Disclaimer: The Special Edition of this game received by DualShockers for purposes of this review included all three versions of the game. Revelations, the third path, will be released on March 10, 2016. This review will not cover that version of the game.
The Fire Emblem series has never been bigger. Awakening was a massive success worldwide, adored by longtime veterans and first time players. For a series that includes many games never released outside of Japan, Awakening was an explosion of cultural relevance. Fire Emblem even now has six (count ‘em, six) representatives in the latest Super Smash Bros.
It’s fitting, then, that Fire Emblem Fates is far and away the biggest single entry in the series to date. The term ‘single entry’ is used very loosely here, as this game is one massive narrative spread over three separate titles. Each game stands on its own, though and offers something that any newcomer or series diehard will love.
The plot of Fates finds the player character, Corrin, in the middle of a civil war between two kingdoms, the traditionalist warriors of Hoshido and the noble but warmongering Nohr. Corrin might just be the most interesting Fire Emblem protagonist yet, as his history with each side is equally compelling.
This conflict is the central reasoning for the split between games, but not just a cheap plot to make more money. Choices the player must make regarding the future of each family are powerful and resonant, with each title providing a wholly unique experience.
Birthright is the more casually-inclined of the two main titles, as players side with the peace-seeking samurai of the Hoshido family. Conquest is billed more as ‘classic Fire Emblem experience’ as the the European-inspired Nohr clan wage war across a savage land.
Still, Fire Emblem‘s gameplay can rarely be described as simple. Both titles feature unique missions, characters and maps that amount to a full Fire Emblem game. Birthright allows for more exploration, similar to Awakening, where missions can be replayed to farm for gold and experience. The mission structure in Conquest is linear, but the battles themselves are much more rich, offering an onslaught of enemies and optional objectives.
The separate campaigns inform the perspective of the other and fit one overall narrative with notable twists and turns. Another benefit of the split is the wealth of memorable characters that are present as teammates.
You’ll likely fall in love with a few of these characters right off the bat, on both sides, and find yourself forced to choose between them. On the Nohr side, the mischievous mage Camilla and stubborn lord Leo made me want to stay with my adoptive family but the rash Hoshidan archer Takumi and pegasus-riding retainer Hinoka drew me back to my birth kin.
Players would be well advised to pick up the game they think they’ll enjoy more first, and download the additional path at the discounted cost when they want to see how the other side lives. Each campaign can run about 30 hours, not counting the multiple resets that will be required when a crucial party member falls in battle.
Speaking of which, Fates presents the same challenge we’ve all come to expect from Fire Emblem. Even Birthright (on Hard mode, with classic permadeath) backed me into several walls and made me second guess every tactic. Conquest is a much crueler beast in every way, and will even give series veterans a tough time. Gameplay is familiar, but a few updates make Fates stand out in the series.
A welcome change is the the overhauled weapon system. Excluding staves, weapons no longer have a finite number of uses. Additionally, the weapon triangle has been revamped outside of the “rock-paper-scissors” standard. Weapons are now based on color, as well as material. Using each different tool in battle offers pros and cons that never sacrifice the game’s complexity.
Managing your units is surprisingly streamlined, especially with a huge cast of characters. The UI can be simplified to show only relevant in battle, or expanded with a single tap to dive into each possible branch of customization.
The touch screen is an excellent way to check up on stats, skills and partner supports. Pairing units up in battle is required for success, and the support conversations that come out of these pairings can offer stat bonuses, protection and even new class options for each team member.
The only facet of Fates gameplay that really drags down the product is the lackluster multiplayer hub. Dubbed ‘My Castle’, players can customize their hub world and invade other players’ around the world. Think Metal Gear Solid V’s Mother Base features as a comparison.
Interacting with and customizing your units is a fun distraction here, but there isn’t too much to do, and the invasion system is a headache and just not as entertaining as it could be.
Also available in My Castle are the game’s controversial hot tub and “petting” segments. Nintendo has received a fair amount of criticism for censorship in the past, and Fire Emblem Fates also falls victim to some questionable changes.
You can’t physically rub your teammates outside of Japan, but you do get the same one-on-one segments, and you can even spy on other soldiers in their bath towels. The most lamentable omission in this game, personally, was the lack of dual audio dialogue options.
The localization team has also altered or even removed a quite a few of the dialogue lines from the Japanese original, at times in a way that appears almost arbitrary. In the original title, character’s support conversations were often humorous and ridiculous. However, with the new lines, certain characters come off as flat and unmemorable. With such a large cast, it’s a shame that some of the personality quirks were cut for fear of offending the potential audience, or for other reasons that aren’t really clear.
One of the biggest complaints that can be lobbed at the game is the questionable nature of some of the present dialogue. Characters will often repeat lines in an annoying manner, shout out simple phrases or in some cases just respond in complete and total silence.
The localization of Fates was clearly either rushed or botched altogether, because there are some frankly inexcusable omissions and alterations from what was present in the original title. For such a large game with so many characters, minor changes in dialogue shouldn’t stand out, but as bad as they are here, they do.
Outside of those unfortunate problems, Fire Emblem Fates provides the memorable gameplay of the series and a formidable, entertaining challenge for any 3DS owner. The added stress of betraying characters you’ve come to admire elevates the narrative tension to a natural and organic height.
Still deciding which version of the game you’re going to pick up? Take a look at the quick notes below to figure out which game is ideal for your style of play. After Chapter 6 of the game, you’ll be forced to choose, but your purchase will have already done that for you, unless you choose to download the other path.
Siding with Hoshido is clearly painted as the ‘good’ side of Fates, but the story still contains some sharp twists and turns. As you and your team trek across a ravaged countryside, you encounter a variety of enemy soldiers, villagers and monsters.
The map layout of Birthright is fairly standard across most missions, with little variation from the “Rout the Enemy” objective. Strategizing on what direction to go, and on which members to bring with you provides most of the variety in this version of the game. There’s a greater amount of weaponry and skills to account for while playing through the Hoshido storyline.
It may seem like you’re siding with ‘the bad guys’ in Conquest, but that notion will vanish within the first few chapters after making your decision. You’ll quickly come to understand exactly why the Nohr are doing what they are. Even the morally grey characters you’ll encounter are given dimensions to their actions that makes for a compelling look at the effects of this war.
Conquest significantly ups the challenge present in Birthright, allowing for less variety in team structure and experience division. You’ll want to pick a solid squad of soldiers early on and devote your time to them, or you’ll run into a challenge leveling up some lackluster units later in the game.