The Emblem Returns: Fire Emblem Awakening

Fire Emblem: Awakening. Developed by Intelligent Systems, produced and distributed by Nintendo.

As I mentioned in my last post, the other new video game I played over the frozen months of Winter was Fire Emblem: Awakening for Nintendo 3Ds. I love the Fire Emblem series more than perhaps any other video game series with the exception of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid series, so I was extremely excited when I heard that this game was coming to the U.S.  However, I was a bit scared as the last few entries in the series that have been released outside of Japan were pretty mediocre. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Nintendo DS had very minimal story being a remake of the original NES Fire Emblem (only released in Japan), and it was appallingly easy for a series known for its difficulty. Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, released for the Wii in 2007, had great maps and cool new classes that we may never see again, but the story was broken into different chapters that disrupted the narrative flow and also caused a huge discrepancy in the amount of experience points units in the different chapters receive thereby crippling a large portion of your army later in the game. So I was a little apprehensive to get too excited about a new Fire Emblem. But as more info, videos, and news began to crop up as the release date grew closer it looked like all the problems I had with Radiant Dawn and Shadow Dragon had been addressed. When I finally had Awakening in hand, I was more than ready to dive into some tactical Fire Emblem goodness.

The story revolves around Chrom, the prince of the halidom (fancy word for a holy place, in this case an entire country) of Ylisse. Early in the game, a wormhole of sorts opens up and releases a plague of undead into Chrom’s world, at the same time, the neighboring country of Plegia begins to flaunt its military might and begins encroaching over the borders into Ylisse. Further complicating things is the supposed appearance of the legendary hero, Marth, who followed the undead monsters through the wormhole. It’s up to Chrom and his friends to unravel the mystery of the undead monsters, and put a stop to Plegia’s warmongering. But as the story progresses, Chrom learns that there is something far more sinister pulling the strings that is on the verge of awakening.

Chrom, the protagonist of sorts of Fire Emblem: Awakening.

Unfortunately, any tension the story creates is undermined by the overwhelming amount of side content. From skirmishes on the map with the Risen (the undead enemies), and the vast amount of downloadable content (DLC), Awakening distracts players from the main story on a regular basis. For some players this will be just fine, as the reason they play Fire Emblem will be to develop their army and the unlimited amount of experience, the ability to switch class types, and the support conversations will allow them to build a powerful repertoire of units. And players wanting more story can easily skip the DLC and side content, though it may be helpful to use these options to bolster your units for some of the more challenging maps. Regardless, the story itself is a bit on the weak side compared to most of the previous entries in the series as the game’s focus seems to be more on developing the units and the army rather than telling a strong, compelling story. I kind of think of it as the difference between Final Fantasy IV and its tight, story-driven narrative and Final Fantasy V and its class system that encourages players to customize and level their characters instead of progressing the story.

Gameplay is right up the ol’ Fire Emblem alley with lots of tactical strategy and unit building. Awakening is more forgiving than most of its predecessors in that it allows the player to choose the difficulty level. Fire Emblem games are known for being pretty flippin’ hard, and oftentimes brutally so. On top of that, in the past, if a unit is defeated in battle they die permanently. There are no Phoenix Downs to revive them, no magic spells, nothing; they are gone for the rest of the game. But Awakening gives players the opportunity to turn permanent death off at the start of a new game, so if a unit is defeated in battle they will retreat and only be unavailable until the end the current map. These two options make this probably the most accessible Fire Emblem game since the series was first released outside of Japan in 2003.

The maps are a tad disappointing as there aren’t many that offer the unique challenges faced in many of the other Fire Emblem games, but all of them still force you to plan attack and defense strategies. There are also a lot of new classes, especially in the second tier range that allow players more options in choosing how to develop a unit and what kind of abilities they’d like that unit to have. Another new system in combat is the option to pair up with other units while in combat. To do so, you can either move units to adjacent spaces and choose to attack an enemy, or highlight another unit with the cursor while in the movement phase and select the “Pair” option to join up with that unit. If you choose the “Pair” option the two units will move and attack together, but will also become inactive after taking an action. There are great advantages to pairing up. First and most immediately, when you enter combat you’ll have a partner to help you out. The supporting unit may help the main unit by either attacking alongside them or blocking enemy attacks and protecting the main unit’s health. There is a possibility that they will stand there and do nothing, which is a tad unfortunate, but I guess the developers had to provide some balance. This is a great feature for archers, mages, and healers, as these units are usually lacking in defense. However, in most cases the supporting unit will not receive the same amount of experience that the main unit will receive during combat, so it is worthwhile to swap units or “unpair” to give these units more opportunities for experience. Also, assuming the units are able, pairing up will lead to the fan favorite support conversations that develop characters outside of the main story as well as lead to some nice stat bonuses when the two units are in adjacent spaces or paired up with one another.

A number of Legacy units, such as Roy from Fire Emblem: Fuin no Tsurugi, have received some updated character designs and can be recruited by completing DLC maps.

