RPG Club Plays Fire Emblem: Awakening–Week 4
With May coming to a close, the RPG Club has retired our armies and convened once more to share final thoughts on Fire Emblem: Awakening. Reid and Tom found themselves bogged down by the fluffy story getting in the way of meticulously crafted battles. Ethan questioned who was actually giving the orders–the player or the game. And I found myself with a familiar sorrow after the credits rolled by.
“Your bond with us is stronger than even the fell dragon’s might.”
Awakening‘s worst storytelling tendencies take centre stage throughout its final hours. During a strangely anticlimatic ending, the game’s love of tired genre cliche is indulged to the extreme, the player helping Chrom and Co. save the world from an enormous dragon through the power of friendship. At first, I thought, well, that’s kind of what a lot of Japanese-developed role-playing games do and I can lump it. I’d grown to like Awakening‘s characters and mechanics enough that it shouldn’t have been a big deal. But, really, why should any game so well designed in every other aspect have such a terrible plot? Why are players supposed to be okay with that?
Fire Emblem: Awakening is full of tiny details that come together to make it a pretty exceptional game in almost every respect. Developer Intelligent Systems clearly put a lot of thought and time into the intricacies of its relationship and battle mechanics. Its combat remains compelling throughout the entire game, the mix of tactics and RPG-style character management making every fight an awful lot of fun. Despite all this work the story is dull. Its predictable along every step of the way. Intelligent Systems do nothing to create a plot interesting enough to match the level of care that went into its mechanical systems. This seems an awful shame when considering just how much a good writer could do with Awakening’s pseudo-medieval world and enormous cast of characters.
I’ve always liked games that either focus on creating excellent stories or fantastic gameplay systems (those that pull off both are my favourites). Awakening succeeds in one category and completely falls down in the other. I enjoyed my time with the game, but there’s nothing about it that will stick with me. It’s a series of super fun battles book-ended by plot developments that follow the basic guide laid down by roughly ten million Japanese RPGs before it. A week before, when I was still holding out hope for the story to become interesting, I would’ve said that Awakening is one of the better RPGs I’ve played in some time. Now that I’ve sat through its credits (and a lousy epilogue cinematic that felt wholly unnecessary) I think it’s just all right. Awakening is a good diversion, but not much else. It’s a beautifully crafted treasure box, covered in loving details that once opened has nothing inside of it.
In a surprise to no one, I didn’t beat Awakening. I had apprehensions when I started that I’d peter out around the same place–when the story begins to go a bit off the rails–and yeah, that’s where I gave up.
I think I like the idea of Fire Emblem: Awakening more than I actually like playing it. I cut my gaming teeth on strategy RPGs–Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre–and it’s hard to pin down why I’ve played so many Fire Emblem games and never stuck with any of them.
Perhaps its from their strange, light-hearted depiction of war, something they share with distant cousin Advance Wars. Large scale conflicts don’t work like this. They don’t to a comical degree. And while they don’t work like the Square classics of my childhood, either, those games at least grasp the scale, the atrocity of the thing. You are responsible for the deaths of a lot of people in Tactics Ogre. Characters have motivations beyond, “I have to revive this evil dragon!” in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Look, this doesn’t matter: all three of these games have nonsense plots. But Awakening‘s feels especially absurd. The second half of the game discards the international conflict of the first half and replaces it with some far-off, poorly defined villaining, all while still having weird zombie men and making sure you know the real villain is still that guy next door. It tears its hooks out of you and tries to reinsert them, except by then I’ve stopped caring about anything beyond whether my little stumpy dudes love each other.
I think, in the end, I like the idea of Fire Emblem: Awakening more than I like the actual game. And that’s okay: not every game has to be for every person. But I do wish it was made for me.
Yes, Awakening’s approach to war is caught between shallow platitude and sentimental cutesy. And that dragon? The horror, oh the apocryphal horror!
I still remember reading the ever esteemed Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku blissfully balling over the game’s “grand finale” when it first released. He admits that Awakening is 100%, full-blown “fantasy malarkey,” and instead reflects on just how attached he became to each of his soldiers. I don’t doubt his sincerity, and can only envy the heartfelt relationship he formed with the game and its fictional inhabitants.
But for me the game’s mediocre mechanics and second half free-fall into mind-numbing balderdash is intimately linked to the wanton abandon with which I treat my comrades. None of them are fully formed and I refuse to let any inkling of war wearied romance color how I interpret our battlefield niceties. If the bonds of friendship formed in war are stronger than most, than the bonds dutifully formed, and friendships algorithmically imitated, in the sprawling military campaigns of Awakening are a testament to their crucible’s botched design.
