It’s natural for series to evolve. Certain features become staples after being introduced, paving the way for “modern” titles. Of course, changes of such magnitude cause some to distress, as they feel that their favorite series is being vitiated. This has occurred a few times in Fire Emblem‘s history, but the divide often subsides over time. It happened with Genealogy of the Holy War and The Binding Blade, but the fans generally saw eye to eye afterwards. The most recent schism began with the release of Awakening, but was it justified?
After releasing Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem, it seemed as if Fire Emblem was destined for destruction. The ambition of Radiant Dawn failed to boost sales, yet the conservative nature of the DS remakes didn’t work either. Intelligent Systems knew they only had one more chance before the series was put to rest, so why not make it a celebration of its legacy?
Although the game was created for the 3DS, it didn’t stop Intelligent Systems from creating homage after homage for the games they had worked on for so long. Despite mandating that Awakening had to reach a sales goal, Nintendo wasn’t unreasonable. The publisher made sure the game was heavily pushed, with advertisements and articles highlighting what made Fire Emblem so great. Thanks to all these factors, the game saw success beyond even that of the GBA entries. And so, Fire Emblem would live on.
About one thousand years after the events of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Gaiden, and Mystery of the Emblem, the continent of Archanea was attacked by the Fell Dragon Grima. The Divine Dragon Naga descended to assist a warrior in defeating Grima. The warrior performed the Awakening to unlock the Falchion’s true power, which forced Grima into a one thousand year slumber. The warrior became the first exalt of the Halidom of Ylisse, and all was peaceful for a time.
One thousand years have passed since then. The continent of Ylisse (as it’s now known) consists of three nations: the halidom of the same name, the Kingdom of Plegia, and the Regna Ferox Khanate. Chrom, prince of Ylisse, forms the Shepherds to fight Plegian bandits who harass Ylissean towns. One day, he finds Robin (as the Avatar is canonically called), a tactician bearing a strange mark on their hand. Robin soon joins the Shepherds, but the group is attacked by zombie-like creatures known as Risen. They are saved by a masked figure known as Marth. Due to King Gangrel of Plegia’s aggressive nature, Chrom soon travels to Regna Ferox to create an alliance. This happened just in time, as Gangrel instigates the war he desires by capturing Maribelle of Themis. After saving Maribelle, the group heads to Ylisstol, capital of the halidom, to prepare. Marth returns to warn of an impending assassination attempt on Emmeryn, which the group swiftly puts down. However, Emmeryn is soon captured by Gangrel, and brought to the capital of Plegia to be executed. The Shepherds and Feroxi arrive to save her, but Emmeryn sacrifices herself to avoid further bloodshed. Eventually, Chrom and the Shepherds defeat Gangrel, ushering in two years of peace.
While the Ylisse-Plegia war is intended to set up the world for the rest of the game, the motives of the conflict are shrouded in a moral grey, a writing style that Fire Emblem is known for. Although Emmeryn rules as a pacifist, Ylisse was a much more militarized country under the rule of her father. Her father started a war against Plegia to eliminate the Grimleal, a cult devoted to Grima that had significant political power. The citizens of both nations were harmed by the conflict, creating bitter resentment that would ultimately manifest itself in Gangrel. Although Emmeryn swiftly ended the war when she succeeded her father, the damage had still been done. Both Gangrel and Emmeryn’s father felt a war was justified by the history of those they attacked, similar to how Chrom acted after his sister’s death. It forces the player to question their actions and delivers an important lesson on the cycle of vengeance.
The second arc of Awakening brings in the continent of Valentia, now known as Valm. Walhart, ruler of the country of the same name, quickly militarized the nation in order to conquer the continent. He succeeded, and soon turned his attention to conquering Ylisse. He believes a strong empire will be key to preventing Grima’s return. However, Ylisse, now ruled by Chrom, Regna Ferox, and Plegia pool resources in order to combat the threat. Along the way, Marth returns, revealing herself to actually be Lucina, Chrom’s future daughter. Lucina and the other children of the Shepherds were sent to the past by Naga to stop Grima’s resurrection. The group soon defeat the Valmese, eventually killing Walhart and bringing another temporary peace to the land.
While the Valm arc wasn’t poor, it did feel a bit inconsequential. It felt like a filler segment designed to reveal the children from the future and provide the player with the necessary backstory for the final battles. However, it didn’t develop one key group: Grima and the Grimleal. This will become a greater issue in the third arc. However, I did like how Walhart continued to add moral grey to the story. He ultimately fought to stop the return of Grima, sharing a goal with the Shepherds that he fought. Excellus, a Grimleal spy, corrupted Walhart, an idea used in Genealogy of the Holy War and The Binding Blade. However, I feel that this would have benefitted from more development as well. The Valm arc did an average job in regards to developing the world of Awakening, which unfortunately caused some of the final arc to feel underdeveloped.
