Fire Emblem Fates succeeds in picking up where Awakening left off and building on the extremely solid grounds established by it
Fire Emblem Fates is not a sequel to its most recent counterpart, Fire Emblem: Awakening; however, it is a game that sets out to build on what was achieved by its direct predecessor, a game that unexpectedly turned the Fire Emblem franchise into a smash hit in the West. The series – with characters whose designs blatantly nod to an anime art style, and a gameplay of grid-based strategical movements and automatic battles – was always seen as an irremediably niche product; one that would never be able to amass an audience large enough to lift it to the pantheon reserved to Nintendo’s greatest properties. That belief, though, along with the insurmountable invisible barriers that pigeonholed Fire Emblem as a minor product outside Japan, came down when Awakening, without stripping the series of any of its remarkable characteristics, broke through.
Fates is a game that seems to hit the market fully aware of the context in which it is inserted. With Awakening, the usual dedicated fanbase that had always followed new Fire Emblem installments was joined by a group of gamers coming to grips with the franchise’s concepts, which led Nintendo to realize the series’ potential for market expansion. That is precisely why, seeking to please diverging groups of fans and satisfy Nintendo’s urge for an accessible product, it is rather fitting that Fates is not a standalone Fire Emblem game, but a trio of titles that have the same characters and universe, albeit in slightly different perspectives; share the same gameplay; and offer varying levels of challenge.
Players take control of a customizable avatar, named Corrin, that lives in a land in which the two major kingdoms, Nohr and Hoshido, are on the verge of total war; with both accusing each other of sudden attacks, and Nohr, led by the stern King Garon, about to launch a massive offensive with the goal of conquering Hoshido. As it turns out, though, Corrin is not a mere pawn in this foggy game of who is wrong and who is right, but someone who has – thanks to a rather eventful life story – emotional family-like ties to the royal families of both countries.
Divided into chapters where a combat scenario is sandwiched between introductory and concluding pieces of story development achieved through occasional gorgeous cutscenes and a good deal of text bubbles, Fates spends its six opening chapters exposing Corrin’s ties to both sides, with the character’s relationship with the four royal siblings fighting for each nation being especially highlighted. That necessary and pleasant buildup comes to a close when, in the middle of a battlefield where Hoshido and Nohr’s armies face each other, Corrin must choose which cause to support and which siblings to disappoint; as a statement on how well-done the first six chapters are, the decision is not an easy one even though Nohr is painted as being completely misguided by the actions of a tyrant leader.
To some gamers, the decision will be automatically made, for the purchase of Birthright or Conquest will, respectively, lead the way to the forging of an alliance between themselves and Hoshido or Nohr. Buying one of the versions means that the other two, including Revelation – in which Corrin chooses to act independently rather than opt for a side – become available for a discounted price.
The concerns that Fates’ division into three separate pieces would mean that players would have to pay more than the regular price in order to get a full-game’s worth of value end up being baseless: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation are not a trio of jigsaws that form a full picture; they are actually entities that stand on their own both in terms of storyline, with each game coming to a satisfying conclusion, and content, as every single one of them is as long and fulfilling as any other Fire Emblem outing. The true result is that players end up getting three Fire Emblem titles for a very pleasant price if they wish to see all perspectives of the story.
The split is, actually, such a success that it happens to be the game’s greatest quality. For starters, there is the fact that each one of them has its own level of difficulty, with Birthright being relatively light when it comes to challenge; Revelation working as some sort of middle ground; and Conquest emerging as a tough journey.
That balance is achieved in many ways: Birthright and Revelation are generous when it comes to giving players resources to improve the weapons and skills of their army, while Conquest is quite stingy, forcing players to do a lot with a little; additionally, the former pair is also packed with a nearly endless stream of random missions that allow players to grind for levels, whereas Conquest offers absolutely none of those; and finally, Conquest is incredibly tricky in its level design and rather punishing when players make key strategic mistakes, making it the most intriguing and engaging version to seasoned Fire Emblem fans. At last, while Birthright’s missions are focused on either routing the enemy or defeating a boss, Revelation and Conquest have more variety in their objectives, with the last one featuring missions where players need to defend a position, achieve a goal within a certain limit of turns, or even escape a dire situation.
