Goddamnit, Donnel. You start out at level 1, you can’t take even a single hit from an enemy, but you expect me to level you all the way up to level 2 before you will join my party. Also, I only get one chance to do this, in the middle of an otherwise rather stressful mission. Goddamnit, Donnel, why is this so much fun?

The quest to recruit Donnel is the best example I’ve encountered of why Fire Emblem: Awakening is such a satisfying challenge. I must have played that mission more than a dozen times, always resetting the game when I failed to adequately protect the incredibly vulnerable level 1 Donnel. After such an expenditure of effort, the payoff of finally seeing Donnel join my party felt thoroughly worth it. Now I just need to get him to level 3. And 4. And 5...

Alright, enough about Donnel. I’m only a few chapters in, but the rest of Fire Emblem: Awakening looks to be just as challenging, gratifying, and well-crafted. Playing it on classic mode (where character deaths are permanent) adds a delicious level of tension to every encounter. I find myself desperately wanting to keep all characters alive so as to not miss any of the dialogue and other interactions between them.

Practically, this desperate preservationism compels me to reset the game whenever things go awry. The result is hours of what you might call wasted gameplay. However, the time spent playing a level over and over again is time spent mastering the level’s mechanics. On repeat playthroughs, I would eventually breeze through the parts I had mastered and then spend my time carefully optimizing around the moments that had previously tripped me up.

Along with a solid set of mechanics, Awakening impressed me with a smooth combination of 2-D and polygonal artwork, including a drop-dead beautiful world map that curves subtly into the horizon. In combat, confrontations switch to a 3-D side view of your character fighting the enemy. Thanks to the ability to increase the animation speed in these sequences, the frequent cutaways haven’t gotten stale yet.

I know I still have a long way to go with Fire Emblem: Awakening, but so far I am impressed. This is a game that has me carrying my 3DS around regularly in a way I haven’t done since the system’s release.