Fire Emblem has always been a series about the brutal decision-making of war, but that concept has never been as crystallized as it is in Fire Emblem Fates.
Fire Emblem Fates is technically three games that diverge at a crucial decision point early on in the campaign, a split that forces the player to decide where their loyalties lie between two opposing armies. That decision defines the tone of the campaign that follows and the difficulty of the path your hero pursues. Controversially, it also divides the game into three paid pieces of content.
If that three-way split were purely superficial, it could be dismissed as a damning, crass business tactic, one that takes the Pokémon generational split to new extremes. That argument is compounded by the fact that Fates‘ full story unfurls across all three versions, meaning players must complete each one to follow the plot to its true end.
But Fire Emblem Fates‘ divided campaign isn’t a superficial facet of the game at all; it’s its raison d’être, and it makes for a captivating story within each game that will leave you constantly wondering how the other thirds live.
The divided campaign isn’t superficial
Fire Emblem Fates‘ three campaigns chronicle the war between Nohr, the quintessential evil empire which the protagonist calls home, and Hoshido, the rebel nation led by the protagonist’s actual blood relatives. After a few chapters of introduction to each, Fire Emblem Fates forces you to choose between your adopted and biological families, or to choose neither, setting you down the paths of Conquest, Birthright and Revelation, respectively.
We haven’t made our way into Revelation yet — it’s recommended that you play and finish both of the other campaigns before stepping foot into the DLC campaign, for fear of spoilers. We split up playing Conquest and Birthright for this review, so while we’ve each finished one campaign, neither of us had time to complete the other. We plan to update our review regarding Revelation before its launch on March 10.
The Conquest and Birthright campaigns feel like two distinct games, but they share a common thread: They don’t compromise the severity of that inciting decision. The family and army you side against will typically be your foes in battle, and the body count is substantial — on both sides. Play through one campaign, and you’ll wonder what it’s like to befriend or romance the units you’re killing. Play through a second and you’ll see former husbands and wives on the opposing front lines.
Conquest and Birthright, for better or worse, don’t offer a complete view of what’s going on in Fire Emblem Fates. They certainly have resolutions to their respective arcs, but both leave room for further questions. The promise of the “true ending” lies in the tertiary Revelation DLC, and that knowledge takes some of the narrative satisfaction away from its counterparts.
The events leading up to each game’s conclusion, however, are by and large engrossing. Each edition of Fire Emblem Fates offers its own set of story moments that delve into tough moral decisions and the gray areas of squaring off against your own loved ones. There’s some overlap between the plots and central figures, but Birthright and Conquest build individual narratives that offer separate, equally emotionally resonant payoffs.
There are more than just narrative differences between the campaigns. Birthright and Conquest have unique characters, classes and mechanics. Birthright‘s Hoshidan army is largely populated by East Asian military archetypes — ninjas and samurai who favor stealth to head-on incursions. Conquest‘s Nohrian army is all medieval knights and lancers, who can take more of a licking and keep on ticking.
Both campaigns take their protagonist to many of the same locations, but with varying motivations and win conditions. Birthright‘s campaign is a straightforward march for vengeance, where victory almost always entails defeating an entire platoon or its leader. Conquest‘s battles have different, more demanding objectives, requiring more strategy than its counterpart. You’ll see a lot of the same maps across the two campaigns, but you’ll approach them in totally different ways.
Though Conquest is more challenging than Birthright, all the campaigns in Fire Emblem Fates offer a matrix of difficulty settings. When starting a campaign you choose the difficulty of combat, and whether you want to enable permadeath for downed characters — playing on the easiest difficulty, you can also enable “Phoenix Mode,” in which downed characters can respawn on the battlefield. At any point during a campaign you can turn either setting to an easier level, but you can’t increase difficulty mid-campaign.
Conquest is the more challenging of the two campaigns, largely because it doesn’t provide as many opportunities for EXP farming through optional skirmishes. Without that safety net, you have to treat every attack in every fight as a deliberate training exercise. It makes each combat encounter a life-or-death decision not just on the battlefield, but on a much more intangible, macro level as well.
On the downside, that also limits how much time you’ll have to cultivate the Support relationships between characters in Conquest, which is still one of the best features this franchise brings to the table. There’s an enormous cast of characters, with several unique, often charming, often bewildering conversations they’ll share with one another as they grow closer on the battlefield.
These small character moments are the greatest bits of writing that Fire Emblem Fates has to offer. Other than the core Hoshidan and Nohrian family members, players don’t get to learn too much about their available teammates during the story; that’s where support chats come in. Frequent partners can steer their relationship to romantic affection. Building strong relationships isn’t just a fun side task; it aids players in battle, as teammates with greater affinity will lend stronger support and protect other characters in a pinch.
This system is optional, but other than its meaningful in-game benefits, there’s another incentive to forge eternal bonds: babies. Well, they’re not quite babies — thanks to an eyeroll-worthy plot device, children are aged up to be battle-ready and can be recruited during side missions. The children can be paired up with their parents or each other, adding another angle to the story’s central theme of family.
Support relationships offer the game’s greatest bits of writing
Outside of battle, nearly all of your army’s interactions will take place in your own customizable castle, which is one of Fire Emblem Fates‘ biggest additions. Players can manage and decorate their castle grounds to their liking, building and upgrading various structures like a hot spring, a mess hall and equipment shops. These and other places, like your own Private Quarters, offer added chances to interact with teammates, better defining their relationships with you and each other.
The My Castle system features an appealing multiplayer component, as well. You can visit and compare other people’s castle ground layouts, or even battle your friends in either of your castles. Winning a fight allows you to steal a copy of one of their units, who can then fold into your own army or, if you’re feeling particularly Machiavellian, assign to defend your castle against their counterattack.
It’s a neat system, but it feels just a tad underdeveloped. Also, your castle doesn’t carry over between campaigns, and that lack of continuity makes it hard to get genuinely invested in developing your castle if you plan on completing the whole set.
As for how you’ll actually manage your army while in your castle, the changes to the series’ formula are uneven. Weapons are now impervious to breakage, which is welcome, but it had minimal impact on our strategic decision-making. Instead of funneling time into ensuring your soldiers’ weapons won’t become unusable at an inconvenient moment, your tactical skills are put to better use customizing characters in other ways.
class adoption is complicated and confusing
Fire Emblem Fates needlessly complicates the series’ already pretty complicated class adoption mechanic, which you have to use in order to shape characters into their strategic best. It’s a system managed through consumable items called Seals, which are so scarce that those who experiment with troop promotion without exacting specificity are punished.
You can alter a unit by using one of six different seals: Master Seals, which promote you to advanced versions of your applicable classes; Heart Seals, which let you change to a unit’s baked-in alternate class; Offspring Seals, granting child soldiers access to their parents’ class promotions; Eternal Seals, which raise the level cap of advanced classes by five; and Friendship and Partner Seals, which allow you to take on the class of your max-level Supports.
If you want to direct a unit’s growth in specific stat areas, or try to unlock a particular skill with them, you have to use this system, but the brief tutorial on this function is unhelpful. Even once you understand how the system works, there’s so much confusion about the best way to use it: At what level should you promote a unit? What’s the ideal class for stat growth for that unit? What are the upgraded versions of that ideal class, and which of those is ideal?
It’s hard to know if you’re ever managing your troops correctly, which stands in stark contrast to the instant cerebral gratification delivered in every round of combat. The former doesn’t diminish the latter, but it fails to engender attachment to the soldiers you’re constantly endeavoring to keep alive.