Fire Emblem Fates is a soap opera strategy game. You'll spend as much time agonising over battlefield tactics as you will wondering which characters should, like, totally hook up. Like 2013's Fire Emblem: Awakening, Fates is a tactical role-playing game that allows players to control an army of fantasy chess pieces. Each piece has its own rules for movement and combat, and more importantly, each piece is its own individual character with his or her own specific hopes and dreams. The more you fight alongside your troops, the better you'll get to know them outside of the battlefield. Fire Emblem is as much about relationships as it is about war.
While the long-running Fire Emblem series has let players foster relationships with troops for a while now, Awakening intensified things by letting characters have kids with each other. It was a decision that split the fanbase between those who loved the military manoeuvring but feared the series was turning into "anime garbage", and those who were delighted to have an unusual brand of dating sim to play.
The game's makers at Intelligent Systems must have noticed that divide, because the latest Fire Emblem is split into two versions: Birthright and Conquest. Each game has unique aspirations that cater to the tastes of the two camps, and depending on which one you choose to play, you'll get an entirely different set of characters to meet, war scenarios to conquer and narrative threads to explore.
Regardless of which version of the game you choose, you play as Corrin, a young noble caught between two warring nations, Hoshido and Nohr. A few chapters in, Corrin is faced with a choice (if you only bought one version of the game, it's not actually a choice, but if you own both, you really do make a decision). Do you side with the faction that Corrin grew up with, the Nohr of Conquest? Or do you choose Corrin's actual blood relatives, the Hoshido of Birthright? (DLC gives players a third option in the form of a campaign titled Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation, which is supposed to give players more insight into the events of Birthright and Conquest.)
Truthfully, the game doesn't spend enough time getting to know either party to warrant such a dramatic early choice. I based my decision on more superficial factors, like which version had the hotter characters. (Conquest. The right answer is Conquest.)
Given how rushed the introduction is, I was surprised to find just how much my initial choice ended up haunting me, especially given how hammy Fates's writing often is. Your decision makes the other side your mortal enemy, which means that over the course of the story, you'll have to tear down brothers and sisters alike. I recommend playing through both versions, if only so that you can know the full torment of watching siblings beg you to stop a murderous rampage, or the torture of having to kill someone who was your best friend the first time around.
The Hoshido of Birthright are the obvious moral "good" choice here. The Nohr are the arsehole villains who take great pleasure in needless bloodshed, whereas the Hoshido just want to live in peace, maaaan. I mean, it's slightly more complicated than that — as you play through Conquest, you learn that some people on that side aren't so bad after all, but overall, aligning with Nohr puts you in a moral grey area at best. That's exactly what makes it so interesting to play Conquest, assuming you can live with the guilt of being evil just to see what happens.
As if to punish you for choosing the villains of Conquest, that side of the game is ridiculously difficult. Narratively, this is explained by the fact that the King of Nohr is trying to make your life miserable; he doesn't trust you after you met your birth family, even though you've allied yourself with him. Even on the earliest levels of Conquest, and on the lowest difficulty setting, I found myself constantly overwhelmed by a sharp and ruthless AI. Beating a single stage might take me dozens of tries spread out over multiple days.
Conquest doesn't just have tougher enemies than Birthright, most missions also include a cruel twist or added challenge. In one chapter, you might find yourself wading through an ice village where walkways can freeze or melt, restricting your movement. In another, you might be trapped in an arena up against an endless stream of fighters who just won't stop spawning, no matter how many you kill.
At my lowest, I'd curse Conquest for being so unfair — just how many times could the AI nail a 1 per cent critical against me, anyway? But damn, when I prevailed, that adrenaline high was something else. I never enjoyed the feeling for long: the next level would always be worse. As I chopped away at the campaign, I couldn't help but wonder what, exactly, Intelligent Systems thinks of its more hardcore fanbase. The entire thing is framed as a joyless punishment for the protagonist, after all.
