I really wanted to love Fire Emblem Fates. The Fire Emblem series has long been one of my favorites, and I was overjoyed to hear that the success of Fire Emblem: Awakening had catapulted the franchise to a new level of importance in Nintendo’s eyes. Putting aside the online brouhaha, I began working my way through Fates’ three pieces. The ambitious storytelling move was designed to hook series fans like me from the get-go, but would it work? After finishing all three, I can say this: stick to one release next time, Nintendo.
Fire Emblem: Fates is the follow-up to the staggeringly popular Fire Emblem: Awakening, and most of the core gameplay has been preserved. As the commander of an army, you’ll lead an assortment of colorful characters in sorties against foes, moving them around them map to secure tactical advantages. The familiar weapons triangle, a rock-paper-scissors mechanic common to the series, will influence your strategic decisions, although it seems that unique tools that play with that balance are more common this time around. Fates isn’t all old tricks, however, as weapon durability has been abandoned. Long a hallmark of the Fire Emblem series, Fates chooses to let you swing any weapon an infinite amount of times. Instead of choosing between resources and strength, better weapons now carry stat penalties that kick in the turn after they’re used. I found this to be an interesting twist on inventory management, and I found myself specializing units with different types of weapon debuffs. More than anything, it allowed me to try out more options than previous games, a much-appreciated change. After every battle, you’ll be able to recuperate at your own customizable castle. The customization has little bearing on the main game, but it becomes a battleground for optional missions and online play. Nothing about the castle grabbed my interest, and I ended up just moving all the useful buildings as close together as I could. It sped up my item shopping, but it left me wanting more. The whole mechanic felt underutilized and rather hollow, even though the three separate paths offered cosmetic differences, none made my decisions meaningful.
All three paths of Fates begin in the same place: with our protagonist Corrin. Brought up as a member of the royal family of the dusk-shrouded kingdom of Nohr, Corrin is sent by their father, King Garon, to scout out territory in the neighboring country of Hoshido. The mission goes awry, and Corrin is taken into custody by Hoshidans, who quickly reveal that they are the kidnapped child of the Hoshidan queen. At this point, Fates asks the player to choose between their blood relatives and the Nohrian siblings they’ve know their entire lives. After that choice, Fates splits into the three versions: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. After the split, all three paths offer different stories, characters, and maps for the player to dig into.
The heart and soul of any Fire Emblem release should be the maps, as they’re the glue that pulls the whole thing together. In splitting Fates into three parts, Nintendo has attempted to create three distinct experiences to cater to players of all skill levels. Birthright offers straightforward layouts and uncomplicated challenges. Conquest offers unique win conditions and sprawling battlefields filled to the brim with enemy soldiers. Revelations attempts to strike a balance between the two, borrowing Conquest’s unconventional layouts and Birthright’s simple trials. Unfortunately, the only game that really works as intended is Conquest. I was kept on my toes by punishing difficulty, but I was never asked to just kill every enemy unit. I could achieve victory through alternate means, and that created a delightful balancing act that felt more strategic than any other Fire Emblem before it. Conversely, Birthright felt more like a rehash of previous games in the series, as I was simply asked to rout my enemies or kill a boss unit. Revelations felt half-baked as well. Because the complicated levels were paired with simplistic goals, it almost never got to achieve the heights it aimed for. Levels in Revelations were binary for me; either they were better than their best Conquest counterpart, or worse than the most boring Birthright maps. I found it harder and harder to focus on the gameplay portions of Revelations as time passed, leaving it up to the story to carry me through the end.
Honestly though, my reaction to the story follow the same path. Birthright’s story was trite in its simplicity, as I was exhorted to stop the evil nation of Nohr in their bid for world domination. Conquest offered a bit more; while the script isn’t going to win a Pulitzer anytime soon, it offered some nuanced thoughts as my protagonist attempted to reform a deeply corrupt system from within. With both versions stewing in my mind, I was interested in the way Revelations would attempt to address their themes, and what kind of story it would tell. Unfortunately, any pretense of nuance was dropped within the first few chapters. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it ignores most of the other two routes and instead starts piling on the clichés. I honestly believe that the core problem is simply that Nintendo tried to write three games while only having enough ideas to fill up one — an issue which crops up again in the character writing.
Between the three games, Fates has a staggering 72 playable units (not counting amiibo). Anyone would be hard-pressed to write so many unique people, and it certainly shows in their support conversations. Maybe half of the characters have, well, character. The most important ones will generally be written well, but for the rest of them? It’s a crapshoot as to whether you’ll get an interesting, rounded personality or a hodgepodge golem of assorted anime tropes. It really takes away from the discussions of war, loss, and family when the next three characters will follow that up by acting rude to the person they have secret feelings for. If Fates had been able to consolidate the good ones together without worrying about writing for three games, it might have had the best support conversations in the series. As it is though, every time I saw the notification for a new support, it felt like pulling the lever on a slot machine.
Fire Emblem looks and the plays the best it ever has in Conquest, but I wish I could say the same about the other two routes. If you’re a big Fire Emblem fan, or simply not bothered by the issues I encountered, you’ll probably be able to have a perfectly fine time playing through all three. As much as I like Conquest though, I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend that course of action. If you’re really hungry for turn-based strategy action, get Conquest alone and savor all that it has to offer. Trust me — you won’t be missing out on much.