played: Conquest version (Normal/Classic)
Let it be known, I’m not the biggest Fire Emblem fan, but I really do like the series overall. Like many, the GBA titles were my introduction to the series. Following those came Path of Radiance on the Gamecube which combined challenging gameplay and interesting discrimination aspects in its story. Those were great games, and I enjoyed all three. Unfortunately, the two latter games I bought (Shadow Dragon and Fire Emblem Awakening) failed to grab me as much as these three games did.
Yet, Fire Emblem Fates’ announcement still excited me. Despite disliking how the game has divided into two versions (three if you include the DLC-only path), I just had to try out Conquest which features the removal of grinding and more interesting objectives compared to Birthright and Awakening. The end result isn’t necessarily disappointing, but it doesn’t feel like a return to form either.
The game changed a few things around mechanically with this entry. For example, the traditional weapon triangle of effectiveness (sword beats axe, axe beats lance, lance beats sword) is joined by magic, shuriken and bows. This move is a little perplexing as it’s not particularly easy to remember, but it does make bow units feel a lot more useful in maps without fliers. As such, I think the game overall benefits from that change.
The removal of weapon durability doesn’t change the game a whole lot, which isn’t a bad thing. Except for royal units with their unique amazing weaponry, stronger weapons have disadvantages that can convince you to stick with lower-tier weaponry. The addition of forging weaponry can help you get impressive damage out of iron weapons, as long as you’re not screwed over by the random level ups.
Difficulty wise, I think Conquest nails it most of the time. Despite playing on Normal, the game felt challenging at times without being unfair (except for the epilogue’s dumb reinforcements when you are not allowed to save beforehand, but that’s a story for another time). Timed objectives were my favorite, adding an element of tension to the strategy. The infinite staircase is my favorite level of the bunch, making the narrative and gameplay work strangely well together. You really feel the rush.
There were some strange difficulty spikes, however, with 23 in particular being painful unless you’ve got defense to spare. The map’s just a “2” shape with a ton of archers with crazy range... It’s not a level for flying units I’ll tell you that much. These annoying levels are thankfully the rare exception rather than the norm.
The game also has strange design choices. Possibly in an attempt to avoid repeating Awakening where a villager quickly becomes the best unit of all, the new villager/trainee unit is barely better than the regular units (and outclassed by royals) despite being difficult to raise and soaking in all your exp. The royal kids (more on them later) also tend to be inferior to their parents despite requiring additional effort, while the other kids aren’t objectively better than their parents either (Ophelia’s pretty strong at least).
Still, overall Fates feels like an improvement over Awakening’s formula, having more interesting battles and a positive change to the weapon triangle.
Your otherworldly castle is where you’ll spend your time when not on missions. It’s basically a map you can shape yourself for multiplayer and two single-player invasions, on top of offering the shops (shops aren’t available inside chapters in this game) and various other facilities including an Arena (not present inside chapters either, but there’s no instadeath or EXP gain). Every time you complete a map, you get a dragon point that can be used to place new facilities or upgrade existing ones. It all sounds fine in theory, but my main problem with My Castle is that it sucks. I don’t know if afterthought is the right adjective for it, but there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make any sense.
Dragon Point gain is way too slow compared to the possible things to upgrade and their pricing, which seems to indicate that the feature is more designed towards grind-heavy playthroughs. Upgrading a single statue to level 3 costs a whopping 9 chapters worth of DPs to increase the stat cap of a single stat on all characters by 1. Every upgrade or facility costs at least a single point, which is what you gain after every mission. It doesn’t seem to mesh well with Conquest’s design at all.
Every time you return to My Castle, you’ll get bombarded by exclamation marks that tell you something new is available. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell there’s no effort that has been put to deal with the end game. When Lilith has max stats, I don’t care about offering her more food, please stop bringing her to my attention. When I have max support with a unit, please don’t put said unit in the random rotation of people that can bond with you in your personal quarters. When I don’t want to fight with a shitty soldier in the arena, please stop bringing it to my attention.
There’s a lot of things to improve on with disappointing payoffs in My Castle. Sure, you might raise your bond level with your guy or gal of choice, but there’s no reward for having a third full heart. Sure, you might improve Lilith until she’s got crazy stats, but you don’t get to control her in fights in your castle so people can avoid her area of attack easily. You can get a lot of food each day, but food doesn’t help you upgrade weapons so they’re ultimately a pretty useless resource which also tries to catch your attention. Sure, there’s a hot spring, but it doesn’t do anything other than let you watch low-res models for an awkward length of time (and possibly get a unit that only has supports with you). Sure, there’s a lottery, but the prizes are junk. My interest in interacting with my castle only went down as the game progressed. By the game’s final chapters I just ignored My Castle entirely.
After Fire Emblem Awakening’s surprising popularity, Intelligent Systems had to bring back S ranks no matter how nonsensical they are. Fates manages to impress nonetheless by having women be pregnant for months and interact with their children over a large period of time in the few hours between story missions. It’s kind of cute how forced this element feels.
Babies are tied to the father this time around, so you’d expect there to be more females than males to make sure it’s easy for any player to have a complete squad. You’d be wrong. If you have a male main character, you must romance a character that cannot romance other adults if you want to get every paralogue, otherwise you’re guaranteed to miss some. I didn’t know that and married the maid at the very beginning. Woops.
