There has been another awakening
After delivering one of its best strategy games in years with Fire Emblem Awakening, I couldn't help but think "how could they top this?" Awakening had pretty much everything you could want -- an intriguing cast embroiled in a well-paced storyline, combined with the series pedigree of surgical tactical action.
But for the most part, Intelligent Systems did it. It managed to build on the pillars of Awakening and deliver a one-two (well, technically three) punch with Fire Emblem Fates -- though one version excited me a little less than the others.
Fire Emblem Fates Birthright/Conquest (3DS)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Released: June 25, 2015 (Japan), February 19, 2016 (US), TBA (Europe)
MSRP: $39.99 per version, $19.99 digital upgrade fee, $79.99 Special Edition with both plus Revelations
[Note: This review is for the two core versions of the game, Birthright and Conquest. The DLC, Revelation, is not factored into this assessment, and is reviewed separately here.]
We already asked if you were okay with this multi-prong approach to Fates, and most of you said yes. But for those of you who don't know how it works, I'm here for you.
Birthright and Conquest are two different games. Once the player reaches Chapter 6, they'll have the option to choose between them by continuing on the existing path, or by buying an "upgrade" of sorts to play the other version for $20. This is all stuff that's been talked about before so I'll spare you the book report-like details, but I should note that based on my personal experience, the process is relatively painless. Once you've reached that point in either game, you can simply skip to it instantly with the other version; so don't worry about having to replay remedial content. You don't even need to keep the save file at the "split."
No matter what version you choose, Fates whisks us away to another fantasy setting, this time putting us in the shoes of a (male or female) character named Corrin. He (or she) is technically an avatar, but they're actually built into the core narrative immediately instead of just reacting to it. Right from the get-go, you'll get a front row seat in their position of privilege as a noble and their relationship with their siblings, which plays heavily into the story ahead. Without ruining too much, the central conflict is built around the kingdoms of Hoshido, and Nohr -- the latter of which is the place you call home.
Familial ties are paramount from multiple points of view, which, for the most part, move the focus away from the archetypal "big bad boss" focus and into more nuanced territory. Although it could use more buildup, the aforementioned path-splitting decision is very juicy indeed, and helps justify the cost of both storylines. I was skeptical at first of this approach, but having played the pair, I'm more than fine with it. The fact that they are essentially standalone titles on par with Awakening, with their own endings, makes the prospect an easier pill to swallow.
Relationships and interesting paralogue quests are still at the forefront no matter which side you pick. There's plenty of room to forge friendships and marriages with members of your party, all of which deliver that typical dose of Fire Emblem charm -- like one shapeshifting character that claims he's so cool "it should be illegal," and Izana, the cheeriest damn host you've ever seen in your life. You can even visit others in your private quarters for a chat, engage in support dialogues to learn inside info between battles, and take baths with them.
All of this is even more involved due to the brand new "My Castle" system, which is a godsend for those of you who are obsessed with all of the simulation elements of the series. In a grid-like format (just like combat sequences) players can customize their own base, setting both aesthetic and practical foundations upon a rather large board. This includes defensive options to guard your camp from invasions (an optional online feature, along with local or online battles), just moving around shops to suit your fancy, or upgrading structures for advanced functionality.
I spent way too many hours in this mode due in part to the amiibo feature, which allows you to chat with and battle Marth, Ike, Robin, and Lucina. My Castle as a whole enhances the entire social crux of the game -- getting to know the people you fight with. You can also view your town in full 3D (though sadly, you can't actually move in this viewpoint), and surprise -- character models actually have feet now! If it wasn't clear, I really dig it.
Fire Emblem hasn't changed that much in the way of combat though, which is mostly a good thing. There's still a rock-paper-scissors mechanic in place when it comes to certain weapons, and different units have specialized attack requirements and ranges. The more you play, the more strategies you'll uncover -- like using ninjas to attack through walls, or flanking enemies with flying units. There's also no more weapon breaking, thank god. I often grow attached to items just as well as people in strategy games, so that design isn't missed.
As always, placement matters. If you put a party member near someone else they'll gain a buff, and you can pair up units again for added defensive capabilities or augment ranged strikes without reprisal. Fates adds another big element: Dragon Veins, which can alter the environment. Provided that you're a specific character with royal blood, said veins can be used to do things like create bridges, eliminate poisonous bogs, or call down acid rain upon your foes. They're usually well placed and situated, to the point where you don't always need them to survive, but the option is there if you're so inclined. To digress a bit, I've always loved that the DS and the 3DS for tactical games, as having the map or battle info on the bottom screen is invaluable and saves a ton of time.
For those of you who fear the increased complexity due to these additions, don't worry. There are three difficulty settings, and a new "Phoenix" setting if you're feeling really jittery. This ultra easy mode resurrects party members on the following turn, but also ensures that as long as you don't fail your objective, you can't lose the fight. It's basically cheating, but I know a lot of people will be keen to use this option for tougher levels to cut down on the frustration factor, or just to see the story.
Speaking of alleviating frustration, Birthright is probably the best starting place for newcomers. Not only does it offer unlimited grinding opportunities to beef up your party, but the actual missions mostly consist of easy "rout (kill) the enemy" parameters. The tale is also relatively open and shut, following a traditional storyline from a macro perspective, while keeping the complicated relationships intact. That's not to say it's a waste of time though, as you can still jack up the difficulty and add in permadeath if you want, and you still have to win those battles.
Conquest on the other hand is a more enjoyable from my perspective as a strategy veteran. It's much more complex from the start, and offers bigger maps, more interesting objectives (such as point defense or sieges), and a more intriguing plot. You can't grind, so you're encouraged to instead play through the limited amount of sidequests or arena world map battles to fine tune your party makeup. This leads to a larger need for a more tactical approach from just about every facet of the game. It's more thrilling and has a different feel to it, especially if you crave a challenge and blow through other titles in the series.
Since all three stories have 27 story chapters, the game's nine save slots will serve you well. More DLC is also on the way in the form of missions and characters, and the first hit is free. Considering that I've spent more time with the My Castle system alone than many other full retail releases, it's safe to say that no matter which version you pick, Fire Emblem Fates will fuel your inner fire for more strategic waifu wars.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright - 8.5
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest - 9.5
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. All three versions were playable on one 3DS cartridge.]
Fire Emblem Fates reviewed by Chris Carter