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Though it was unknown to gamers at the time, Fire Emblem: Awakening was something of a last ditch effort by the development team to make the tough SRPG series a sales success. Failure to do so would've resulted in the series suffering the perma-death that so many of its characters have experienced. Diamonds can only be created in high pressure environments, however, and the game turned out to be arguably the best in the series yet. Now, here we are on the brink of Awakening's successor – Fire Emblem Fates - and the big question is: how does it stack up?

In short, Fates appears to build upon everything that its predecessor laid out, while throwing in some new features that many will no doubt find welcome. Indeed, it really feels as though Intelligent Systems listened to all of the feedback from Awakening and simply tweaked the game to make an even finer final product. Though not all have agreed with the concept and pricing behind a three campaign approach, Fire Emblem Fates is shaping up to be the most ambitious and satisfying entry in the series yet.

For those of you who don't know the story, it's primarily centered around the main unit named Corrin – who bears many gameplay and design similarities with Awakening's Robin – as he or she must take a side in a bloody war between the two rival nations of Hoshido and Nohr. As if that weren't enough, Corrin is a child of the Hoshidan royalty, but has been raised by the Nohrian royalty, meaning that he or she has a stake in both sides of the conflict. While we didn't get a chance to see a significant portion of the plot, characters are written with just as much personality and charm as they were in Awakening, meaning that you'll find yourself actually caring each time you witness a unit fall in battle.

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In terms of how battle mechanics play out gameplay is largely reminiscent of Awakening, with some caveats thrown in for additional strategy. For one, the Pair Up feature has been weakened a little, so as to encourage players to separate and pair units in equal measure. Basically, if a support character is standing next to a unit an attack could be triggered, but not a block. Conversely, if a support character is paired up with a unit there will be a block opportunity, but no second attack; enemy units can also make full use of the pair up system, leveling the playing field considerably. Though some will likely be displeased with this change, it forces players to think more about what characters are placed where and tosses out the method in Awakening where two characters could form a super-unit.

As for battles themselves, there are an increased amount of strategic options and objectives. On some battlefields turrets are placed on certain areas of the map that can only be used by particular character types (such as a bow user with ballistae). Turrets have great range and can do considerable damage to multiple enemies at once, but they cannot finish off enemies and any allies within the attack grid will be harmed, too. In a throwback to older entries, units can also now visit houses and buildings to warn residents that are caught in the crossfire of the battles, and players will be rewarded with helpful items for doing this. Another thing of note is that there are new mission objectives this time around. One of the demos tasked us with keeping an endless barrage of enemies away from a few specific areas on the grid for several rounds, offering up a refreshing alternative to the typical 'defeat the enemy' task.

One of the biggest criticisms of Awakening was the somewhat limited multiplayer aspect, but this has been addressed for Fates. There is now both local and online multiplayer for battles on full scale maps. It's all centered around a new feature where your character has his or her own castle. Buying things in the castle costs Dragonvein Points, which are earned by completing various challenges such as clearing stages or participating in multiplayer battles. Decorative items can be purchased, along with more practical things such as an armor smith that can sell you new gear. Practical purchases like this that yield usable items can then be upgraded to pay out for better goods. The castle should be built somewhat defensively, however, as you must defend it in multiplayer or streetpass.

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Multiplayer unfolds just like your typical in-game battle would, with a few necessary tweaks here and there. Ahead of time players put together teams from their available units and select one before going into battle with the opponent. There's also an option to put a handicap on the player with the more powerful team that brings the levels of their characters in line with that of their opponent. This is much appreciated, as it ensures that a player who is considerably further along in the story won't just wipe the floor with their significantly underpowered opponent.

Graphically speaking, the same art style from Awakening is used here, though models and textures seem to be a bit more detailed and, yes, characters do finally have feet. Another thing to note is that the battle screen and map screen now seamlessly transition from one to the next with a much more dynamic camera. On top of this, the battle screen includes much more context sensitive backgrounds, as opposed to having the same background depending on what kind of tile the character is standing on.

All in all, Fire Emblem Fates is shaping up to be a supremely satisfying strategy experience. The gameplay has been tightened up in places where it was needed and it still remains equally accessible to both newcomers and veterans. The inclusion of a full blown multiplayer mode has been a long time coming, and the new castle environment gives your character a customisable home which is a lovely place to rest between battles. For Fire Emblem fans this is all hugely promising, and for newcomers there may never have been a better time to jump in.

These impressions are based upon a press event and related preview time in San Francisco. Nintendo of America paid for our writer's flights and hotel stay.