Despite my years-long hiatus from the series, I recognized the game's many features almost instantanously: the rock-paper-scissors weapon mechanic; the (slowly) expendable items; the Final Fantasy-esque class system. These were all features of the first Fire Emblem I played on the Game Boy Advance years ago, and features I am thrilled to say have survived the test of time. Yet I also noticed significant changes and new features to the gameplay, as well. For example, the class system is greatly expanded from its previous incarnations, allowing greater flexibility in character development. There's now multiplayer battles and a plethora of downloadable content. The “tutorials” (if one wants to call them that) are integrated seamlessly so as to allow players familiar with previous Fire Emblem games to quickly immerse themselves into this version without needless hand-holding, while providing for quick, rudimentary lessons for newcomers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the series' signature gameplay mechanic, permadeath (in which characters that fall in battle can NEVER. COME. BACK!!!!) is now optional in Awakening. Purists may lament this alteration, but neverfear, traditionalists: you can still play the old fashioned way if you want.
Presentation-wise, Awakening is something of a watershed moment for the series. Graphically, the game looks just slightly less impressive than its console brethren; were it not for a few pixelated character models, I'd presume I was playing a Gamecube or Wii game. There's a supplemental first-person camera for the game's battles, and players can re-watch the game's numerous cutscenes – both Fire Emblem firsts. Perhaps the most singularly spectacular element of Awakening, however, is its musical score. It features fewer tracks than most other JRPG soundtracks, but it's a worthy trade-off: Awakening's musical score is the epitome of quality over quantity.
Multiple critics have compared this game, in positive terms, to a Soap Opera. I'm not sure how that makes Awakening different from any other Fire Emblem iteration, or any other SRPG for that matter. In terms of story, Awakening provides the usual JRPG fare: a campaign setting, static characters, and melodramatic plot developments. Without spoiling anything, the plot isn't entirely linear, and it's engaging (though not quite engrossing): there are a few "wow" moments, but they come less frequently (and, perhaps because of their infrequence, seem less contrived) than the Deus Ex Machinas in, say, Downton Abbey. There is a recurring Christ-figure trope that finds a particular resonance by the game's finale, but the nuances of this thematic element are left mostly unexplored. On the whole, Awakening's storyline is fractionally better than the standard JRPG narrative - which isn't saying much, though it is saying something.
Having spent 40+ hours during the past 2-3 weeks completing the game, I can say with surety that Awakening lived us to its name, especially if you're a sedated 3DS fan looking for an excuse to boot up your system. It's not quite the quintessential gaming experience that its metacritic score would suggest it is, but it is nonetheless a well-produced title that represents an organic evolution of a solid gaming franchise. Worth playing.
Final grade: B