Fire Emblem: Awakening

Long-standing Nintendo institutions don't get much better than Fire Emblem, and that's not counting the six Japan-only releases prior to its English debut on the GBA. With equal parts complex combat and sweeping fantasy drama, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have established a combat system and deep, beloved world that stick with you in ways few games can match. Not only is Awakening perhaps the finest outing the series has ever delivered, its a sublime strategy RPG in its own right. If you're a longtime fan of the series, you'll find that the thrilling turn-based battles shine brighter than ever thanks to some further fine-tuning and an astounding new hook. Some terrifically overhauled visuals and storytelling mean that it's never been a better time for new players to get in on the action, either. Even if its slower pace and dense combat don't sound like they're for you, I'm quite near certain setting any preconceptions about genre aside will be enough for this one to grab you. Awakening is that damned good.

You briefly create your own character to start the game, and he or she begins their journey a dazed amnesiac, washed up on a beach. Found by Chrom, a prince from the nation of Ylisstol, you quickly reveal latent strategic talents, despite your condition. Meanwhile, a neighbouring nation sends disguised soldiers across Ylissean borders in attempt to scramble allegiances and begin a brutal war. But to what end? Suffice it to say you'll be travelling with Chrom and an ever-expanding royal guard in search of allies and the truth behind the conspiracy. The story roots itself in traditional fantasy arcs, but some excellent writing and countless little morsels of character development lend the story a ton of depth and personality that's hard not to get caught up in. Awakening commits to its characters in a way few games manage. The main story sequences typically stick with a small main cast, but the game offers dozens upon dozens of small vignettes between plot points, letting the large cast interact with each other in short, casual conversations that pull you into the personalities and struggles behind the main drama. There are many characters, but each gets their fair share of screen time, and its not long before you begin carrying these narratives onto the battlefield.

The combat has always felt like a logical and necessary extension of the story in Fire Emblem, but Awakening intertwines action and story in some new and amazing ways. As you may expect, you'll usually bring a possé of ten or more units into battle with you, each with its own class, stats, and equipment. You move your units one at a time on a grid of squares, and once you traverse the map or let an attack loose with one, you can't move them until their next "turn." You and the opposing force take turns piloting your forces, and although objectives occasionally mix up the victory conditions in interesting ways, it's usually down to the last side standing. Awakening's default difficulty revives fallen party members at the end of each chapter…but you ought to switch that over to the Classic setting, where units who perish on the battlefield are gone for good. It's a standout feature for the series, a rare combination of story, combat, and the concept of death that makes your mistakes matter. Each character delivers a brief, melancholy soliloquy as they pass, all given a dignified final moment in the limelight before leaving your game forever. Not only do you lose that character for the remainder of the story, but you also lose them in combat, along with any passive bonuses their relationships with others may have sewn. Death always hits hard, but it instills a gravity in each decision you make that few games can match. The weighty plot and dialogue make much more of an impact under the Classic parameters, too. Although the idea of permanent demise can seem a little scary at first, it's absolutely the way to play.

Classes all have weapon restrictions, so you'll need to stock a diverse array of weaponry through shops between battles. Swords, axes, bows, lances, magic tomes, and transmogrifying stones make up the bulk of your options in terms of gear, and each has a different range of gifts and curses. Bows, for example, need to be two spaces away from an enemy instead of right beside to attack, and when it's the enemy's turn, they can't counterattack any direct assaults. Of course, this can also be used against short-range enemies unable to close the distance on a ranged unit. Every class and weapon type hold many possible reactions to everything else, but these rules are generally rooted in common sense, easily learned and capitalized on so long as you're paying attention. Each weapon can be upgraded at a rather heavy expense, but each trip to the forge feels meaningful and bestows on your crew a much better chance of survival. The balance between its minutia of options felt sublime to me, with each and every unit terribly vulnerable in some situations and profoundly powerful in others. The game scales up the complexity of its missions in a steady way that makes learning all the ins and outs a snap, and tutorials appear on the bottom screen for you to flip through at your leisure whenever unique situations and combat maneuvers pop up. The codex of rules is easy to read, quick to access, and full of helpful screenshots and graphics that will bring even the biggest strategy RPG pantywaist up to speed. If you've been weary to check out Fire Emblem before, you've got nothing to worry about here.

New to the series entirely is the Dual System, which elevates the airtight combat by allowing characters who grow attached to each other through the story to passively support one another in battle. Units who battle together unlock special conversations between fights, and playing those out raises a graded relationship level. Placing units with a relationship grade next to each other during a battle instills any number of bonuses to whichever one is acting. By using these relationships wisely in a fight, you'll be able to augment your speed, luck, and strength in battle through big stat bonuses. Certain relationships will even unlock the ability for the supporting character to counterattack along beside the main unit, or step in and take damage that may have otherwise killed a lone warrior. Not only does the Dual System open up even more possibilities in combat, it also intrinsically incorporates the previously separate character development portion of the game right into the core gameplay. You can't strategize in battle without considering everyone's relationships, and not a conversation goes by where you don't consider its ramifications out in the field. The connection is important, incorporated in the most organic fashion possible, and feels simply amazing to tool around with. It's electric. It makes you want to keep playing, keep building, keep experiencing the story and putting those developments to work for you. It's the bridge that makes this the best, most complete Fire Emblem experience ever.

Not only does Awakening crest its namesake's incredibly high watermark for thrilling combat, it also makes huge leaps and bounds in its production value. Some beautiful two-dimensional sprites are still used when you move units on the map, but all of the fighting and storytelling make use of big, impressively detailed 3D models and bold backgrounds. A mid-game raid on an enemy castle immediately springs to mind, its massive collapsing columns and fanning sunlight making each sweep of the camera a treat. Fire Emblem has never felt this exciting. The series may have gone three-dimensional before on consoles, but the style and execution here blow the previous attempts out of the water. The aesthetic is dead-on, reconciling the series' mature illustration and sprite work into a striking, memorable polygonal world that's a perfect fit for the series. After the dozens of hours I've spent with Awakening, I couldn't imagine going back to the old look. It even had me reaching for my 3D slider time and again, a rare occurrence for me. Battles and cutscenes look killer with the 3D cranked way up, and it makes the sprites pop out from and stand on top of the tactical map in a way that's equally as striking. There is one knock I have against the visuals, and it's a strange one: during story sequences, characters are missing their feet. During the battle sequences, everyone's feet are rendered fine. When it's time to stop and chat between battles, though, everybody's shins just kind of taper off into the ground, footless. The omission is more bewildering than outright damaging, but it's a pretty distracting knock against an otherwise terrific presentation.

Anatomical discrepancies aside, Fire Emblem: Awakening is one hell of a strategy RPG that continues to polish its namesake's sublime tactical combat and character development, all while elevating the presentation and storytelling with some wicked visuals. Whether you're new to the series or not, it has never been easier to lose a ton of hours letting it massage your brain with its terrific design. And with mission and character DLC just ahead, you'll be able to extend the ride past the thirty-plus hours it already gives you. Tactical turn-based combat is something that some won't be able to get past no matter what. As long as that isn't you, Awakening is arguably the best game you can get on the 3DS, sure to be one of the best this year, and a must-play from just about every conceivable angle.