It starts as you'd expect most Japanese role-playing games to begin. You take the role of the mysterious stranger, who somehow is adept at fighting but only has some recollection of names and characters. But there isn't much time to ponder your past - or lack of one - as the benevolent Halidom of Ylisse is under siege by neighbouring bandits and something even more sinister.
You team up with Prince Chrome and his little sister, and from there you build a sizeable squad of units from Pegasus Knights to thieves, mages, swords-for-hire and even a shapeshifter. Most of the characters are either a little up-tight or somewhat comedic, and it adds to the quirky nature of some of the optional dialogue. Everything is for the most, very light-hearted.
And there is plenty of dialogue. Most of it is just there to add depth to the characters, while the main points of the story are told through cutscenes - either beautiful ones in full anime style that you will want to crank up the 3D slider for, or in the somewhat crude 3D engine used for combat (curiously the characters have no feet in these cinematics). The presentation is highly enjoyable for the most part, even if I soon tended to opt out of some of the dialogue between characters as you level up their relationships.
Combat in Fire Emblem is built on the fantasy version of paper, rock scissors. So axe beats lance, lance beats sword, sword beats axe, with turn-based battles playing out on a grid of squares. But much like when the Big Bang Theory gang plays Rock, Paper, Scissors, Spock, things quickly grow infinitely more complex, with bows, spells, javelins, hammers, support roles, terrain types, and well, much more tossed into the mix.
There is a tactical depth to the combat that you'll gradually grow accustomed to; give it a little time and you will be rewarded. The new support actions you unlock by levelling up the relationships of characters adds a very interesting strategic layer, and you're constantly forced to make a choice of whether to focus on some of your better characters and make them even stronger or diversify and level up others so you're ready for any challenge that lies ahead.
The game is challenging and unforgiving in nature (leave a weak character in the open and they will die), and that is on anything but the lowest difficulty setting. There is a casual option that allows dead characters to be respawned after each mission, but that goes against the very core of what Fire Emblem is. It's like playing Xcom without permadeath.
And in Awakening the consequences of a character dying can be far greater than in Enemy Unknown. Best advice? Avoid Easy and you'll have the better - if brutal - experience.
Now, some of the characters may be annoying enough that you'll want to make them sacrificial lambs. There are so many characters to collect and there are typically several fighters to fill a specific need. But you may lose out on not only partnerships and support actions, but later you may lose options to talk to characters you meet up with and the option of recruiting them.
As the story grows darker and more complex by the minute, the characters still manage to raise a smile, and it is this na´ve quality that first attracted me to Japanese role playing games. Lately I grown a weary of them, but, perhaps, thanks to the deep and open ended nature of the character progression and roles in Awakening, it demanded my attention.
If there's anything to knock it would be the rather simplistic visuals, that really haven't progressed much since previous installments and 3D doesn't do much for anything but the cutscenes. Then again, the design and old school charms are there and make up for what the technical side lacks. The music is wonderfully vibrant and sets the mood perfectly.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those rare games that will wrap you up completely in its world, and you will end up playing until your batteries run out time and time again (pro tip: play this game close to a power outlet). If you're looking for something substantial for your Nintendo 3DS to invest your time on this spring, look no further.