Fire Emblem Fates
So, relationships based on intense experiences never work? We have powerful evidence to the contrary. Having foolishly left our avatar open to attack from the Hoshidan army’s most powerful units, we watch with awestruck delight as our butler-cum-husband Jakob steps in to bravely block no fewer than four successive attacks, saving us from yet another soft reset. Ours was a bond forged in the fiery heat of battle – and over our apparent inability to make a half-decent cuppa – thus proving that love can indeed flourish in the unlikeliest of situations.
Suffice it to say that Fates is reliant upon Awakening’s wonderful partner mechanics for its most electrifying moments. To wit: placing units in adjacent squares gives you an offensive boost, allowing allies to launch a secondary assault in the same turn, while squeezing two into the same tile offers a potential source of protection. These thrilling little vignettes are rich in character and drama: there’s little to compare with the feeling of a vulnerable unit sidestepping what would have been a fatal blow and countering with a defiant roar and a critical hit for double damage. And, yes, your troops actually have feet this time.
Fates, however, trades in Awakening’s focused narrative for something more ambitious. At first, it seems like a purely commercial decision to split the story into three, with several units exclusive to each campaign: a needless Pokémon- isation of a beloved series. That many characters and settings feature across all three does little to ease those doubts; likewise the comparatively tiny download size for each addition after a hefty initial install. And yet the differences between them are far more pronounced than in Game Freak’s variants, as the series explores a conflict from three different perspectives, eventually giving a clearer overall picture of the motivations of all involved.
Birthright will be the starting point for many and is the easiest way in for newcomers. Before then, a series of tutorial battles is threaded through an intro that establishes the crux of the plot: having been raised in the kingdom of Nohr, you discover you were kidnapped as a youngster from your family in Hoshido, with the game’s sixth chapter finally forcing you to pick a side.
What follows is the easiest of the three campaigns, with the ability to scout the land for opponents, giving you the opportunity to level up your troops in optional battles. The prosperity of Hoshido means resources are plentiful, and you’ll be rewarded handsomely for your efforts. The missions, however, are very single-minded, in keeping with your avatar’s steadfast belief that the only way to achieve peace between the two nations is to defy the tyrannical Nohr king on the battlefield.
If Birthright feels as much an RPG as a strategy game, Conquest shifts the focus firmly towards the tactical, forcing you to rely upon comparatively limited supplies – and with no scouts, you’ll have to do your levelling during story missions. And while you’ll visit many of the same settings you saw in Birthright, the maps have been tweaked, with a much wider variety of goals. In one chapter, you’ll use ballistas and defensive formations to guard the entrance of a port town for a given number of turns. In another, you’ll fight among urns containing medicinal and poisonous elixirs, shattering their contents to buff allies and blight opponents. Revelation, inevitably, finds a comfortable middle ground, except your position is anything but cosy: by refusing to decide between Nohr and Hoshido, you’re cast out by both sides as a traitor.
Birthright’s unswerving emphasis on routing enemies and the rigidity of approach enforced by the absence of optional missions in Conquest could easily be regarded as weaknesses and yet, considered in light of the narrative, they represent a conscious and daring design choice. It would’ve been simple enough for Intelligent Systems to vary Hoshido’s aims, or to offer Nohr more freedom; this way, narrative and mechanics cohere with a greater consistency, while differentiating each campaign despite their many shared assets.
Each path, meanwhile, casts the others in a fresh light. Fighting alongside your Hoshido family, you’ll be told that Nohr are born warriors, resistant to the notion of truce. However, within the bosom of your adopted family, you conduct a clandestine rebellion against the orders of your king, insisting that victory can be earned without need for further bloodshed. Former enemies become fast friends and life partners, as Conquest’s heightened challenge forces you to rely upon a smaller band of powerful units.
The pain of loss is ameliorated by the knowledge that units are retreating from the frontline rather than dying, though their absence alongside you is as keenly felt as the guilt you’ll experience in denying them a legacy in the post-game credits sequence. And some characters do suffer a more permanent retirement, as the absorbing (if melodramatic) story cruelly swings its scythe just as you’re getting the hang of leaving no woman, wolfskin or child-dragon behind.
Such tragedy doesn’t always sit easily with the lighthearted tone of the support conversations, and the central plot contrivance in Revelation is so stupid it comes close to undoing some excellent character work. And while the Casual option that makes fallen units available for selection in the next battle is a welcome sop to beginners, a Phoenix mode that revives them after a single turn trivialises the sense of attachment to your comrades-in-arms that distinguishes the series. But these are small scratches on a grand canvas; this sweeping triptych is as luxurious and formidable a game as you’ll encounter on portable hardware.
Their absence alongside you is as keenly felt as the guilt you’ll experience in denying them a legacy in the credits sequence