Three stories. Two Kingdoms. One choice. The sequel to the flawless Fire Emblem: Awakening has arrived, and Fire Emblem Fates has huge shoes to fill. With Intelligent Systems having set the bar so high with their last instalment, does Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest have what it takes to surpass the excellence of its older brother?
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 20 May 2016
Having been a game composed of equal parts series firsts and equal parts welcoming homage, Fire Emblem: Awakening was a comprehensive Fire Emblem experience. With so much critical and commercial success, and the expansion of the game via DLC, the ‘need’ for a new Fire Emblem game didn’t seem too pressing – or particularly expected, either. With that being the case, Fire Emblem Fates comes out of the gate strong, with a series-altering storyline and delivery ensuring that it won’t be forgotten about anytime soon. As the abducted prince of the peace-loving kingdom of Hoshido, raised by the aggressive Kingdom of Nohr, you have a difficult choice to make, the results of which will determine the course of fate for both kingdoms. To facilitate this narrative, Nintendo has released two versions of the game, with a third version released, known as ‘Revelation’, that will see the two kingdoms unite. In the meantime, your avatar will have to amend his facebook friends list, as they are forced to pick between one of the two warring nations, thus abandoning his birth family, or adoptive family, depending on which game you purchase.
Should you choose Birthright, be prepared to enjoy another slice of strategy perfection, just the way you like it. Certainly the more ‘user-friendly’ of the two experiences, Birthright has everything fans of the series would expect and more: a dense campaign, tactical, turn-based combat, additional missions and side quests – it’s all there. For those new to the Fire Emblem series, a very generous ‘phoenix mode’ appears exclusively in Birthright and allows fallen allies to… erm… not be fallen. Units who die in phoenix mode literally come back to life, ensuring a consequence-free ride from start to finish. Ultimately, Birthright is clearly the ‘first’ game in the Fates experience, with every advantage being given to players while they play, ensuring that they are prepared for the real test that awaits them: Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest.
The ‘dark side’ of the Fates storyline, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is unlike any other Fire Emblem title, for better or for worse. Choosing to side with the Nohrian forces, Conquest is compelling from the start, if not for the wrong reasons. The narrative is ill-suited to providing you with any reason to fight with, quite frankly, your fake family and crazy ‘dad’ who heartlessly abducted you and forces you to execute prisoners. The moral aspect of the decision at the heart of Fates’ story is borderline laughable should you try to justify choosing Nohr early on, and makes the melodrama very hard to endure, as the story seems ham-fisted and difficult to reason with during the initial sections of the game.
Furthermore, the constitution of the avatar character makes it impossible to indulge in your ‘bad guy’ fantasies. If you chose Conquest for the chance to finally play as a villain in a Fire Emblem game, prepare to be disappointed: the avatar is every inch the boy scout you’d expect them to be, wishing for peace, love and vegetarian chowder – if he were any more agreeable he’d make Ike look like a dictator! Having purchased Conquest for its seemingly dark overtones, I was firmly disappointed in the narrative of the game. I really wanted to explore the rationale of the ‘villains’ of the story, but the characters are so overwhelmingly likeable, I couldn’t help but feel that Intelligent Systems have missed a trick by not making the narrative more divisive and morally complicated. Indeed, the narrative seems completely suited to the player choosing Hoshido over Nohr, with the reasons for such a decision being so overwhelmingly logical and obvious that it seems ridiculous to choose Nohr and the path of Conquest first.
Alongside the rather melodramatic premise that is seemingly bankrupt should you choose to side with Nohr, Conquest punishes players further by explicitly making this iteration of the Fates experience much, much harder than Birthright. With side missions restricted to recruiting offspring between your units, Conquest offers a challenging Fire Emblem experience by deliberately restricting opportunities to get gold and experience, as well as Conquest explicitly telling players that it is the harder of the two experiences anyway – for no other possible reason besides putting players off from taking it on ‘first’ – the implication clearly being that Nintendo expects players to download their Fates experience, rather than discover this after they have purchased a physical copy. Those who downloaded the initial Fates experience will have been able to decide if they wanted to experience the ‘easier’ Birthright game, or try the challenge offered by Conquest at the crucial moment of choice – but this consideration is removed from consumers who purchased a physical copy of Conquest.
