I honestly don't think Nintendo could have predicted just how much love the classically-hardcore Fire Emblem strategy-RPGs would be getting overseas. At least on the surface, I think they figured this vicious, unforgiving series with its turn-based strategy and permanent character death just wouldn't be all that well-received in North America. Sometimes, it's nice to be wrong.
There are a total of thirteen games in the Fire Emblem series, six of which have been released internationally. They're all mostly the same--command units in medieval and fantasy-styled battles of steadily-increasing scale, level up troops by using their skills intelligently, and build up a strong, balanced army to save the day. Seasoned tacticians tread carefully, while the unprepared are decimated by fierce enemy AI. While Fire Emblem Awakening does keep the hardcore cred of previous titles, it takes some really intelligent steps toward welcoming a newer audience without losing any of its charm.
One of the first things that longtime series fans will notice is the MyClass feature, letting you create your own character (male or female of various ages/statures) and making them a key part of the story. Characters will constantly talk to you or try to romance you, while enemies will go out of their way to try and kill you. This character starts out as a balanced physical/magic hybrid, but will eventually be able to change class to whatever your army needs.
While it's obviously not at Mass Effect or Saint's Row levels of character customization, you're given a good number of options to create your own distinct character. Expect the unexpected, though--I made my character look like Patlabor's Captain Goto, only to find him constantly getting hit on by the team's token loli. By keeping interactions light and funny, you actually grow more attached than you'd expect to your generic build-a-dude.
I'm one of the loudest complainers when it comes to the overall lowering of difficulty in video games, but I think it's fair to say that easier, more "accessible" games bring in a broader audience and increase a franchise's fandom.
The rest of you can go back to playing with your Barbies. Or Assassin's Creed. Or Uncharted. It's all the same to me.
But sometimes, a series can have too much hardcore cred, and I think by dialing it back some, even more people can get to enjoy Fire Emblem's unique take on turn-based strategy. In previous Fire Emblem games, permanent character death and ruthless AI were just the name of the game, but Awakening gives players plenty of difficulty options to tailor their gameplay experience, whether you're a total gaming masochist or someone who just wants to finish the game in this lifetime.
Initially, there are three difficulties--Normal, Hard, and Lunatic--plus two play modes, Casual and Classic. I honestly can't believe I'm saying this: "Casual" is one of the smartest additions to this series that I've ever seen. All of us who've spent hours playing and replaying the same map to make sure everybody finishes in one piece can go play on Classic with its permadeath (and preferably start off on Hard), but Casual Mode removes permanent character death, one of the biggest hurdles of difficulty that can also do the most dangerous thing you can to new players: frustrate them.
Awakening is plenty challenging even at its easiest difficulty (Normal-Casual), but veteran FE fans will probably want to start off at Hard-Classic. Difficulty scaling is handled by players dealing more damage, enemies taking more damage, enemies having lower crit rates, and finding more items and weapons than you would on higher difficulties. Most games have difficulty settings nowadays, but very few of them clearly or accurately define what experience you'll be in for--"Normal" is supposed to be the true baseline experience that developers want their games played at, but it's often scaled down to accommodate more players. Fire Emblem doesn't pull any punches with a solid challenge that makes gamers work for victory.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Fire Emblem Awakening is a great introduction, teaching you the series' trademark "rock-paper-scissors" approach to medieval combat. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords--you're then introduced to a few more elements, like the play between mages, archers, and various forms of cavalry--basically taking the same winning formula from Pokémon and placing it in crazy Lord of the Rings-scale battles. While the tutorials do a cursory job explaining the functions of the game, it leaves a lot to the player when it comes to actually learning the game, so expect a fair bit of trial and error and little to no hand-holding.
Miriel is hawt... she got that whole Velma Dinkley/librarian thang goin' on
While Awakening has a pretty stock fantasy story involving warring kingdoms and a dark force from beyond, there are also a few surprises, and a plot that can change depending who ends up with whom. Teaming characters together in the game's new Pair Battle system builds up friendship and/or feelings, and characters can eventually get married and have children, who will join the battle as new units. Between battles, it's always a good idea to drop by the barracks and have characters chat with each other, not only to level up their friendship but to enjoy each pair's often-hilarious dialogue. If characters fight alongside each other or are teamed up often enough, you can build strong camaraderie between every unit in your army, but this will take a long time. Cutscenes are beautifully-animated along the lines of the second and third Berserk movies, and yes, you can change the dialogue from the still-excellent English to Japanese.
New on the wishlist: a Fire Emblem movie animated in this style
Fire Emblem Awakening does a lot of things right, but naturally it isn't perfect. Those same tutorials I mentioned are awkwardly placed--players should be learning about the "rock-paper-scissors" mechanics right from the start, instead of awkwardly flailing about for two and a half levels. While calling a difficult game "cheap" is usually a case of a bad workman blaming his tools, it is frustrating on higher difficulties when enemy characters with 4% crit rates are suddenly capable of evading all attacks and decimating your army in a single turn, and this has happened to me more frequently than I like to admit.
Any of you who have been on the fence about buying a 3DS now have a great exclusive to sway your decision. For those of you who are already 3DS owners, Fire Emblem Awakening shows that Nintendo's mutant dual-screen 3D handheld holds just as much promise and potential as the original DS, and is a must-have title regardless of your experience with the SRPG genre. This is an excellent return to classic strategy that rewards intelligence and patience, providing a consistently solid game for players of all skill levels.
+ Clearly defining and recommending difficulty settings lets players customize their experience from the very beginning
+ The game shifts from just plain "difficult" to "balls hard" even on lower difficulties, refusing to hand you victory
+ Strong emphasis on character interaction and development prove that great characters can save even the most generic plot
+ Unlike the DS' clunky Shadow Dragon, FEA's polygonal characters carry the awesome visual style of the game's character art
+ Tons of sidequests, postgame content and New Game+, along with reasonably-priced DLC with mostly-worthwhile content
+/- Tutorials only teach the basics, leaving the actual act of learning gameplay to the player
+/- The game is very grind-heavy, and you'll spend a lot of time replaying maps to get your army up to an appropriate level
+/- Inconsistent difficulty scaling makes higher difficulties less about experience or skill, and more about surviving unexpected bursts of overwhelming power