Thanks to Fire Emblem I’m Awake Now

In all the furor over Project Rainfall and Nintendo of America’s baffling refusal to release games in America, one Nintendo game that seemed to get no attention, or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, was the second DS Fire Emblem game. I was slightly concerned about its US release. Only slightly, because while I was worried that a once Japan only series would become so again, I really thought that Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon was ass. I know it was a remake of the first FE game, but they did not remake it enough, because it still felt like a dinosaur and was if anything uglier than it was on the Famicom. When I heard about the 3DS Fire Emblem, I hoped that it would not share the fate of its DS predecessors, being neither left in Japan nor complete ass. One fear was soon remedied, as the game was announced for US release, but what about the other? I am happy to say that one was put to rest too. Fire Emblem Awakening is possibly the best game in the series.

As far as thing so secondary importance (graphics, sound, story) go, FE: A is aces. The sound, at least what I heard of it since I do most of my 3DS playing with the sound off, is excellent. The graphics aren’t quite as charming as the GBA’s sprites, but they are easily better than whatever was going on on the DS. The storyline is largely of the same mold as previous games in the series, with one twist: time travel. Poorly explained time travel, but it serves its purpose. Crom is one of the more entertaining leads, and the player avatar actually has a place in the story. Really, the avatar in this game is probably the best use of that type player insert I’ve seen, and that’s including big Western RPGs like Skyrim. While the story is not going to win any awards, it is solid. Really, the video part of this video game is very good, if not groundbreaking.

The gameplay in Fire Emblem Awakening, despite being largely the same as previous entries in the series, is changed just enough to take the game from good the great. There have been some nods to casual players that even welcome by series veterans like me. There is casual mode that removes the series’ signature permanent death mechanic. To me this takes all the tension out of the fights, but it was a legitimate hurdle to many would be players. As long as I can keep playing the game in classic mode I am happy to welcome other options for players with other priorities. That is a kind of meta game change that significantly widens the pool of potential players while preserving the classic feel of the series. While normal mode is actually very easy, hard mode has one of the most satisfyingly difficult collections of maps I’ve encountered. Enemies move in bunches instead of as individuals, and they actually get the same skills that players do. The Ai seems a little better about exploiting the weapons triangle than before too. The only fly in the ointment is that enemy reinforcement’s move on the same turn they arrive. This is a big problem in a game about careful movement and being highly selective about how engages in combat with whom. More than half of my restarts were thanks to some bow wielding jerk showing up and taking out one of my fliers.

The pair up system is the one big in battle addition. In many of the games units could rescue other units, picking them up and taking them out of danger for a modest stat penalty. In Awakening, that is reversed. Units pair up to receive stat bonuses. It accomplishes what rescue did, but turns it into a plus instead of a negative. That changes it from a highly situational ability to something the player comes to rely on. Can’t get your Knight to the choke point he needs to hold? Pair him with a Pegasus Knight, who can fly him there. Your new unit too weak to stand on its own? Pair him with your most powerful and watch him catch up in no time. As the units build support level, the bonuses become even better. It is a small change that fundamentally changes the way players approach battles. By the end of the game, I had a team of seven pairs with at least A Rank supports sowing destruction across the battle field.

Many of the character building systems are evolutions of earlier game’s systems. The support system that seemed to get more and more lost after the GBA games is back in full force and now you don’t have to wait until the end to see if your pairing gets together, since marriage has become a mechanic of the support system. There is the class change system from Sacred Stones, only this time it is more in depth and easily abused. It is great, since even a character in a class you don’t like can be changed into something you will use. That is combined with the skill system from the Radiance games. Now, instead of learning skills from scrolls, each class has two skills to learn. Characters can equip up to five, so changing classes to learn the right combination of skills is rewarding, if time consuming. In a throwback to a FE I’ve never played, there is also a second generation of warriors, who inherit skills and stats from their parents. Again, it is time consuming, but ultimately worth it. All together, this makes Fire Emblem Awakening the Fire Emblem with the most going on behind the scenes of the battle.

Awakening tries to be every game for everybody, and somehow succeeds nearly perfectly. It looks good, sounds good and plays good. It has the biting strategy to satisfy the masochists as well as a toothless mode for those who just want the story and to steamroll enemies on a grid. I have liked nearly every other Fire Emblem game I’ve played, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one this much since I first played Sacred Stones. Plus, there is tons of DLC that actually seems to be worth the money to uber-fans. I couldn’t be happier with Fire Emblem Awakening. I hope Nintendo has a sequel in the works.

