Regardless of your choice, you’re in for a ride
In 2013, Nintendo brought Fire Emblem: Awakening to the west, the game itself was praised by critics and players alike. I myself got the game back in July and enjoyed almost every second of it. So with Awakening still fresh in my mind, I dove into Fire Emblem Fates, hoping for an experience at least on par With the previous installment.
Fire Emblem Fates is separated into two (actually three but at the time of this review the third path is not available to anyone who hasn’t gotten the collector’s edition) games; Birthright and Conquest, each follows a different side of a war where you play as a customizable avatar who is related in blood to one country but raised by the other, forcing the player to choose their allegiance. In Birthright you side with Hoshido, a feudal Japan inspired nation under the leadership of your blood family; and the Conquest path has you side with the medieval-themed kingdom of Nohr led by the family that raised you.
For the first five chapters you get to see both sides of the conflict, giving you an equal look at both groups, and both sides are held in equal standing for the most part except for an incident that happens the chapter before the decision that kinda sets a bias against Nohr.
But the games differ in more than just the family you decide. Birthright is designed to be more like Awakening; easier than the older installments of the series and welcoming to newcomers while Conquest is designed to be more challenging, and it shows. Conquest’s missions do lean on the more difficult side for a few reasons, one of which being the lack of optional missions to level up units. Birthright allows you to fight additional battles with random units similar to the reeking boxes from Awakening, allowing you to level up units and boost supports easier. Conquest, on the other hand, lacks these optional missions, making leveling up a challenge. Another thing factoring into this difficulty is the missions.
Birthright has two types of missions, killing a boss and routing the enemy, simple objectives with the only requirement for failure being the defeat of your units. Conquest however spices things up by adding more mission objectives, such as holding a location for a set number of rounds or seizing control of a building. Its a nice change of pace from the usual kill all the enemies missions. I kind of wish Birthright had these sort of missions as to break up all the “kill everyone” missions.
The stories for both games are very good. The pacing is done well, the plot twists are well executed, and it all flowed nice and smoothly, with no “dips” in plot progression. The stories for each game are different, so you’ll be getting a totally different narrative experience with each game, and not just he same story with different characters. However there are some events that occur in both games at different points that parallel eachother, such as how you recruit your game ‘s respective older sister and her retainers at the same time, a level where one of your siblings gets sick in a resort town, and a battle in an opera house where you recruit a local furry into your army. You’ll also visit locations in the games that share battlefield maps but the units you fight and the objectives manage to make the actual battles feel different. But parallel events aside both stories are worth looking into.
Fire Emblem has been known for its characters and Fates is no different. Most of the playable characters are like able and unique, such as Arthur the justice loving axe user and Izana the flamboyant archduke. The royal siblings on both sides are especially enjoyable and written realistically regardless on what side of the conflict you meet them on. The royal family you don’t side with interacts with you in a way you’d expect from the characters, some with hostility and understandable anger and others who still care about you while the ones that do side with also treat you as one would expect. Your Nohr family that raised you fully trusting you and your Hoshido family embracing their long lost sibling (with the exception of Takumi who initially is wary of you but it is a believable interaction).
What was also surprising was the portrayal of the Avatar/Corrin. The player character has a distinct personality and ideals that contribute to their inner struggle as they progress through the story, questioning how things could have played out if they had chosen the other side. Its the best portrayal of a player customized protagonist that I’ve seen since Saints Row 4.
A new addition to the series is the My Castle, a fort that exists within an ethereal plane that serves as your central hub. If you play online you can invade other player’s castles and battle their units there. You can build and upgrade structures that can earn resources, shops, and emplacements to use on other players in multiplayer battles. I liked this feature allot more than I thought I would. It condenses a lot of services and in game menus into a single location and the ability to customize it really makes it feel personalized.
Fire Emblem: Awakening introduced Casual mode, a difficulty mode where units would not permanently die after falling in battle. Fates takes it a step further by introducing Phoenix mode. If Casual mode is like training wheels then Phoenix mode is like if your dad never let go of the bike. In this difficulty (and I use the term difficult lightly) your units are revived after every round, meaning that you pretty much can’t loose. The best use I could find for this mode was in Conquest, where it would keep units alive so I could train them more easily and level up supports. But other than that it makes the game a bit too easy.
