Guest Review – Fire Emblem Retrospective – Part 4 (Finale)

FE12 - The two shadowy avatars

Previously on the Fire Emblem retrospective: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn.

PART 4 – BACK TO HANDHELD SYSTEMS

Fire Emblem 11: Shadow Dragon (Shin Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Ken)

2008 – Nintendo DS

Do yourself a favor and skip this game.

Fire Emblem 12: New Mystery of the Emblem (Shin Monshou no Nazo)

2010 – Nintendo DS – Japanese only

Actually, let’s talk a bit more about Shadow Dragon. I mentioned in the introduction that there is no reason to play the first three games of the series nowadays, and that’s because both FE1 and FE3 got remade: into FE11 and FE12 respectively. FE3 was already a sequel to FE1, so, in their updated rerelease, FE12 is the sequel to Shadow Dragon. (Gaiden was ignored, naturally.)

But Shadow Dragon, or FE11, is ultimately just a remake of a very old game that didn’t age well at all, with very minimal effort put into updating the mechanics and level design. The plot, naturally, doesn’t compare to the other games (or just modern video games in general), since it was written sometime before 1990, a time when video games had much simpler and straightforward stories. In addition, with this return of the series to handheld consoles, the gameplay got simplified once again: skills disappeared, as well as most of the improvements from FE10. The graphics of the DS games are bland and unappealing, as they have neither the quality of the Tellius games nor the charm of the GBA games. But above all else, FE11 introduces the reclass system, which is in my honest opinion the worst mechanic ever introduced in the Fire Emblem series. You have the ability to change the class of all your units, with no cost and almost no limitations, which completely destroys the characters’ individuality. And this a dangerous thing to drop on a game with already bland characters (again, this is not so much the characters’ fault as it is the designers’ fault for trying to reuse characters from a 20-year-old game).

So, unless you’re really interested in the very first Fire Emblem story, there no reason to play FE11 (and even less reason to play FE1). It seems the designers realized the drop in people’s interest for the series, since FE12 was never released outside of Japan. This makes it the first game not to have an international release since FE6. (To be fair, the drop in Fire Emblem’s sales actually started with the Tellius games, FE9 and FE10, as they weren’t very popular in Japan compared to the rest of the world).

So we now have FE12. A remake of a very old game with minimal effort put into updating the mechanics and level design and– oh.

(FE12 Screenshot (Scarlet Swordsman chapter)

To be fair, while FE12 makes many (if not all) of the same mistakes FE11 did, it actually has quite a few things going for it (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t review it). The most important one is the introduction of the avatar system. Awakening players are very familiar with it by now. Basically, you are able to create your own character, whose name, gender, appearance and starting class are all customizable. This is a really good idea, one that makes you wonder why they never thought of it before. The avatar is the main character during the tutorial of the game and, while Marth is the lord and protagonist of the main story, the avatar stays a major character all along and acts as an advisor to Marth. This also gives a much needed occasion to update the plot. While the main story is still the simple and mostly uninteresting one from FE3, a lot of side-story was added to flesh out the avatar as well as his or her relationship with another newly created character: Katarina. Katarina is really interesting, possibly the best addition to the plot. Without wishing to spoil anything, I’ll just say: you can indeed recruit her during her last encounter toward the end of the game (this is not entirely obvious, but at least it’s not as cryptic as some of the things from the earlier games).

Unfortunately, FE12 still has the awful reclass system. However, let’s give some credits to the DS games: they brought back the support system. If I remember correctly, it works like it did in FE9, but most of the characters weren’t interesting enough for me to care. Meanwhile, FE12 also introduces Casual Mode. This might seem like a heresy for hardcore Fire Emblem fans, but you have the option to deactivate the perma-death system, the very core of Fire Emblem’s design philosophy, so that KOed characters simply come back in the following chapter. But as far as I’m concerned… I find Casual Mode to be a good addition to the series. While I would personally never play in Casual Mode (the “normal” version of the game is simply called Classic Mode), there is nothing wrong with offering more options to the player. And if a more newbie-friendly feature allows newcomers to give Fire Emblem a try when they would otherwise be hesitant due to the punishing nature of Classic Mode, then it can only be a positive thing for the series’ future.

Because of those reasons, FE12 is a worthwhile addition to the series, if a bit uninspired in some aspects. It should also be noted that it’s quite popular with veteran players due to its many difficulty settings, the hardest one even surpassing FE5’s challenge. That being said, the game is a bit difficult to recommend nowadays, first due to the language barrier (again, you would need a patch or a script translation), but second and most importantly, because it was made pretty much obsolete by the release of Awakening.