As stated earlier, you cannot grind for EXP in Conquest. That means the only missions you can repeat as much as you’d like are DLC missions (including an EXP map if you give Nintendo money). These missions scale in level with your progress in the story, which I think is a bad move. Not only does enemy scaling outside story missions hinder your ability to feel more powerful as the game goes on, it also makes benched units progressively more useless. Either you repeat the same mission about a hundred times to grind these S-rank supports early on the game with no progression, or you lock away children units and their paralogue because there’s no place to use low-level units anymore. I ended up skipping a couple babies because I progressed too far and the free Awakening DLC map already had promoted units. Woops.
Fates is sold as being three full Fire Emblem titles. Don’t let that fool you, even if it sounds enticing. Everything in the game except supports, story and a handful of maps can be experienced on either side. You’ll recruit Hoshidan units during normal progression through the game with access to the “exclusive” Hoshidan classes, and you’re able to purchase Hoshidan weaponry and units from My Castle as well. It’s also possible to capture Hoshidan generic units without going online, but I’ve never used that feature myself.
Isn’t it a good thing, you ask, that you only need to buy one version to get the Fire Emblem Fates experience? Well no, because the game has its own ways of making you lust for a purchase of the “whole package”.
For example, you get permanent stat boosts for buying two or three story paths. This only works with digital downloads of the other sides or with the special edition, by the way, people with both physical releases are shit out of luck. There’s a multiplayer component in place, but it’s awfully imbalanced. Conquest has to deal with limited resources and doesn’t have the Hoshidan royals, Birthright has grinding but you can’t use the Nohr royals, and Revelation, the DLC-only route that’s not yet available outside of the Special Edition (because Nintendo wants you to purchase both sides first I’d assume) allows you to get the strongest units from both sides. There’s really no reason to attempt playing multiplayer in Fates unless you’re willing to pay for multiple paths.
Not only that, but the story suffers a ton from the split format in a gamble to make you purchase more and figure out the “big picture”. Certain events that happen in Conquest with Takumi and Azura in particular are never explained unless you play the Revelation and Birthright routes respectively. The main character keeps hammering on with little nuance about how maybe he should have taken a different path (hint hint nudge nudge). The game gives you a selection screen for the path you take even if you “only” have the Conquest package… Leaving you with a rather dry “Game data for this path is not present on this system” message with a link to the eShop just in case the opening chapters convinced you to take the path you didn’t choose at the counter. You know, if you want to go back on the decision you took before having the opportunity to even boot up the game.
The writing’s easily the worst thing about Fire Emblem Fate in my opinion. Every aspect of the script is flawed in apparent ways, which is a real shame. Previous Fire Emblem were no contenders for best writing or anything, but they had a good balance of humor and seriousness with some interesting characters and political set-ups before ending with a big bad dragon.
Let’s start with something that can be blamed on Intelligent Systems: The terrible pacing. For starters, the prologue and 5 first chapters do a pretty terrible job at selling you the decision at the core of this game. It’s obviously rushed, with a character being introduced and killed between two chapters and the game expecting you to feel sad. There’s no opportunity to learn any character before the game splits into two, and the game does a shitty job at telling you why picking Conquest would be appealing since the introduction chapters end with Nohr being assholes. Following the split, the story threads a pretty boring “rebellion/Hoshidan attack” format for a while with little to no interesting events taking place. It really feels like the wheels of the story truck are stuck in the dirt early on.
You fight your Hoshidan siblings too often to care, Takumi in particular being fought two or three times too many. You never get to know these units either, so you don’t feel anything when you defeat them over and over (even if the game insists it’s a big deal). The story moves along at a slow pace after the way too abrupt opening, and whatever interesting elements are there are left hanging unless you buy the other routes. Then it starts moving quickly again with a quick, unsatisfying end. Nothing feels like a natural or interesting progression until the very last chapters, which isn’t helped by all the distractions in My Castle.
Now, the game might have pacing issues and an unsatisfying ending, but it could have been saved by characterization. Unfortunately, some people seem to have had a little too much fun with the dialogue. Characters that could have been interesting yet grounded in reality seem taken straight out of a random generator. Haha, this guy has an obsession with pickles! This kid cavalier sure says some funny words! Let’s have this dragon girl explain to her dragon dad what dragon speak means because it’s quirky! Who cares if she’s transformed into a dragon for the first time in her life minutes prior? A lot of supports don’t really feel like something actual humans would say. This is not entirely Treehouse’s fault, of course, Camilla was a pretty one-sided character in the original version as well, but these added “humoristic” moments spoil the broth as far as I’m concerned.
Fire Emblem Fates has very enjoyable gameplay, especially with the restrictions and varied objectives of Conquest. There’s no doubt about that. But everything surrounding that strong core gameplay is all kinds of wrong. That’s why it’s very difficult for me to think of a good score to give to the game.
+ Fun, streamlined tactical gameplay with just enough challenge
+ Nice soundtrack
+ Didn’t make fun of me when I was a kid
- Poor pacing
- Uninteresting story
- My Castle is a boring addition
- Cash grab elements hinder the experience