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Fire Emblem: Fates Review

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I imagine many of you are familiar with the story behind the name of the original Final Fantasy -- how Square, facing bankruptcy, believed the game would be their final title and named the game with that expectation in mind. Of course, the game ended up being a smash hit which not only saved the company, but created one of the most successful franchises in gaming. I bet some of you did not know that the Fire Emblem franchise went through a similar process a few years ago. Fire Emblem: Awakening, released in Japan in 2012, was designed to serve as a potential final entry in the franchise. Thankfully, Awakening was a hit, both amongst long-time fans and newcomers to the franchise, and served to ignite a new fervor amongst gamers which has led to Fire Emblem: Fates, the latest entry in the turn-based strategy franchise turned waifu-simulator/eugenics-simulator.

Across its three campaigns, Fire Emblem: Fates tells the story of the war between European-inspired Nohr, the epitome of evil empire, and Japanese-inspired Hoshido, the paradigm of good fighting for freedom and against oppression. Players take on the role of Corrin, a member of the Hoshido royal family, kidnapped as a child, and raised as a member of Nohr’s royalty. Early on, players are given a choice -- side with your birth family (Birthright) or side with the family you grew up with (Conquest). However, the choice in Fates is not like Pokémon games where the stories are essentially the same and the version choice is fairly insignificant. In Fates, the side you choose dictates not only which allies join you and which oppose you, but also leads to two very different campaigns. With Hoshido, things are straightforward -- you and your siblings set out to defeat an evil nation bent on conquering and oppressing your people. Yes, you must battle the family which raised you, but at the core of your mission is the knowledge that what you’re doing is just and right. Siding with Nohr is a more complicated matter. Instead of the outright noble cause, you and your siblings are enduring trials and tribulations in hopes of enacting change from within. Thankfully, neither campaign feels cheaper than the other. Both Birthright and Conquest offer emotional campaigns where the Corrin is forced to bear the difficult consequences from his tough decision. Players who purchase one version of Fates can download and play the second campaign as DLC, as well as the game’s third and final campaign, Revelations, where Corrin refuses to join either side, becoming an enemy of both Hoshido and Nohr (with additional campaigns at half the price of the first full campaign).

Choosing a side also determines the missions you undertake and the challenges you face. In the Birthright campaign, the majority of battles are fairly simple, requiring players to defeat all enemies or the boss. Very few of the missions throw curve-balls at players or drastically increase the number of enemies as the chapter continues. Conversely, many of the Conquest missions are brutal and far more challenging. For instance, the objectives are often more complicated, a number throw seemingly unending waves of enemies at players (which stop providing experience far too quickly..), and others go so far as to immediately start players at a disadvantage. Some of this disparity in difficulty can be explained by the narrative of the Conquest campaign which establishes that the King does not trust you and is trying to actively make your life miserable. However, even many of the abilities you find yourself up against work to make the Conquest campaign significantly harder. Powerful abilities like Vantage, which allows users to attack first when attacked if health is below half, and Hex, a spell which reduces a target’s health to half for the duration of a chapter, are largely exclusive to Hoshido units. Furthermore, while the Birthright campaign offers Challenge levels for players to develop their characters outside of the main campaign, the Conquest campaign does not offer the same opportunities. This puts additional pressure and risks on players to not just roll through every level with one or two powerful units. That said, the Conquest campaign is not without merit. While challenging, many of the chapters are also far more creative. For instance, one chapter surrounds players with gusts of air which can suddenly transport allied units across the map. Was it challenging to build my strategy around ensuring my units could battle both nearby enemies and enemies where they would be transported? Yes, of course. However, I can’t think of any levels in the Birthright campaign which came close to producing the elation I felt after clearing one of the soul-crushingly difficult levels after struggling for many days -- at least until the next challenging level which proceeded to bury my spirit. Revelations falls somewhere in the middle -- many of the levels are creative and challenging, but players also have ways to level their characters outside of the campaign and the chapters felt less difficult than Conquest's.