Taking support conversations a bit further, the developers have included the marriage/multi-generational system that has only been seen in one other entry in the series, Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu (often translated as Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War) released for the Super Nintendo only in Japan during the mid-90s. The marriage system allows two units of the opposite sex to marry should they reach a certain support level. The marriage conversations are generally cheesy, sometimes funny, and usually lead to the male unit offering a ring to the female unit. About mid-way through the game, you’ll have the chance to recruit the children of the married units into your army. I’m not one hundred percent sure how everything works, but the stats and classes of the second generation of units are determined by the stats and classes of his or her parents though players can still fiddle around with the classes of the second gen to customize them to their hearts desire. It is pretty similar to, though far more extensive than the marriage system in Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly BrideGenerally speaking, the second gen units will be far more powerful than their parents (the unit Donnel being the only exception). The second gen units are crucial for some of the later chapters, especially if you’re playing in the Normal difficulty level and/or with permanent death.

Though it may cripple the main story, the DLC is also a serious boon for developing units that pulls double duty as fanservice for players of previous games in the series. Players will have to pay for DLC, though there are some free maps, items, and units that can be acquired simply for purchasing the game or by using the 3DS’s spot pass functionality. The DLC maps offer unique challenges, feature some great cameos of characters from other games in the series, allow players to recruit some of these classic characters into their army, and finally yield unlimited experience and rare treasures. While the DLC is great, and definitely satisfied the fan within me, the sheer amount of it is a tad overwhelming and as I’ve mentioned twice already, it definitely can distract players from the main story for hours upon hours. It isn’t necessary, and though maps are only a couple of dollars, the price can quickly add up. I’d recommend it for fans, or anyone who wants to level grind and make uber-units, but new players to the series or players that prefer story to gameplay may want to skip the DLC.

I definitely enjoyed playing Fire Emblem: Awakening. Over the course of a month I clocked over 80 hours, and a lot of that was spent in playing the DLC. Only a few games have kept me occupied for so long, and I usually begin to lose interest with anything that requires over 40 hours of playtime. I also really enjoyed the new pairing system and the ability to marry units off to create the power house second gen units. That being said, while Fire Emblem: Awakening may be the most accessible game in the series so far, it will mainly only appeal to tactically minded players with patience. You won’t find run-and-gun or hack-and-slash action here, but if you like RPGs, Fire Emblem will be a great addition to your collection.

Return of the Blog: Sly Cooper Thieves in Time and the Unfortunate Case of Weak Villains

Hello interwebs! After almost four months of not posting, I’ve returned to update the blog. It has been a long, cold winter and I didn’t have much motivation to do anything after work but come home to my apartment and stay warm. But now that the weather is turning, let’s face it, lukewarm at best, I’m already wanting to get back in the swing of things and go adventuring.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t done some adventuring in the last few months. On February 4th and 5th two games from my two of my favorite video game series were released, respectively Fire Emblem: Awakening and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. So even as the North wind blew, even as it snowed, and New York entered a deep freeze, I still enjoyed some fun virtual adventures. I’ll get to Fire Emblem: Awakening later, so read on to find out what I thought about Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time!

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Developed by Sanzaru Games, published by Sony Computer Entertainment

This is the first Sly game since Sly Cooper 3: Honor Among Thieves released all the way back in Fall of 2005! That’s almost eight years that fans of the series have waited for the next entry. With the large gap between releases, and the original Sly developers, Sucker Punch, handing the developmental reigns of Thieves in Time to Sanzaru Games, the company responsible for the HD upgrade of Sly’s first three adventures in The Sly Collection, there was a lot that could have gone terribly wrong in Sly’s newest adventure. Luckily, Sanzaru really knew what they were doing and they’ve developed another great entry in the Sly series, though far from the best.

During the long hiatus, the game explains that Sly wooed his archnemesis/love interest, the straight-edged Carmelita Fox. But old habits die hard, and Sly couldn’t resist the temptation to return to his thieving ways and get started on a new heist. Also during the hiatus, Sly’s brainy friend Bentley has invented a time machine! But suddenly Bentley notices that Sly’s family treasure, the eponymous item of the first game, the Thievius Raccoonus, is disappearing into the ether. Realizing that his time traveling technology has somehow found its way into the wrong hands, Bentley and Sly get the old gang back together to travel into the past, discover what is causing the Thievius Raccoonus to fade away, and set things right. What follows is an adventure across five time periods as Sly and the gang travel through the past. Along the way they meet up with Sly’s ancestors, Riochi Cooper, a sushi chef and ninja thief; Tennessee Kid Cooper, a wild west outlaw and gunslinger; Caveman Cooper (a.k.a. Bob), the prehistoric egg thief and founder of the Cooper clan; Sir Galleth of the Knights of the Cooper Order, an overly dramatic defender of chivalry; and finally Salim Al-Kupar, a member of the legendary Forty Thieves. All of Sly’s ancestors have been captured by the mysterious villain Le Paradox, thus keeping them from making the historic heists that had been recorded in the Thievius Raccoonus. It’s up to Sly and the gang, with the help of Sly’s ancestors, to restore history and save the Cooper family name.

