The Fire Emblem series started life in 1990, and has been going strong ever since. While we haven’t seen as many English releases as Japanese ones, it’s still a fairly popular game among tactical battle enthusiasts and RPG gamers alike. The latest game in the series, Fire Emblem Fates, tells the tale of two countries at war, and the people at the heart of this conflict. Intrigued? Read on.
Fire Emblem Fates’ main character, named Corrin by default, is a prince or princess of a country called Nohr. Nohr, led by King Garon, has been at war with the neighbouring country of Hoshido for many years. Corrin and his/her siblings are sent out to survey a fortress held by Hoshidan forces, but Corrin is captured and brought to Hoshido where some truths are discovered, one of them being that Hoshido people are peace-loving, and are tired of war. It’s a bit more simply stated than actuality, more details results in spoilers. At this point, Corrin must make a choice: stand with Nohr, or fight for Hoshido? The choice you make affects which game you’re actually playing. Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright follows Corrin’s path to bring victory to Hoshido and bring down the Nohr forces, and Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest follows Corrin’s decision to side with Nohr.
Each chapter of the game takes place on a battlefield, with you controlling your side of the army one person at a time. Like many strategy games, the battlefield displays a grid showing you where army units can be placed. When an actual encounter takes place, the game zooms into the action to show you the blow-by-blow (although thankfully, this can be disabled, since it starts affecting the speed of a battle later on when you have a small army in play). The easier game, Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, is reasonably straightforward, and is made easier by virtue of the fact that you have an overwhelmingly large number of forces to play around with (although an overall weaker enemy AI also features here). This makes it easier, for example, to split your forces to go around an enemy force and take them from both sides. This tactic won’t work in Fire Emblem: Conquest because you just don’t possess the brute strength. Furthermore, the enemies in Conquest have an annoying habit of singling out your weaker allies and healing units. Conquest also places extra constraints upon you within battles, such as defeating certain enemies within a specified number of rounds, or by reaching sections of the map. Most Birthright win conditions fall within the category of “kill all the things” (described in-game as “Rout the enemy!”).
I personally found the strategy aspect of the Conquest more satisfying than Birthright purely because of my extended experience with strategy games. Birthright, however, is a brilliant place for people new to strategy games in general, or to Fire Emblem games in particular. The strategy elements are introduced slowly enough to get used to the concepts, but if you’re new to strategic battle games you may need to refer to the tutorial lessons again. People familiar with strategy games will still enjoy the story, since it’s deeper than the usual fluff of “defeat them purely because we say so”. Some of the later levels in Birthright will also require a deeper level of thought than the initial few, easing you into the concept of unit selection and placement. Conquest, on the other hand, drops you into the deep end with not just fewer initial units, but also less money and XP per encounter, making it difficult to level up properly within the main game’s story chapters.
One of the features of Fire Emblem games is permadeath of characters. For this game, it’s turned off by default, but you can re-enable it for the feel of older Fire Emblem games. One side-effect of permadeath is that you are less prone to hubris and attacks of pride, because losing a single character central to your tactics can affect the rest of the game. You also care very much about whether a character is at full health or not, and you think your tactics through a little more carefully. The default mode removes a downed character from the battle, but they can return for the next one.
Both versions of Fire Emblem Fates offer you the chance to grind for levels and gold by searching around for enemies to fight, although they’re fewer and further between in Conquest whereas Birthright is absolutely lousy with them. There are also what the game calls “Paralogues”, which we can assume to be what happens between prologues and epilogues. These paralogues offer you extra units if you manage to fulfill the battle conditions. These side-quests and extra fights are useful for getting used to the flow of battle if you’re still struggling to figure it all out.
Between fights, you manage your castle which sits in some sort of extra-dimensional realm. Here, you can purchase buildings and equipment, and get to know your allies better, allowing you to build up a better rapport with them. It also offers insights into the personalities of your friends, uplifting them from mere units on a battlefield to actual people you can care about. For example, one of the characters, Subaki, initially comes off as stand-offish and rude, but getting to know why he acts this way shows you a deeper level of emotion behind the characters. These are the kinds of interactions that raise Fire Emblem above the level of otherwise similar strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics.
Having the castle is one thing, but occasionally you might get called upon to defend it via Streetpass battles. You might choose not to fight, and simply visit other players’ castle towns to buy equipment and recruit units you might otherwise not have access to. The online portions of the game seem to have been well thought out. They’re not mandatory, but they can be fun.
Unusually, there’s very little not to recommend about Fire Emblem Fates; there’s a little something for everyone between both Birthright and Conquest. Birthright does suffer a little for the repetitive nature of its battles, something that Conquest avoids quite nicely by having a highly varied number of battle objectives, but it’s still a lot of fun, especially if you’re new to tactical RPGs. On the other hand, Birthright, I felt, offered a stronger story; you come out with a stronger understanding of the politics and nature of the fight between Nohr and Hoshido if you get a chance to play both games, though. Thankfully, if you bought one, you don’t have to start from the very beginning again, since the main menu offers you the ability to start the game at the point where you make the choice.
Conclusion? Fire Emblem Fates is a brilliant tactical RPG, possibly one of the best I’ve ever played. The story is strong, the battle system is not just strong, but flexible, and the initial difficulty curve evens out quite quickly. Fans of the series will be well rewarded for playing Fates, and new players have some amazing stories to look forward to. Your choice, really, is not whether to fight for Nohr or for Hoshido, but rather whether you’ll have the time to see both stories to their conclusions.