I have a confession to make: I never finished Fire Emblem: Awakening. It wasn’t my intention, or even my expectation, to let this 3DS gem fall to the wayside. When I first picked up the title, shortly after its release, I found myself quite impressed with the updates to the series. Relationships were improved. Graphics looked great on the 3D-enabled handheld. The formula seems to work well for on the go gaming. Yet here we are, four years later, and I doubt I will ever go back and work my way through the final missions.
Why did I stop playing? Well, I think it may have to something to do with the world map.
First, allow me to recap what Fire Emblem is: it’s a series of tactics-RPGs set in fantasy worlds with a wide cast of generally interesting characters included. In each game, missions are broken up into chapters, giving the impression of a book with key set pieces and plot events visited each step of the way. Fire Emblem is also notorious for its difficulty, namely its inclusion of perma-death: when a character falls in battle, that character is lost for good; if that character is instrumental to the story, it’s game over. This means thoughtful choices both during and before battle are imperative. A certain amount of min-maxing (read: abusing the system to max out character abilities and performance) is encouraged. Each mission is carefully crafted to give just the right amount of challenge, pushing players outside of their comfort zones, daring them to take risks, rewarding them for intelligent preparations. The games form a delicate relationship with their audience, encouraging them forward, commending their successes, yet unapologetically abusing them for even the most minor mistakes.
Traditionally, Fire Emblem titles include little to no pauses between one chapter and the next, following a strict pattern of (1) dialogue and plot, (2) prep for battle, (3) battle, (4) rewards, (5) dialogue and plot, (6) repeat. Before Fire Emblem: Awakening, the only other installment to include a world map was The Sacred Stones, released for the GameBoy Advance in the early 2000’s. This world map inserts a player-controlled reprieve in the middle of this pattern. After a mission is completed, instead of immediately advancing to the next mission, set piece, and battle, players are returned to a map—a hub, essentially—where they have full agency over their progress. On the map, players can revisit set pieces, enter shops to buy items and equipment, which are generally limited resources, and even battle batches of random enemies. Only when the player chooses, by moving to the appropriate location, is the next mission initiated and the story moved forward.
The results are more player freedom and an end to strictly limited resources—which sounds great. However, with increased player freedom comes less designer curation control. If players can now increase the level of their characters outside the scope of crafted missions, players will inevitably enter into each successive mission at a wider range of levels. For instance, if I complete Chapter 6 with my characters ranging from levels 11-13, without a world map I am forced to enter Chapter 7 with my characters at those levels. However now I have the option to enter Chapter 7 after a few bouts on the map, resulting in my characters being levels 12-14—and my friend may battle on the map even longer and increase his characters to levels 15-17. That’s up to a six level delta, and that difference will only increase as the chapters progress.
As the mission designer, what level should the enemies in Chapter 7 be in order to maintain the interesting challenge fans of the series are after? The safe answer is to follow the lowest common denominator, curating mission difficulties based on no extraneous battling. This is fine but it allows players to easily brute force their way through story objectives by over-leveling their cast. We want to keep the challenge to keep the interest, so instead designers may bump the next chapter’s enemy levels up a bit—but how much? Any range the designers pick will be outside the range of some number of players’ roster.
What makes Fire Emblem, in my opinion, so engaging is the tension it creates. In each battle, I know I need to be on my best game in order to succeed—not just to succeed in this mission, but also to set myself up for success two, three, even six missions down the road. I need to utilize all of my team members now so they’re strong enough for the challenges I’ll face then. Furthermore, each battle I enter I know I can win however difficult it may seem to be. I know I’ve been given all of the tools needed for success; I just need to find the best way to use them.
When introduced to the world map in Fire Emblem: Awakening I welcomed it with open arms. Yet as the game progressed, I felt the carefully crafted tension I was accustomed to unraveling. I began to notice significant spikes in enemy character levels and the introduction of new enemy types from one chapter to the next, which suggested to me I was suddenly missing something. If I failed in a mission, the question was no longer just how I could do better but also if I was even ready. If I need to go grind experience, how much do I need? What are the designers expecting me to do? If I don’t go after a certain side quest now, will I be at a significant disadvantage a few missions down the line? Sure, these are questions standard in most RPGs, but these questions change the nature of how the game is approached and played. Before, there was this unstated agreement between the mission designers and myself that said my characters would always be ready for the mission they entered into, because there were no other options. Now that agreement was broken: my characters may not be ready; I may not have all of the necessary tools. The relationship feels more, well, antagonistic—it’s me against the mission designers, not with them.
Therefore, I stopped playing. Fire Emblem games are long by themselves, and I didn’t want the grind or the guesswork. This all isn’t to say Awakening is a bad game because of this choice—it’s a great game, just with a different flavor then I am looking for. Given this change, I am curious to see where the series goes.
I’d love to hear comments as well! Do you enjoy Fire Emblem more with or without a world map?
Fire Emblem: Awakening was developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo 3DS. I purchased a copy of the game myself and have played for more than twenty hours.