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Fire Emblem Awakening review: Tactical bliss

Intelligent Systems' 3DS gem is a treat for veterans and newcomers alike

We can see you quivering at the back there. There are few titles in Nintendo gaming history that carry the hardcore gravitas of the words 'Fire Emblem'. To outsiders it's 'the one with Marth and Roy from Smash Bros', to those in the know, it's Nintendo's best kept secret. And with the arrival of Awakening, the word is about to get out.

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If you're unfamiliar, Fire Emblem is a strategy RPG which puts a human face to its units. Every troop on the battlefield is an individual character, with their own hopes, dreams, fears and - in a goofy manga-inspired twist - mad crushes on follow cast members. It may sound obvious, but plonking a personality on what is often a cold lump of statistics works wonders at pulling you into the world.

Underneath this characterful crust lies a deliciously stern game of strategic smarts. You're plonked onto a gridded battlefield and given simple objectives, most often revolving around the total annihilation of an opposing force. Units can move a certain number of spaces per turn and answer to a strict power triangle of weapon types - swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords - meaning squad positioning is your key concern.

If all this tactical talk causes your toes to curl, then let us put you at ease: Awakening is easily the most approachable game in the series, and a perfect entry point for gamers interested in the genre. Along with plenty of concise and easy-to-understand tutorials that appear on the bottom screen as you encounter each unfamiliar game situation, there's also the addition of a Newcomer mode, which should be very useful to rookies wishing to learn the basics.

Crucially Newcomer mode disables 'permadeath', Fire Emblem's signature quirk. With permadeath enabled, if one of your units dies they're dead forever and can't be used ever again in battle. While this would be considered a ridiculous concept in most RPGs - imagine the crushing sadness of having to wash out a now-empty Pokeball - it's what makes Fire Emblem's battles so tense.

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A typical Fire Emblem battlefield

After devoting hours towards levelling-up your most powerful characters, do you put them on the frontline of battle and risk losing them forever? Or do you send weaker units in first to soften up the enemy, even if causes them to die in the process? This is a crucial decision Fire Emblem fans must make time and time again. Of course, it's not an issue in Newcomer mode, and this helps overcome the paralysing fear that has, in past Emblems, prevented newbies from experimenting in battle.

Instead, if one of your units 'dies' during a battle in Newcomer mode they instead simply drop out of the fight and return for your next battle. Only your customisable lead character and key character Chrom can truly die here, with their deaths triggering an instant Game Over. It's a great way of learning the ropes and practice for many 'classic' death-enabled runs later.

The Waking Dead

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The battle system is Awakening's bread and butter, and it's so all-consuming that we've already fallen down a couple of manholes on the walk in to work. The tactical RPG genre often conjures up thoughts of a slow, almost chess-paced game, but Fire Emblem moves at an unconventionally brisker pace.

Units zip around the map at top speed when you move them, battle cut-scenes are brief (and can be fast-forwarded if you're less patient) and the Enemy Phase sections (where you sit back as the CPU takes its turn) are mercifully short as decisions are made with lightning speed. Essentially, if you know what you're doing, battles proceed at a fair pace.

Also useful are the various visual guides that help you get used to both the grids and the rock-paper-scissors style system used for determining which units work best against others. The first of these guides is a pink grid which can be toggled on and off with the X button. When on, it lies over the main grid and shows the areas the enemy units are able to reach and attack during its next turn.

This means any of your units standing on a pink square are in danger of taking damage when your turn ends. The pink grid, then, makes it a lot easier to play defensively and quickly see at a glance which squares on the grid are safe from the enemy.

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