Like many of you, my introduction to the Fire Emblem franchise came in 2001 thanks to the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee. While I don’t profess to be the most ardent fan, I have played a handful of the early Fire Emblem games thanks to fan translations. That said, many of those early games were brutally difficult and the only reason I beat them was by using save states to exploit the game’s probability-based combat system. For those who have never played Fire Emblem, think of a turn based tactical RPG with RNG elements, rock-paper-scissors mechanics, now with a dating simulator, all wrapped in one. Players are given control over a wide range of units which range from ground units, to mounted units, to even flying units. Combat is comprised of a weapons triangle (swords beat axes which beat lances which beat swords) as well as a range of spells and additional weapons, weaknesses, and advantages. Players need to maneuver their unit to take advantage of these relationships while also being aware that the enemy forces eagerly await their own turn. Part of the challenge is that Fire Emblem possesses perma-death (although Fates follows Awakening’s lead and lets players disable this feature) -- if a character dies in combat, that character is permanently lost to you (unless you restart and load your save). Forces which engage in combat gain experience to level up and unlock new abilities and classes. Weapons no longer wear down over time, meaning players spend less time worrying about gear and more time focused on the gameplay and narrative (although healing spells still exhibit the annoying characteristic of running out on turn twelve of an especially arduous chapter..). Players can even pair units up on the battlefield to gain support advantages based on the relationships you have built between your troops. Fates also introduces pairing and support for enemy units. Enemy forces can now receive the same advantages as players, adding an additional element of difficulty and strategy. And, if it’s your thing, you can now imagine the enemies you face have a history together as you defeat one foe, leaving the other to weep over their ally’s unexpected and untimely demise. At least for a few moments until your next move at which point you proceed to kill that opponent as well..

As much as Fire Emblem: Fates is a turn-based strategy game, it is also a character drama. In addition to the relationships and character drama which develops between Corrin and his siblings, players can also build relationships between the other characters of their army. While the crux of Fates’ story predominately focuses on Corrin and his siblings, through the various character interactions, players are given a window into the numerous other members of the army. Part of the challenge when playing with perma-death is that losing a character not only costs a useful unit, but also because you lose a character whose relationships you have watched develop. Like Awakening, players can also marry their characters to produce children, which, through a convenient, albeit unsatisfying, plot device, quickly reach maturity and can be recruited to join the fight. Unlike Awakening, however, children are connected to the father in Fates, leaving the mothers with the uninspired support conversations this go around. One of the most intriguing aspects of Fates’ two divergent stories is that going from one campaign to the other means you will inevitably fight many of your former allies. If you’re particularly cruel, you can even have children fight their parents from the alternative storylines.

Between battles, players interact with their army in a customizable castle which is a new addition to the Fire Emblem franchise. Players can manage and upgrade their buildings, decorate the castle grounds, and even build defenses. Upgrading buildings allows various benefits, such as shops which acquire better items, fields which produce more resources, or the arena which allows additional battles. Furthermore, players can visit other castles to recruit other players, learn skills, or even battle additional opponents. Although this does not reward Conquest players with experience, it is a useful way to build up relationships between less used characters.

Before its release, one of the biggest concerns regarding Fire Emblem: Fates was that the two campaigns were being sold separately. Players felt Nintendo was merely splitting the game akin to Pokémon games. Yes, Fire Emblem: Fates is comprised of two (three) games which constitute the whole. However, all each game feels like its own distinct game because each one is so complete and separate. This is largely thanks to the constant weight of the initial decision players are forced to make -- which side do you choose. Yes, players are forced to choose a side too early to really feel strongly between one side or the other, and I imagine most will likely play through all three campaigns eventually. However, each campaign offers plenty of opportunities for the family you side against to repeatedly expresses their hurt at your choice and betrayal. For someone who is forced to make a decisive choice, Corrin is a bit whinier than other Fire Emblem protagonists, but no other character in the franchise has ever been given a comparable choice along with the painful and cruel consequences which come with that choice. Personally, if either Fates or Awakening is your first foray into the Fire Emblem universe, I recommend starting with Birthright. Without a doubt, Birthright is the easier of the two games and is similar to Awakening. On the other hand, Conquest is more akin to the more traditional Fire Emblem games and will really push you, especially on the higher difficulties. Just to give it some context -- I started with Conquest at release and it took me over a month to finish as some levels took days to overcome. Conversely, Birthright took around two weeks from start to finish because I rarely got stuck on challenging levels. Of course, Revelations fills in many of the holes and questions left at the conclusion of both campaigns and is best played after completing Conquest and Birthright. Should you play Fire Emblem: Fates? Yes, one-hundred percent. Should you play all three campaigns? Again, my answer is unequivocally, yes. I will admit that I am probably more than a little addicted to all the extra features offered by the game (relationship building, visiting other castles, hunting rare abilities), but even without all that, Fire Emblem: Fates is a fun game that delivers three satisfying stories. Honestly, in my opinion, Fire Emblem: Fates is worth playing for the dual-narrative approach employed alone, and everything else just makes for a better package.

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. ~Jawaharlal Nehru

All images owned by Nintendo.