The modern trend towards easier, more accessible games was always likely to prompt a backlash, and so a raft of recent titles has endeavoured to remind us just how much videogame death matters. In the likes of Dark Souls and ZombiU, dying isn’t merely a minor pothole in an otherwise flawlessly surfaced road to the finish, but a matter of great significance, carrying tangible narrative and mechanical weight. Of course, Fire Emblem’s been quietly pulling a similar trick for years now: if a character suffers a fatal injury on the battlefield they’re gone forever. Intelligent Systems doesn’t always kill them all off – a character might hobble away from the frontline to lick their wounds – but either way they’ll never fight by your side again. Awakening ups the stakes by really making you care about its cast: a battle isn’t simply about winning but emerging victorious with everyone still alive. Leave no man, woman or shape-shifting rabbit-person behind.
Here, it’s the quality of the writing that really drives that message home, an expert localisation fleshing out a terrific bit of swords-and-spells fantasy. Its story is familiar but compelling: a little episodic in places, but with a solid arc that sees you attempting to unite a kingdom against the imminent arrival of a seemingly unstoppable evil. More importantly, it’s populated by a large cast of characters who, even when they’re transforming into dragons mid-battle, are grounded by recognisably human traits. Unusually, while your chosen avatar plays a pivotal role in the plot, they’re not the de facto hero. That responsibility falls to the ceaselessly stoic Chrom, though the bonds you forge with him and his band of warriors are not only crucial from a story standpoint, but are deeply knotted into Awakening’s systems.
Ostensibly, little has changed. You still compete on grid-based battlefields, engaging in turn-based tactical battles that are intertwined with traditional role-playing tropes of levelling and classes. As ever, axes beat lances beat swords beat axes, while flying steeds offer range and power while facing grave danger from magic and bow users. But a new idea transforms it utterly: here you can pair up with allies for significant bonuses. Place two units in the same square and one will offer the other support in battle. Any unit under attack stands a greater chance of avoiding incoming blows or increasing their hit rate with a friend by their side. Further benefits are offered when a relationship blossoms: a successful pairing will engage in support conversations outside battle that directly impact combat. Comrades will sometimes strike a second blow after the first has landed, though this is nothing compared to the heartstopping moment when you leave a Pegasus Knight within range of an enemy archer, and a Cavalier nobly leaps forward to deflect the potentially deadly arrow to safety. Accidents can and will happen – you might, for example, take a calculated risk against an enemy with a low hit rate who ends up catching you with a lucky shot – which encourages cautious, methodical play. Not just as you might well grow fond of the characters and their interstitial dialogues (which range from the amusing to the genuinely touching) but because that unit represents one less ally to choose from. As a sop to newcomers, there’s an option to play with permadeath turned off, but this should be ignored: it lightens the emotional load of the choices and sacrifices you make, and Awakening is a lesser experience for it.
Elsewhere, Awakening scores highest over past entries in the quality of its presentation. You won’t want to turn the combat animations off, such is the visual force of each skirmish, while the potential for unpredictability makes it all the more absorbing: the pre-battle screen might give you an idea of the outcome but it can’t vouch for an unexpected critical hit or an ally bravely leaping into the fray. Expressive animation, hit-pauses and anime cutaways heighten the sense of physical weight: fire spells erupt with volcanic fury, and there’s nothing quite like a well-aimed spear sending a monstrous rider toppling from its winged steed. Empowering battle cries and stirring orchestral themes play their part in turning every one-on-one into a miniature melodrama: finally Fire Emblem has had as much attention lavished on its presentation as its mechanics, and it makes a big difference.
Every battlefield is different, too: from deserts to villages, castles to wastelands, from the side of a volcano to the roots of a sacred tree. Beyond terrain affecting movement range, the differences between one and the next are mostly cosmetic, though the layout and makeup of the opposing army forces regular tactical adjustments. Side stories, meanwhile, offer both the chance to gain extra battle experience and to recruit additional characters, and are every bit as thoughtfully constructed as the campaign missions. Thorough players who pursue all the support conversations will find the difficulty curve flattening out in the late game, but Hard and Lunatic settings offer a challenge even for Emblem experts. Besides, if you’re playing it honestly – in other words, accepting the hand you’re dealt and refusing to reload after each death – even the best-organised strategist can fall victim to an unfortunate roll of the dice.
The only real disappointment is the simplicity of its objectives and the lack of secondary tasks. One bonus mission is a thrillingly intense backs-to-the-wall defence, but outside raiding chests and seeking out support characters you’re rarely called upon to do anything more than defeat a commander or kill everything that moves. Yet in truth, we’re grasping for fault where there’s very little to be found. Fire Emblem: Awakening is as good as anything Nintendo has produced in the last five years, and as such is very, very special indeed.