There's a theory that what makes something truly beautiful is a single, noticeable imperfection. Fire Emblem: Awakening bears this out. It is an inspired revision of a classic design, and one that is riven right through the middle with a problem the series can't solve. When your defining feature is permanent death, but when all that really means is a restart, should the game's structure change or turn a blind eye?
Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn't just turn a blind eye, it practically admits defeat by allowing you - for the first time - to turn the whole thing off. If you do, defeated units retreat from the battlefield but are right as rain afterwards. This leads to a wealth of contradictions. If you're playing in Classic mode, where units die forever, their last words will often be about retreating. I lost a main character on the third mission, yet up she pops in the next cut-scene talking about how well things are going. Yes they are, except you're dead my love. (Which didn't stop her playing a central role in the ongoing storyline.)
I posed the above contradiction to a friend and his answer was simple: "srsly don't let characters die." I mention this not to take a cheap shot at developer Intelligent Systems but because it illuminates something that's at the core of Fire Emblem and always has been. Though your characters can die, you're not expected to accept it. If the 3DS didn't already have a soft reset (L+R plus either start or select), then Awakening would have implemented one. In other words, if you play this without resetting fairly regularly to reverse fate, you're either tactically brilliant or not playing it right. It's an odd little mix of meta-mechanic and practicality; a coin you keep flipping until every one's a winner.
This matters because Fire Emblem is a strategy game where the units, rather than being disposable copies, are characters in a story, and Awakening introduces several new mechanics to make personalities more central to the strategy than they ever have been. The greatest of these is undoubtedly the relationships characters now form on the battlefield, a system built around placing units adjacent to each other or pairing them up on the same square. Whether on attack or defence, a unit with a nearby friendly will be boosted, and the deeper the relationship, the bigger the boost. Relationships get deeper through characters fighting together, as well as the odd chat between engagements, and you can tell this because of the hearts.
Not to get all soppy about it, but I heart the hearts. In fact, soppy isn't even close. After an attack or defence slightly improves the connection between two characters, a little pair of hearts bloops up for a second to let you know, and seeing these makes me sweat like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. This mechanic is perfect for Fire Emblem because it depends on good unit positioning, which is what the game's about in the first place. It's a new system that lays atop the old one but accentuates every aspect of it, as well as adding a persistent element to battle strategy. Phwoar, eh?
That's not even the half of it. Improving units' relationships increases not only the boosts they give each other but also the likelihood of a dual attack (in which the second character gets a cheeky free shot). This in turn can combine with critical hits, blocks, and dodges. By about halfway through the game, you're surprised when the support character doesn't help out with more than a boost. One final point on this quite brilliant system: when certain characters get close enough they will, of their own volition, get married. Sorry, Harvest Moon; you had a good run.
None of this interweaving of personality and mechanics would matter as much if the characters were dull, but Nintendo's translations from the Japanese are among the very best, and Awakening is a peach. There's a unique craft to Intelligent Systems' way of creating characters, with aspects of their personality caught across multiple forms. The pixel miniatures in the top-down view morph into expressive 3D models, faces then detailed in gorgeous hand-drawn portraits whenever there's dialogue. As the script flows, certain words or phrases are picked out by voice actors that capture their mannerisms and tics perfectly. Everything comes together during the critical attacks; the battle freezes for a moment, a shot of the eyes flashes across the screen and one of many unforgettable lines precedes the blow. My personal favourite is Virion's ravishing question, "Shall I make you famous?" But I'm in love with Virion anyway, a cocksure bowman with a romantic bent and an inexhaustible line in self-promoting wit: "the archest of archers!"
This is a special game. The kind that makes you stop and think for a long time about whether it's ever been done better
The cherry on top is the class change system, an in-depth option that is drip-fed gradually before becoming an overwhelming focus. After reaching level 10, you can use certain rare items to either promote a character's class or switch them onto an entirely new track. I didn't change classes around too much, because new roles come with an equivalent loss of expertise in certain stats, but promoting classes is all gravy, with massive boosts across the board and new battle capabilities. Take my boy Ricken, who's grown from an itsy mage into a sword-wielding mounted wizard of doom. The visual change into sweet new armour seals the deal, and in conjunction with the levelling that's always humming along in the background, it feels like these characters grow.
Just as well, really, because Awakening's campaign starts gently before turning the screw quite viciously after five or six missions. Each chapter is its own battlefield, often with environmental effects (sand, for example, slows down cavalry something rotten), and the enemy forces steadily increase in number and skill. The AI can be summed up easily: it goes for exposed units ruthlessly and will pile onto any character it has a chance of killing before the turn's over. This is quickly assimilated into how you move your units, along with the team-up mechanic, so you'll be keeping healers encircled by tougher classes, with mages and archers firing from behind the front lines.
Whatever you do, however, these opponents will find weak links, and as Awakening hits its stride the maps begin to stretch your forces thin. As the enemy forces grow ever more numerous and deadly, moving your units in sync as part of a grander pattern becomes not merely efficient but essential. I gave up on Lunatic difficulty pretty early (should have paid attention to the name); Hard provides a much more reasonable learning curve where the odd mistake is tolerated but missteps lead to crushing defeat. Normal is for series newcomers and so is a bit of a doddle for Fire Emblem veterans, though even here there's a sharp increase in challenge after the opening few hours. Such range is a great thing, though it's a shame that you can't change difficulty without starting over.
Awakening has a clear campaign path, but a world map dotted with distractions: side stories in which new recruits can be added to your merry band; the barracks; travelling merchants; random battles against the omnipresent Risen; and the Outrealm Gate. The last is a portal for downloadable content following the traditional dealer model: the first one's free, the rest you pay for. The merchants and Risen puff in and out of existence as you move around completing tasks and are self-explanatory, while the side stories are more or less a miniature campaign of their own. The barracks is an odd and delightful touch, a room where you can check (beautifully written) roster entries, listen in to conversations and acquire little bonuses. It's another flourish of character in a game bursting with it.
Beyond even this is the wireless mode, which sadly I couldn't test because of a lack of other players, though I was able to arrange a band of units, customise a player card and write various greetings. This band will now be ready to head out through StreetPass to other Awakening players and appear on their map for a rumble. It's not exactly Fire Emblem multiplayer, but success feeds back renown points which can be used to buy kit for the campaign. There are other small but welcome touches beyond this, like being able to recruit friends' units (you could do this in Shadow Dragon, and it was great).
I've been playing Awakening for weeks now, and as soon as I'd finished it I started another campaign to try a different bunch of characters (there are around 40 to be found). I still don't think I've seen everything, not by a long shot - and when that DLC comes out, my wallet doesn't stand a chance. I've never carried my 3DS around so much.
This is a special game. The kind that makes you stop and think for a long time about whether it's ever been done better. You couldn't call Awakening philosophical, but it has things to say about friendship, loyalty, in its own small way love, and a climax that brings these themes together with masterful elegance. Then there's that single, noticeable imperfection: how it doesn't, or can't, deal with death.
It drove me mad at first, but now it makes me think of an old friend who, when tired and emotional, was fond of repeating a Leonard Cohen line: "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." Fire Emblem: Awakening has a hairline fracture running right through it, and it shines so bright. There's even something you can do as a player to help make it whole, so that it brushes against perfection. Srsly; don't let characters die.