Having to swallow the lacklustre, unbelievable premise of Conquest’s early narrative is hard enough, but then being told you have unwittingly purchased a version of Fates that is harder and lacking content compared to Birthright is just unfair. In fact, the whole experience of Fates seems tailor-made for digital distribution, and wholly unsuited to physical release, as purchasing a physical copy of the game preordains your decision, thereby making the in-game ‘moment of truth’ less impactful. This short-changing of consumers who thought they were walking the dark, anti-hero path might frustrate some, but once the story gains pace and the battles begin, the path of Conquest could very well be the most rewarding and challenging Fire Emblem experience ever constructed.
Fire Emblem: Awakening may have reinvigorated the series’ famous chess-meets-RTS combat system, but Conquest takes battles to a new level of complexity. Firstly, enemy units have finally developed consciousness, and now acknowledge they are part of an army! As such, enemy units can pair up, just as your units can, with the enriching support elements of Awakening having been further expanded upon. Conquest not only allows units to fight side-by-side, but now you can choose which adjacent unit battles alongside you by pressing the ‘R’ button while making your attack. Once again, such a simple addition results in a nuanced and meaningful change to the combat system, ensuring that further consideration for allies’ positions on the battlefield will be required if you are to maximise the potential of every unit and secure victory. Adding to pairing up of enemy units, Conquest challenges the very nature of level design with ever-changing battlefields and victory conditions.
Whereas Birthright will see you routing armies or commanders for most of the campaign, Conquest demands deeper engagement with battles by introducing unique victory conditions to certain skirmishes. Levels can be manipulated with the use of ‘dragon veins’ – certain spots on the map that once interacted with change the battlefield. From destroying blockades, to forming bridges across chasms, to drying up lakes – altering the battlefield in such ways opens up even more tactical options, without expressly giving you an unfair advantage. Although this addition is not as mould-breaking as Awakening’s two-on-one combat system, the constant strides made by Intelligent Systems are appreciated, with Fates benefiting from several new additions, making the overall gameplay feel different enough from Awakening to justify a purchase, and make battles feel fresh without shoe-horning in tons of additions to what is already a brilliant combat system.
While some things change, some things thankfully remain the same. The unparalleled visual and audio quality of Awakening is back, pushing the 3DS to its impressive limits. Fates looks and sounds gorgeous, and in-game 3D models are detailed and intricate in their design, making each character stand out. The visual dissonance between the two kingdoms is stunning, too. Although Nohr is much more in keeping with the typical Fire Emblem ascetic, the characters are all so richly detailed and clearly inspired by European knights and historic armour. Ebon blacks, regal golds and deep purples encase the main cast of Conquest – a complete contrast from the Japanese-inspired Hoshido kingdom. Cherry blossom trees, clear blue skies and clear, white samurai-inspired robes and armour adorning your birth family, with Hoshidan units looking distinctly different on the battlefield compared to their Nohrian adversaries. This intense visual difference is unlike anything any previous Fire Emblem game has produced, and as such battles against the enemy kingdom feel like battles against a real adversary – a palpable kingdom, with its own beliefs, culture and even soldier classes.
While in-game character models are as gorgeous as they were in Awakening (characters even have feet now!) the overworld map has changed significantly in terms of design and, more crucially, function. Whereas in Awakening the overworld map was fundamentally a large, brown stain with wrinkles all over it, Conquest’s map is more akin to a googlemaps satellite view of the in-game world. The detail is quite impressive considering that you can no longer traverse the overworld map as you could in Awakening: the function has been removed, and now the player simply selects the next mission from this screen. Interacting with allies, buying goods and preparing your army is no longer handled on the overworld map: now you can manage all that from your own personal fortress.
After a bizarre – and seemingly trivial – plot point reveals itself to the player, you can build your own keep, from which you can engage in all the extra-curricular activities you’d expect from a Fire Emblem game, with some new additions. Engaging in conversations with allies to strengthen unit relationships is back, and equipment can be managed amongst units. On equipment, weapons now have unlimited usage, meaning your weapons will never break, regardless of how much you use them. Staffs can be used up, but conventional weapons – swords, axes, tomes et al – will last forever. Personally, I enjoyed making sure my army was prepared for lengthy engagements in previous Fire Emblem games, and buying several different weapons made me feel like I was managing a real army, with economic factors that required consideration. Weapons breaking on the battlefield was part of the complexity regarding Fire Emblem’s combat, and removing this element only really seems to benefit Birthright, since gold can be used to scout areas of the world map in order to reveal additional challenge maps – a feature that is not in Conquest.
