Nintendo 3DS

    No matter how much I try to avoid it, my focus on new games keeps drifting back to old(er) favorites. Sometimes this means firing up a Virtual Console title or bringing my SNES out of a shoebox, but at other times it simply means dusting off a two-year-old cartridge case and popping the game in my 3DS. After a while, I decide it's been fun and put the game away to focus on the newest stuff (or, you know, real life), but some games get a good hold of me and I keep playing them for days or even weeks, simply because I enjoy them that much, even if it means putting off playing that shiny new game I bought the other day. Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those games.

    For the uninitiated, Awakening is a tactical RPG, the thirteenth in the Fire Emblem franchise, and a savior for the nearly-cancelled series, selling over 400,000 copies in North America alone. It is widely regarded by players as the best 3DS game to reach the continent during 2013, a notion I've echoed to many friends. The game tells the story of Prince Chrom and his band of Shepards, a group of warriors who aim to protect the peace in their haildom of Ylisse; the game also explores the background of the player-created character (known as Robin or the Avatar by default), who is found by the Shepards, uninformed and amnesiac.

    The game employs the usual grid-based Super Fancy Extreme Ultra Chess 9001 & Knuckles system, with assorted characters and classes, weapons and tomes, staves and skills, and anyone who's played Final Fantasy Tactics or a previous Fire Emblem will feel right at home; anyone who hasn't will be pleased to know that the tutorial is informative and unintimidating – which is good, because those unaccustomed to strategy will likely want to spend their brainpower experimenting and avoiding any casualties on their side, as fallen units in this game are lost forever. Intelligent Systems was generous enough to add a Casual Mode, which renders defeated units simply incapacitated for the battle instead of totally, irreversibly dead – but some will prefer to avoid this handicap, as it takes the sting out of a loss and drops something that is uniquely Fire Emblem. I can attest that the enemies in the game will jump right to picking off the weak units if they get the chance, and your party will become weak if you don't flex some strategic muscle and let them cower in a corner every battle. All of this adds weight to every decision, and watching how the enemy responds to your movements can be tension-filled and – if you survive – rewarding.

    As in life, though, there's more to this game than meets the eye. The game's Support system allows each of the characters you encounter to form bonds by fighting side-by-side in combat, and at certain points, you can watch them interact – for a certain degree of “watch” - and eventually make them close friends or even marriage partners. The dialog in the Support scenes is nothing short of charming, adding depth to all of the characters and providing numerous heartwarming and hilarious moments. Even better, the Avatar can support with every character, giving him or her lots of marriage options and perhaps some wish-fulfillment to the player. All of this ties back to combat, as characters with strong bonds will take better care of each other on the battlefield, making the feature worthwhile even for players who somehow find the whole thing a bit sappy for their tastes (every cutscene and bout of dialog in the game can be skipped, incidentally).

    The presentation can be a bit of a mixed bag, though, depending on one's tastes. The game features a healthy mix of polygons and obvious sprites, though the latter is limited mainly to characters on the maps and item icons in menus; almost everything else is polygonal. Sometimes this results in uniquely distracting effects, such as a rocking ship in one chapter which is overlaid by unmoving sprites on the battle grid; but for some this adds to the charm of the visuals, as Fire Emblem has long been presented with only sprites. On the other hand, the coloring of the environments leave a bit to be desired, as the landscapes quickly prove to be little more than shades of brown and green. Battle scenes, despite impressive character animations, soon start to blend into each other or feel a bit dull, especially when compared to the menus, which at least show lots of colorful character portraits and tomes to mix it up a bit.

    The music is consistently wonderful. Often moderately-paced, battle themes run at a smooth tempo that's perfect for thinking about your next move, and it seamlessly ups in scale when combat begins. Cutscenes get some great tunes as well, and the entire soundtrack has a few recurring riffs – leitmotifs – to give it consistent themes. It makes it all the more enjoyable to actively listen to, even when not playing the game (and if you can't shell out for a set of CDs, worry not - the game lets you freely play its music in the Unit Gallery after you beat the game once).

    When the game is done, it has a lot of extras to offer – there are several side-stories and plenty of paid downloadable chapters to check out if you end up bitten by the strategy bug. Even if strategy's not really your thing, it's worth downloading the demo or borrowing a copy to see if you might adapt. Failing that, however, as long as you own a 3DS, I can say without a shred of uncertainty that Fire Emblem: Awakening is worth your time.