Fire Emblem Fates
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Nintendo SPD
Release Date: February 19th 2016 (US), 2016 (EU)
Links: US Site
Reviewed by Peter Grant (@AfroHorses)
Fire Emblem If was released in Japan in June of 2015, and is the hotly anticipated sequel to Fire Emblem Awakening, both of which are on the Nintendo 3DS. While there is a vague connection between the two games, knowledge of Awakening is not needed to enjoy Fates. This is perhaps just as well, as the first few hours of Fates are quite heavy on plot development, on a series that tends to not take especially long to cut to the action.
For the uninitiated, Fire Emblem is a strategy role-playing game. The best comparison is perhaps akin to something like chess, only where your pieces develop feelings for each other and enhance their powers and abilities through battle. The series is known for having a punishing difficulty level, in which case it is fortunate that the battle system is so simple. Player and the AI opponent take turns moving units into a position to attack. A signature feature of the series is that, if a unit is defeated, they have been lost permanently, unless the chapter is restarted. Thankfully, the outcome of the encounters are made very clear before choosing to act. While Awakening felt something like refined take on what came before, Fates has decided to take everything a step further. As you might expect from a sequel, the presentation is improved, but the changes are not limited to just that.
The most notable feature is that the army the protagonist joins in the story is up to you. With the tutorial complete, which also sets the scenario, the player is forced to choose a side, choosing either the Kingdom of Hoshido or the Kingdom of Nohr. The experience on either side is very different. Hoshido, or the Birthright path, is an easier experience overall, with access to a world map featuring optional battles, allowing for further strengthening of units. Nohr, or the Conquest path, instead plays more like earlier iterations of the series, in that it is more linear and without access to the optional battles. There is also a visual difference between the two opposing armies; Nohr units have a typical western fantasy appearance to them, whilst Hoshido units look distinctly Asian-inspired in their style. The actual functions of units on either side are the same, however. As you choose your side, the bosses of each stage are made up of would-be allies from the other path, meaning they are more developed than was the case previously. Traditionally, stage bosses are represented by typically ghoulish or thuggish looking villains, standing out from the generic troops that make up the opposition. When encountering a boss in Fates, brief words are exchanged, giving you a glimpse of who these characters are; sometimes this can leave you looking forward to learning more about that character when playing the other path. It should also be noted here that there is also a third path through the game, which is downloadable content. This allows the protagonist to follow a path of their own, which leads towards a more definitive conclusion.
As previously mentioned, Fates is taking things a step further than in Awakening, and part of this has bumped the difficulty up somewhat. Interestingly, this is all about balance; every potential advantage available to the player is now available to the enemy units. Enemy units can be encountered with the same abilities that aid your own in battle. Whilst in Awakening you were able to have your units form up to act in unison, this function is now available to the enemy also. An element to consider when strategizing is that certain units who are significant to the plot can interact with certain tiles on the map. These allow the creation of pathways between mountain passes to bringing down rock ceilings, which have the effect of changing large parts of the map layout or dealing significant amounts of damage to a large group of enemies.
Much has been done towards improving the presentation. In Awakening, 2D sprites move around the map, and should they attack one another, the game cuts to a 3D sequence where the action plays out. If the 2D units are standing on a field, in a fort, or within a forest, this is represented in the battle sequence. However, in Fates, this is taken much further, and while it is purely a visual element, it leads to a much more engaging experience. Rather than cutting to a 3D action sequence, instead the camera will swoop down into the battle in one smooth transition; characters are presented in 3D and their location on the map clearly represented. If one character is on a different level to its opponent, this will be visually represented in the battle sequence. If there happens to be a bridge, building or any other landmark nearby, this is made clearly visible in battle. Furthermore, as either side receives damage, this is presented visually, with pauldrons becoming dented and capes becoming torn. If a character is defeated in a critical hit, parts of their armour shatters from the impact. Again, it’s purely visual, but it makes everything a lot more exciting and engaging.
Unfortunately, as much as I want to say that every feature introduced in Fates has improved the game, this is not the case. Almost all of the potentially questionable content can be found in the game’s “My Castle” feature. In Awakening, you could travel the map and characters who had fought alongside each other could interact as their relationships developed. In Fates, and you will have to excuse the Dungeons & Dragons reference, you have access to what can be best compared to a pocket dimension. This takes the form of a castle, which you choose the appearance of, as well as the buildings which are housed inside the walls. Some of these are vital, such as weapon and item shops. You can also have an arena and a library, where you can test your character’s ability in battle, or read about their history. Later on, the likes of an accessory shop and hot springs are introduced. The accessory shop allows a character of your choosing to be adorned in up to four accessories, altering their appearance as well as bringing with it slight stat-altering properties. The hot springs, however, allows you to have a chance encounter of seeing one of your characters wandering around in a towel or swimsuit. It’s a strange feature to include in what is normally a game about friendships that develop in wars against evil wizards and/or dragons.
Exclusive to the Japanese version of the game is the ‘Skinship’ mode, an option for the player to, when in their room, invite a character of their choosing to come join them, and then further enhance their relationship by, quite simply, stroking their face for a bit. Granted, Fire Emblem is a series in which you do develop a bond with the characters, but making this an interactive experience seems like a strange one. Undoubtedly, it will have its audience, but it creates the sense that attempting to appeal to certain audiences has taken precedence now that the core formula has been refined. This feature, alongside a virtual pet mini-game, is limited by time; you have to wait for a few hours before someone in your army is happy with you not keeping your hands to yourself.
That, in a sense, sums up Fire Emblem Fates; Awakening solidified the Fire Emblem formula, and the team behind Fates have recognised that and built upon it further. As an RPG, the plot is real meat of the game, yet it is difficult to really get into that in a review – however, I can safely say that it has a lot more depth to it this time. Better still, presentation has been improved in a variety of ways, whilst the complexity and accessibility has been taken even further than what was present in the series’ previous iteration. When compared to Awakening, there can be little doubt that Fate is the superior game in every regard; if you enjoyed Awakening, you will certainly get drawn into Fates very, very quickly. However, if Fates is your planned first foray into the series, I feel it is worth saying that Awakening would be a more preferable starting point. At once, Fates has removed a lot of the fluff for a more definitive experience, yet then opts to dilute it with some questionable new features. Thankfully, many of these features are optional, but having them there does make you wonder what the intended point was. Regardless, it is another very strong title for the 3DS, in which case I can only recommend it.
This review is based on an import copy of the game.