10 years later, the best Nintendo 3DS game still holds up
At one point, the future of the franchise looked dire. A 2015 Iwata Asks segment revealed that Nintendo planned for Fire Emblem Awakening to be the last game in the series, and developer Intelligent Systems went into the project with that in mind. What resulted is one of the greatest tactical RPGs of all time and one that forever changed the trajectory of the genre at large.
Fire Emblem Awakening feels like Intelligent System throwing every grand idea it’d ever had into a pot and, somehow, that mixture turned into something delectable. Up until then, Fire Emblem had simply failed to catch on in the West, even though it performed moderately well in Japan. Multiple games, namely Geneology of the Holy War, didn’t even receive official English localizations, and due to a lack of innovation in the years before Awakening, sales had even slowly started declining in Japan.
What was it that made Awakening such a watershed moment? That mostly comes down to two vital factors, accessibility, and storytelling. Ever since the series’ inception in 1990, it had a reputation of being tough as nails, and in many ways, it helped set the gold standard for difficult tactical RPGs, along with titles like Tactics Ogre. Fire Emblem Awakening took tremendous steps to make the game more approachable, introducing multiple difficulty options and a Casual Mode that lets characters return if they fall in battle.
On top of the variety of difficulty options, other core gameplay features created a dynamic difficulty. Unlike the last couple of Fire Emblem games, players could take on extra maps to train up characters, and the pair-up system adds a fantastic new element to battles. For the first time Support Relationships, a mostly hidden mechanic actually had a tangible effect on combat. It was much more important to think about where you placed units in relation to others, and who would work best together.
Even more ingenious is how these support relationships play into the story and create branching mini-narratives. While there’s a gameplay benefit to building relationships, doing so also unlocks new support conversations you can watch at camp. This marked a significant increase in terms of story and writing, as most party members had dozens of support conversations scenes to unlock. The quality of writing is what made these shine, as both hilarious and heartfelt conversations help you build even more of an attachment to the game’s cast.
In past Fire Emblem games, most side characters had a bit of dialogue when you recruited them and unlocking support conversations was much more difficult, not to mention how brief the conversations themselves were.
Awakening made players build connections with its cast of characters, which put a whole new meaning on having favorite units. Awakening’s support conversations were brilliant, and the franchise would build on them over the next few entries. Characters take center stage in Fire Emblem Three Houses, and the game gives players even more ways to spend time and bond with them.
There are a handful of other elements that played into the overall picture of Awakening, as the game reimagined nearly every mechanic the series had ever played around with. There’s a generation system similar to Geneology of the Holy War, and the child characters can change depending on which units you choose to pair. Like Mystery of the Emblem, Awakening brings back the custom avatar system, letting players create their very own character.
The fact Awakening was going to bet the last Fire Emblem game let the development team be hugely ambitious, and it shows in nearly every facet of the title. It’s a success story and regardless of people’s personal favorite Fire Emblem games, there’s no doubt that ten years later Awakening remains the best, and most important, entry in the franchise.