on the supports, because the game’s villains are not nearly as strong, interesting or memorable. Gangrel is a twit with a vague revenge motivation and an attitude towards death that completely dehumanises him, Validar and Walhart are boring and one-note, which is especially irritating considering how much screen time Validar has compared to all the other villains, and the final boss is the most token ‘big murderous dragon’ I have ever seen.

The lategame levels were also quite frustrating, which probably didn’t help the final boss’ case much, since I was in a bad mood well before he was introduced. Enemy stats get jacked up as the maps become more open and less interesting, and it just makes it an absolute slugfest as you pit your strongest characters against the rest of the world and they either die or win. I wanted to like the last few chapters of this game, but I just couldn’t because of how irritating they were to complete. Awakening also has a habit of blue-balling you, which is especially prevalent near the endgame – once the evil dragon that you have to kill rises, you have to do another side-chapter of pointless nonsense where you awaken your sword, which only serves to add another half-hour onto your playtime and could have been easily done in a cutscene. Blazing Blade wasn’t as bad with this – Eliwood said “alright, we gotta get that final boss now” and then there was a chapter where we fought his strongest minion, then it was right onto the endgame; no messing around here, folks.

However, I can’t deny that I came away from the final battle with Grima quite satisfied. The final battle is desperate and epic, and the one time that I would argue the openness actually lends itself to the chapter – everyone is free to give it their all, and it’s an all-or-nothing charge that actually feels like it has some weight. The ending is bittersweet, and the main characters are still really likeable by the end, even John Cena. Sure, the story isn’t airtight, and the chapters themselves were more irritating than fun by the end of it, but building up a fun team and enjoying the dynamic gameplay (note: the chapters were boring by the way they were designed, but the actual game mechanics themselves, like weapon degradation and pair-up, were still fun to a point) made the experience worth it.

Hell, it’s the only Fire Emblem game I’ve played through twice, and the fact that both of my runs were so vastly different just goes to show how Chrom and John Cena’s adventure is one that can be experienced in a slew of different ways – and it’s probably the huge variance in the way Awakening can be played which guides players to these polar opposites of “series saviour” and “weeb bait”. I mean, I can understand why people would hate it so vehemently if they tried playing it on Lunatic.

…Admittedly, my second run was only so vastly different because I decided to only use characters that could be reclassed into the heavily defensive Knight and General classes, but it was all worth it to have the final boss’ attack do 0 damage and tink off John Cena’s abs of steel.

[Game Review] Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

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