A Strategy Epic Worth Playing Thrice
Following the success of Fire Emblem Awakening, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems were poised to make another new installment in the turn-based strategy RPG series. The question was what direction to take the next game. They could either continue the more casual-friendly Awakening style of gameplay, or they could bring the series back to its more difficult roots found in its classic titles. In a stroke of genius, Intelligent Systems came up with creating two full-length games, presenting different gameplay styles and telling two sides of the same story. They did not stop there, eventually offering a third campaign as DLC intended to finish the story. The end result is a game spanning three 40-hour journeys, gameplay that appeals to a variety of players, and an experience worth playing thrice.
Fire Emblem is a series that is typically story- and character-driven, and Fates provides a compelling tale that is broken up throughout its three installments. You play as an avatar character, who will be referred to here as Corrin. Corrin, a noble of the Nohr family, finds himself in rival nation Hoshido following a mission. There, he discovers that he is actually blood-related to the Hoshidans and that his adoptive father, King Garon, is not all that he seems. He quickly gets involved in an incident that sets up the greater war, in which he encounters the Nohrian royal family, who are his siblings. This leads to the pivotal game-changing moment in which Corrin must choose between his blood-related siblings of Hoshido, or the Nohrian family that he has grown up with. This singular choice is the branching point that leads to the path of Birthright (Hoshido), Conquest (Nohr), or Revelation (siding with neither).
As interesting as the premise is, the ensuing story falls flat through much of the actual game. The overall plot is split into these three games, ensuring that you only get bits and pieces from each. The payoff is huge if you play all three since everything fits together in such a neat package. However, just playing one game means you are shut out from major plot elements. In fact, Revelation, which is only recommended after you have played through both Birthright and Conquest, lives up to its name and offers a lot of exposition that brings clarity to the previous two games. Each individual game also feels a little sluggish as a result of this thre-way split. For most of each game, the cutscenes merely serve as explanations of why you are fighting a particular army. The stories ramp up toward the end, but the whole middle of each could have almost been cut out. From a story perspective, the game might have been better told just going through 3 shorter campaigns. There are good gameplay reasons why this is not the case, but the story does suffer as a result.
Nevertheless, the story concept is extremely interesting to the point where it can be hard to decide which campaign to choose. Fire Emblem Fates is a game that lives and dies, quite literally, through its characters. This game is filled with plenty of interesting characters, from the lovable royals of each family to the humorous and quirky units who join you along the way. Even Corrin, who is supposed to act as your avatar, is one of the most vocal, active members of the party. Adjacent units participate in support conversations, adding to the characterization of your units and providing humorous banter throughout.
For a closer look at each individual story, it is now your turn to choose a side. Will you choose Hoshido (Birthright), Nohr (Conquest), or neither (Revelation)?
In Birthright, you are choosing the side that is clearly “the good guys,” so this story is relatively easy to grasp. That said, most of the game is just a romp towards Nohr. There is even some backtracking towards Hoshido that reveals how difficult it is to make 1 world encompass 3 different stories. Overall, this is a satisfying stand-alone story that could easily serve as an anime plotline. The characters are decent, for the most part, but not as fun as their Nohrian counterparts. Some standout characters include your Hoshidan brothers, and what is essentially a carbon copy of Awakening’s Tharja.
Siding with Nohr is the more interesting option in theory. After all, choosing the “bad” side is unique. In addition, the Nohrian royals with whom you grew up are actually fun, nice people, despite it all. However, the story stumbles in execution, leading to a Corrin who continuously makes poor decisions and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Most of the story is told in a mission structure, with Corrin reluctantly accepting King Garon’s orders to invade neighboring tribes. Luckily, the characters more than make up for it, with Conquest having the more interesting and quirky party members. A superhero, a gentle giant, and a two-faced money grubbing woman are among your ranks.
Revelation is the most engaging storyline, provided you’ve played both Birthright and Conquest. While all 3 stories harbor pieces of the puzzle, Revelation contains the majority of truths that will help you appreciate everything you’ve played and entice you to reach the conclusion. Many of the truths reference the other 2 games, so their worth depends on your commitment to playing all three. Nevertheless, its story is certainly the most engaging, and little time is wasted. Character-wise, you will have a much larger selection to choose from. Without spoiling anything, Revelation is the one that feels most complete.
Maps and Battles
The gameplay for Fire Emblem Fates is tried-and-true turn-based strategy, which has worked well for the series thus far. In all three games, the aim is the same – take turns moving your units around the map to battle enemy units. You must carefully plan out your turns and decide what each character should do. Will you go on the offensive and try to take enemies down quickly or will you stick to the defensive and have opponents come to you? The maps are all grid-based, so you can clearly tell how far each character can move and how close opposing units are. Special bonuses can also be activated in a couple of ways. Pairing two characters up as one combined unit gives you defensive boosts. Alternatively, you can have characters remain separate but stick close together, and they will fight alongside each other when engaged in battle. A new element in Fates, called Dragon Vein, allows certain characters to activate special powers when standing on a particular insignia on the map. Dragon Vein powers can change the course of the battle in a variety of ways, such as filling rivers to make them impassable, directing lava flow to block your foes, or raising and lowering platforms. All of these mechanics come together to make traversing each map an elaborate game of chess.
