Fire Emblem Fates is the first game in a renewed Fire Emblem franchise, with a publisher and developer confident in the property's viability for the first time since it hit the West back in the days of the GBA. Therefore, it's a bit of an experiment, consisting of three separate campaigns that are all their own full length adventures, but tying up as one cohesive whole that is hopefully better than the sum of its parts. That complete edition of the game isn't available to everyone as of yet, so I chose to focus on the Conquest campaign in playing the game for review. If you're coming to Fire Emblem for gameplay, then it mostly won't matter, as there are three games worth of story missions to grind through with this one release. However, if you play these games to invest in their characters and situations, then there are a few things that Fates does with the Fire Emblem formula that may sour you on the experience.
Your protagonist (who goes by Corrin by default) is a character of royal blood who is caught between two kingdoms, raised from childhood in the castle of Nohr and unaware that they were abducted at a young age by their surrogate father to be. Eventually, you meet with your blood relations on the Hoshidian side and go about making the difficult choice of which faction to side with in a bloody conflict. Or rather, your character does. Your choice is predetermined based on which version of the game you choose. Conquest has you siding with the Nohrian nobles, betraying your birth family for the familiar and slightly more dark alternative.
Once you've chosen your path, Conquest plays out in a surprisingly straightforward fashion. Your siblings on the Nohr side are clearly designed to be evil, with their black ensembles, red-eyed wyverns, and allegiance to a clearly corrupted monarch. However, while your character remains loyal to this side, there is almost never any real question about what you're doing. Your mission is always to take down Nohr from within, and your siblings pretty much immediately fall in line with your plan. It would have been much more narratively interesting to actually embrace the dark side in this version of the game, even if only for a few missions. Instead, you are a pure of heart hero who never kills his foes, spouting out dialogue that got a bit bland and naive for my taste.
Of course, story is not the only split in the Fire Emblem Fates experience. Conquest was designed to play more like older Fire Emblem titles, lacking the experience grinding and excess money that was introduced in Awakening and continued in Birthright. This means that there are only so many enemies to take down, and leveling characters is a delicate balance between keeping them safe and giving them opportunities to strike the final blow. It also means that it's much harder to keep everyone on the team useful, but a core group does eventually emerge that will serve you well throughout the campaign.
You'll want every character you can hang onto, as Conquest does little to mar the franchise's pedigree of amazing turn based combat. Positioning your troops correctly, creeping up to the edge of an opponent's attack range, the thrill of landing a critical hit—it's all here. You can still pair up soldiers like you could in Awakening, creating super units that can stave off more attacks at the expense of the amount of damage your army can deal each turn. However, I found it even more satisfying later in the game to see a single unit survive an onslaught of attacks and deal out double the damage in return. Every battle was unique and challenging in its own way, and I never really wanted to put the game down, always preferring to see what the next conflict would bring. When you can execute on a strategy and pull off a level without even getting hit, that's the type of memorable exchange that sticks with you long after the game is over.
I've always played Fire Emblem without permadeath options when I could, via either emulation or using the official Casual setting. I've done this for reasons of time management and character investment, and I'm aware it does color my opinions of the game slightly. If you're like me, you'll be pleased with the development of your soldiers, both in the realm of their deadly effectiveness and their love lives. Children characters return, and they're just as good as they were in Awakening, provided that you're pairing off your best soldiers to produce them. There were several instances where I saw children directly overcome the weaknesses of their parents during combat, such as Percy's high accuracy when compared to his bumbling father Arthur. This is one unique thing that Fire Emblem's mix of tactics and characters can provide, the type of emergent story that grabs the player and lets them fill in the details with their own imagined dialogue.
These tales are also helped along by Conquest's My Castle feature. Your crew comes home after each battle to a fortress of your own design housed inside of a pocket dimension, because video games. You can build stores, arenas, mess halls, a bath house, and even a personal treehouse in which to rendezvous with your allies. You can also erect turrets and other defenses that will help ward off invaders. You get a few "invasion" missions as you go through the story, and you can also choose to invade your friends castles to challenge their architectural skills. It's a pretty minor feature that does its job, but it is nice to have something to do with friends who are playing along with you.
This brings us to what has unfortunately become one of the more notable things about Fire Emblem Fates, that being the questionable work done with its localization. For one, the game is missing a face touching minigame as well as several other sexually themed features of the My Castle mode. The game is also missing any trace of Japanese audio, which is becoming a standard for many imported releases. None of that is really my cup of tea, and my experience there wasn't affected, although it is a shame that people can't have those features if they want them.
What did sour my time with the game was the dialogue changes, which leaned towards the cartoonish more often than not. There has always been a sense of humor to the Fire Emblem games, but it goes too far into the unbelievable here, with many characters lazily defined by a single trait that is hammered into the player over and over. It's hard to really invest in characters as anything but jokes when they're regularly performing non-sequitur feats of strength or saying phrases as laughably bad as "Super-double-dupity." I'm someone who plays these games for the characters as much as the gameplay, and this is the least invested I've felt in a cast simply because it feels like Fire Emblem: Saturday Night Live Edition.
The only other issue I have with Conquest is that it is clearly one-third of a larger story. The game does not stand on its own as well as it should, and getting invested in the story means investing in two other DLC campaigns in order to experience all sides and get a satisfying resolution. On top of that, since each campaign is separate, you have to start your army back at square one and play through battles with reduced forces over and over. Considering that the franchise deals in time travel and alternate dimensions with some frequency, it's a real shame that there wasn't a solution where I could take a small group of soldiers throughout the entire Fates experience.
What you get out of Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is largely up to your expectations. If you're hoping for a return to form after the detour of Awakening, Conquest does its best to fill that role, presenting a difficult and satisfying twenty hours of turn based fun. If you're coming to the game with hopes of finding a new favorite character, this might not be the best place to look, as its narrative is rote and its adaption is problematic on several levels. Much like in music, the new breed of Fire Emblem hits the sophomore slump by pumping out an unfocused campaign fighting for attention with two others. Here's hoping that the team can gather focus and deliver a truly great singular vision the next time out.
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest was reviewed on a Nintendo 3DS XL with a copy that was purchased by the reviewer.