RPG Club Plays Fire Emblem Awakening —Week 3
May is slowly coming to a close, which means the RPG Club has by now worked their way through most of Fire Emblem: Awakening. Reid McCarter found himself caught on the bad side of a love triangle he wasn’t expecting while I faired a bit better in romance. Ethan struggled to figure out why FE: Awakening clicks with so many but leaves him cold, and whether that’s a fault of his, the game’s, or everyone else’s. Meanwhile, Tom just struggled.
I thought Chrom and my avatar were buddies. I thought that the guy who rescued my amnesiac wizard from the middle of a field—the guy who defended him against accusations from that butthead Frederick—was a real pal. But then he swooped in and proposed to my avatar’s love interest like five minutes before he was going to. Chrom overlooked countless battles full of awkward JRPG courtship and asked Sully to marry him. And then they had some cute little babies and we all have to keep pretending to be friends.
There’s no other way to put it: Chrom is a jerk.
Obviously, I don’t actually care that much about who ends up with who in Fire Emblem: Awakening, but I will say that its romance system lends a lot of extra-textual drama to an otherwise limp plot. In my head, I had decided that Chrom and my avatar were best buds. They had fought side by side against enemy armies, achieved a B-rank in hanging out, and—due to my playing on Casual Mode—died in each other’s arms at least twice apiece. Then, because the game is probably scripted to have Chrom marry the woman who he has the highest relationship level with, he married the character I was planning to pair off with my avatar. This kind of thing is fantastic since it allows the stories we make up for Awakening’s cast to take twists and turns that weren’t intended by the game’s developer. Once the player manages to sweep aside the creepy implications of matchmaking (and inevitably mating) these little anime portraits/stubby sprites, the relationship system at the heart of Awakening is absolutely fantastic.
As I’m approaching the end of the campaign, Awakening’s plot continues to fall deeper into boring cliche or outright absurdity—I’m currently collecting Fire Emblem gems and wrapping my head around time travel dragons. But, the interactions the player can imagine for themselves outside of the guided storyline create moments of interpersonal drama that make up for other narrative shortcomings. The game provides just enough context through brief support conversations and battle pair-ups to let audiences create a nearly infinite number of plausible subplots. I never thought I’d find myself saying that a video game relationship simulator is a good thing, but here we are. Awakening’s otherwise weak storyline hides a sandbox for any player willing to invest a bit of their own imagination into it.
That organic development is what I love so much about the dating simulation aspect of Fire Emblem: Awakening. It rewards me for playing the game the way I’m already comfortable.
Despite Fire Emblem being a series with a heavy emphasis on meticulous planning, I always feel weird about planning character romances. Sure, some characters or classes may work particularly well together, but there’s no game-breaking element to pairings. I don’t *need* to match certain people or even anyone to survive.
Plus, it’s just icky. They’re people, not champion show dogs.
But despite my lack of formal relationship acquisition, most of my characters get along pretty well. A few of them even hooked up and banged out a kid. I didn’t set out, for example, for Kellam and Sully to get together. They just happened to be together on the battle field and strike up a relationship.
That organic development is what I love so much about the dating simulation aspect of Fire Emblem: Awakening. It rewards me for playing the game the way I’m already comfortable. Move strikers into area, strategically place defenders to block reinforcements, and mend the team with a wave of healers. My strategy already focuses on tight groups moving together to clear areas efficiently, so having them work double duty providing backup is huge.
It’s a kind of improvement for the series that makes perfect sense, building on top of systems already in place. The nature and implementation of these relationships feels good, which can be difficult for developers to accomplish in an established franchise.
How many different strategies are there in Awakening?
I consistently find myself pairing the same units together, keeping each duet safely ensconced within my party’s broader phalanx, slowly progressing around the edges of the map so that only a few enemies can engage with us at once, healing as needed, patiently grinding it out.
This is one fight. Then the next fight. Eventually it’s every fight. War is a slow, brutal slog. But I don’t find the wars in Awakening particularly convincing. What are the stakes? Why do I care?
I ask this of the group because Awakening is one of those games where I truly feel like the thing I see on the screen, and the one everyone is talking about, simply aren’t the same. Are there different ways to approach each battle? Other games of this genre get around the drudgery of warfare by emphasizing job systems, or other twists which allow players to customize their team.
And yet somehow, even with all the micro-adjustments possible in Awakening (a handful of innate classes with slight branching at specific level intervals, and the variance resulting from character relationships and equipment classes), I can’t help but feeling like it’s a busier, clunkier, but not strategically deeper than a game like Vandal Hearts—a PS1 tactical RPG that never rose to being anything more than a sub-par approximation of Tactics Ogre.
Why do so many people, of so many different stripes, like this game so much? Perhaps precisely because it’s so accessible and straightforward (and thus somewhat repetitive)? People do love Pokémon after all. But surely this could only be the case if players already found Awakening’s fantasy drama and anime-lite styling’s inviting and worth revisiting day in and day out—a possibility I simply cannot wrap my 1990s brain around.
I’m feeling very noncommittal about Awakening. It requires you to make choices left and right. Who marries who? What class do you want to make your party members? Do you ascend them, or keep them down where they’ll level quickly.
All of these are weighty, important choices, and I feel like they’re smothering me.
I’m twelve hours into the game, and I’ve made none of these choices except for the ones the game’s made me encounter. And it’s becoming a problem. People are piling up at level twenty, and I’m hemming and hawing about where to put them. Do I ascend them into stronger classes? Do I swap them to another basic one, to get them more skills and more stat points before the big ascend? And who do I have them marry? I keep putting that off, because I keep meeting new characters.
I’m not someone good at making choices. I don’t particularly enjoy it, unlike the rest of the video game playing population. I never got along with The Walking Dead because I don’t like deciding. Awakening brings all these feelings back to the fore. I can’t decide between these characters because the choices are all so finite. I made my main character into a mage, instead of a big tactician, because I wanted to get him some more skills and points, and I can’t shake the feeling I’ve made a terrible mistake. I have some characters at S rank with each other, but I don’t want them to marry because really, would Stahl the Guinea Pig marry Miriel, who’s pretty much just experimented on him? Does that make any sense?
None of it does, and that says more about me than it does about Fire Emblem.