‘Fire Emblem: Awakening’ review: Swords kill, love hurts

Feb. 14, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.

Ten hours into “Fire Emblem: Awakening,” and still no wedding. This was a cause of great panic.

“Fire Emblem: Awakening,” released earlier this month for Nintendo’s handheld 3DS, is a fantasy war game, but it’s also concerned with matters of the heart. Sure, there are great axes, fantastic lightning spells and there’s even more than one gorgeous flying Pegasus. And when it comes to fights, there’s evil sorcerers, slimy monsters and all sorts of beasts that look borrowed from Mordor.

But beyond the “Dungeons & Dragons” stuff, this is really about the strategic game of love. Amid the troop assignments and battle positioning, there’s even more awkward encounters between characters. One of them, for instance, may happen to stumble upon another mid-bath. This, ultimately, is a game of personality management.

Was my no-nonsense, purple-haired Kes, a female magician-sword-fighter, too weird or too intimidating to attract a suitor? She seemed to fancy Chrom, a prince in high demand with the ladies. But Kes could probably do better. After all, I created her.

Granted, Chrom was a little distracted with the monsters who were invading his valley and the neighboring tribes who had kidnapped his princess sister, but really, Kes had saved him six battles in a row now. A little thanks? Maybe a kiss?

This is what “Fire Emblem: Awakening” has done to me.

On the surface, it is a turn-based strategy game. Battles play out on a familiar board-like screen, which as anyone who has played a turn-based strategy game in the past has likely noticed owns a look that is not all that dissimilar from an interactive chess board. The player’s army moves, and then the enemy’s army moves. Then the gamer takes a deep breath and hopes the choices made before the battle have properly prepped its team for the fight.

A scene from "Fire Emblem: Awakening" (Intelligent Systems / Nintendo)

A scene from “Fire Emblem: Awakening” (Intelligent Systems / Nintendo)

Yet “Fire Emblem: Awakening” is also much more than a turn-based strategy game. Play the game in “classic” mode, and when a character loses a battle, he or she is gone for good. Yet each character is so perfectly drawn, from the anime look to their distaste for certain meats (“I mean, come on, who eats bear?” my fearless knight scolded my Kes), I simply could not stand to lose one of them.

Battles are short, and I try to sneak one in before bedtime, before showering, before work, after finishing an assignment — whenever — just to build up my characters’ strength, their relationships and to see who is trying to flirt with whom. It was adorable, for instance, to watch tough-guy knight Frederick try to woo Panne, a woman who can transform into a giant, rodent-like beast and instantly rip a guy’s heart out. (Come to think of it, I may have encountered a few Pannes in real life.)

But this is all important stuff, as battles are enhanced not just by buying and forging weapons (there’s that more snoozy aspect too), but by actual conversations. Some characters passive aggressively needle each other, others sheepishly ask others to lunch, and it took 14 hours but Chrom finally told Kes that he was in love with her.

Whew. I had created a winner, after all, and this means that when the two fight in battle, as husband and wife, they are essentially an unstoppable force. It’s the rare (the only?) role-playing game that emphasizes not just the standard-issue “hit-points,” but more abstract matters of the heart.

In fact, “Fire Emblem: Awakening” is sometimes so good at its character development that it tricked me once or twice into believing the game is smarter than it is. Not to bog this down with a lengthy turn-by-turn re-enactment, but once believing diplomacy was preferred over battle, I told my loudmouthed characters to sit out any potential fights. My thinking was this would prevent them from saying something stupid that would start a war. Ultimately, they said something stupid and started a war whether they were going to be the ones riding into battle or not. There is, alas, still a script the game must follow.

A scene from "Fire Emblem: Awakening" (Intelligent Systems / Nintendo)

A scene from “Fire Emblem: Awakening” (Intelligent Systems / Nintendo)

Yet this is a minor quibble in what’s ultimately a surprisingly effective and special game, and one that slyly subverts gender and sex roles. Despite the number of white guys with swords (WGWS) running around, most power positions are held by women. This is always unexpected in games, and the characters of “Fire Emblem” even acknowledge it as such. A clearly masked woman is referred to as “he” until a bunch of shocked soldiers react in awe to the sight of her mask-free.

Perhaps channeling the mind-set of some who may play the game, not all the members of the party know how to behave in the presence of such warrior princesses. “Those shapely legs certainly can kick,” said one of my less-intelligent soldiers. OK, fine, I lied earlier. That bonehead I let die in the next battle.

But moments later, “Fire Emblem: Awakening” was peeling back even more layers. For instance, I’m pretty sure that the enemy soldiers were trying to flirt with some of my men before drawing their swords. While the game stops short of implementing gay marriage, it flies the bromance flag proudly, and this all adds up to make “Fire Emblem: Awakening” more than a celebration of war strategy. This is a game about personalities, as complex, defensive, strong-willed and averse to bear meat as many of them can be.

– Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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