After the war against Valm ends, Validar, the leader of the Grimleal, steals the Fire Emblem and begins the ritual to revive Grima. When Chrom and the Shepherds eventually confront Validar, it is revealed that Robin is his child, and is a suitable vessel for Grima’s revival. Although Validar is killed, the Grima-possessed Robin from Lucina’s future arrives and performs the ritual anyway. Chrom travels to Mount Prism and performs the Awakening, allowing the Falchion to defeat Grima. The group manages to defeat the future Robin and Grima. Although the game seems to provide a choice between Robin sacrificing themselves to kill Grima or Chrom forcing Grima into another millennial slumber, Robin ultimately survives due to the power of his bonds.
Although defeating an evil dragon is quite conventional by Fire Emblem standards, the problems come from the fact that Validar, Grima, and the Grimleal have hardly any development. As a result, Gangrel and Walhart were more interesting than the main antagonist. Cults and evil political entities have always received development in Fire Emblem, so the Grimleal feel quite shallow in comparison. Validar being Robin’s father would be a much more interesting twist if there was more about Validar besides “he’s the leader of the bad guys”. If chapters 12-20 were focused on Grima and the Grimleal instead of Valm, the lack of character development would likely be solved.
However, Grima received a significant backstory in Shadows of Valentia. This retroactively fixes many of the character development problems of Awakening. The plot feels a lot less shallow with this addition information. Future remakes could certainly include features like this to make all the games within a single universe feel more connected.
Interestingly, the plot of Awakening serves as a catalyst for the ambitious ideas, instead of being the main focus. Due to how integral time travel is to the game’s plot, child units feel natural, and the theme of bonds makes Pair Up and the intimate aspect of supports logical. This story-gameplay parity helps make the game feel homogeneous, as opposed to being designed to pander to a certain group. Genealogy of the Holy War‘s romance system and Thracia 776‘s deprivation of resources also reflect their respective setting, ultimately leading to games that age well. Story-gameplay parity will come up again when discussing Fire Emblem Fates, as the game tried to implement certain systems that ultimately felt disconnected. On the other hand, Three Houses is removing or limiting certain features (such as child units) to preserve this parity. It’s a fine balance, as removing features could harm initial reception, while shoehorning them in could do the same to retrospectives.
But what exactly are the features that Awakening added? Ironically, most of them are new adaptations of ideas from older games. However, this doesn’t invalidate the belief that they were defining features of the game. Many of the features were experimental ones that had been dropped over the years, only to be popularized here. In addition, New Mystery of the Emblem‘s exclusivity to Japan meant that many fans first experienced the Avatar system and Casual mode in Awakening. Due to the millions of new fans, future games have to be viewed relative to Awakening, instead of just The Blazing Blade.
As they could in Genealogy of the Holy War, units can marry in Awakening. This is tied to the support system. Like past entries, units who perform actions adjacent to each other will gain support points, which unlock conversations. The usual A, B, and C conversations return without a limit, and the new S conversations allow the units to marry. In past Fire Emblem games, certain units married each other based on support levels, though this was only in their epilogue. It’s interesting to see the retired love system of Genealogy fuse with the supports of the GBA and Tellius games.
Of course, married units in Genealogy had child units that could be used in the second generation. As you may have guessed from the plot, playable child units return in Awakening. As before, their stat growths and skills are modified based on their parents. Intriguingly, child units are not always a byproduct of a romance system; as previously mentioned, Three Houses will include a romance system, but not child units.
The main negative of a romance system is that it forces almost every character to have too many supports. After all, only having a few romance options would simply create a façade of choice. However, for some characters, the quality of the supports greatly vary as a result of the quantity, making the system a bit contrived. This is especially a problem in Fates, in which the bloated roster spreads the interesting supports far too thin. Hopefully, the relatively tiny roster of each house and longer game length will increase the quality of Three Houses‘ supports.
Awakening‘s main new addition, Pair Up, is closely tied to the support system. Two units can join together, with one taking the lead and the other providing support. The group occupies one tile, and the lead unit gets stat boosts from the support unit. These stat boosts are dependent on the support unit’s class and the support level between the pair. During an engagement, the support unit is protected from damage, and may shield the lead unit or attack the enemy.
Pair Up is the main source of Awakening‘s poor reputation when it comes to balance. I believe this is due to the fact that the support unit’s actions are entirely chance based, and the chance increases astronomically with support level. Early on, one can never rely on Pair Up attacks or shields, whereas a pair with S-rank support can clear many maps without assistance. There’s a reason the core gameplay of Fates is lauded; it completely redesigned the Pair Up system to have no chance based mechanics. The player knows exactly when the support unit will shield or attack, allowing for Pair Up to be an integral part of strategy, not a late game auto clear.