The titular character of the Sly series and thief extraordinaire, Sly Cooper.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time jumps right into the action, and fans of the series will be able to pick things right up. The controls are the same as the previous games, the visuals are immediately familiar, and the series’ slapstick humor is here in spades. It hardly felt like any time had passed at all when I picked up the controller and jumped into sneaky action with Sly, Bentley and Murray. Also an added bonus was being able to play as Sly’s ancestors as well as Sly’s sultry love interest, Inspector Carmelita Fox. Aside from Caveman Cooper, or Bob as the rest of the characters call him, all of Sly’s ancestors play pretty much the same as Sly, but they do have some unique abilities of their own. My favorite of these was Tennessee Kid Cooper, whose trademark Cooper cane turned out to be a slick six-shooter that led to some awesomely fun, if simple third-person shooting action. Also new to Thieves in Time is the ability to use costumes, disguises that Sly dons to sneak past enemies, as well as give him unique abilities, from attacks to movement. My favorite costume was the Robin Hood-esque archer costume that allows Sly to shoot enemies from a distance with arrows, and shoot a rope to distant targets to allow Sly to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Bentley, Murray, and Carmelita also join in the action. Bentley and Murray control pretty much the same as they have since Sly 2, but they do have a few new tricks up their sleeves. New is the ability to play as Carmelita, who wields her trademark shock pistol with a vengeance. Murray may be the brawler, but Carmelita is quite a powerhouse herself and she can decimate enemies with ease.

One of the greatest things about the Sly games since Sly 2: Band of Thieves, is the different areas the gang explores in order to pull of their heists. The player is given a large, free roaming playground where they can explore, pick pockets, find secrets, and just enjoy being able to play as Sly or one of his friends. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where Thieves in Time falls a bit short. The Japanese area, which is the first in the game, was actually a pretty big disappointment for me. There were no really great vantage points, everything looked the same, and it was hard to tell which direction was which without constantly checking the map. The Prehistoric area and the Arabian area were also a tad disappointing for the same reasons. But even though 3/5ths of the areas of the game were not totally great, The Old West and Medieval areas were both fantastic and reminded me exactly of why I grew so fond of the Sly series.

I can survive without the great playgrounds and that is kind of a minor complaint. My biggest disappointment in Thieves in Time is the villain, a stinky skunk named Le Paradox. The player learns that Le Paradox is from another family of thieves, like Sly, but Sly’s father humiliated Le Paradox’s and ruined the Le Paradox family name. The character did have potential to be a great foil to Sly, but instead he isn’t developed as a character at all until the fifth area and the endgame climax. I usually expect to feel righteous anger, or at the very least a strong sense of tension when it comes to a final boss fight, but all I felt for Le Paradox was apathy. He was a sad villain compared to what I was hoping would be done in a time-traveling Sly game.

The archnemesis of the Cooper clan, and main villain of Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, Clockwerk!

When Sly was introduced in Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, he was introduced alongside a superb villain, the ancient mechanized owl, Clockwerk. I’d argue that Clockwerk is one of the best villains in all of video gamedom, and he only truly appeared in the first Sly game. In all honesty, I can see why the developers shy away from making another villain like Clockwerk as he was perhaps too sinister a villain for a game with a primary audience of ages ten and up. But dang, Clockwerk was cool, and the series has seriously suffered in the bad guy department since Clockwerk’s defeat at the end of Thievius Raccoonus. Sly 2 did come close. It  created that tension again at the end when Neyla fuses with Clockwerk’s reassembled body and becomes Clock-La, but Sly 3 and now Thieves in Time have suffered from the lack of a strong villain. To be sure the end bosses of each area have always been hilarious, fun, and sometimes even a little scary, but they can’t even begin to fill the role of main villain, and the main villain of the Sly games that have come since Thievius Raccoonus have not even begun to fill the void left by Clockwerk. So remembering the backstory of Thievius Raccoonus, where Clockwerk was a shadowy figure that appeared throughout the history of the Cooper clan, whose hatred for Sly’s family ran so deep that it survived his own death, I thought for sure that he’d show up somewhere in Thieves in Time. But Clockwerk never appeared, and was only mentioned in text snippets at loading screens. A perfect villain who could have added immediacy to the game, who could have made it completely compelling and hold gamers at the edge of their seat through the entire adventure, never once even makes an appearance. I am a firm believer that a strong villain can make or break a game; I even wrote my master’s thesis on the role villains play in video games! But sadly Sly has been lacking in the villain department for a long time. It looks like there will for sure be at least one more game in the Sly series though, so maybe Clockwerk will return in some form when the time comes.

Despite my villainous grievances against the lack of villainy in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, I still did have a lot of fun playing. It was great to hop on ropes, spire jump on top of flagpoles, pickpocket guards, and all in all just enjoy some stealthy platforming action like I haven’t been able to since 2005. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, despite its flaws is a fun game that I’m proud to have in my (digital) library.