Although you no longer need to purchase multiple versions of weapons, you can build vendors in your keep that will sell different items. Once these vendors are built, they can be upgraded to sell higher quality gear. Besides item vendors, social hubs can be constructed that will give allies a stat boost going into the next battle. Mess halls, shared bathing areas and a personal quarters – these elements not only benefit units by granting them slight power-ups, but they are places wherein characters can interact and develop their relationships – yes, it’s time to talk about the birds and the bees of Fire Emblem…
The ability to enhance the performance of units by having them communicate with one-another is an element of Fire Emblem that has developed through a lot of the games in the series, but only in recent years has this feature taken on a worryingly fan-fiction-esque dimension. Fates has retained the intimacy of the Awakening developments to this system, letting characters forge relationships that result in cheesy marriage proposals and even children that can be recruited into the player’s army. Where Fates diverges, though, is the inclusion of the private quarters. The players avatar’s personal space, complete with a bed… and pretty much nothing else – this area enables you to invite certain characters over and inspect their bodies while they talk at you. Once you are done ‘listening’ to them, the character leaves, and your relationship with the character is further improved. Once you’ve married one of your lucky units, you can get all ‘dating simulator’ on your warrior’s ass: playing with them while they are asleep, or blowing on them to cool them down are just some of the things you’ll spend your time doing in between FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIVES ON YOUR CAMPAIGN OF CONQUEST AND CONVICTION!
This feature doesn’t seem to enhance the relationship mechanic in any meaningful way, with interactions between units still primarily taking place in the support menu. Fighting alongside units in combat is still an effective way of building relations between characters, and the addition of leering at soldiers seems tailor-made for the more ‘suspect’ fans of the series, who revel in fandom and ‘shipping’ culture. That being said, marrying units off is a rewarding experience, and juggling tactical placement of units with preferred placement of units so as to gain relationship bonuses adds another layer of depth to battles – I mean, I found myself engaged in deep political conversations with Camilla several times during the course of Conquest, while I should have been reinforcing a flank or defending a position, but it was totally worth it… for the ‘combat bonuses’, of course!?
*Ahem*, now then, where were we? Back to the review: Although a novel addition, the development of your personal keep is not so much a game-changing addition to the series, but rather another expansion upon the personal elements that made Awakening so series-changing. Fire Emblem Fates doesn’t particularly try to shake up the formula that it has inherited from Awakening, but rather, Fates is a game about direction and choice: you choose your side, you choose your castle, and you choose your avatar’s every detail – from an impressive selection that makes Awakening’s avatar creation system look like a poor prototype! Even being able to interact with other characters on a more intimate level doesn’t change Fire Emblem in any significant way, but it allows for greater personal expression within the world of Fire Emblem – and in a gaming environment where customizable experiences are king, Nintendo seem more than aware of this, hence the very personal nature of Fates: both as a concept and an experience.
A demanding campaign, varied and ever-changing objectives, and a story that has you questioning the very nature of ‘family’ and ‘bonds’ – Birthright doesn’t particularly have any of these things, but Conquest does! Yes, your inner villain will go wanting, and buying a physical copy will leave you feeling a little raw, but once the melodrama recedes and characters stop trying to get their respective senpai to notice them, Conquest really gets in the face of even the most hardened Fire Emblem veteran. Boiling Conquest down to its core, we see a quintessential Fire Emblem game, just with 50% less conscience – it’s tough, tactical and tells you from the start that you’re in for a challenge. With next to no opportunity to level up beyond the main campaign, the player will be tested tactically, and no grinding or over-levelling of units can save you. Every bit as technically impressive as its forebear, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is a truly ambitious addition to the series, discarding Awakening’s comfortable, Fire Emblem swansong feel for something a little darker, a little more radical, and overall, something a little more unique. Now, if you don’t mind, I really need to inspect Camilla’s ‘tactics’…
Both of them…
In the bathhouse…
With no clothes on…