Intelligent Systems got itself into a weird predicament after the stellar success of Fire Emblem Awakening a few years ago. Fire Emblem has long been known as one of Nintendo's most hardcore and unforgiving franchises – a turn-based RPG with plenty of variables to keep in mind on the battlefield, and where one wrong move might result in the permanent death of a unit. Awakening streamlined some of these harsh edges to generally make itself more palatable to mass audiences, and in the process introduced a whole boatload of people to the franchise. By now, it's pretty well established that the series would've been put to sleep had Awakening done poorly.
So the series lives on, but the predicament is that now there are two audiences with differing expectations for what a Fire Emblem game should be. The old guard wants that same hardcore challenge they've loved for 25 years, and the new crowd wants more of Awakening's ever-so-slightly more forgiving battles. How to move forward without alienating one of these audiences?
Enter Fire Emblem Fates and its two paths forward: Birthright and Conquest, each released as their own separate game. Should you choose Birthright then you'll travel down the path forged by Awakening: straightforward mission objectives (largely of the "rout the enemy" type), plentiful resources, and bountiful opportunities to grind for XP in side missions. Conquest takes a more old-school approach to the series and ratchets up the challenge considerably, with limited access to resources, fewer opportunities to grind for XP, and varied mission objectives that demand greater strategy to conquer. One mission might task you with eliminating a certain number of units, for example, and another to survive or defend an area for a specific number of turns. Each campaign is different enough to justify itself as a separate game unlike, say, Pokémon colour variants where the two versions are largely the same with a few minor differences. If you're new to Fire Emblem or don't feel like having too many heart attacks, we recommend starting with Birthright. Those up for a challenge or otherwise interested in shaving years off the back of your life through sheer stress would do well diving into Conquest.
The story of Fire Emblem Fates hinges on a key decision that takes place six missions in, but most players will have already chosen their path by virtue of buying one of the two releases. (Limited Edition players have access to both campaigns plus Revelation, a third campaign set to release as downloadable content one month after the other two games are out. We'll cover that one separately at a later date.)
Main-character Corrin stands at the centre of a conflict coming to a head between long-time rival kingdoms Hoshido and Nohr. Corrin is a part of the Hoshidan royal family by birth, but was raised by the Nohrian blue-bloods from a young age. As the conflict escalates early on, Corrin is forced to make a decision about who to fight for - oh yeah, and they also happen to be part dragon, so there's that.
In Birthright, Corrin sides with their blood relatives, ready to stop the rule of Nohr's corrupt king head-on. For Conquest, they join their adoptive family and aim to put an end to the conflict with Hoshido from within Nohr's ranks.
Fates tells a smaller, more intimate story than Awakening, where family and relationship dynamics can have as much of an influence on the plot as a major battle. Each campaign shares similar themes of nature vs. nurture and good vs. evil but casts a different light on the conflict depending on which side you're on. Playing both offers some really interesting perspective on the motivations and personalities of each side - things are never as black-and-white as they may seem, and Fates' story is at its best in these grey areas. Fates owes a large part of its world-building and charm to excellent localization - the writing is sharp and witty, and really breathes life into this fantasy world and its cast of dozens and dozens of characters across both campaigns. That said, the story does tend to drag at times in each game, with twists and traitors and seemingly trivial quests popping up as the plot unfolds. Some missions do feel like they could be relegated to side content without much loss to the story, but the handful of times this happens is forgiveable considering how much fun battle is.
Birthright and Conquest are both built off the same foundation, which is an updated version of that found in the previous game. In some ways, Fates refines Fire Emblem's mechanics to be even more accessible both on and off the battlefield. Weapon durability is pretty much gone altogether (save for healing items and staffs), eliminating the need to worry about how frequently you're using a particular weapon lest it crumble to dust. (This was last done in 1992's Fire Emblem Gaiden on NES, so it isn't entirely unprecedented.) The weapon triangle gets a much-appreciated boost in clarity thanks to new colour-coded backgrounds for each weapon icon. The paper-rock-scissors balance is now easier to decipher on the fly to see how your unit's equipment stacks up against that of nearby enemies; when one wrong move can mean goodbye forever to a beloved unit, we'll take all the help we can to reduce judgment errors.
Fire Emblem Fates has a few new tricks up its sleeve on the battlefield, too. There's a far greater diversity in the type and design of maps, which helps create exciting and tense situations for skirmishes. Environments like floating isles, harbours and ruins create challenges that require new strategies to conquer - for the most part you can't simply cluster all of your units together and move as a big mob and expect to win. You'll constantly have to adapt new strategies as choke points and environmental hazards are introduced, making no two missions quite the same.
In addition to general map layouts, two new elements are available to strategize around. Fates introduces three types of turrets on maps that certain units (both enemy and ally) can wield against the opposing army - helpful for territory control and weakening enemies from afar. These are powerful when in your control, but a downright pain in the keister when you find yourself on the receiving end.
Even more significant are Dragon Veins, as they have the potential to drastically alter the landscape and thus flow of battle. These are tiles that Corrin or another royal character can trigger to change the map's dynamics through things like flooding an area to prohibit passage, drying out a body of water to allow ground troops to cross, heal or damage units in an area, or kick up strong winds to make life more difficult for aerial units. They're a pretty great addition as they create a fresh dynamic to how the game flows, and lend diversity and life to what would be otherwise static environments.
