Fire Emblem: Awakening achieved what many had once thought to be an impossible goal: it succeeded in popularizing Nintendo’s strategy-based franchise of medieval warfare in the West. The title’s undeniable quality, its timely release, a great plot, and a whole lot of marketing that created massive buzz across the web came together to form an impressive perfect storm that somehow transformed a brand that was previously considered too niche into a property with considerable mass appeal.
With the series’ claws firmly gripping the attention of the American audience, Nintendo’s next step was nothing short of bold; the sequel to Awakening, the recently released Fire Emblem Fates, would not be a single game, but three divergent stories that have as their starting points six shared chapters. To those who were left either scratching their heads or boiling with frustration due to the fact that purchasing all three pieces of the installment costs eighty dollars, the doubts and angry-mob pitchforks can be put aside: not only is the price fair, for each version feels like a full-fledged Fire Emblem game – featuring 21 exclusive missions and eight unlockable ones; but each of them is also perfectly self-contained, working as satisfying standalone games to those who do not wish to play all three versions.
The kingdoms of Nhor and Hoshido are at war and through a series of twists explained in the six initial chapters that are common to all games, your avatar happens to have a deep connection with both sides. Intelligent Systems uses that opening arch to introduce players to the main characters fighting for each nation, especially the royal families that are leading the struggle, and building a solid emotional connection to them. As it turns out, Fates achieves that goal perfectly, because when one comes to the fork on the road – as their character stands in the middle of a battlefield where the royal children from each country beg Corrin to join them – the decision is tough, as the affection links have been carefully built.
To those who have purchased the three versions of the game, choosing Nohr leads them to Conquest; sticking with Hoshido paves the way to Birthright; and denying the two countries and opting to start a new kingdom from scratch sends them to Revelation, which is only available as DLC. To those who have not done so, the decision is made when the physical or digital copy of the game is bought.
Regardless of the road chosen, the game works the same way: aiming to fulfill the goal established for the chapter, from a view that shows the battlefield from the top, players move their unities around a grid to either defend their position or attack the enemy. Familiar mechanics that give great depth to the strategic undertones of the game are back, albeit slightly adjusted for better balance: placing two characters on the same square improves their chances to block incoming attacks; putting them in adjacent spaces leaves them more vulnerable to blows but allows the assisting character to join the fray and suddenly attack the enemy, hence enhancing the army’s offensive potential; and a rock-paper-scissors triangle determines the weaknesses and strengths of each weapon, making it essential to be aware of which unity is being deployed to face, defend against, or lure in a certain foe.
The choice of which path to take affects the game in three different ways: the storyline, the characters available to enlist in the army, and the difficulty of the missions. In terms of plot, Conquest ends up being the more intriguing path; after all, Nohr – despite the good nature of the royal children, which amazingly adds a whole lot of grayness to a setting that could be black and white – is depicted as the dark side. Consequently, where Birthright degenerates into a good vs. evil affair, Conquest has more engaging outlines and nuances given the fact players are fighting for an evil king, and Revelation works as a curious middle ground.
The best reverberation of the choice that is made in chapter six is, by far, located in the adventure’s difficulty. Since Fire Emblem is a franchise whose audience has long-time aficionados standing beside newcomers, not to mention that Nintendo is certainly interested in expanding its popularity, each version’s different level of challenge – plus the traditional options to play or not to play the game in classic mode (where characters who die in battle do not comeback), and the adjustable difficulty – is a feature that is fully aware of the series’ context, one in which it tries to please different types of fans.
Birthright is very forgiving: its missions, focused on routing the enemy’s army or defeating a boss, can be cleared in numerous ways, therefore giving players plenty of room for error; it is possible grind for experience by scouting the field for foes or doing challenges; and resources, especially gold, are abundant. Meanwhile, Conquest, whose chapters have more varied goals – including defending a position or escaping a tough situation, is hard: its stage design and stronger foes punish approaches that are not ideal and force players to plan everything carefully; resources are scarce, therefore making buying new weapons and health-recovering items truly hard, which puts players in a position where they need to scour the enemy-ridden battlefields for treasure; and grinding is not available. Revelation, as it happens on the storyline front, stands somewhere in between.
Fire Emblem Fates winds up being a rare case of a game whose most contested feature before its release ends up being its greatest prowess: the diverging paths and versions offer fulfilling experiences that appeal to distinct groups of fans, while also leaving the door open for new fans to enjoy Conquest by lowering its difficulty and for veterans to tackle a more brutal take on Birthright. Even though the writing occasionally falters in some places, especially regarding dialogues supporting character development, it is a worthy sequel to the glory that was Fire Emblem: Awakening.