By MajorMitch 0 Comments
“Do you like turn-based strategy games, but find them a bit too rigid? Would you rather have the ability to move at your own pace than have that pesky grid system holding you down? Do you see a hex-based map as The Man?”
-Taylor Cocke, IGN Skulls of the Shogun review
One of my favorite sub-genres has long been that of the turn-based strategy/tactics variety, especially when RPG elements and customization are involved. That’s perhaps a long winded way to describe such games, so for the sake of simplicity I’m going to stick with calling them “turn-based tactics” (or TBT for short). I’m talking about games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre and Disgaea. I would also throw in games like Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM: Enemy Unknown into the mix, which deviate slightly but retain most of the basics. Many of these games are among my all-time favorites, yet the genre has never been a popular one in the West by any measure. They’ve never sold well here, and prior to 2013 not a single entry in the entire genre had, to my knowledge, amassed a review average of 90% or higher (according to sites like Metacritic and Gamerankings). Is there any other genre that can make that dubious claim?
Turn-based tactics has always been super niche, to the point where I’m kind of surprised they still get released in North America (thankfully they do). I’ve often wondered why these games aren’t more popular too, and I think the above excerpt from IGN’s Skulls of the Shogun review (a game that shares enough traits with the genre to warrant the comparison) does a pretty good job at getting the gist of it, even if they’re not taking themselves too seriously. A lot of people seem to find the genre too slow and restrictive, plain and simple. And for the most part, that’s a fair critique depending on your own personal preferences. I personally find the genre fast paced and dynamic, but who am I to tell someone else that they’re wrong for not seeing it the same way? The complaint that is weird to me, however, is the one against “grids.” A lot of people seem to become immediately disinterested if they see a grid or hexes or any other form of map dissection in a game. Grids present a clean, organized and unambiguous way to present information; what’s the harm in that? I asked my brother about it, because he’s among those typically turned off by grids, and after much back and forth he clarified: “Disliking grids is my dumb way of saying I don't care for slow, turn-based tactical combat.” Fair enough. That’s basically a taste thing, as I stated above. But if that’s really the case then stop harping on grids, because they exist separately from “slow, turn-based tactical combat.” You can have one without the other.
Furthermore, there are cases where grids make perfect sense, with Skulls of the Shogun ironically making a great example. I’ve stated before how maddening it can be to select units among a bunched up group in Skulls, and I believe if the game employed grids you wouldn’t have this issue, and wouldn’t lose anything else in the process. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all of this because between XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Skulls of the Shogun and Fire Emblem: Awakening, there’s been a lot of TBT going around lately, which has been great for me. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the newest one of the bunch, and the one that’s been on my mind recently. I consider myself a fan of the series, and Awakening is a fantastic entry. It’s also been much better received than the genre ever has before, and the sole reason I had to clarify “before 2013” when talking about reviews above. Awakening currently has an average around 92%, making it the highest reviewed TBT that I’m aware of. Not that that means anything in the long run, I just find it interesting.
To dig into the details of Awakening, it’s a pretty pure Fire Emblem game through and through. That means great TBT battles, fun RPG mechanics via interesting classes and equipment, and solid storytelling. It’s not my personal favorite Fire Emblem (I like both the GBA ones better), but it’s not my least favorite either, and on the whole I don’t have much to complain about. If I want to nitpick, I still think the GBA games looked better; the series' 2D art has always looked much better than its polygonal models to me. The battle animations in particular have never been as impressive as they were on the GBA. That said, the cinematics in Awakening look incredible, even in 3D. The rest of the package is about what you’d expect, and is done as well as ever. That mix of tactics and RPG is still awesome to me, and Awakening pulls it off nicely. Perhaps the game’s biggest change comes with the way you can switch your characters’ classes using a specific, but common enough item. This opens up a lot of crazy min/maxing character build options for those who are tackling the higher difficulties and/or want to grind, which is now an option thanks to an explorable world map. Not that you have to if you don’t want to though (I didn’t mess with it much), because the game has an impressive host of difficulty options that really let you tailor it to your own style. I think newcomers and veterans alike can find a setting that fits what they want, which is fantastic.
Finally, the story itself is solid, if not spectacular. I generally like Fire Emblem’s brand of storytelling, and Awakening’s is more or less on par for the series. Again, I like the GBA stories better, but Awakening’s was plenty engaging. It also does a good job at switching up the main story beats as one starts getting old, and there are plenty of memorable characters to go around. All in all I think Awakening is a great TBT, and a great addition to the Fire Emblem series. It’s been a while since we’ve had an original one here in the US; not counting 2009’s Shadow Dragon (a remake) we haven’t seen one since Radiant Dawn in 2007, which wasn’t very strong to begin with. So it’s great to see the series make such a triumphant return. The 3DS is really picking up some steam and becoming a nifty little system. and if you own one, and aren’t allergic to grids, Awakening is well worth it.