Fire Emblem: Awakening: Swords, stats, and the daddy of portable strategy

The Advance Wars team bring their classic strategy J-RPG series to 3DS

Why didn't the amazing Fire Emblem series make it to Europe until the GBA? We were too dumb for it, innit. No joke. Fire Emblem's brilliance is bound up in its deep strategies and persistent characters - a brainy brew that '90s Nintendo thought would have Brits choking on their top hats.

But in 2001 the success of Advance Wars across the west, and the popularity of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros Melee, persuaded Ninty to rethinky. In July 2004 Fire Emblem GBA was released in Europe, and we've never looked back.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is out in Japan in April and slated for a European release later in 2012. Its core is turn-based battling on a grid-based map: familiar stuff for any series veteran, but it mixes in plenty of new tricks. Being on 3DS, for a start, has meant a big change in the fighting sequences - out goes the character-stuffed spritework of the DS entries, in come snazzy 3D models like those of the GameCube and Wii games.



That's not the only eye-massaging improvement, with those grid-based maps gaining lumps and bumps to reflect the terrain - mountains are now *gasp* higher than surrounding land! Both the battle overview and world map (which is traversable la The Sacred Stones) look gorgeous, the squat characters and pop-up landscapes retaining Fire Emblem's characteristic look while adding texture. Ironically enough, the only thing that looks a bit flat are those 3D fight sequences. They're no disaster, but those 2D sprites had a lot of personality.

Central to Awakening is 'My Unit'. In short, rather than playing as the usual noble, you're cast as an amnesiac character with a key role story-wise, whose appearance and specialisations can be customised. This tallies with a more hands-on skill tree (in many Fire Emblem games levelling is automated) that lets you tailor troops toward more specific battlefield roles.

Awakening's most interesting tactical addition, from a grizzled general's perspective, is the ability for your troops to gang up on enemies - attack while an ally's on an adjacent square and they'll join the fray. That has the potential for serious damage going both ways, and may turn out to mean more for Awakening than any number of hairstyle options. We'll have to wait for a hands-on to find out but, going on the series' form for 20-odd years, Intelligent Systems probably have it well in hand.