When two units are next to each other, they can battle. Skirmishes are typically one-round fights in which one character initiates the attack, then the other counterattacks. If a unit loses all of its HP, he or she dies. In the Fire Emblem series, there is a mechanic known as permadeath in which any character who dies is permanently removed from the rest of the game. There are easier modes that take this feature away, but classic mode retains it, leading to higher stakes and more frustration should a character meet an untimely end. Although permadeath is very stressful, it is definitely to be respected, as it can make players more invested in the characters they love. Losing characters along the way is painful, but it makes victory that much sweeter.
Each battle has multiple factors that determine its final outcome. For one, each unit’s stats are important to consider, as faster characters may be able to hit twice while inaccurate characters may miss. Strength can also depend on a character’s weapons. As in past Fire Emblem games, there is a rock-paper-scissors-like weapon triangle that gives one type of weapon an advantage over another. For example, swords trump axes and axes beat lances, which in turn beat swords. In this installment, magic, bows, and hidden weapons (such as shuriken) also factor into the effectiveness chart. As a result, the expanded triangle becomes a little too confusing. Despite this, it does give more importance to these other weapon types and mixes up the usual strategies. A big change to weapons is a welcome one: you can now use the same weapon over and over again without fear of them breaking. Eliminating this minor inconvenience complements the other new change of weapons: providing different bonuses or detriments depending on rank. For instance, some higher-ranked weapons are stronger but will lower your stats, while lower-ranked weapons actually raise your stats. Since weapons don’t break, you can now carry one of each type of weapon (as opposed to having to carry multiples of the same weapon out of fear that it may break). These alterations to the battle system make the overall gameplay a little easier and are overall welcome additions.
As stated in the story section, Fire Emblem lives through its characters, and your army is filled with a variety of fun units. All of them have predetermined classes that affect their stat growth, skills, and equippable weapons. For example, cavaliers are strong attackers who use swords and lances on horseback, while archers are bow-wielding powerhouses who can only attack from a distance. The variety of units allows each one to have a wholly different role on the battlefield. The fun is in learning how to maximize each unit’s potential. Units can be promoted at any point between level 10 and 20 (20 being the max). Promoted units have better stats, better weapon usage, access to new skills, and the ability to gain more levels. Of course, the beauty of Fates is that you are not required to limit units to their starting class. Using a variety of special seals, units can switch over to other classes. They then inherit a new set of abilities while being able to keep old skills from their previous class. Some class-exclusive skills are so useful that you may even consider changing to another class just to learn the skill, then immediately switch back with your new ability in tow. By experimenting with classes, you can have a unique set of battlers that fit your playing style.
One of the most beloved features from Fire Emblem Awakening returns: marriage. Most Fire Emblem games have a system in which two units who stick together, fight alongside the other, and pair up often will be able to participate in support conversations. Certain characters can take support to the next level and actually get married (complete with cheesy and/or ridiculous proposals). If that weren’t enough, they can also have kids, whom you can recruit for your army. When the children first appear, they are already of age, having grown up in a magical realm of accelerated time. Awakening has this same feature and weaves it in well into its story, whereas Fates’ explanation is contrived and leads to more questions than answers. Regardless, the support system as a whole is an excellent way to keep players invested in the otherwise one-dimensional characters. Each support conversation brings characterization, each marriage fosters a sense of togetherness, and each child represents a new unit customized accordingly to his or her parents. It’s so engaging that it’s almost hard to imagine a future Fire Emblem installment without it.
Many Ways to Play
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Fates is the variant gameplay styles contained within. There are already three different games, but there is also an additional matrix of difficulty that determines enemies’ strengths and how your units’ deaths are handled.
The first notable distinction is whether you play the game on classic mode, which includes the aforementioned permadeath, in which your units die for good when they fall in battle. You can take it down a notch to casual mode, where units are never permanently lost, but instead come back ready for battle the following chapter. While this mode is controversial, it is an excellent way to bring in new fans as Awakening did before it. It is also great for Fire Emblem veterans who just honestly did not like permadeath and would reset anyway if any character unexpectedly died. Some casual mode players may abuse the system and employ a more reckless gameplay strategy since the stakes aren’t as high. However, for those who still play the game trying to keep everyone alive but don’t want to experience the stress and pain of losing a unit by accident, consider casual mode as a way to enjoy Fire Emblem more. There is yet another notch below casual, phoenix mode, in which characters who die immediately revive during the next turn. This is a little too much, but those just in it for the story or novice players may appreciate this mode.
