Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Fire Emblem: Awakening
War only really became hell in the last century or so, when standards of living rose so high that the alternative, peace time, was actually tolerable. We don't need to sail all the way to Acre to slam a Saracen's skull open with a morningstar, we have a 3DS to make the journey for us. Because let's face it, we might all be glad to live in the most peaceful age in human history, but peace time is still pretty damn boring. That's why we need games like "Fire Emblem: Awakening", to recreate that classic old-timey feeling of slaughtering your enemies that our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were lucky enough to enjoy. Yeah, this series is extremely cartoony and children-friendly, so the enemies nicely evaporate rather than gush vital fluids, but you're still a fantasy Alexander, conquering the barbarians, stealing their Bullion, and ruling... technically in the name of peace and justice, but we all know this about the instincts of the Id, not the ideals of the Superego.
I've been a fan of the Fire Emblem series since "Shadow Dragon", the remake of the original Famicom game, was released on the Nintendo DS back in 2009. In the intervening years, Nintendo has been unfortunately rather inconsistent with its North American releases, entirely leaving "Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem", a sequel to "Shadow Dragon", to rot in a Japan-only release. Then, to nobody's surprise, they saw their sales drop, and they threatened that if "Awakening" did not sell mountains, the series would be dead forever*. Luckily the game did sell mountains, its widely regarded as the best JRPG of 2013. And since I am chronically behind the times, like sad high school wanna-be who only picks up the latest fashion fad the moment everybody else bores of it, I only started playing it in 2014. Ultimately, I have to agree, this is a fantastic game, innovating the series formula, but never abandoning its roots.
Fire Emblem is one of those classic JRPG franchises, much like Dragon Quest, which seem to be entirely immune to history. Its basic turned-based strategy mechanics were set in stone in the 1980s, and have only really developed slightly over the decades. "Awakening" might be the most radical jump forward in the series history, but even then, the new mechanics are only the slightest additions. Its still the same traditional job classes, Armor Knights, Cavaliers, Sages, Pegasus Knights, etc. still fighting with the same weapons, and slaying the same enemies. As this is my third Fire Emblem game, I've started to see some recurring themes, a lot of the battlefields were starting to rhyme exactly with conflicts I've fought in "Sacred Stones". However, for games that retain as much fun and memorability as Fire Emblem, orthodoxy is not that terrible of a thing.
"Awakening" keeps a great deal of the challenge of older games, but develops that difficulty in a way to make it more accessible to new or less extreme players. The hardcore Fire Emblem fanbase are some of the most insane individuals you'll ever come across, they brutally torture themselves in masochistic challenges and sadistic difficulty levels. Luckily, now, you don't have to boil your psyche to play these games. The forced linearity of the levels that made up classic Fire Emblem has been removed, giving a World Map with unlimited grinding opportunities. "Sacred Stones" also gave you a world map with level grinding, but there you would run out of money very quickly, and since these games have weapon degradation, you would end up with an army of super soldiers with broken swords. Furthermore "Awakening" gives players an option to play on Casual Mode, which removes character death, and therefore basically all of the challenge. Avoid Pussy Mode, it is for pussies.
The other cool advance is the introduction of children. For decades Fire Emblem has allowed characters to interact outside of battle if they fought close together in combat, but it was always very opaque and I could never get it to work. Theoretically you could get male and female units to fall in love and marry. Now this game when you set two characters to stand close together, they'll support each other in battle when they attack or are attacked. So the Lord King, Chrom, the blue-haired archetypical Fire Emblem hero can be supported by Sumia, a Pegasus Knight, if an enemy swordsman tries to attack his tile. When characters help each other, they grow closer, and eventually they fall in love, and can be married. Thanks to this game's plotline, which heavily features time travel, your future children will appear through the time portal, to help out their parents and save the future, "Terminator"-style. (Or if you prefer, Trunks from "Dragonball Z"-style.) And since this is an RPG, you can spend hours building up special skills and stats so that you can create a perfect second generation thanks to Pokemon-style Lamarkian evolution.
Yet another cool concept that Nintendo created here - well, technically created in "New Mystery of the Emblem", but most players won't know that - is the idea of a Player Unit, or Avatar. Your Avatar is an amnesiac mage knight with a brilliant tactical sense, which is why Chrom makes you his battlefield Tactician, leading his armies against the forces of evil, conquering invaders, and zombies. Unlike other RPGs were Avatar units are just player POVs with no real relevance to the plot ("White Knight Chronicles" is a nasty example**), your Avatar is actually a central figure. You can't really decide its personality, but you can decide its gender, appearance, and choice of mate, which means you become a parent. I made my Avatar female because I probably have some deep seated sexual complexes, and married her to Chrom, that way I married into the Royal Family and was pretty clearly the star of this adventure. You're also connected to the evil forces that are invading this happy medieval anime world, but I won't go into spoilers.
But really the fun comes not from shipping together your little anime dolls or developing terrible demons of the battlefield - my unit Donnel is indestructible and his son, Owain, is even stronger - its the combat. You get to be a mini-commander, sending forth your soldiers into glorious battle, conquering all who oppose you. Bring down the mighty hammer upon those pathetic peons! Rout the fools from all directions, show no mercy or quarter! LET THEIR BLOOD RAIN FROM THE SKY!!!!!
Anyway, "Fire Emblem: Awakening" is a great game. Its a perfect handheld game, something you can pick up and enjoy at your own pace, just challenging enough to make you think you're truly accomplishing something and really are a tactical genius on the level of Hannibal, but with plenty of light elements and fun relationship building to keep you engaged for weeks. You can either build up a phalanx of soldiers with skin forged from steel, or rush forward into the game unprepared and suffer terrible George R. R. Martin-esque casualties, you're basically creating your own story. There aren't many Japanese RPGs that actually give you some level of ROLE PLAYING, but "Awakening" gets it done. No two games will ever be the same, no two players will have the same experience, and that's something we need to celebrate.
* This is exactly the kind of stubborn thinking that only a major corporate organization or an extremely bipolar wife could ever come up. Nintendo destroys everything we liked about Metroid with "Other M", then when that game doesn't sell, they decide, rather than fixing the obvious flaws with that game, they'll instead simply never make a Metroid game ever again. "Oh, you don't like how I make dinner? Then STARVE!"
** I spent about three hours designing the perfect Avatar unit, trying to build something that looked just like my Blue Highwind persona here. And then, as soon as the very first dungeon began, the game kicked me out of the party and gave the story importance to some bland RPG idiot guy, who was the real star. I'm sorry, Level-5, but if you don't have time for my character, I don't have time for your fucking game.