In the late 2000’s and early ’10’s, Intelligent Systems knew one thing for sure: Fire Emblem, their series of strategy RPG’s with a respectable twelve mainstay entries, was dying. New entries were no longer garnering the attention they once did, and remakes such as Shadow Dragon went out practically unnoticed. By 2012, Intelligent Systems was ready to call it quits.
They had spent a couple of years sure in this knowledge, in fact, and had thrown everything into one last project, a swan song for the Fire Emblem franchise they had been building on since 1990. It would be their biggest project yet, with more characters than anybody knew what to do with and nigh-unlimited supports to go with them. The game would incorporate facets from older entries as well, such as the marriage and child mechanics from Genealogy of the Holy War and the overworld map and “random” battles of Sacred Stones and Gaiden. Everything was set into place for Fire Emblem to go out with a big bang, Final Fantasy-style.
And indeed, it did go the way of Final Fantasy. Just like Square’s 1987 RPG epic, Fire Emblem Awakening blew up, gaining audiences Intelligent System had never thought they would be courting. There were a few major reasons for this. First and foremost was the introduction of a “Casual” gameplay mode. This allowed players to go through a map and make minor mistakes without any permanent character losses. This is often disavowed as making the game “too easy,” and while, yes, it does simplify the game a lot, it only really makes the game better for those who want to use it. In previous entries, if a character died, and you wanted to continue using them, you had to restart the map constantly until you ran it in a way where nobody died. You could easily spend 3-4 hours (if you’re as terrible at these games as I am) resetting a map to run it the one perfect way. In casual mode, there’s no need for that. If one character dies, sure, you no longer have access to them for this match, but they’ll rejoin you for the next, and if you’re like me and want to preserve every character, this setting can only be a boon. (I want to point out that, according to what I’ve heard, Heroes Of Light and Shadow, the game before, actually introduced the “Casual” mode concept. But as that is a Japan exclusive title, Awakening may as well have been the first -Ray)
The next major factor is how prettied up the game became. Previous Fire Emblem‘s had an art style with more realistic proportions. People were usually still pretty, but in a normal sort of way. Awakening went full anime. Every single character is gorgeous or handsome or at least good-looking. There’s no Bartre’s or Gonzalez’s in Awakening, is what I’m saying. This actually ties into the third major factor and the one I want to spend the most time discussing: supports.
Supports have been around since 1994’s Mystery of the Emblem, though they wouldn’t take the form we know until the first GameBoy Advance title, The Binding Blade. Essentially, when the characters fight near each other, they can build bonds which can, in turn, lead to skits which provide character development and will, afterwards, allow those units to fight with each other even more effectively. For the sake of game balance, previous entries relegated you to 5 supports per character per playthrough, which meant to see them all you would have to play the game multiple times, and focus on different characters every time. Awakening removed this stipulation for the sake of the marriage and children game mechanic, with… interesting results.
In Awakening, a big part of the story (even though only one character from this facet of the story is ever forced on your party) is that, in the future, the first generation characters are all killed by the Big Bad, and the second generation characters, their children, go back in time to attempt to avert that from happening. But for those characters to appear, they must first exist, which means some soldiers gotta get some bedsheets rockin’. That’s where the supports come in. All the children (save the plot relevant one and the Avatar’s, as the Avatar can be of either gender) are attached to a mother, so when a mother marries any eligible husband, their child will appear on the map. To get them married, you have to support.
Supporting can be a daunting task, however. With few exceptions, a character of one gender can support and marry with just about any character of the opposite gender, as a way to ensure that most everybody can get married and you won’t lose out on any children. They can then also support with about 4-5 characters of the same gender, building strong bonds of friendship to utilize on the battlefield. As well, every character can support with the Avatar, and the Avatar can support with every character.
The second half of that last sentence probably seems redundant, right? Well, it is, but it also isn’t. There is a separate connotation implied when I say “the Avatar can support with every character.” But what could that connotation possibly be, Wombat?! Well, I’ll tell you, because it’s what I’ve been leading up to this entire time: there are characters that ONLY the Avatar can support with.
In fact, every character who joins after Henry’s addition in Chapter 13 has no supports with any first generation character except the Avatar and, in the case of second generation characters, their parents. This includes the plot important Say’ri, Flavia, and Basilio, as well as side mission recruits Tiki (who is actually a returning character from the very first Fire Emblem) and Anna, and extends to SpotPass characters such as Walhart, Aversa, Gangrel, and Emmeryn, some of whom actually have deeply personal connections with other first generation characters, but regardless can only support with the Avatar. This is especially egregious with Say’ri (who shares a national background with Lon’qu, being the only citizens of Chon’sin), Tiki (who, as a thousand plus year old manakete, shares much in common with Nowi, the main manakete of Awakening), and Emmeryn (who is the main character Chrom’s and first cleric of the game Lissa’s sister), all of whom should reasonably support outside of the Avatar but don’t.
Now, some would say that supports are not actually that integral to the gameplay, and there is an argument to be made there, an argument which fire I would fan being on the opposing side. As previously addressed, supports give a boost in stats when two supported units fight near each other. This is actually amplified in Awakening with the major new gameplay mechanic introduced in the game, Pair Up. With Pair Up, two units can occupy one space and fight together as one. Pair Up could be the topic of an article all its own, what with its controversial nature, but there is no denying that it is THE driving force behind Awakening’s gameplay. Now, how does Pair Up tie into my complaint about the Avatar’s support exclusivity? It’s quite simple, really.
All those characters who can only support with the Avatar? You know, the ones you fought tooth and nail in some of the hardest maps in the entire game to acquire and add to your available roster? Well, at best, you might be able to utilize about three or four (I named nine earlier, and only touched on a little more than half the available exclusive units) of them on any given map, and that’s if you have them all stay right next to the Avatar. This is because if a character can not effectively Pair Up with other units, you are essentially handicapping yourself by using them, and the Avatar, like all other units, can only Pair Up with one character at a time. They can still lend out their support stat bonuses to nearby allies, but will not be able to join in for Pair Up abilities. This means that, for the most part, these late game units will be receiving very little use due to their lack of variety. If you can only keep them near the Avatar, why use them at all when their slot could be taken by another unit who can Pair Up with over half the army?
The answer is, you shouldn’t.
Fire Emblem Awakening is a great game, and is indeed the reason I started to play not only the Fire Emblem series as a whole, but also began to give the entirety of the strategy RPG genre a chance. It has numerous flaws, some of which we touched upon here, but overall, it’s a glowing masterpiece that stands as one of the best of its kind (even if hardcore Fire Emblem fans hate it, this “waifu-simulator” has more than proven itself), and it really is just this one major issue that truly bothers me whenever I discuss the game with others. The game is built around supports and its strong character interactions, but all the characters in the second half of the game lose out on those strengths and appear shallow, pointless, and misused as a result. Even worse, characters who should have become game breakers are instead bench warmers, all because they cannot make appropriate use of one of the game’s major mechanics. It’s just sad to think about what could have been. But, in the end, Fire Emblem Awakening is still a great game. Go play it so you can nitpick as much as I do.
Just don’t play Fates. At all. Go get Shadows of Valentia.
(Edit: Some of these have since changed and more supports are available, but it was not that way for a long time. As well, their S-rank [marriage] supports are still limited to the Avatar.)