Fire Emblem Awakening is the game that brought the Fire Emblem series to mainstream attention in the West, and it’s easy to see why. Fire Emblem has always been known for its challenging and addictive take on tactical role-playing, and the series has generally featured good writing and nice visual and audio design. Awakening not only perfects this formula but also introduces a unique relationship and parenting mechanic which even now, four years after its release, feels like a major step forward in video game writing.

At first, Awakening is a very familiar experience for Fire Emblem veterans. Awakening’s gameplay has the same core elements, such as turn-based combat, a finely balanced rock-paper scissors magic and weapon system, and an intricate story. At first I was disappointed that the game uses 3D models instead of sprites, but overall the visual design is attractive. In particular, the 2D portraits used to depict characters during cut-scenes are very well-drawn, and manage to convey a great deal of personality and emotion. The portraits are only slightly animated, meaning there is a lot of onus on the artists, as well as on the writers and voice actors.

The voice acting is generally excellent. Although characters generally have only a few voiced lines or catchphrases each, they still all feel different and distinctive, and some of them are very compelling and/or entertaining. From Chrom’s exhortation that “Anything can change”, to Cynthia’s “This is the end, friend”, to Henry cheerfully telling an unfortunate opponent “I’m going to kill you!”, the writing and voice acting hit any number of dramatic and comedic notes. The game’s score is decent, perhaps not the best in the Fire Emblem series but still with some memorable tunes.

Combat and leveling has always been the core of the FE experience, and it’s very satisfying in Awakening. Even on Normal difficulty, the game presents a challenge, and you’re encouraged to make good use of the ‘pairing’ mechanic. This allows you to pair two units who will then fight together, granting each other stat bonuses as well as a chance of extra attacks and dodges or blocks. Much of FE’s iconic appeal comes from the perma-death of characters who fall in battle, a feature which returns here as ‘Classic mode’. Seriously, playing Fire Emblem any other way would just be plain wrong.

Pairing units up in combat is the best way to level their affinity, or support rating, which is one of Awakening’s most important mechanics. Support relationships have always been a big part of this series, but Awakening takes it to another level. Leveling up support relationships unlocks a series of conversations, which feature some of the most moving, witty and inventive writing I’ve ever experienced in a game. Once you get a support relationship between a male and a female character to ‘S’ rank, they get hitched. It’s sometimes quite beautiful, and to find such a deep and well-written shipping system built into a game like this is, frankly, unbelievable. You even get handsomely rewarded for shipping your characters in the form of new missions to recruit additional characters.

Most characters have a long list of possible partners, although sadly there’s no opportunity for same-sex marriage. In the West we’ve only started to see this in the last few years, and even then mainly in the games of one or two developers; given that Awakening was released in Japan back in 2012, it’s not really much of a surprise. (There’s also a practical reason why same-sex ships wouldn’t really fit with this game’s mechanics.) On the whole, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo deserve major plaudits for conceiving this system and implementing it so well.

Awakening’s story is fairly decent and the campaign is quite long, bulked out with a lot of extra fights and sidequests. A standard playthrough will take up to 50 hours, but to do all the missions, max all your characters and recruit everyone will probably take 80 or 90 hours… and that’s ignoring the three difficulty settings. This is a game with insane replay value even without considering the large amount of DLC you can pick up. The game offers incredible value for money and even the most dedicated player is unlikely to ever get to see every last conversation and ship.

Fire Emblem Awakening is a very special game and the best possible advertisement for the 3DS. Its success helped bring this venerable series to a wider audience, and deservedly so. I’m looking forward to playing the most recent FE game, Fates, but before that there’s the small matter of Lunatic mode, and a lot of Awakening characters who are still looking for love.