Who will you side with?
Amidst a whirlwind of rumors and anticipation mounting after the runaway success of Awakening, Fire Emblem Fates has quickly become one of the most hyped games of the year. With a story so large it took three full-length games to tell, this title has been such an epic undertaking for the team at Intelligent Systems, it was almost impossible for them not to succeed. Regardless which title you choose to play—although you should give them all a shot—the attention to detail is apparent everywhere, from slight, almost imperceptible tweaks in gameplay to the beauty of the world they’ve created.
Fates comes in three flavors: Birthright, Conquest and Revelation. The narratives all focus on the turmoil between the two kingdoms of Hoshido and Nohr and what consequences your allegiance brings. As a child, your character, a prince or princess of Hoshido, was kidnapped by King Garon of Nohr. Faced with the truth of your lineage, players must choose to side with Hoshido (Birthright), Nohr (Conquest) or neither (Revelation). All three games follow the same basic gameplay mechanics, but approach this tale from different angles based on this choice.
If you’ve played Fire Emblem before, you’ll be familiar with the main mechanics of the game. Gameplay focuses on grid-based battlefields and relies heavily on using strategy to move your individual units as in a game of chess. Each character has strengths and weaknesses and can move a different amount of spaces based on their class. After players have moved all their units, or ended their turn early, the enemy is given the opportunity to move. Skirmishes are animated and transition from the default top-down perspective to a third person view. You can toggle between cameras or even turn off this view all together if you want to play faster.
It is imperative to think several moves ahead and study the enemy before beginning. As the story progresses, you’ll gain new members for your army, but can only bring a set number into each battle. Choosing weapons, distributing special skills and sizing up the enemy become a key pre-battle regimen to ensure success. Many battles come with their own unique challenges as well, whether it be a difficult terrain, a capped amount of moves or a specific goal for victory. More so than previous entries I’ve played, Fates pushes you to develop new tactics and adjust on the fly as a battle progresses. Each clash feels unique and keeps the game from stagnating while also gradually increasing the difficulty of your encounters.
To keep the game accessible to all types of players, Fates features three difficulties and three modes of play. Fire Emblem is famous for its use of Permadeath—if an ally is killed in battle, they stay dead. No second chances. However, Awakening changed the game with the introduction of Casual mode, which brought characters back to life after a battle was won. Fates pushes it further with Phoenix, the easiest option where units only die for a single turn. If you’re in it for the story alone, this is the mode for you.
To continue the customizable nature of the game, players can skip cutscenes, get rid of battle animations, increase the information seen on the bottom of the screen, etc. The tutorial also aims to be unobtrusive, only appearing if you select the easiest difficulty, and teaching players in a fluid manner.
Relationships are an integral part of Fire Emblem, as always. Every time you battle with two characters paired up or adjacent, a little heart will pop up above them indicating their growing relationship. Inside of battle, this can lead to stronger support and stats boost when they fight together. Outside of battle, this triggers support conversations that rewards you with the next support level. These conversations can reveal characters’ backstories, story information or just seriously amusing dialogue. Most characters’ top support level is A, but if two units are marriage compatible, they will hit an S rank and be able to marry and have kids you can later recruit.
There are some changes here that the developers have made over previous entries. Weapons no longer have a set amount of uses before they break. But, to make up for this, stronger weapons now lower certain stats instead. A small but significant change has been added to dual attacks and guards as well. Dual attacks only occur with adjacent units, while dual guards are reserved for pair ups. The famous weapons triangle has also been expanded to include magic, bows and daggers. However, perhaps the biggest change to battles is the addition of Dragon Vein spaces. Any character belonging to a royal family can trigger Dragon Veins, which have a wide range of effects. Sometimes they can spawn a healing spot, other times terrain can be manipulated, and more. Keeping with the advanced strategy of the game, many Dragon Veins create effects that can both help and hinder your army and should be used with caution.
One of the largest additions in Fates is My Castle. This is basically your hub for buying supplies, but also features so many mini activities that it’s almost its own game. Comprised of a walled in complex and central throne, everything is customizable, from the architecture style to building placement. Players can purchase or upgrade buildings using special points obtained through battles. Your allies help run the shops and will give discounts on items they favor, so it’s important to check back often for the best deals. I do wish the process for comparing weapons and sorting through your inventory was smoother; there is a lot of back and forth as you scroll through the categories. It would have made more sense to place it on the bottom screen and utilize the stylus instead.
Other buildings include statues that improve character stats, gardens to harvest food that can be cooked into stat-boosting meals, an arena to gamble resources in, an accessory shop that changes a unit’s appearance, a hot spring to relax with other characters and more. The most important building is your avatar’s home, where you can change your hairstyle or hang out with other characters.
If you’ve heard of the infamous “petting” controversy lately, this is where that would take place. When you invite a character into your home, they’ll say something nice with a full voiceover while your bottom screen shows a close up of them talking to you. In the Japanese version, you could touch them with your stylus and they’d respond; however in the western release this has been eliminated for the most part. Instead you can move the camera around to view more of a character and only interact with them using the stylus if you’re married to them.
