Chess is a game that requires players to think ahead, contemplating not just the efficacy of their current move but how their opponent will respond. Every victory must be weighed against whether it leaves your piece vulnerable. Now imagine if every time one of your pieces got captured, the other player really kept it, and the next time you played, you wouldn’t have as many options unless you find a few extra pawns somewhere. If that doesn’t raise the stakes enough, consider what it would be like if each of your pieces had a name, a history, and maybe a spouse. Then you’ll have an idea of what playing Fire Emblem: Awakening is like.
Things get ugly for Fire Emblem: Awakening’s good guys fast. After an ominous prelude, your hero meets up with Prince Chrom and his band, who find themselves protecting Ylisse’s citizens not only from bandits but also from living-dead monsters who drop out of the sky. And then there’s the forces of the aggressive and more than a little crazy neighboring king.
The latest outing in Intelligent Systems’ long-running Fire Emblem series puts players in control of a huge number of military units that they must tactically move across grid-like maps to fight enemies using a variety of weapons and magic spells. Each move requires careful consideration because, like a real-world general, your mistakes can lead to the permanent death of your soldiers. Fortunately, Fire Emblem: Awakening gives you ways to use your characters that you won’t find in chess. You can pair units together—you might pile your dawdling cleric on the saddle so that a mounted knight can quickly ferry her around, but there are limits here. Your cleric won’t be doing any healing until she separates from her well-armored escort, which leaves her vulnerable again.
The computer-controlled opponent will do its damnedest to kill those soldiers. Pegasus-riding knights are the most mobile unit in the game, but they’re vulnerable to archers. If you forget that, you can be assured of quick, feathery death. Enemies will take advantage of any opening to kill your squishy healers, finish off an ally you forgot to heal, or murder any innocent bystanders you’re trying to protect.
Even the side quests in Awakening ramp up the pressure. In one, you persuade a farmer to join you to fight bandits that have been preying on his village. If you can get him to level up during the fight, he’ll take up a life of adventuring. Otherwise he heads back to the farm. It’s not an easy task to both protect him and put him in the fray enough, but pushing him to take that leap and become a hero feels way more satisfying than any experience point gain.
Call me a wuss, but I found myself using the option to have your units just get knocked out instead of killed, coming back after the fight. It’s hard to say a final goodbye to any of the game’s lovable characters. They’re not all created equal, but it’s easy to get attached to Frederick, a knight who takes his charge of protecting Chrom and his sister so seriously that he spends his downtime picking out their clothes and cleaning up after them, or Vaike, a cocky fighting trainer who insists on referring to himself in the third person. I acknowledge that playing with permanent death makes battles feel more meaningful and realistic, but as someone who had a hard time playing Frogger as a kid because I felt like I had let down the frog when it inevitably got pancaked by a truck, I find the classic model too stressful.
Like any game of strategy, the key to playing well is often to play more. While there’s definitely luck involved in every skirmish, you can learn from your mistakes if you choose to repeat a battle because a character died. It can take a lot of time, some frustration, and a bit of grinding to boost your fighters’ levels, but you can get perfect victories that leave your entire army intact. Only the death of Chrom or your hero will end a fight, so it’s up to you to determine your own threshold for acceptable loss.