I lead my avatar drones sometimes to defeat, though more often to victory, but who care’s anyway since they’ll follow me no matter what. I was recently reading Hunter S. Thompson chronicling the last days of the Nixon regime, and his allegorical thrashing could not be more appropriate:
“Given all of this, it is hard to shed anything but crocodile tears over White House speechwriter Patrick Buchanan’s tragic analysis of the Nixon debacle. ‘It’s like Sisyphus,’ he said. ‘We rolled the rock all the way up the mountain…and it rolled right back down on us.’
I have not read ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ for a while, but if memory serves there is nothing in that story to indicate that the poor bugger ever gave any thought to the real nature of specific gravity of that rock that would eventually roll back on him–which is understandable, perhaps, because when you’re locked into that kind of do-or-die gig, you keep pushing and ask questions later.
If any of those six hundred valiant fools who rode in the The Charge of the Light Brigade had any doubts about what they were doing, they kept it to themselves. There is no room in Crusades, especially at the command level, for people who ask ‘Why?’ Neither Sisyphus nor the commander of the Light Brigade nor Pat Buchanan had the time or any real inclination to question what they were doing. They were Good Soldiers, True Believers…and when the orders came down from above they did what had to be done: Execute.”
So what if Awakening’s characters let me manipulate their romantic intentions from behind the scenes, shuffle them across the battlefield like stat-busted pawns? The game is war, and in war you keep your head down and soldier on, and sometimes you die and other times you survive long enough to see the whole thing through and be the only one left at the end holding a bag with the magical dragon’s decapitated head in it, festering in its own nonsensical fluids, your reward for the scorched earth tedium you committed to without second guesses or imperious questions. You did it! You made it! And now feel free to start rolling those rocks back up that hill!
At its best Awakening performs a Nixonian enchantment on its victims, inviting them into an inner-circle where true sight is a curse and the best tasks are carried out while wearing a blindfold because take one peak behind the curtain, taken one moment too many looking up from the LCD screen’s cool, obliging glow and the mission will fall apart, the magic will be lost, the crusade will be left in shambles. Awakening is not a game that provokes questions, or rewards curiosity. It’s a game that asks you to keep your sights focused squarely on the road ahead and to bear its burden without remorse, and without invoking the human capacity to think.
As I watch the credits roll on my second playthrough of Fire Emblem: Awakening, I’m dealing with a variety pack of emotions. Once again, I’m torn between relief that the war has ended and my little cartoon soldiers can return to a peaceful life, sorrow that there’s no more adventures to be had, and confusion about my attachment to the whole thing. Few games have ever moved me in such a way, which is how it climbed so high on my personal Best of 2013 list.
Despite my initial uneasiness about “playing war” and the social commentary grossness that entails, Fire Emblem: Awakening succeeded in pulling me into an emotional journey for a second time. I understand the implicit shallowness in how the series views war. No one really gets hurt, except when I make a mistake on the battlefield. The towns and monarchs survive unscathed unless required to suffer for a specific chapter, and who knows how the hypothetical citizens feel about my war. Yes, the plot in the second half devolves into absurd “they want to revive an evil god just for funsies” nonsense. Okay, I need something to fight, so an evil dragon god works just as well as a mean neighboring kingdom.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is a game, and it’s very upfront about that, with no fluff or dimensions other than the absolutely necessary. But, I understand that, and understanding doesn’t preclude me from having fun. The knowledge that I’m doing something ridiculous or playing into a social commentary I find questionable can stand at odds with my enjoyment, yet I’m capable of holding both thoughts simultaneously.
Ultimately, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the perfect game to call me out on this everyday hypocrisy. Like all living humans, I have a tendency at time to be overly critical of certain things while ignoring others. In this case, the need to approach an issue like war in games with our serious faces on while still enjoying a work of entertainment for its inherent value. Most of the time, those concepts fall apart when pushed together, but here? I don’t know how, but they just work for me.
Fire Emblem: Awakening weaves a bright-eyed spell over the fields of war that pulls me in like no other. While my comrade-in-arms Ethan my push it away for this very reason, I find the blind acceptance to be pleasant, almost reassuring when put against my typical microscopic analysis.
The RPG Club is our weekly look at the wide world of RPGs. Each month, our writers pick a new game to play and give you their honest, no-nonsense feelings. Want to suggest a game or tell us why we’ve got something all wrong? Let us know in the comments! And to catch up on May’s game, check out these links.