The decision to call this latest installment in the Fire Emblem Series ‘Fates’ is in a sense quite poetic, considering that five years ago the series was facing a far more uncertain future. It had failed to take off in the west and sales in Japan were stalling. Rumours began to swirl that the series was about to be placed in the same cryogenic hibernation pod Nintendo have currently stashed Metroid and F-Zero in. Fast forward to the present day, and suddenly the latest Fire Emblem is one of Nintendo’s flagship releases for 2016. It has been granted the honor of being among the first of Nintendo’s franchises to be getting a mobile app and has a grand total six playable representatives in the Smash Bros series. It’s come a long way from western gamers scratching their heads wondering who this Marth chap was.
Fire Emblem: Fates looks to build on the momentum from the excellent Fire Emblem: Awakening. But in doing so Intelligent Systems faced a conundrum. Awakening was praised for being more accessible and opening the franchise to the wider gaming community, but the existing fanbase found it too simplistic. How could a common ground be found?
The answer was to basically Pokemonify it.
Two versions of this game have just been released. Birthright is the one aimed at those new to the series, while Conquest is aimed at the veterans seeking a challenge. The way this pans out is that after the first six missions you get to choose which side you’ll be fighting for. Do you pick the noble Hoshidan’s, the family from which you were kidnapped from as a child, or the dark forces of Nohr, who raised you as one of their own. It’s more than just a moral choice. The choice you make will determine exactly which twenty odd missions you’ll be playing through for the next thirty odd hours.
Pick Hoshido, and you’ll join an army of honorable ninjas and samurai as they defend their homeland from invasion. While this campaign is easier, it offers a nice aesthetic change to the usual medieval Europe influence that permeates the franchise, with a new samurai themed take on the common weapons triangle. If you pick Nohr you are treated to an ‘old fashioned’ Fire Emblem experience, with the usual weapons selection in place and a far more unforgiving campaign. While you now have the option to turn off the permadeath feature and adjust the difficulty, Fire Emblem purists will find what they have been craving here.
This choice is presented as a pretty simple case of ‘joining the goodies or the baddies.’ But the campaign involving the honourable Hoshidan’s takes some suitably dark turns, and there is plenty of goodness to be found in the supposedly evil Nohrian forces (not to mention this is where most of the characters with, shall we say, larger than life personalities can be found). From a narrative perspective you’re basically picking whether to keep the forces of good from abusing their power, or trying to steer the forces of darkness towards the light.
Whichever side you pick you don’t find yourself wondering what might have been had you made the other choice, which is a huge compliment to Intelligent System’s storytelling capabilities. Both have enough intrigue, drama and personality to keep you hooked. Corrin, your avatar absolutely feels like the scion between the two, like you’re genuinely caught in a tug of war between hostile nations. And just to make things even more complicated, in a few weeks time Nintendo are releasing a third campaign, Revelations, in which you don’t pick either side and instead fight for peace between the two.
So plenty of strategizing to be done then. Good thing that it’s very much the same old Fire Emblem we know and love. Turn based gameplay that’s like moving pieces on a chessboard, meticulously planning every move to ensure your more fragile units won’t get flanked, and making the most of weapons triangle to exploit enemy weaknesses. A single mistake and the enemy AI will destroy a character and all their development in an instant, make you reach for the power switch to start the battle over.
Fates come with all the additional features introduced in Awakening. The ability to team with chums to take on the bad guys, the chance to develop relationships with other characters (including the opportunity to really develop them) and plenty of extra missions to grind up your experience points. Fates does add a few new features to keep things fresh. Enemies can now team up against you to even the odds, and you can partner characters up into one unit, offering some additional protection for weaker characters. The biggest change, and the most welcome, is that weapons no longer have a limit on how many times they can be used, so you’ll no longer have to save that legendary loot for a special occasion.
Mostly the tactical gameplay of the series is very much untouched. It’s outside of battling that the big changes have been made. For instance you can now make your very own castle. The more battles you fight the more buildings you unlock, including the stalwart Fire Emblem weapon and item stores, as well as new features like the chance to feed your adorable pet dragon, have a soothing hot spring bath and play the lottery. On occasion you’ll have to defend your base from enemy incursions. It’s certainly weird seeing your foes laying waste to your base before you have a chance to properly rout them.
All of this is brought to life by a great fusion of traditional 2D sprites occupying 3D environments. The 3D characters models are a little suspect, but that’s more down to the limitations of the 3DS. They are an improvement on Awakening, and the character designs in general are a whole lot better. Some sumptuous anime-style cutscenes explore the main plot points. The music is good too, with some heavy eastern influences among the new tracks.
Fire Emblem Fates is an extremely impressive accomplishment in many ways. It’s by far the most ambitious entry in the series to date. Its new flair for cinematics combined with its traditional strategy gameplay sometimes teeters on the confusing, but never topples completely into the abyss. It strikes a good balance between being accessible and being complicated: A fair compromise between enjoyable romp and painstaking difficultly. The way both versions manage to complement the other is quite the achievement.
It’s pretty cheeky that you’ll have to pay out for both versions of this game, but you do get a discount from the Nintendo E-shop for the campaign you didn’t plump for. It’s worth bearing in mind that you are effectively purchasing a second Fire Emblem game for that reduced price. When Revelations hits, Fire Emblem fans will be getting three games all at once.
These bold steps will ensure that Fire Emblem‘s recent surge in popularity will not be just some flash in the pan. With a surprisingly deep story and an engaging cast complimenting the intelligent strategy gameplay, this is a title that you won’t mind playing through three times to get the whole story. Ultimately you can’t describe the Fire Emblem: Fates package as different versions of the same game. Rather they are different games that share a story. Whichever version you eventually drop funds on, you’re unlikely to leave disappointed.