The traditional strategy RPG is hamstrung by its own form. A turn-based approach removes the dynamism of an RTS, stat-centric combat reduces player agency and the necessary tactical overview, gridded and static, makes for a stale graphical style. It's no problem for fans, but to anyone looking in from outside, there might not seem to be much in a game that looks and plays like a book of used graph paper.
The skill in making this kind of game accessible isn't in simplifying that imposing sheaf, but in how you make a series of squares and numbers exciting. You could colour in the squares nicely, give the numbers some meaning beyond the equations they complete, or offer a wider reason to keep flicking through the pages. With Fire Emblem: Awakening, Intelligent Systems has done all of this and then drops griffon-riding into the mix, which doesn't suit our metaphorical conceit, but is still brilliant.
At its core, Awakening is a game that constantly works to dupe you into enjoying what amounts to an increasingly punishing series of battles. By turn, you're given reasons to marvel at, care about and, when you're truly hooked, manipulate every game of weird-chess you face.
This is an unusually attractive strategy game and that's undoubtedly down to the developer's approach to creating a variety of visual elements. Every facet of the game - FMVs, combat sequences, static conversations and the battle overview itself - has a separate art style, ranging from classic animé illustrations to sprite and polygon art. The speed at which you're thrown from one look to the next, not to mention carried through the varied scenery of the game's story, means you're rarely subjected to protracted periods of ordnance surveying.
Even when you are simply looking at a battle grid, the game's tidy use of 3D helps out. While little else benefits from stereoscopy, terrain suddenly gains a measure of meaning, with rising forests or castle walls suddenly seeming far more tangible.
Combat animations are surprisingly diverse, too, with each of the game's many classes taking different approaches to attacks, not to mention the entirely separate, often spectacular moves rewarded for critical hits. The fact that these attack sequences, which are essentially those aforementioned equations working themselves out, can be viewed from separate camera angles, slowed down, or even paused for effect, shows a deserved confidence in the visual tricks used to immerse you in the experience.
That said, half of the playing time will see you wanting to avoid those animations entirely. Despite a surfeit of characters, Intelligent Systems' work in helping you care about your army makes almost every one seem too important to risk in combat.
The core of that lies in a compelling storyline. Awakening tasks you with creating a character from a limited palette of options (another way of getting you to invest) before a short, seemingly prescient prologue, a swift bout of amnesia and an introduction to the Shepherds, a band of noble knights led by Chrom, prince of Ylisse, a kingdom almost perpetually under attack by some ruthless baddie or other.
The real stories, however, are the ones you make yourself. Every playable character you earn in the course of the campaign is just that - a character. They all have broadly drawn, likeable personalities, not to mention affinities with other characters that come out in the Barracks, an out-of-battle area that offers you stat bonuses and loot for getting your characters to interact, and in Support conversations, which reward characters working together with bonuses for further co-operation.