imageEmotional bonds is the theme of Fire Emblem: Awakening, both in story and in gameplay. It always surprises me to see how a Japanese video game will select a simple idea that will then define the entire game experience, or at least influence it. Sure, it’s not particularly unique, especially where Japanese entertainment is concerned, but it’s nice to see a game that actually has a solid theme to follow.

Plenty of Western games carry this sort of theme as well, such as Gears of War wanting to focus on “destroyed beauty”. However, the mechanics are completely separated from this idea, instead wanting to force the player into a slower-paced combat that relies on cover and disguising your vulnerability. Different mentalities were applied to creating the game’s visual aesthetic and mechanical function.

Fire Emblem: Awakening instead takes the idea of emotional bonds and works it fluidly, if not a bit counter-intuitively, into its tactical combat. I’ve already discussed how I “figured out” the game’s intent many hours too late, but until completing the game I still failed to see the whole picture.

Your typical war game basics, with the rock-paper-scissors nature of different troop types and their movement, is the least important factor of the game. At best it applies minor bonuses to damage or chance to hit, but unless you’re using a bow against enemies in flight or a rapier on cavalry, the adjustment will be minimal. It’s just one minor detail to keep in mind, but nothing to truly worry over.

Character classes, however, are certainly key. You’ll want to make sure each character takes time to level up, takes a secondary class, and finally raises up to a master in order to achieve full potential. Statistics carry over from one class to the next, and every few levels characters will learn skills that improve their combat performance. Very rarely do foes on the battlefield, even in the end game, have statistics that can match so closely, always keeping the player in the lead.

But more importantly is that the enemy does not, and cannot, form bonds. I spoke before that placing characters beside each other is key to gaining statistical bonuses and building interpersonal relationships, yet I did not realize to what extent. I was still refusing to pair most of my characters up at the time, a move that effectively makes two units into one. This is because there is very little benefit to such a decision when two characters have little chemistry between them.

imagePerhaps not right away, but it gradually becomes imperative to pair units together if you wish for them to survive, as well as to strengthen their bonds. I have no metrics, but when I began pairing characters together I noticed many of them achieving new relationship levels in faster time than if they had simply been side-by-side an entire battle. While pairing characters up early on may not be as effective due to being more evenly matched with the enemy, it is certainly crucial to developing stronger relationships as early as possible.

These relationships will then grow to marriages, which inevitably lead to children that may carry over abilities learned by their parents. This means characters that have gained a wide variety of secondary and master class skills have a chance of passing many of those on to their children, who have a chance of becoming even stronger.

Not much of this is explained to the player, and as a result it seems like pairing up is best used as an inconvenient and temporary solution to moving units across the map. Why reduce the number of total attacks you can make by halving your units on the field?

Because when two units with a strong bond are paired together, the odds of counter-attacking or blocking incoming attacks increase even more. Instead of having two vulnerable units, you have one unit slaying enemies in a single confrontation whilst avoiding nearly all major damage. More so, if you keep several paired units adjacent to one another, then they all contribute to their neighbor’s boosted statistics, thus encouraging you to develop as many bonds across the characters as possible.

The least effective and most tedious grind in all of Fire Emblem: Awakening is the one for experience. Yet the one to develop relationships, to simply pair characters off and shove them into battle, is the most rewarding. Cut-scenes and character moments are your reward for successfully matching two characters, and additional units with great potential and an established set of skills are their wedding dowry.

imageI would say, then, that the only thing that truly bothers me about the game is how it deals with character death. While it certainly has the possibility for gravitas, I had forgotten about many characters lost on the field of battle until the game’s end, where I was shown all units that survived and had passed on. It would have been nice if characters had grieved each time they lost someone they were bonded to, and perhaps even had an influence when developing a romance between widows or widowers. Yet I understand each game has its limitations, and the amount of care taken is surprising already.

Often times I desire to go back and replay a game to see what sort of build I might want to try with the characters, even though I frequently go for the glove that fits most comfortably. Yet with Fire Emblem: Awakening, I want to give another stab at pairing different characters together, then building relationships and teams between their children. Not just to see how much better a job I could do with what I know now, but just to see what happens that is different.

Fire Emblem: Awakening took established mechanics and managed to expand them with a simple theme, a concept that would not typically be applied to traditional, war-based game mechanics. By exploring “emotional bonds”, we got a strategy game like no other. I sincerely do hope other designers take note.


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