My Castle is also what you’ll see when you visit others via StreetPass. You can explore other players’ castles, buy items you might not have in your game (either due to upgrades, or Birthright versus Conquest items), recruit characters and fight their army.
For more personal battles, online multiplayer features a good amount of options. There are five maps to choose from and opponents can be selected from your friends list, through local multiplayer or chosen at random. Random matches can feature standard rules or include limitations on things such as the new Eternal Seal feature, which allows players to level up beyond their usual cap. All battles are five versus five, with armies pulled from the save file of your choice. Players are also only given five minutes per turn to keep things moving.
If that wasn’t enough for you, the main story on either version of the game will keep you occupied for a while. Each version promises the same amount of gameplay as Awakening did and takes place over the course of 28 chapters, and the addition of DLC episodes will keep the game going long after you’ve beaten the main story. Altogether, there are 69 playable units, 21 of which are children from different marriage combinations. Maps are rarely shared between games, and when they do overlap, the battle scenario is completely different.
Birthright is the perfect way to start of your Fates saga. It’s the easier choice, but only when compared to Conquest—this is still Fire Emblem after all. After choosing Hoshido, players will immediately set out on a quest to find two of the avatar’s siblings who have gone missing during a far off battle. Recruitable characters are introduced quickly, and Challenges (optional battles outside the main story) appear often in between chapters, with an option to spend gold to scout out more. Experience is also gained more quickly, but this is balanced out by the sheer number of characters you will accumulate and have to train up. Gold is also more abundant, so it is easier to experiment with different items in the store.
Conquest takes place after choosing your “adoptive” nation of Nohr and focuses on trying to prove your worth to King Garon initially. Your army is kept small for a while, and takes a more offensive stance. Battlefields here rely more on terrain difficulties and small details that can change the tide of a battle in an instant. Gold is kept minimal, so it’s important to search every treasure chest and sparkling space for gold and items that can be sold. Challenges are also few and far between, with no option for scouting out new ones. However, Conquest has a distinctly more comedic tone, probably to offset the guilt of choosing the evil side of the war. Characters are more flamboyant and humorous, including one of my new favorite characters, Arthur, a knight with a superhero complex and medieval spandex.
Revelation is almost too hard to talk about without spoiling the other two games. With a direct focus on filling in all the intentional gaps left in the first two, the story keeps players on their toes. Gameplay finds a middle ground between the two games: while battles feel more like Birthright in difficulty and Challenges are frequent, your army is severely stunted for a good portion of the game and battlefields are more inventive. Characters and My Castle shops from both games are also available and makes this version feel like it’s building off the other two as a fulfilling conclusion.
Beyond simply playing the game, Fates goes above and beyond in terms of music, graphics and animation. The game is simply gorgeous, with richly drawn characters and environments that keep each version distinct and interesting. Hoshido, a peaceful nation, has traditional Japanese influences and scenes full of light with bright, bold colors. Nohr, hell-bent on conquering the world, has dark and intricate designs with large, menacing fortresses. The music is lush and unique to each environment, setting the tone of battles and story elements alike. It’s easy to just leave your 3DS on just to enjoy the full orchestral compositions.
Fully animated scenes and voice work are included at key moments and can be played back from the Records building in My Castle. The animations are so beautiful, they’re definitely worth a second or third play through. Most are drawn from your avatar’s point of view, pulling you into the moment. These sequences were chosen with care and directed in a thoughtful way to not just break up the action, but to draw you in further. Even the more simplistic battle animations have been expanded from Awakening as helmets fly off, outfits get tattered, etc, as you take on the enemy.
And while Fates is not officially connected to any other Fire Emblem title, there is a small nod to its predecessor. Three characters from Awakening, Severa, Inigo and Owain, make appearances as Selena, Laslow and Odin. These are recruitable characters, but only in certain versions. You can also pull in fan favorites Marth, Ike, Lucina and Robin by tapping their amiibo. The first two times, an amiibo character will present you with a present in My Castle, but on the third tap they can be recruited as a special bonus unit after besting them in battle.
Fire Emblem Fates is so perfectly executed that I wonder how they’ll top it as the series progresses. Every complaint from Awakening has been addressed, leading to a fine-tuned strategy game that borders on genius. I found myself smiling as I surveyed a new battlefield, realizing what hidden challenges and pitfalls the developers so expertly inserted. The story is so wonderfully engaging that you want to rush to the next chapter after every battle but cannot avoid getting sucked into all the other extras the games have to offer. Fates has struck a seamless balance in each version to not only keep you glued to your 3DS, but looking forward to the next version and the next as each one contains just enough information to hook you into buying all three. And while Birthright and Conquest build up amazing experiences, Revelation is the perfect pièce de résistance that succeeds in pulling back the curtain on a story you’ve been so entrenched in.