Music Sample

Fire Emblem 13: Awakening (Kakusei)

2012 – 3DS

Awakening Title Screen

You know what’s weird? People usually refer to all the games of the series by their number (as in, FE7, or FE4) except this one (and I guess Shadow Dragon too). It’s like there have been so many games that people lost count and don’t realize Awakening is the 13th. Anyway…

I explained above that the Fire Emblem series was starting to seriously drop in popularity after the Tellius games, which was worrying considering it was a niche series to begin with. After FE12, there was real concern about the series’ future. Finally, the designers decided that if Awakening didn’t meet their sale expectations, it would be the last game of the series. So they decided to give everything they had and make the most of this last project. And… it paid off. Awakening not only largely surpassed the sale expectations, it received universal critical acclaim and gave the series an almost mainstream appeal by introducing countless gamers to Fire Emblem. It was a complete success in every possible way. But does the game really live up to the hype? Let’s see.

The first impressions of Awakening are more than positive: the game is simply incredible. The production values are very impressive for a handheld game, and the graphics somehow manage to be even better than they were in Radiant Dawn. However, the art style is a clear departure from the usually realistic style of the series, and Awakening made some… questionable choices in term of character and class design. It’s quite fascinating, in a way: about half of the new class designs I absolutely love (notable examples being swordmaster, assassin, great lord…), while the other half ranges from “meh” to “what were they thinking?” (notable examples being hero, female great knight, male sorcerer…)

But graphics are never what makes a game. Fortunately, the gameplay of Awakening is absolutely amazing. Pretty much everything from the earlier games that was ever considered a good idea at some point, came back in this game. It has the avatar system from FE12, now with more customization options. It has the freely navigable map from FE8 (all right, all right, from Gaiden), now with many more optional challenges to re-explore. It has the support system from FE6, but now there is no limit to how many supports you can get in one playthrough (except for the highest support rank, now S instead of A, which is still one per character), which means you can keep building up the relationships between the members of your army. It has the skills from FE4, in fact more skills than ever, and I think they finally figured had how to balance Astra (half damage, and only counts as one hit when it comes to weapon degradation; see, that wasn’t so hard). Like FE12, it has the option for Casual Mode, as well as many difficulty settings. Earlier in the retrospective, I praised FE7’s difficulty (I believe the word “perfect” was used). I find the difficulty in Awakening to be perfect as well: normal mode is easy enough for beginners without going to FE8 or FE9 extremes, and higher difficulty mode are incredibly fun and challenging (and again, can surpass FE5’s insanity).

Awakening fight view (vs Grima)

Awakening also borrows tons of small elements from the earlier games: weapons (legendary or otherwise), music, and characters. The DLC chapters find a contrived but acceptable way to bring many of the most popular characters from the previous games (more than a hundred), all of them being recruitable (though there is a limit to how many of the “legacy characters” you can have in your army at the same time). I have to admit, I felt quite a bit of nostalgia when I was able to recruit Lyn, and I find her recruitment dialogue really sweet (even though she’s just an image of the person she originally was, she manages to recognize you, the player; and if you confirm that you are indeed the same tactician she met in FE7, she sounds so happy to see you). Lastly, Awakening even brings back the stupid reclass system from the DS games… but actually makes it work. Well, to some degree. It still feels weird and you can still use it as many times as you want, but at least there are more limitations now: character only have a few reclass options (except your avatar, who has all of them), and you need to use a specific item every time. Besides, there actually is a reason to reclass characters in Awakening: since almost all the skills are class-specific, this is how your characters can acquire new skills a possibly build interesting skill combos.

But Awakening doesn’t simply cannibalize its own series. It also innovates quite a lot. The biggest innovation is the pair-up system, which pretty much allows to combine two units into one; this gives stat bonuses and allows characters to perform “dual strikes” and “dual guards” (you don’t need to be paired up to do dual strikes and dual guards, simply having adjacent units is enough, but being paired up does improve your odds). In addition, in term of how it functions, the support system is simply the best it has ever been. Instead of having to make units spend turns next to each other doing nothing, or just being present in the same chapter, your characters now gain support points when doing more concrete actions: when they fight while adjacent to each other, when they fight while paired up, when a character heals another character, etc. It feels more natural, and does convey the idea that characters are forming bonds by fighting together. I’m not too sold on supports having no limit in number, however, as it makes them feel less special. I understand that Awakening gives you the freedom to grind as much as you want (whether it’s experience or support points), but for the next game, I wouldn’t mind a return to a more linear progression. And speaking of experience grinding: as I’ve mentioned before, the stat inflation in Awakening goes through the roof. I stated earlier that the usual maximum is 30, but in Awakening, the highest a stat can possibly get is, I kid you not, 67 (this would be Gerome’s strength as a berserker, with Limit Breaker, and if his father is Vaike). This stat inflation means that the formulae had to be changed, most conspicuously the ones involving speed (it’s still the most important stat, though). Oh well. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who gets bothered by those things, and most players probably don’t care at all, so it’s probably best to forget about it.

Finally, Awakening has some streetpass options which allow you to meet and possibly recruit other players’ avatars, and even fight their army. Those features are pretty lackluster however, so they’re more of a bonus rather than a selling point.

