If you’ve heard anything about Fire Emblem: Awakening for 3DS, it’s likely all been good. The eleventh in the series, the game is acclaimed and worthy. If the internet at large had a tongue and could speak, it would tell you that the greatness lies in the game’s colorful and robust band of conscripted characters. Members of your crew can make friends, hook up, have kids, and pace around the dojo in dejection if left behind during a battle. Fewer people rave about the terse rounds of strategy, comparing them to an unholy coupling of Pokemon and chess, but that’s good, too.
Yet I take issue with both. You see, the times I’m completely engrossed with Fire Emblem are not when I’m counting squares on a battlefield, and it’s not when I’m speed-tapping through garrulous conversations on the subject of polished cutlery. It’s when I’m doing something incredibly routine and infinitely mundane. It’s when I’m poking around in the game’s layers upon layers of menus. Yep, M-E-N-U-S, those unexciting pages of icons and text that have been around since Xerox PARC days.
I realize that probably sounds fairly ridiculous. After all, isn’t the point of user interface to keep the time we spend with menus to a minimum? I’m pretty sure there are lectures being given in game design school right now about how to make games without menus.
Fire Emblem, however, couldn’t exist without menus. There is an opening menu, which leads to a secondary menu, that connects to seventeen other menus. Likewise, in battle, each and every action is chosen from a list of commands. A sketch of all the menus on paper would approach the complexity of the descent of the British throne. And speaking of, menus are used to convince the more coquettish characters to conceive. Forget foreplay and tax incentives. You open a menu and level up their relationship to S ranking. At first, I found it ludicrous to have an option that controls emotions, but as I was incessantly making sure each member of my party were equipped with three health potions, it dawned on me that the menus are fucking brilliant.
At least, I know I’m not here for the story. Who cares what my ensemble of quirky cartoon denizens are up to as they rove across a universe where the Middle Ages and Feudal Japan have been slammed together? Though I admit that I’m not very current on Japanese pop culture, there is doubtlessly some long-running anime based around the franchise, which contains a.) a swain who shape-shifts into a baby dragon when she’s angry, b.) an impostor grown-up Sailor Moon on a unicorn, and c.) a pedantic woman who resembles Sarah Palin dressed like the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s doubtful that anyone who has seen this hypothetical anime, which I repeat is pure conjecture, has figured out what the “fire emblem” is. I’m three games in and am clueless.
The battles aren’t the main draw for me either. Though heady and often stimulating, they tend to stress me out because a character you’ve nurtured from level one for fifteen hours can die and be lost forever. There are many moments when I wait with baited breath and pray a prayer that a dense decision won’t come back to bite me. A heedless lunge into a crowd of brutish grunts will end with my rider keeled over her griffon, and I’ll sigh and crush the reset button in frustration. This is absolutely the worst after you’ve skillfully deconstructed a formation of cretinous foot soldiers, only to have the most decorated member of your cavalry gutted by the parry of a mad centurion. I’m forever debating with myself on whether to take thirty minutes to replay the stage or sacrifice a cheery but pretty harmless Pegasus Knight so I can move on to the next chapter. It’s one Sophie’s Choice after another.
So it’s not the story nor the strategy that does it for me, and the only thing left is the menus. The truth is I feel perfectly content when organize my stuff, but also vaguely aware that I’m wasting my life with miniature swords and bows and arrows. The inventory screen is strangely pleasing, like opening a box of glinting lures, in which my units are cubbyholed. My white-gloved cursor selects a dancer. I’m exchanging worn copper axes for axes of freshly-kilned silver. Next, I’ll take a stave, sell it, and buy a feather that improves her speed by two. I do this or that for twenty-one different characters. Then, I look in the convoy, I guess which is a type of wagon, and marvel at a shiny bijou called the Master Seal, an item which will transform a petulant brat or bumpkin into a demiurge or goddess. I give it to several of my characters to see what they’ll turn into. This is somehow captivating. This is what you care about once you get deep into Fire Emblem.
The only fault with the menus is they can be time-consuming, and to be fair, this isn’t a fault of the game but with me. The last Fire Emblem I really delved into was for Wii. It got to the point where I’d easily spend over an hour shopping at the apothecary, sharpening hatchets, trading magic tomes, and regulating special-ability medallions. Eventually, I snapped out of it and never touched the game again, thinking, “What the hell, man?” Something about those menus get the best of me.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.
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