Also, the Support system returns once more like it did in previous installments, allowing you to forge bonds between units and pair them up like some sort of fan-fic writer. And just like Awakening you can pair the avatar with almost anyone, this makes it incredibly awkward since you can pair yourself up with one of your siblings. And speaking of flaws in the support system, the children mechanic returns from Awakening but it is not implemented as well. In Awakening there was a reason in the story for the children and made sense, The children units in Fates are poorly implemented in a way that is kind of messed up if you think about it. The Fates reasoning for the child units is that when a couple reaches the “S” rank support they have a baby but the castle isn’t suitable for raising children, so they put the child in a hyperbolic time dimension where they rapidly age into puberty when you recruit them through a side mission. I don’t have kids but I think this sounds like a bad parenting choice to throw your kid into the puberty dimension until he’s old enough to kill. I honestly think this game could have gone without this aspect of the support system, even if it means you can recruit Laslow’s cool daughter.
I usually don’t care too much about character design, but I have to say that whoever designed the outfits in this game needs to learn how to give women pants. While the class designs are unique to each side, Nohr’s characters having European armor and using typical European weaponry and Hoshido following its Japanese motifs; the female’s outfits suffer from “skimpy impractical fantasy RPG syndrome”. Parts of their clothes are cut out to show off more skin and enough butts and breasts are shown off to make you question how this got the Nintendo seal of approval. The characters of Camilla and Charlotte have especially provocative designs and it doesn’t help that one of them does a sexual bending pose every time they kill an enemy. Its kind of shocking to see designs like this come from a series that was once conservative with its female character designs. It doesn’t take away from the gameplay but it might make some player uncomfortable.
Skimpy clothes and puberty dimensions aside I found the actual gameplay to be very well done. The battles in Fates felt very elaborate and had me thinking out actual strategies to win. The maps are designed in a way that makes the battlefields a bigger factor in the fights, forcing players to put the enviornment into account when planning their next move. A new addition to fights is that the battles between units have fully rendered backgrounds that show exactly where on the map you are fighting, making the environments stand out alot more than Awakening’s flat battlefields and dull backgrounds that show up regardless of where your units are. These battlefields can change in the blink of an eye thanks to the new Dragon’s Vein feature. How this works is that certain characters can activate Dragon Veins on maps that can significantly alter the battle, such as drying up a river to allow troops to get through or activating a healing zone. My personal favorite was on a boat in Birthright where the Dragon Vein activated a tornado that greatly impeded flying movements, so I would lure enemy fliers to the location of a Dragon Vein and activate it, effectively trapping them while my ground forces went to town on them. I could never pull off a strategy like this in Awakening but Fates is full of moments like these that really make you feel like your executing strategies instead of playing chess with anime characters.
Fates also introduces a number of new classes to the series, each with advantages and disadvantages, such as Kishi knights; flying archers that can move around the battlefield with ease and Mechanists who ride around the map on mechanical dragon things that fire shurikens and arrows from their mouths. Whats even more impressive is that some classes are restricted to different sides to further show differences between Nohr and Hoshido. The Hoshidans in Birthright have samurais and ninjas within their ranks and use divine magic for their arcane needs while Conquest has the Nohrians use knights, cavaliers, and the traditional dark mages that fit in with the Midevil European theme that the country has going for it.
The soundtrack is also very good, with each side having different musical styles. Birthright has a very oriential styled soundtrack that fits with feudal japan motif it has while Conquest has a more classical Fantasy sounding soundtrack that makes me want to joust with someone or fight a dragon.
So now the big questions; is Fire Emblem Fates good?
Better than Awakening?
Yes and no.
The gameplay, map design, and the distinct cultural differences between Nohr and Hoshido allow Fates to surpass Awakening in some regards, but I feel that the story while very good does not have the weight that Awakening’s story had and some creative choices make the games awkward at times, but overall Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and Birthright are each great games and I recommend them both.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: 3DS (reviewed) ; Publisher: Nintendo ; Developer: Intelligent Systems ; Players: 1; Released: February 19, 2016 ; Genre: RPG ; MSRP: $39.99
This review is based on retail copies of Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright & Conquest purchased by Hey Poor Player.