If you ask anyone who has been gaming long enough what Nintendo was once known for, they'd probably answer your inquiry with "Good, fun games" and while they recently seemed to have jumped off a cliff, Fire Emblem Awakening is all the proof I need that Nintendo is out of its rut. Fire Emblem has always been one of Nintendo's lesser known franchises, and also one that attracted the more "hardcore" audience. Fire Emblem Awakening caters to this audience more than any of their recent releases that I can think of.
When you first start Awakening, you get to create your own custom avatar - a new feature for Fire Emblem. This avatar can be male or female, and is highly customizable down to their voice. Your created character is more than just a gimmick - they will play an incredibly crucial role in the game's plot, and I felt having a character that represented me as the player helped me to immerse myself. While I've never had trouble getting into a Fire Emblem game before, Awakening drew me in that much more with the use of my avatar. The game kicks off with you waking up in a field. You can't remember who you are, or where you came from, but Chrom, leader of a group known as The Shepherds seems concerned for you. After helping Chrom and his companions with some mercenary work, you learn that he is actually the prince of Yllistol, and it isn't long before you become wrapped in a story about war, the bonds of friendship, love, death, and perhaps most importantly facing your enemies in life - even if that enemy is yourself. FEA has a very intricate and touching story, but it is also full of life lessons we could all benefit from.
Graphically, this game is gorgeous. Not only is it one of the most beautiful games to grace the 3DS so far, it uses 3D in the best possible ways. The game legitimately looks better in 3D, as opposed to the 3D just being a cool afterthought. Even when viewing the battle field, populated by sprites, the game looks infinitely more marvelous in 3D. The playing field still consists of the grid you are used to, but if you turn up your 3D slider you'll see that you aren't playing on a flat plane at all. One level in particular awed me. After a traumatic story event, sad and heartfelt music led by piano accompanied the battle. It was in a canyon, and it was storming badly. As the pellets of rain splattered to the ground, the lightning flashed in the background. I turned on the 3D effect and say that this canyon had depth, and even rocks arching over it. This is only 1 of the awe inspiring 3D moments. In battle, the game also benefits from 3D, especially when paired with the new 1st person view mode. The game looks its best during pre-rendered cutscenes, which is to be expected. I do have to say I wish they had used models instead of sprites on the battlefield, but now I'm nitpicking.
In case you didn't already know, Fire Emblem Awakening is a tactical Japanese role playing game. You control your army by moving them about the battlefield, planning your strategy. Who will you attack? Where will you go? who will fight by whom? These are the kinds of decisions you will be making, and they are important decisions indeed. If one of your units falls in battle, that's it. here are no phoenix downs, or revives, or life spells. Death is just that. It really makes you think carefully before recklessly sending out your units, and is one of Fire Emblems most recognizable traits. However, this time around there is "casual mode" which will render this moot. Your allies will simply be out for that battle, and you will get them back afterwards. Personally, I believe that Fire Emblem = permadeath, and that should not be tampered with, however it is optional, so I'm not going to chastise it. Use it if you wish, but to fully experience Fire Emblem for what it is, this feature should be ignored.
Weapons have a rock, paper, scissors relationship with one another. Units wielding axes do better against units wielding spears than they do against swords, as an example. There are also ranged weapons including bows and spell craft. Each unit is assigned a class which determines what types of weapons they may use, but this class may be upgraded and altered at certain levels. Combat is as fun to watch as ever as your units dodge, counter, and critical hit their way to sweet victory (or bitter defeat). I have never quite been able to put my finger on it, but something about Fire Emblems combat just feels right. You feel the blows just as viscerally as a fatality in Mortal Kombat, despite the lack of any gore. I'd go as far as to say Fire Emblem has some of the most satisfying combat in any RPG.
There are a couple of new features in Awakening, and they are quite related to one another. When nits are standing next to one another on the battlefield, they will fight together, offering stat boosts as well as potential backup - either offensive or defensive. Similarly, units can be paired with one another, and moved as one. Whenever your units help one another out, their relationship improves. Eventually, your soldiers can even marry one another. This greatly enhances the benefits of pairing them as well as gives you insight into their personality. There are near infinite possibilities for matching your units, and it's very worth it to play through the game multiple times just to pair different units.
Awakening has both the English and Japanese voice tracks available, but I found the English voices to be lively and full of character, so I didn't bother changing it. The music is carried, but always fitting, if a bit overused - not that you'll notice or care, because the sound track is simply divine. Sound effects also play a large role in the aforementioned visceral feel that battles have. The screams of agony, and anime-like slashing effects really bring the fights alive.
Fire Emblem Awakening is, in a word, superb. There is nothing else quite like it on the 3DS so far, and I am pleased with almost everything - if not everything, that Nintendo has done here. Nintendo is back, and I could not be happier. During my time with this game so far, I have learned life lessons, I have been happy, I have been sad, I have been victorious, and I have tasted defeat. But through it all, I was entertained. I don't believe in "10/10" scores or perfect games, but dammit if this game isn't trying.