Monday, February 8, 2016

RPG Talk: Fire Emblem: Awakening

I wasn't originally planning on writing one of these for Fire Emblem: Awakening, but seeing as Fire Emblem: Fates is coming out February 19th, it seems like this is a good time and I finished up my second playthrough back in January.

I'm not a long time Fire Emblem player, so I was leery of getting into Awakening because some series have a long history where you miss a lot if you aren't familiar with previous installments, but I was assured little to no Fire Emblem knowledge was needed, and it's mostly true.

I did get the feeling I was missing something, but oddly enough, the stuff I thought I was missing from a previous game was actually invented for Awakening (if wikis are any indication), which I suppose may say something about the writing.

Though the dialogue is prettied up, the plot of this strategy RPG feels like it fell out of the 8-bit or early 16-bit era. My first time through the game I kept getting Shining Force flashbacks, which was one of my favorite games on the Sega Genesis. You have your evil country invading to resurrect a long dead dragon and it involves crossing a couple continents and fighting good generals whose primary fault is that they're loyal to the wrong country.

I suppose some of that may have originally been a Fire Emblem thing to do (since it predated Shining Force in Japan), but that doesn't change the fact that the plot is very simple. There's never any question who the bad guys are and the bad guys tend to be irredeemably bad. That border dispute? Yeah, totally the other guys' fault, because that's who they are.

Except if certain individuals get dialogue that shows they're actually nice people and got coerced into doing things.

But Awakening does a few things, besides having awesome gameplay, to make up for its lackluster main plot (which is pretty much beat the bad guys of one country, beat the bad guys of another country, beat new bad guys from the first country who we saw coming a mile away, and then fight the dragon).

The first thing that seems really novel to me (though apparently Fire Emblem has done such things before) is that the player character and the main character are two separate people. Prince Chrom is the leader of the Ylissan army and the one character who is mandatory for every plot-related battle in the game. He is essential to the story, since the titular Fire Emblem belongs to his family and he takes it as his personal responsibility to defeat the Fell Dragon like his ancestor did before him. If he dies it's game over. But he's not the player character.

The player character is Chrom's tactician, who wakes up with amnesia at the start of the game after having a strange dream where he or she betrayed Chrom and killed him. The player avatar is modifiable along the lines of gender, height, hair, voices, name, and birthday (you get presents for playing on your birthday), but sadly not skin color, which I chalk up to Japan being a homogenous country.

This is kind of stupid for plot reasons because once the avatar's heritage is known, you realize that if the avatar's skin color should be set to anything, they would likely be darker skinned than they are.

The avatar is not required to be deployed for all battles, but plays an important part since the player is essential fulfilling the tactician role on the field or off by executing all the movements and attacks in battle. It's a role that is plot-wise equal to Chrom's, if not in some ways greater, especially if the player chooses to play a female avatar and marry Chrom as part of the story.

The second interesting thing is the support system, which forms the basis of a lot of subplots. Support is a Fire Emblem standby, where units that fight next to each other a lot build up Support ranks so they fight even better when paired together. But new to Awakening is that at the highest support ranks, the units can get married (hetero-only, though Fates is taking baby steps and offering two bisexual characters). This creates a fun dynamic where the player gains gameplay benefits from pairing up characters while also serving as a matchmaker's dream, complete with subplot for every romantic combination.

The third item is that the story has a time travel wrinkle. In the not so distant future, Grima the Fell Dragon has won, Chrom is dead, and Ylisse has fallen. Chrom's daughter, Lucina, makes a desperate bid to change the past, traveling back in time along with the children of the other heroes to stop Grima's resurrection.

This means that every married couple in the army will have at least one recruitable child, who (having gone back in time) is now grown up and capable of joining the war effort. But the kids aren't recruitable until after the parents get married so Support dialogues between the appropriate parents as well as inheritable skills and hair colors can be properly set.

It's pretty fun getting the conversations between the parents and the children they've yet to have (or have yet to grow up) and there are more than a few personality clashes, which I suspect is part of the point. Given the grim future, most of the children have been orphaned, some before they even knew their parents, and more than one has trust issues.

The marriage system in combination with the recruitable children, is really what sets Awakening apart from other games, so much so that Fates is going use the same system (though I'm unsure of the particulars because the time travel trick would be a terrible thing to reuse). I have jokingly said that even though this a game about fighting battles and winning wars, the real reason I'm playing is to hook everyone up.

I've played through twice now, once as a female who married Chrom, and once as a male who married someone else, and I'd have to say that narratively playing Chrom's wife makes for the best tension.

Chrom's story is pretty straightforward (protect his country and his loved ones from invaders), but the avatar's is not. Though the amnesia never goes away, the avatar's past gets filled in as the story progresses, both through Lucina and through the villains. The avatar was born to be a vessel for Grima's resurrection, but their memory got messed up when Lucina went back in time and the future Grima tried to follow her. He was weak from the time travel so he figured he would merge with the avatar early to get back to his full power, but it backfired and robbed the avatar of their memory.

The weird dream in the beginning was a memory from the future Grima, and stopping the avatar from killing Chrom is one of the reasons Lucina has gone back in time.

While she is reluctant to raise a blade to her father's trusted friend, the tension is even better when she's confronting her own mother.

By marrying Chrom, the avatar's personal subplot, Lucina's subplot, and the main plot to stop Grima merge and the story becomes one of family and the bonds between them, which doesn't happen with a male avatar (or with a female avatar who doesn't marry Chrom).

Awakening doesn't break new ground from an overarching plot perspective, but it's serviceable and the characters are delightful. Each unit has a unique name, portrait, and personality so you're never moving around Random Archer #2. As someone who enjoyed Shining Force and was disappointed by the various random faces in the starting party of Final Fantasy Tactics this was very welcome.