The Fire Emblem franchise has become, in recent years at least, Intelligent Systems’ premier strategy series, beating out its much-loved Wars stable-mate. 2013’s Awakening marked the rebirth of the series, and in doing so became one of the highlights of the 3DS’ software line-up.
Fire Emblem Fates is an even more ambitious proposition, with a dual storyline spanning across two separate physical releases – Birthright is the focus of today’s review, with our Conflict review still in the works – with a further narrative that ties the two together available in the Revelation DLC. To say this is more than a simple Pokemon-style dual release would be an understatement, but have Intelligent Systems overstretched themselves this time?
If you’ve ever played any of the previous Fire Emblem games, you’ll know the core gameplay strands. From the grid-based movement through to the weapons and magic triangle, Fates doesn’t stray from the familiar template. It does however offer a refinement of everything that has gone before, and there’s more information readily available to you than ever, allowing you to weigh every single move you make. Of course, this can mean that much like a high level chess match, your turns, and indeed your battles, can extend from minutes to hours. Thankfully, with a bookmark function and the 3DS’ sleep mode you can always take a break whenever you need to.
You’re cast as a Prince – or Princess – of Hoshido who was kidnapped as a child and raised by the rival Nohr nation, with the games branching at the point that this becomes clear. Birthright takes the narrative up if you choose to side with the nation of your birth, while Conquest follows what happens if you stick with the Nohr royals that raised you. It’s much more than a mere gimmick, with different plot beats, characters and missions making it well worth considering a double purchase.
While much of the narrative is dispensed via text and immobile character images, the game pulls a clever trick of using small amounts of speech that emphasise what’s being said to bring the whole thing to life. Games that have a lot of text can become exceedingly wearing, but I never felt that at any point with Fire Emblem Fates, with the endearing characters and various plot twists guaranteed to pull you in.
The interpersonal relationships that were at the heart of Fire Emblem: Awakening return here, with even more emphasis placed on working alongside your comrades, and perhaps even mixing a bit of business with pleasure. Once again, you can carefully push characters together on and off the battlefield until they decide to marry, and eventually produce offspring.
The game handles this in some fanciful timey-wimey fashion which sees them age much quicker, allowing them to join you in battle considerably faster than nature would have intended. Pairing up your characters is such a crucial system that you become disinclined to use anyone on their own, and it presents even more tactical depth as to who supports who, and when to use which member of the pair.
You can find yourself falling down the tactical rabbit hole in later encounters, as characters gain abilities and buffs that affect themselves or those around them. Selecting the strongest set of characters becomes crucial and makes for wonderfully engaging, thoughtful and action-packed combat.
There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to content, and that is just in this side of the storyline. Not only do you have the central plot, but your home castle can come under attack during Invasion scenarios, while Challenge missions give you plenty of chance to level up your characters and explore the world of Hoshido and Nohr. You can also spend gold to scout out even more encounters which, when combined with your relationship fostering and home castle building, can distract you for many more hours.
The result of this is that, in the right circumstances, the going is somewhat easier here than in Awakening, and especially so in comparison with its sister title Conflict, which is geared much more toward the tactical combat as opposed to Birthright’s role playing. In fact, if you opt for the easy mode, and switch off the character’s perma-death, this will probably be the easiest and most welcoming Fire Emblem yet.
Series veterans have no need to worry though, as cranking up that difficulty and playing in Classic mode will still cause 3DS-endangering levels of frustration. At least you no longer have to switch the console off and on again to get back to your last save.
Fortunately the visuals and the sound design make the entire experience a joy to partake in, and the Eastern themes are eminently hummable to the point where I found myself absently whistling them at various points of the day. While some may wonder what all the fuss was about, Fire Emblem Fates does add in a crucial element that was lacking from Awakening: the characters feet.
While this is of course still a 3DS title, and therefore not liable to feature visuals of the calibre Xbox or PlayStation gamers are used to, it is clear and attractive, while the cutscenes and character portraits look fantastic and really bring the cast to life. Overall it’s a high quality experience, proving positively that the 3DS can offer games that are just as epic as anything a home console could produce.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is amongst the best tactical videogames of all time. While it’s not the wholesale reinvigoration that Awakening was, it is the refinement of three decades worth of game development, from a team who have fundamentally defined the handheld tactical genre.