What I Read in January ‘13

I started this year reading a lot of Wheel of Time. I stalled in the second half of my reread for too long and really had to rush to finish before A Memory of Light hit. I did just manage it, but reading four Wheel of Time books doesn’t really leave a lot of time for other reading during the month, as I managed only 2 other books. One of those, Outlining Your Novel by K.M Weiland, I don’t have anything to say about. It is exactly what it sounds like.

Knife of Dreams

Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers of Midnight

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

A Memory of Light

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I still plan on writing reread posts on the last few WoT books, but I will have to do that later. I’m kind of taking a break from the series. It has been more than a month since I read A Memory of Light and in large my thoughts haven’t changed. However, the more I think about it, the more I think of the book as Sanderson’s rather than Jordan’s. There are parts that are clearly Jordan, but the tone feels largely Sanderson. A lot of it has to do with how much of it is a battle scene, a detailed campaign. I realize that the series has been building to Tar’mon Gaidon, a literal last battle, so there would be war, but in the Jordan books battle scenes tend to be short, chaotic and horrific. In AMoL, it is more clinical, more a historical recounting than caught in the moment emotion. Not that there isn’t any of that, or that it isn’t well written. It is just different from, say Dumai’s Wells. Still, AMoL is a better ending that we should have been expecting.

The Last Dragonslayer

Jasper Fforde

This is Fforde writing a Young Adult novel and it is exactly what one would expect. This feels a lot like his Thursday Next series, only a touch simpler and with a generally younger focus. This is in no way a bad thing. It is different enough that is doesn’t just feel like Thursday for kids, but it maintains the same wit and imagination. The world of The Last Dragonslayer is interesting in its own right, with it touch of Harry Potter with big magical organization, though here the big problem is magic in recession. I’m not generally a big reader of YA fiction, but as long as Fforde keeps his sense of humor, I’ll keep reading what he writes, no matter how it is classified.

Rayman: Origins is incredibly frustrating

Rayman: Origins came to me very highly recommended. I had heard effusive praise, people calling it the best 2D platformer on the Wii. Seeing as how the Wii is also home to New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns, that is particularly high praise. While I won’t say that the praise is completely undeserved, something about the game is not quite right. All the pieces are in place for a great game: controls, design, aesthetic, but thanks to a few flaws it comes together as more good than great.

As far as look and sound goes, Rayman Origins is incredible. The graphics are beautiful 2D that we just don’t get enough of these days. The sound is both excellent and incorporated into the theme of each level. One whole world is made of didgeridoos, and the music is didgeridoo music. It is all just well thought out and beautiful.

The problem comes with something that many people consider a strength of the game: how it handles death. There is virtually no penalty for death. This seems like a good thing. In many ways it is. However, there are plenty of difficult sections and especially hard to reach collectibles. Since there is no penalty for dying, there is no incentive to not try and try again to get those lums. However, trying the same spot over and over again is tedious. In something like Donkey Kong Country Returns, when you see that life counter ticking down you know it is time to move on.

Another big problem is tying collection into the player’s progress. You need electoons to open up new stages. In addition to a few hidden in each stage, the game also gives them out for collecting enough lums. It makes those hard to get lums less just a challenge of skill and a near mandatory impediment to progress. It makes stages that should be brisk romps into tedious slogs. The problem is that for many stages, there is no challenge other than trying to get the lums; so the options are either rushing through with little to no impediment or spending half an hour trying for the hard ones. Once you get to the later levels, it stops being so hard to get the extra lums, instead it is just difficult to complete the stage. While I am sure the difficult final few stages are appealing to some people, but not me. It is not that doing them is hard, it is that there is one true path to get through the stages and any deviation results in immediate death. There is little skill involved, only memorization.

It is frustrating, because between the dully easy early levels and sadistic later levels, there is some genuine fun there. This game has personality. The world made out of didgeridoos is not even that much of a highlight in this game. It makes players want to like it. And the gameplay is nearly good enough. There are just so many things that keep it from being legitimately great. There is just too much that bogs it down, that slows what should be a zippy adventure. Still, it is far from bad.