Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn-based strategy game with personality. Lots of them, in fact.
At its heart, this game for Nintendo's handheld 3DS console is a cross between a Manga cartoon and the classic Advance Wars games. In it you control an ever-expanding cadre of warriors, from bowmen to heavy sword-wielding maniacs and waif-like witches with the power to heal, burn things and pout, and fight grid-based you-then-me battles of ever-increasing difficulty and scale.
The trick is that instead of the faceless 'units' from other strategy games, each one of your little guys or gals has a name, likes, dislikes and relationships with other characters. And so, as you progress through the slick and simple but surprisingly engaging turn-based battles and skipable cut-scenes, you grow to like them. Care for them. Maybe love them?
And then they die - for good.
For the signature of Fire Emblem games is not just that each unit is a character in the story, but that once they die, they stay dead.
Fortunately for beginners this doesn't have to be the case in Awakening, the first title in the series to gain a 'newcomers' mode which goes without this cruel mechanic. And in truth, even if you do play it the old-school way, the deaths are a bit awkward - the story keeps the main characters on the scene even if they can't fight in battles anymore.
But if you play it the proper way - and you should - the result is an exceptionally tense experience, which is more dramatic and engaging than its pretty generic setting implies.
In almost every way, this game is a gem. It's well presented, the battle system is easy to learn (a paper-scissors-rock triangle of weapons helps keeps things easy) but has enough variables in weapons, items and stats to keep expert players interested. The story is swift moving and silly, and the graphics look stunning on Nintendo's 3DS XL.
But while the majority of reviewers have gone absolutely bonkers for Fire Emblem: Awakening with five-star reviews the norm, occasionally it's hard to understand just what is so amazing here. It's not hugely orignal, the story is full of cliche (amnesia? a mysterious masked stranger?) and it's also rock hard in the later levels, with strategic mistakes being relentlessly punished by the AI.
But what is obvious is that this is a seriously high-quality and addictive title, with depth, which does a lot of good for Nintendo's maturing and rich handheld line-up. If you have any interest in strategy games it's a must buy. Just don't get too attached to your team or you'lL weep tears of sadness as well as frustration.