As before, units that fight together will strengthen bonds and become more formidable fighters as a team. Updates to the battlefield pairing system open up some new strategies for how to position your units and approach the enemy. When you pair up two units to move as one, a new Guard meter is added that, when filled, will block one enemy attack. However, only the main unit will attack when paired in this way. Allied units that stand next to each other will both attack or take hits, but won't have a Guard meter to protect them. Enemy units now also enjoy these same tactical advantages, which can change how you'll want to approach them. These changes add a few new wrinkles to how you think about positioning and confrontation, and is a rather nice tactical addition.
The much-ballyhooed relationship and marriage system remains intact, proving once again that love can bloom on the battlefield. When a relationship is strong enough you have the option of upgrading two units to an S-ranked relationship, which marries them and yields a side mission where you can retrieve their child to fight alongside you (the children are sent to live in an alternate dimension where time flows at a different pace - it's a whole thing). This time out, beyond the dozens of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, marriage has been expanded to include one same-sex option in each game for Corrin to marry (if female in Birthright, if male in Conquest).
You'll be spending a fair amount of time between battles in your Castle, which acts as a central hub for all manner of shopping and socializing. The castle courtyard is a free-roam area where you can build and upgrade shops, buy supplies, talk to allies, and act as city planner. You can also invite allies to your Private Quarters - basically, your home - and bond with them to improve your relationships. (Read more about that whole thing.)
Fire Emblem amiibo can also be scanned at your castle, which will cause that character to come visit your town. They'll drop by and offer an item the first two visits, and will challenge you to a battle the third time around. If you defeat them, the unit will be added to your army. You can't forge relationships with amiibo characters, but considering how strong these units are and how cool it is to have Lucina, Marth, Robin or Ike in your Fates army, we still chalk this one up as a neat use of the figures.
Your castle also acts as the main hub for StreetPassing, where you can greet people and visit their castles. Optionally, you can battle their army in your courtyard. Alternatively, if you prefer fighting live opponents, you can take up arms against a friend or foe through either local or online multiplayer. The latter will certainly be appealing to some, especially once the meat of the campaign is cleared.
Both Birthright and Conquest are meaty games in their own right, where you can expect to put in a minimum of 25 hours if you just blast through the campaigns. Developing relationships between characters, powering up units and all that extra stuff can easily take up dozens and dozens more hours. Additional DLC missions (some free, mostly paid) will be coming down the pipe, which will only further increase the amount of time you can expect to get out of the game. Once you've thoroughly clocked one of the games, you can pick up the other campaign at a reduced price through the eShop - the game even lets you skip right to the mission where you choose your path, eliminating the need to sit through the 90-minute lead-up to the good stuff. You can create a new Corrin avatar or use an existing one at this junction (however, you can't bring over your already-levelled Corrin from a previous playthrough).
A range of modes let you play with stakes as high or as low as you can bear, regardless of campaign or difficulty - the latter of which you can crank up or down, of course. Traditional players will want to stick with Classic mode, where permadeath threatens at every turn and hard game reboots are the norm after a beloved unit bites the dust. This is Fire Emblem at its most challenging and, in this writer's opinion, rewarding. Casual mode removes permadeath from the equation - downed characters will be removed from the battlefield but can be used again in the next mission. Phoenix is a new mode that takes the Casual concept one step further by temporarily incapacitating a unit whose health drops to zero, and then restores downed units to full health at the start of the player's next turn.
Fire Emblem Fates is polished from head to toe (or should we say feet? Because the 3D models of characters now have feet instead of the previous weird leg stubs. Hooray!). The soundtrack is thunderous, playful, and exciting, and the game's musical leitmotif will earworm its way into your head for weeks to come. Fates' lovely art style works just as well in 2D as it does in 3D, and while its cinematics are brief they look utterly fantastic. It's clear that lots of attention to detail has gone into every nook and cranny. A great example of this is seen when the camera transitions from the top-down view of the battlefield to actual combat. The first time you see this is neat and novel, and will be a familiar sight to players of Awakening. However, the second or third time will put a real smile on your face when you notice that the landscape of the 3D combat scene actually matches your position on the map. Gone are the generic stand-in settings for these scenes and in is the real map itself. It's a small thing of beauty and helps bridge the two viewpoints in a cohesive way. This, among other niceties, shows just how Intelligent Systems has raised the bar on handheld Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem may have found itself in a strange spot after the success of Awakening, but Intelligent Systems has found a way forward. Actually, two ways - Fire Emblem Fates does a remarkable job delivering what newcomers and long-time players both could possibly want out of this series. Fans of Awakening will dig Birthright's continuation of that style of gameplay, and Conquest's strategic demands should go over well with series veterans and those looking for more bite from their games. Extensive campaigns, online multiplayer, and spit-shine polish combine to make for some of the most well-rounded Fire Emblem experiences to date.
Each of these games is unique enough to stand on its own accord as an impressive achievement and a whole lot of fun. The writing is sharp and witty, and gameplay is as accessible or as hardcore as you could want it to be. While the story can feel like it's dragging at times, it's tough to hold too many grudges against what feels like padding since the core gameplay is so much fun.
We're very curious to see where the Fire Emblem series goes from here. Will it go down the path forged by Awakening and continued with Birthright, or will it veer back towards the hardcore style of old and Conquest? We suppose we'll just have to wait and see what fate has in store.