Awakening map view (Lucina selected)

But now it’s time to mention Awakening’s biggest misstep. You noticed how the designer reused the major mechanics from all the previous games. This is great, except in one specific case…

They reused the love and generation system from Genealogy of the Holy War. And it just. Doesn’t. Work. In FE4, which involved large-scale and long-term conflicts between families and kingdom, having a two-generation system fit perfectly. But Awakening is trying to have its cake and eat it too, by having both generations coexist at the same time due to time travel shenanigans. In FE4, the necessary transition from one generation to the other was an essential element of the plot, and was what made it so impactful (I’m trying really hard not to spoil FE4, here). Awakening has no similar impact. And besides, the children characters end up being redundant when you already have the parents in your army. Sure, they end up slightly better statistically, but it hardly matters in the end (unless you’re aiming for the Apotheosis DLC chapter, the most difficult challenge in the game). There is just not much incentive to train the children when there is no need for them to replace their parents. This is why you can’t just strip the most iconic and memorable aspect of FE4 and expect it to work in a different context.

Let’s move on to the story in general. Time travel is already a pretty big red flag, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be handled well. It worked in Valkyrie Profile (arguably) and it was just as glaringly out of place then. But the fact is, with or without time travel, Awakening simply has the worst plot in the series.

The blue-haired lord this time is Chrom, and… OK, you know what, this is supposed to be a spoiler, but because she’s in Super Smash Bros now, everybody knows about her already. So, the second blue-haired lord of the game is Lucina, Chrom’s daughter from the future. The story takes place in the Akaneia continent, which is the continent from the original games (FE1, FE2, FE3, FE11 and FE12). Not that you’d know that, since it doesn’t have the same name anymore and the story takes place thousands of years after the Akaneia games. Interestingly, this gives an excuse to bring back Tiki, a character from the original games who, being a Manakete (aka a dragon), has a reason for still being alive thousands of years later. This makes her the character with the most appearances in the series beside Anna.

Awakening world map

The biggest problem with the plot is that it’s actually three disconnected plots put together with a very flimsy structure. But because Awakening is not nearly as long as FE10, it’s even less equipped to deal with an overambitious story. None of the three disconnected plots is developed enough for it to work, and to make things worse, no effort whatsoever was put into the world building (at least FE10 could rely on the rich foundation established by FE9). The disconnected nature of Awakening also means that there is no strong central antagonist, but rather several antagonists who fail to make the most of what little spotlight they each benefit from. In general, the bosses are either forgettable or completely one-note, which is a shame in a series that got us used to interesting antagonists, all with their own motives, personality, and occasional shades of grey.

I understand that Awakening was many people’s introduction to the series, but based on the plot alone, I would personally never recommend it as a starting point. Simply because story-wise, it’s the lowest point of the series.

It’s really interesting to see that when you start noticing its flaws, Awakening begins to fall apart. You then notice how the level design is bland and uninspired, or how the chapter objectives really lack diversity (what happened to seize chapters or defense chapters, for example?) Optional chapters are unlocked automatically with no special condition you have to meet. All the characters are recruited by talking to them with Chrom, while previous games were more creative (you often had to figure out which character to use in order to convince an enemy or NPC unit to join you).

But now that the criticism is out of the way, I have to come to a conclusion: none of that detracts from the game’s amazing qualities. Your characters are fun and colorful, and the addition of partial voice acting makes many of their lines memorable (especially characters such as Henry, Gregor or Owain). There are more support conversations that ever before (since almost any character can marry any character of the same generation and the opposite gender, and they also have several support conversations with characters of the same gender). The conversations are still not Shakespeare, but many of them are quite amusing, and the stellar localization gives us several gems. The final boss, Grima, might be a boring antagonist; but his design is amazing, especially if you fight him in the “Future Past” DLC. Speaking of which, the “Future Past” DLC seems to be where all the good writing went. I wish they had used it on the main story instead, but anyway, if you plan on getting only one DLC pack, get this one for sure. And of course, the refined gameplay is enough to carry the entire game. Awakening really gives you things you never knew you wanted until you had them (like the improved storage system, or the two ways to display the enemy’s range). Despite how critical I am about the story, I’ve put more hours into Awakening than any game in the series, with the exception of FE7 and possibly FE4. And let us remember that Awakening is the game that saved the Fire Emblem series. For that alone, it deserves all the praise in the world.

Music Sample

Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem & Fire Emblem if

The future?

Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem

There seem to be two future projects for the series. One would be a crossover between Fire Emblem and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series. I’m not too familiar with Shin Megami Tensei. But I did play Persona 4, which was 1. an incredibly long game, and 2. a very good one. So far, as of this writing, there is still barely any information at all on this crossover project.

The other current project is the next game in the main series, Fire Emblem if (I’m assuming this is just a working title). Since it seems to be reusing the Awakening engine, the game shouldn’t take that long to get finished, and I’ll make sure to play it when it gets released.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the Fire Emblem series as much as I enjoyed writing about it. I could have gone into so much more detail. There are so many things I still have to say. But at this point, the best thing I could add is simply this: go and pick up a Fire Emblem game (your first one in the series or simply one of those you haven’t played) and give it a try. Discover the series for yourself.

And may the RNG be with you!

– Number 5

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Four screenwriters candidly writing about film, television, novels, comic books, video games, and fanfiction.

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