Naturally, as it has become the series’ norm, players can freely adjust the difficulty settings of each title whenever they see fit, choosing between Classic (fallen unities are lost forever and cannot be used again) and Casual (fallen unities return in the following chapter); and Normal, Hard, and Lunatic, with the caveat that the difficulty level can only be decreased, never increased. It is a nice feature that allows the three games, despite their inherent challenge setup, to be enjoyed by anyone.
The second alluring ripple caused by the different paths that can be followed lies, obviously, in the storyline. Given that Nohr, in spite the good intentions of the royal siblings, is depicted as the bad side of the events portrayed, choosing Hoshido and going for Birthright transforms the plot into a traditional good vs. evil affair. Conquest, on the other hand, takes some dark and interesting turns in its plot. Revelation, meanwhile, happens to reveal nuances that are completely obscured from players’ sights in the other two versions. The similar thread that runs through the three tales, other than the participating characters, is the fact that the writing is spotty, with cheesy forced lines and outlandish situations rearing their heads every once in a while and disrupting what is a pretty impressive and complex universe that was carefully built.
Outside of that realm, it is hard to find fault in Fire Emblem Fates: each game, aside from the six initial missions that are shared among them, features twenty-two other maps – plus around a dozen extra quests that can be unlocked by building strong relationships between characters. Players will choose a certain number of unities from the available army roster and take the field with them in order to battle the enemy, trying to calculate the better route for attack – especially by taking advantage of how the various weapon types available match against one another; knowing when to defend by avoiding the area of action and movement of each rival unity that is on the field; and using endless kinds of other strategies to achieve the chapter’s goal.
Those simple mechanics gain an impressive range of strategic undertones that need to be accounted for if players are to succeed. Firstly, there are the various unity classes – some of which are exclusive to certain versions, that need to be known and managed carefully: knights that mount flying animals, for example, are incredibly weak to arrows; while heavily armored generals suffer huge blows when attacked by magic. The fact that it is possible to move unities between classes or simply upgrade the current class to a higher one, not to mention how some classes can carry different kinds of weapons, adds a whole level of complexity to army management.
Moreover, while deployed on the field, unities can be either paired-up – in other words, two soldiers can be assigned to the same square on the grid and move as one – or stand side-by-side. The former strategy is very effective from a defensive standpoint, for one unit can help the other avoid incoming attacks; whereas the latter is incredibly useful offensively, as a soldier standing on an adjacent space to that where a conflict is happening can jump into the action and deliver attacks.
Like it happened on Awakening, those two actions have an off-the-field impact, for the more two members of the army act together, the more their relationship will deepen, which – in turn – will increase the stats bonuses those unities gain when standing close to one another. As they grow closer, new dialogues that get progressively more personal between the duos will unlock, providing players with a sweet reward for their efforts in battle that is neither leveling up nor stat building, but good old character development, a very nice gift given Fire Emblem Fates is bursting with memorable personages.
It is worth mentioning, though, that – like it happens with the storyline – the writing of those dialogues sometimes drops below an acceptable quality level. Even more aggravating, however, is that, as it was the case in Awakening, two characters can marry and have children that can be added to the army. Sadly, while the time-rift upon which Awakening’s plot was built worked as a reasonable explanation for how the offspring of your unities appeared as fully competent and grown adults so quickly, Fates finds an embarrassingly amateurish excuse to explain how such an occurrence is possible.
To top off that enthralling mountain of content, Fire Emblem Fates also has a solid amount of online gameplay, including the opportunity to match up against other players, and the brand new My Castle feature, a completely customizable home-base in which players will construct many buildings that will provide support for their army – such as an armory, a smithy, a staff store, a dining hall, and a lottery, or work as defense mechanisms for the “Castle Invasion” online battle mode.
All in all, Fire Emblem Fates succeeds in picking up where Awakening left off and building on the extremely solid grounds established by it. The game puts together an impressive and complex universe and uses it as the setting for three distinct stories of equally engaging strategy sequences and deeply emotional events. Not only do Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation all go down in history as some of the finest Fire Emblem games ever released, but they also appeal to a wide array of audiences with their simple yet effective production values, flexible difficulty settings, exciting mechanics, and absolutely remarkable characters. Like a lengthy and epic series of books, when the Fates trilogy comes to a close following at least seventy hours of gameplay, players will not be relieved to finally have reached full closure; they will actually feel a tug at their hearts for having to leave such a fantastic world. And that alone should be a testament loud enough to prove the greatness that is found inside Fire Emblem Fates.