Birthright is a more straightforward game, where you always have the confidence that you're Doing The Right Thing (boring!). Aimed at more casual fans, Birthright's samurai combat is less about intense battlefield strategy and more about getting your characters to smooch each other. While I enjoy the brain-bending challenge of classic Fire Emblem, I also adore the romantic aspect of the newer games. When done right, this more frivolous side of the game fleshes out each and every soldier in the field. The result is a war fought by actual people, which is crucial in making me give a damn about Fire Emblem's signature permanent death mode — where each and every fatality is final.
While I can certainly pick out a few favourites from the larger roster, I found that this time around, Fire Emblem's characters were less memorable than those in Awakening. I was disappointed by how many boring if not outright annoying conversations I had in Fates, and I never quite got used to how many of my relationships had incestuous overtones. I still looked forward to talking to everyone, but I didn't always go in with the confidence I'd enjoy the exchange.
Fates actually doubles down on the series' more erotic elements. Both versions of the game give you something called "Personal Quarters", where the only things you can do are either A) Change your hair and B) "Invite allies". Calling someone over then gives you a close-up of that character's 3D model. Everyone always blushes at this point, or says something sweet to you, the player (sometimes more, if you're married). The Japanese version infamously let players rub other characters without their consent during this portion of the game, but that's (mostly) gone from the Western version.
You can feel the empty space left in its absence, too — the scenes are perplexingly brief. In fact, taking the petting out just makes these encounters paradoxically more suggestive. Sometimes, you'll call someone over while your character lounges on his or her bed, Titanic-style. I'm not sure what the game's developers want me to think happens during these "INVITE ALLIES" sessions, but when left to my imagination, I'm going to assume the blushing isn't because my character is playing pattycake with the soldiers under her command.
Have I mentioned that you can also visit a bathhouse, where occasionally you'll get embarrassing scenes where you walk in on the opposite sex? Or that you can order your soldiers to parade around with nothing but a towel? I love all of that stuff, but I am also the sort of trashcan fan who loves spending way too much time shipping characters.
Ostensibly, Fire Emblem Fates' full two-version incarnation caters to every type of fan. After playing through a good chunk of both Conquest and Birthright, it feels like most of the improvements and additions were made for so-called 'casual' aficionados. The core gameplay of Fire Emblem hasn't really changed much: you still move units around in a grid, these units can still level up as they go along and transform into mightier soldiers that you know and love. Tweaks to that formula are small. Weapons no longer degrade and break down, for example. And there are a few new classes to try out, such the ever-swift Ninja, a class that can throw shuriken from a distance, and Butlers, a loyal class that can use daggers and staves. Mostly, the new classes feel like slight alterations of already existing ones from prior games, which isn't very exciting.
Otherwise, the most noticeable additions aren't found on the battlefield, but rather in your options for spending downtime, when Corrin isn't crossing swords with anyone. Fire Emblem Fates comes with a new "My Castle" mode, and as the name suggests, players can customise and build a fort full of amenities. Every station is manned by your recruits, which means you have even more opportunities to interact with your favourite characters.
If a mage is behind the cashier at the rod shop, they will probably give you a discount on spells. If a general finds himself in the kitchen, he might surprise you with his cooking skills. Sometimes, characters might just hang out randomly on castle grounds, and you can go up to them and chat. Occasionally, these conversations will even reward you with items or stat bonuses. I love the small new ways Fates' castle let me interact with my warriors. It feels like a more personal game because of it.
There's more of a social aspect to My Castle, as well. Taking a page from Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem lets players visit their 3DS friends' citadels. Every castle grows unique ore and food items, so there's even a gameplay reason to go online and meet other people. Those resources can then be traded for accessories, or cooked for stat boosts. Not only is it fun to see how people decorate their castles, visiting other people also lets you duel them, asynchronously taking on computer-controlled versions of their best roster. The more you play against others, the more the game rewards you with gifts, too.
Since 2013, the Fire Emblem series has felt torn between its longstanding reputation for top-down strategy and its newfound popularity as a game of high-stakes romance. With Fates, the series hasn't frayed under the pressure. Instead, Intelligent Systems has created one of the most narratively ambitious games to hit a Nintendo platform. Fire Emblem Fates lets you explore the value of familial love and friendship, then offers you the option to go back and kill everyone you love, while loving everyone you killed.