RPG Club Plays Fire Emblem: Awakening – Week 2

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It’s week 2 for the RPG Club’s playthrough of Fire Emblem: Awakening. This week, the team died. A lot. For some of us, death means a short rest and glorious return to battle. But for others, the afterlife isn’t so pleasant.

Reid McCarter:

I’m one of those “filthy casuals” you hear so much about. I’m the virus in the heart of the games industry, diluting hardcore experiences with my preference for story-driven campaigns that I can actually finish. I’m the monster who probably wouldn’t be playing Fire Emblem: Awakening still if it wasn’t for the concessions its easiest mode makes to jerks like me.

Awakening’s Casual Mode actually is a godsend for people like myself–people who love turn-based strategy games but maybe take longer than others to learn how to play them adequately. This is the basic problem I’ve had with almost every game I’ve played from the genre (aside from a few exceptions like XCOM: Enemy Unknown). I want to take in the stories, develop an army full of distinct personalities, and pretend to be an invisible general planning little cartoon battles. But I usually get bogged down in the minutia of the leveling and equipment systems, eventually finding myself getting whupped around by some mid-game boss because I haven’t learned the mechanics well enough by that point. When that happens to me, I’ve usually picked up enough to know what I’ve done wrong. But, given the RPG part of the strategy RPG genre, fixing my mistakes often requires starting over again from the beginning.

This hasn’t been the case with Awakening. Casual Mode has let me figure out the game at my own pace and, though it’s kind of silly to hear dramatic music when one of characters “dies” in battle, I appreciate that Fire Emblem hasn’t punished me for being slow on the uptake. Now, probably a bit less than halfway through the game, I’ve learned Awakening well enough to understand the depth of its mechanics without having lost valuable troops in the process. So, I don’t need to re-play a dozen hours to correct mistakes. I don’t have to weigh the value of slogging through old content just to catch up. Awakening embraces the scummy casual that I am, and allows me to enjoy myself in spite of it.

Mike Barrett:

When people talk about the Fire Emblem series, they do so with the same hushed tones and awe usually reserved for only the most “hardcore” of games. Oh, Fire Emblem? Great games, but really tough. When your characters die, they’re gone forever. Watch out, man.

But what most players don’t understand is that permanent death isn’t all that makes these games tough, it’s also the limited experience points. There’s only so many experience points in a mission, and dying forever is simply the punishment for not correctly managing character growth. Your ragtag army may start out dealing with equally ragtag mercenaries or bandits, but once the Big Bad Dudes catch up, you better have learned to take advantage of the system.

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Let weaker soldiers do their minuscule damage to bosses before you send in someone appropriate to finish the job. Take extra turns just to let healers run around patching everyone up. Go back to fight enemy reinforcements instead of racing to escape (caveat: some missions are designed to force you to run, so remember to gauge your strength).

Likewise, avoid the easy mistakes. Sure, you start off with a strong soldier to help you when times are tough (in Awakening, this is Frederick), but relying on them too much will mean your newbies will never be able to stand for themselves.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is easily the most newcomer friendly title in the series, in my opinion, for its unlimited supply of training missions and experience. A few previous games have had similar mechanics but not nearly to such a great extent. If your team isn’t up to scratch, take them around fighting monsters or doing side missions for a few levels and come back. You’ll be fine and might even get new soldiers. In fact, on the higher difficulty modes, powerleveling is pretty much the only way to handle the absurd damage coming your way. If you really like a character, then they should never die because given enough time they can become gods.

And yet, this is a fantastic feature newcomers wouldn’t even notice. It’s subtle way to giving help without developers jumping out and screaming “HAVING TROUBLE? GET BETTER BY DOING THIS.” Pure-ists may it the dumbing down of the franchise, but I say let the xp rain.

Ethan Gach:

In the first five hours of this playthrough of Awakening, I’ve lost approximately 1.3 characters per battle. I’m playing on the harder difficulty with permadeath and now my game is broken. Naturally, with each character’s subsequent demise, every surviving member of the party was that much more likely to bite the dust in subsequent fights. Sure, I could have restarted each fight every time a character was lost, but then what would have been the point of the permadeath in the first place?

Since recruits in the game are limited to a set number of distinct characters, there’s nothing I can do to bolster my party, with the exception, perhaps, of investing an insane number of hours arduously training up those poor souls who remain until I somehow manage to conquer the rest of the game with only a party of five.

This is poor RPG design. Anytime a game allows a player to mortally wound their own playthrough, something is wrong. Wanting to add tension and increase the stakes is all well and good, but the rest of Awakening was not put together with this core permadeath conceit in mind.

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Give me a Fire Emblem that takes after FTL: Faster than Light. A less than ten hour campaign with a series of alternate routes that nevertheless all lead to the same ultimate destination. Let me recruit certain characters (and thus their potential offspring) at the expense of others, and give me situations in which one teammate sacrificing themselves for another might actually make sense.

The reason permadeath works so well in FTL, and a handful of other games, is the role that choice plays in it. I can have a crew member risk her life putting out a fire, or boarding the enemy ship, knowing that putting her life in real danger might be the best option for the rest of us to reach our final destination. In Awakening on the other hand, characters die because of player error and for nothing because I can always reboot my save and start all over again. This scorched earth approach to “consequence” isn’t brutal–it’s just lazy.

Tom Auxier:

Since this is the week to admit it, I’m with Reid on this one. I’m playing on Casual, where my units don’t buy the farm forever.

It strikes me as odd to even say that. Fire Emblem has always been a game about death. Awakening even throws a bone to the concept: my Chrom didn’t want his wife, Sumia, accompanying him on the second half of the game because she could die. Yeah, Chrom, don’t worry, she’ll just bow out whenever I let her stray towards an archer.

Fire Emblem has always been a game about death.

The thing is, Awakening is infinitely better off because of this design choice. I tried to play some of the older Fire Emblem games again after going through Awakening for the first time, and I don’t see why I would without the benefits of quick saving. Sure, the limited total experience made those games tricky in a fun way, but the permadeath was miserable. I wouldn’t be surprised if if the inevitable non-Shin Megami Tensei themed sequel defaults you to “Casual”, because it changes Fire Emblem for the better.

I’m still not too hot on Awakening having an infinite stream of random encounters for me to grind through; it’s too easy to build an incredibly resilient killing machine. Then again, considering Fire Emblem’s reliance on its random number generator, maybe that’s okay. Last time, my most powerful character was Gaius, who leveled up into an utterly unstoppable monster. This time, even more strangely, it’s Stahl. Stahl, who I didn’t even use last time thanks to RNG shenanigans, cannot physically be killed anymore. He is Kellam crossed with Sumia. And poor Miriel’s been terrible both times. Worse than terrible. It’s depressing, because I like the oddball lady scientist trope. It’s a good one.

I have to say, I wasn’t too keen on replaying Awakening at the beginning of the month. But now I’m all-in again. The battles have the perfect illusion of trickiness, the character’s generic conversations are kind of the best, and I love agonizing over who I’m going to set Vaike up with.