Three Houses seems to be adapting Pair Up, though details are a bit scarce. The wording of its reveal seems to suggest a chance based system, which will be unfortunate. However, it seems that pairs will have to be decided before battle, and can’t be modified or broken during it. This would be an interesting twist, as part of what makes Pair Up so powerful is how flexible it is. If Three Houses does revert to a chance based system, I hope the new ideas will provide the balance needed.
The other feature that makes Awakening unbalanced is the modified skill system in conjunction with the class system. Like the Tellius games, skills are learned based on unit class, and there is a limit on how many can be equipped. However, all skills take up an equal amount of space now, as opposed to having values reflective of their power.
The class system of Awakening combines the branching paths of The Sacred Stones with the reclassing of Shadow Dragon. Each character has a default class, but can use a Second Seal to access a set of other classes. Most classes have two promotion options.
When one combines the purely numerical skill limit with a wide selection of classes for each character, the end result is utterly undefeatable units. It takes much of the strategy out of skills, as one can just equip five stellar skills and let the unit singlehandedly clear missions. I don’t think that reclassing and practically unlimited skills can coexist. I don’t want reclassing to disappear, so I think that returning to the skill gauge system of the Tellius games would be a wise idea.
Considering that the students of Three Houses will be able to promote into any class, the balance of skills will be important to consider. Perhaps there will be a limit on how many skills from outside the unit’s class line can be equipped at once. Regardless, balancing skills and reclassing is an important issue for all Fire Emblem games in the future.
Of course, leveling a unit through multiple class lines requires grinding. Awakening includes a traversable world map with skirmishes, similar to The Sacred Stones and Gaiden. These skirmishes are practically unlimited, as new ones spawn throughout the world each time you load the game. I doubt there will ever be a Fire Emblem game in the future that doesn’t include these skirmishes, as it allows each player to tailor the difficulty to their desire.
On the topic of difficulty, Casual mode returns from New Mystery of the Emblem. As before, this can be chosen to circumvent the permadeath feature. Considering that Casual mode appears in Shadows of Valentia, a remake of Gaiden, I doubt that it will ever be absent. Omitting it will certainly alienate a portion of fans. My opinion on it from the last article still stands: it’s perfectly fine to use, but people should try Classic mode once they feel confident enough.
Another returning feature from New Mystery of the Emblem is an Avatar. Robin feels much more organic than Kris; the story included him from the beginning, after all. I don’t think that the story was hindered by Robin for the first two arcs. After all, they primarily focused on Chrom with Robin providing assistance. The last arc focuses a bit too much on Robin for my liking, as I feel that it should have been about Lucina. Overall, however, Robin avoids being a hindrance to Awakening‘s plot by not being the main character, something that will be very important to consider when discussing Corrin’s role in Fates.
Awakening‘s final major addition was paid DLC. Though New Mystery of the Emblem had some free DLC, the quantity was nothing compared to Awakening‘s. In total, there were 25 available DLC maps, which provided new skills, classes, and characters. Many of the maps were remakes of classic ones, and all the character rewards were icons in the Fire Emblem series such as Marth, Seliph, Micaiah, and Lyn. There were a few fan service focused maps, including the obligatory beach episode. My favorite DLC maps were the challenge ones. Each pitted the group in a unique situation, with clear requirements that went beyond the usual “rout the enemy”. Apotheosis was a gauntlet of difficult enemies that served as a true endgame; the enemies are stronger than anywhere else in the game.
The DLC singlehandedly provides a post game, but it is certainly pricey. Purchasing all the DLC will cost more than the base game itself, though it does add plenty of content. One definitely doesn’t need to buy all the DLC; some offer little more than nostalgia or fan service. Fire Emblem Fates and Shadows of Valentia both handle DLC poorly, whether through locking story or ultimate classes behind DLC. The only part of Awakening‘s DLC that feels like it should have been part of the main game is The Future Past, in which the group travels to Lucina’s ruined future to defeat Grima once and for all. Luckily, Three Houses seems to have much better DLC. It’s only $25, and includes story content slated to be released in late April. If this story DLC is half as great as Xenoblade 2‘s Torna: The Golden Country, the DLC will likely be worth it. However, based on Fire Emblem‘s DLC track record, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic.
The visuals of Awakening combine the classic sprite based maps with 3D modeled battle sequences. The former is as great as ever, while the latter is decent. Intelligent System’s battle animations have seen drastic improvement since, though this is not bad.
Awakening pioneered one last feature: combining map and battle music. There are two versions of a track: a calm rendition and an intense one. As a battle initiates, the calm music seamlessly gives way to the intense version. I’ve always enjoyed this, though sometimes I feel that the renditions are a bit too tonally polar; there is less thematic movement than in other Fire Emblem games.
Awakening‘s popularity ushered in a new era for the series. Strong marketing helped push it to the top, allowing the series to prosper. With all its ambitions, I hope Three Houses manages to be as successful as Awakening without the latter’s flaws. After this, Intelligent Systems wasn’t done with original Fire Emblem games for the 3DS, and so, the most controversial game would be born: Fates.