Japanese developers have dominated the first few weeks of the year. "Anarchy Reigns" and "Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch" are some of the better games of early 2013. Making up for the dearth of quality Japanese titles last year, that streak extends further with "Fire Emblem: Awakening."

The turn-based strategy game has been a staple on Nintendo systems, and its heroes have even shown up in the popular "Super Smash Bros." fighting games. But for some reason, many gamers haven't played what's arguably one of the better franchises out there.

"Awakening" is the series' first foray on the Nintendo 3DS, and it's a great entry point for novices. It lets players create their own male or female protagonist, who ends up being the tactician for the halidom of Ylisse. After a vague beginning, players see their hero regaining consciousness. Unfortunately, the protagonist is also suffering from amnesia and doesn't know where she came from.

Over the course of the campaign, players will discover what led to that strange prologue, as they help Chrom, the main character, battle against Plegia, a rival nation, other invaders and an ancient evil. They'll meet new allies along the way and help mold the company into an elite fighting unit.


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But that's easier said than done. "Awakening" will take some time to learn, and it plays almost like an advanced form of chess as players enter battles having to choose which units to bring and where to place them on the battlefield.

From there, it's about outmaneuvering the competing army. To aid with that, there are several techniques at hand. Players can combine units to make them more powerful. They can also place them side by side so units can aid each other on the battlefield.

There are other factors to consider in a fight though. "Fire Emblem" has a rock-paper-scissors system with its combat where axes defeat spears and spears dominate swords while swords destroy axes. Some units have an inherent weakness compared to others. For example, bows and arrows will take down Wyvern riders. Players also have to juggle relationships among their squad.

As certain characters interact, they'll nurture a natural affinity. That translates into stat boosts when two units are next to each other. One character may even sacrifice himself to defend another. If that weren't enough, those friendships can ultimately culminate in marriage and eventually children.

Yes, "Awakening" lets players see the fruits of their, uh, labors. Through a major plot point, gamers will see what comes out of those relationships that form during gameplay. It's interesting to see the combinations that can come between a warrior and a mage or a pegasus knight and cavalier.

To actually create that dream pairing though, players will have to manage their troops carefully, because, like other entries, "Awakening" has permadeath. If characters die in battle, they'll be gone from the campaign, and that demise is surprisingly devastating. The developer, Intelligent System, does a good job of creating characters that players bond with. They'll want to see Lissa get together with Donnel or see Frederick and Sumia turn into a couple.

Players get to see these interactions in the barracks or scripted events, but sadly, not all the dialogue works for the characters. Sometimes, lines are repeated in nonsensical ways. Elsewhere, the visuals of the game board itself are unimpressive, but when it focuses on skirmishes between characters, the art showing the hand-to-hand combat is beautiful. That and the animated cutscenes nearly make up for a pedestrian interface.

"Awakening" has that one-more-turn quality that's inherent to many strategy games. It's an addictive formula that, combined with a plot that has several twists and turns, will keep players through a campaign that will last awhile. The only element holding it back is its difficulty. This game is hard, and it requires clever maneuvering or some grinding to reach the end.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'fire emblem: awakening'
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Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Rating: Teen