With any of these modes, you can also choose a difficulty setting of normal, hard, or lunatic. Higher difficulties raise enemies’ stats and aggressive power. The best part of this is that you can combine any mode with any difficulty. For instance, you can play casual mode with a lunatic difficulty and classic mode with normal difficulty. Also note that you can always lower difficulties if you get stuck, but you can never raise them.
The last element of this difficulty matrix is the actual three different games themselves. So once more, it is time to choose between Hoshido (Birthright), Nohr (Conquest), or neither (Revelation).
Birthright is most similar to Awakening, in that it skews a little easier. Maps are simpler and missions rarely deviate from defeating the boss or routing the enemy. In this way, it does get a little tedious, as if the game doesn’t expect too much from you. It can still get hard with higher difficulties, but the game also allows you to grind for levels and money on extra maps. Those who abuse the system may find a game that has become too easy, however.
Conquest takes a page out of classic Fire Emblem and constantly puts you in difficult situations on interesting maps. There is typically a condition for each mission that makes the game just a little harder. Examples include turn limits, stealth segments, and wind that blows units away. These conditions make Conquest more interesting to play. Adding to the difficulty, you cannot grind your units in Conquest. Since your levels and resources are limited, you must strategize even more carefully to ensure long-term victory all the way to the finale. If you play with permadeath and lose too many of your characters, you could potentially be stuck. This added challenge may turn off some, but will likely appease a majority of hardcore strategy fans.
Revelation is a mix of the two. On the one hand, there are interesting conditions in some of the battles, and on the other, you can grind to ensure that you can take them on. The difficulty is in-between, ensuring that players who only play one and go straight to this won’t feel too estranged. The true appeal of Revelation is the story, so those looking for an extreme in either direction of gameplay style should look elsewhere. Those seeking the conclusion after playing both games will find a balanced campaign with a huge cast of characters.
Finally, between chapters, you will be able to spend time in your own customizable castle town. My Castle does an excellent job of increasing replayability by allowing an array of social functionality and providing a myriad of customization options. In this mode, you can build shops, facilities, and statues wherever you want. You are then free to use them however you want to prepare for the next battle. Your units will be placed throughout the town so you can talk to them, give them gifts, invite them over to your place for a special scene, and raise support levels. Other players can also visit you through online and local wireless and see your customized castle town. In addition, visitors may fight your army in your town, so setting up a perfect defense of your units and obstacles is a fun diversion in itself. As a reward for defeating another player on their home turf, you can recruit a unit from that player’s army or buy a skill for your characters at a discount. Finally, some additional features that come with My Castle are StreetPass functionality which invites others into your castle plaza, amiibo support that makes special guests from older Fire Emblem games recruitable units, and DLC (sold separately) that add over a dozen playable maps.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics on individual maps are decent. Your units are represented by 2D sprites and the backgrounds themselves are simple 3D backdrops. While engaged in battle, the camera zooms in on the action no matter where you are, and presents a high quality battle scene where units perform flashy moves on each other. They are exciting to watch and can even be viewed from different angles. The high quality cutscenes look like they could have come out of an anime.
The music is well-done with many exciting orchestrated pieces interspersed with atmospheric songs. The main theme, sung by one of the characters, is used well throughout, though it can be a bit grating at times. Full voice acting is only used during cutscenes. Otherwise, characters say one-liners and grunt during fights and non-cutscene conversations. While the voices are good, it would have been nice to have more of them throughout.
Each game alone will take about 30-40 hours. Grinding levels and maximizing supports extend the playtime by quite a bit. In fact, trying to perfect Revelation could take over a hundred hours due to the sheer number of characters. When taken together as one giant playtime experience, Fire Emblem Fates is replayable at least a couple of times. Despite each title sharing similarities, the differences in story and gameplay are compelling enough to convince a fan of the genre to play them all. Finally, the My Castle mode itself adds to the replayability through its endless social capabilities and customization.
Fire Emblem Fates is a worthwhile investment for fans of the turn-based strategy RPG genre. Its three-game structure allows a variety of players to access its tale. Fans of Awakening will enjoy Birthright, while Conquest will certainly appeal to the hardcore strategists. Revelation is the culminating reward bestowed upon those who are ready to experience the conclusion. Between the three games and a matrix of modes and difficulties, nearly everyone will find something that suits their playstyle. No matter how you play, each game is filled with fun characters, solid tactics, and a tale that will leave you wanting to see what fate is ultimately in store for Corrin.
Overall Score: 9/10
What do you think of Fire Emblem Fates? Which version do/would you prefer: Birthright, Conquest, or Revelation? Who are your favorite characters from either game? Do you side with Hoshido or Nohr? Please share any thoughts you have in the comments section below!
Note: The version used for this review was Fire Emblem Fates: Special Edition.