Fire Emblem: Awakening is the latest in a long running series of turn based tactical level games. Awakening is a far more RPG-like game than most in the series, sharing many similarities with Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones. You can grind in free battles or buy from shops on the world map, there's no scoring system, and difficulty tends to be on the low side. There are more wi-fi features than ever including Spotpass and paid DLC.
Awakening has a responsive and fairly well designed UI, which is to be expected from Intelligent Systems. Combat pacing is very fast, and you have the option of skipping the entire enemy turn's animations if you feel like it. This puts other tactics games with molasses-like combat speed and poor UI design like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre to shame. Awakening is a pretty good looking game and it has a very nice soundtrack as well.
Casual mode returns from Fire Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow, along with several difficulty modes. I think Casual mode is a good addition that makes Fire Emblem more accessible. I appreciate multiple difficulty modes aimed at beginner to veteran players, but only if the modes aimed at veterans are balanced and well designed. In Awakening this is simply not the case.
Awakening's level design is fairly bland and generic, lacking objectives and unique strategic situations or events. Maps are almost always a wide open area with an assortment of generic enemies and almost no other objectives. This is a far cry from the series' high notes of level design and strategy, or of tactics games in general. Secondary objectives, interesting terrain, and unique strategic situations would have helped quite a bit. Even on the harder difficulty modes you're mainly playing the game for the set pieces, cutscenes, plot, and characters.
Awakening's combat is a balance mess. This isn't a big deal on the easier difficulty modes, as those modes are already very easy, and it's expected that beginner and intermediate players don't care much for balance issues or strategy. Your average gamer playing on Normal difficulty will likely not notice or care much. For people who enjoy tactics games for their strategy, though, it's a significant issue. There are many ways to completely trivialize any difficulty mode, mainly by using any wi-fi feature, DLC grinding, or life drain tomes. It is easily the most imbalanced Fire Emblem in series history, and I'm hard pressed to think of less balanced tactics games in general. There is no scoring system to rate or encourage skilled play like in previous Fire Emblems.
Trying to do player restricted runs on Lunatic is hardly worth it, such as no wi-fi, no Nosferatu tomes, and no grinding. It's so imbalanced that if you make a laundry list of restrictions to prevent the game from being "broken", you still end up with an uneven mess where some maps are highly luck based or even impossible to complete. When the game starts throwing capped stat enemies at you on a challenge run, even with optimal strategies you'll have a fairly low % chance of success. Of course you can always trivialize the game by breaking out the wi-fi, grinding, life drain tomes, Frederick/MU pairing, etc.
Lunatic+ is even more of a mess. On Lunatic+ chapters 1-4 before you can start grinding, you have about a 15-20% chance of clearing the scenario even assuming an optimal strategy. Enemies are randomly granted skills at the start of a Lunatic+ scenario, and you'll end up having to restart chapters multiple times until you get enemy skill combinations that aren't impossible to get past. I'd be interested in seeing if it's even possible to clear Lunatic+ without paying extra money for DLC maps to grind on. Overall Awakening could have been a much better game had they put more effort into the level design and combat balance.
In comparison, Fire Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow's Lunatic/Lunatic' is far more balanced, less reliant on RNG, more challenging, has a varied and strategic campaign, and has a scoring system to promote skilled play. It also has casual mode and a forgiving normal mode. Awakening does have more party customization in terms of pairing up, kid making, skills, etc. but they are mainly there for sandbox play, not strategy.
Awakening has a lot of DLC. In Japan if you bought all the DLC you'd be paying about twice as much as the original game. I'm not opposed to DLC, but it seems like a shameless cash-in when they throw in dozens of characters from past FEs for sale. It seems like a bit of a one trick pony to me. DLC maps are mainly there to let the player grind. I haven't played through some of the supposedly challenging DLC maps which are not yet released in North America, but I don't doubt they can be trivialized in some way.
A large portion of Awakening's plot revolves around pairing your army up and mating them to produce offspring to fight for you, assisted by the uber-creepy old man Hubba. You can't avoid pairing at least some of your party members up, either. This isn't any sort of measured adult romance, but the stunted and immature "waifu" fanservice that plagues Japanese games and anime. You can also purchase DLC that includes beach and spa scene fanserevice, a depressingly familiar staple of Japanese RPGs these days. The whole mechanic is distasteful, embarrassing, and creepy.
Nintendo even went the extra mile and added pedophile fanservice in the form of a childlike 10 year old girl in whore's clothing that can be married off and bred. Oh and you save her from a life of apparent "slavery" (I'll let you guess which sort), and she has lines like "People often forget I've been around the block a few thousand times." I wish I was making this up. But it's ok, because she's really a '1,000 year old dragon' or something. I found this character far more offensive than any combat related issue.
Awakening's story is generic and disjointed, and seems cobbled together as an excuse to let you fight alongside your army's paired up offspring. Your army is mainly made up of generic, lifeless anime stereotypes. The main antagonist is as generic a villain as they come. If you're playing Awakening for the plot and characters, you'd better love waifus and anime/JRPG stereotypes.
Overall Awakening disappointed me gameplay wise as a veteran tactics gamer and also managed to creep me out with its overload of fanservice and wife breeding. I recognize that my balance and combat concerns are not important to the average gamer who will likely enjoy the game on Normal Casual or Hard Casual difficulty, assuming they can stand the plot and characters. The Intelligent Systems development team is capable of better than this and I hope their next tactics game effort delivers.
+ Casual mode increases Fire Emblem's accessibility to beginners
+ UI is responsive and mostly well designed
+ Your average gamer will not mind the balance or combat issues
+ Graphics and music are both high quality
- Extremely imbalanced combat, not much worth salvaging with player restrictions
- Cash-in DLC that costs quite a lot more total than the game itself
- Mostly bland, boring level design
- Awfully stereotypical plot and characters w/ creepy "waifu" breeding