Fire Em­blem If

3DS

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Love is a com­plex force, ca­pa­ble of bind­ing op­posed minds to­gether, but also tear­ing lives apart. Ev­i­dently, In­tel­li­gent Sys­tems re­alises that ‘It’s com­pli­cated’ is more than a trite Face­book sta­tus, be­cause its new­est Fire Em­blem game (subti­tled If in Ja­pan) is as much about war­ring hearts as clash­ing blades. Where 2012’s Fire Em­blem: Awak­en­ing fo­cused on bring­ing your party to­gether, forg­ing bonds be­tween char­ac­ters on the blood­ied fields of turn-based battle that had ram­i­fi­ca­tions far be­yond help­ful boosts in com­bat, If’s three strands re­volve around the tan­gled emo­tions in­volved in tak­ing a Fal­chion to fam­ily ties.

You are the fo­cal point for all this fa­mil­ial angst, torn be­tween the peo­ple who raised you in Nohr and the ones who gave you birth in Hoshido, two king­doms of tin­der a spark away from all-out war. It’s a clear shift from Awak­en­ing, where am­ne­siac avatar Robin played a sup­port­ing role to prince Chrom, and now you’re re­spon­si­ble for shap­ing the path of not one civil­i­sa­tion, but two. Ac­cord­ingly, mak­ing choices is be­ing talked up as a ma­jor part of the game, but we know the de­tails of only one – and it’s a de­ci­sion many Ja­panese play­ers will have to make in a store.

Split across two phys­i­cal ver­sions in Nin­tendo’s home­land, one for each king­dom, If branches off at the sixth chap­ter to be­come two dif­fer­ent games. Side with Hoshido and you’re in for a more tra­di­tional take on se­ries con­ven­tion, with a gen­tler dif­fi­culty level. The Nohr cam­paign, mean­while, makes you a rene­gade seek­ing to change your king­dom from within, which rep­re­sents a far steeper chal­lenge. The dig­i­tal down­load ver­sion locks off whichever choice you es­chew at first, but at least it won’t force fans to de­cide from the box art alone. Whichever side you don’t take at first be­comes DLC, with a third, sep­a­rate cam­paign thread due to ar­rive af­ter launch.

It’s not the first time a Nin­tendo game has come in two vari­ants, and the world and cast will be con­sis­tent, so per­haps it’s wise to with­hold judge­ment un­til the specifics of cam­paign length and west­ern pric­ing emerge. How­ever, talk of char­ac­ter codes for favourites such as Marth, Lucina and Min­erva tied to the card game launch­ing along­side If in the east sug­gest that the con­tents of wal­lets is as im­por­tant here as the con­tents of hearts. The pric­ing struc­ture is sure to be con­tentious, then, but what we’ve seen of If evinces many sound tweaks to the for­mula of 2012’s pre­mier 3DS strat­egy game. For one, the split run looks to bring greater moral com­plex­ity to the plot­ting, while con­tin­u­ing the nu­anced char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions em­blem­atic of this se­ries. Yes, Hoshido is the noble, peace­ful white to the blacker garb and vain­glo­ri­ous am­bi­tions of Nohr, but there’s a greater sense of the grey ar­eas be­tween them, some­thing a straight-up right­eous quest to save the world from an­cient evil would lack. The plot could still twist that way, of course, with glances of the hulk­ing Nos­fer­atu – not to be con­fused with the spell – and your dragon form hint­ing at a su­per­nat­u­ral un­der­cur­rent, but that can’t sap the po­ten­tial in ex­plor­ing Nohr’s nu­ances.

And be­yond grant­ing char­ac­ters feet – Awak­en­ing’s cast was in­fa­mously en pointe – If’s im­proved vi­su­als will tie the ab­stract grid and 3D battle se­quences to­gether bet­ter. The cam­era now zooms from sprite-based tac­ti­cal map to 3D lo­ca­tions, land­marks and even crowds of sol­diers vis­i­ble around he­roes as they clash, af­ford­ing more of a sense of con­trol­ling the key units in a war. But the great­est change is that the Dual Sys­tem is no longer limited to your side, foes mim­ick­ing Awak­en­ing’s paired units, which could turn aside blows or dish out a com­bined attack.

Just weeks away from its Ja­panese re­lease, it’s un­der­stand­able that feel­ings about If are com­plex. On the one hand, it bears all the hall­marks of a thought­ful, if in­cre­men­tal, up­grade of a tem­plate adored by many. But it’s hard to trust a game where you know more about the DLC than what you get in the box. Af­ter all, we’ve been hurt be­fore.

Florence Knightingale

The Nohrian forces aren’t gener­i­cally Euro­pean, but seem to specif­i­cally draw on Ital­ian in­spi­ra­tions, gon­dolas float­ing on the wa­ter of a pala­tial theatre, a golden lion face be­ing a key de­vice on Marx’s shield, and a Mouth Of Truth-headed golem shown – in CGI only thus far – smash­ing aside the more eastern-tinged forces of Hoshido. There’s a play­ing-card mo­tif at work here too, with hearts, clubs and di­a­monds all vis­i­ble on horse ar­mour, per­haps hint­ing at a du­al­ity within the king­dom to mir­ror the two colours in a deck. One game­play ram­i­fi­ca­tion that is not yet fully un­der­stood is how two very dif­fer­ent styles of ar­ma­ment will merge into the weapon tri­an­gle of yore (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords), or if that long-serv­ing sys­tem will be re­placed.

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