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You are the ocean’s gray waves

Nintendo has never been afraid to try something new. Sometimes those gambles pay huge dividends, and other times, they end in disaster. But the Big N keeps innovating, and its most recent change of pace comes with its beloved strategy-RPG series, Fire Emblem. Instead of giving us one adventure, this time Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems has split up it’s most recent chapter into three perspectives dubbed Fire Emblem Fates.

In Fates, players assume the role of Corrin, a young prince (or princess) from the land of Hoshido who was kidnapped and raised by the kingdom of Nohr as one of their own. When Corrin comes of age and the war between the two kingdoms reaches a fever pitch, you learn the truth of Corrin’s upbringing, and are faced with a game-altering decision: Return to Hoshido, stay with Nohr, or forge your own path towards peace and choose neither.

What’s nice about Fire Emblem Fates Special Edition is that it offers all three paths on one game card, even allowing you to jump straight to the fateful decision on repeat playthroughs. This is a boon, because if you otherwise wanted to explore all three perspectives, and learn all the details there are to learn about this latest Fire Emblem world, you’d have to buy the games separately as Birthright (Hoshido story), Conquest (Nohr story), and then Revelations (neutral story) as a DLC coming nearly a month after launch. It’s like Pokémon, but for plot points.

Unfortunately, of the three stories, the only truly satisfying one comes from Revelations. Not to spoil anything, but key plot details are hidden by siding with one family or another, and although playing through both Birthright and Conquest offers you an overall greater insight into the cast of characters, only Revelations feels like a true Fire Emblem game in terms of the stakes that are on the line and the role your avatar plays.

Besides the altered narrative of each title, the three games also offer slightly different gameplay experiences from one another. Birthright could actually serve as a great starting point for newcomers to the series. It provides the most experience points to level characters up, and gold to upgrade and purchase the best weaponry with—all while giving you a taste of what to expect from other Fire Emblem games, even with its singular “destroy all enemies” goal of most missions.

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Conquest is for the more experienced Fire Emblem player, and provides a harsher playthrough. Experience points and gold come at a premium, and you’ll have to truly outsmart the computer if you hope to advance, not to mention make full use of every advantage you might have on the battlefield. There are also more varied goals like capturing points, or defeating only a certain number of enemies amongst the mission objectives.

Lastly, Revelations strikes a balance between the two, offering up more opportunities for gold and experience like in Birthright, but providing the variety of objectives and true strategic gameplay seen in Conquest. Having played every game in the series since Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, I again found Revelations to be the most satisfying of the three, because it provides the most true to form experience—even if I can appreciate how the other two can appeal to players of different skill levels and familiarity with the franchise.

Once you get past these nuances in plot and gameplay difficulty, the three games play very similarly. The core Fire Emblem mechanics of moving sprites around a grid-based battlefield in a chess match of sorts—with different character classes and weapons having advantages and disadvantages against certain enemies—returns here, and remains relatively the same since the series’ inception over two decades ago in Japan.

There are also a few new features to help punch up the familiar gameplay. Once you choose your path, players will acquire their own fort where they can have Corrin interact with the troops to further relationships (leading eventually to marriage, and then children who can fight by your side) or boost everyone’s stats via items. Building on the StreetPass battles introduced in Fire Emblem: Awakening, Fates now allows it so that you and your friends can invade each other’s forts, with each fort’s customization adding to player resistances. For example, having a fully upgraded weapons hut might add several points into your fighters’ strength (attack) stats. This limited multiplayer aspect adds an interesting wrinkle to the replayability of the game.

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Not every addition is a winner, though. Fates adds a brand new Phoenix mode that should actually be called “Baby Mode”, or “Why Even Bother Playing This Game” mode. One of Fire Emblem’s staple features is its permadeath, where when a character dies in battle, they stay dead. The difference between permadeath in Fire Emblem and other strategy-RPGs, like XCOM for instance, is the fact that keeping all your characters alive affects not only the ease with which you might prepare for upcoming battles, but alters subplot storylines, too.

Awakening’s Casual mode first took a shot at softening this by allowing characters to come back after each battle. Here, at least, you still had the rush of needing to complete a conflict in order to see your units return to action. The strategy part of the game stayed intact, even if the stakes were lessened. Phoenix mode, however, turns you from an armchair general into a blunt weapon of destruction by allowing each character to come back to life after every turn, removing all semblance of consequence for your actions. And while it is only an option, one I only tried for the sake of this review before starting a new game and switching back to Classic permadeath, the absence of ramifications took a great amount of joy away from playing the game, as nearly every decision was meaningless.

Some of the fun I’ve derived over the years of playing this franchise has been quitting back to the main menu and restarting missions to try to discover that perfect strategy that would get my entire team through each conflict. It lengthens the experience artificially, but seeing every character’s special ending made it worth it for me, especially knowing I had earned it. Whether it was splitting my forces and flanking enemy bosses from both sides, using higher-leveled units as scout teams while leaving the bulk of my force behind to protect the rear, or slowly moving all my units forward like a phalanx of death towards my objective, solving the survival puzzle that leads to an ultimate victory was always worth it, no matter the time investment, and is at the heart of what makes this a great strategy-RPG series. Fates seems to be trying its hardest to be an introduction to the series in many ways, but to those newcomers, I still recommend at least trying Classic mode first before switching over to Casual or Phoenix mode.

This seems to be Nintendo’s strategy with Fire Emblem Fates in a nutshell. If you’re willing to dig a little, the strategy core that has made this series so popular remains fully intact. Meanwhile, it offers a variety of options to players of all different skill levels, and even provides multiple storylines molded around potential play styles in an attempt to lure in new and old players alike (with certain aspects obviously not appealing to everyone). In a game about choices, though, the biggest grievance comes from the central one. After playing all three stories, it felt largely unnecessary to split Fates into three parts. Revelations provides the most well rounded experience—one that long-time fans should gravitate more towards— with Conquest and Birthright really just adding nuance and character development to what would’ve been fine as a standalone plot. All three still work as solid additions to Fire Emblem’s long-running strategy-RPG pedigree, though, depending on what exactly you’re looking for.

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Developer: Intelligent Systems • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.19.16
8.0
Whether new to the franchise or a long-time fan, there’s something for everyone in Fire Emblem Fates’ three games. Unfortunately, when you find what you’re looking for in one, you might be disappointed when it’s then not present in the other titles.
The Good Each game offers unique challenges to appeal to every level of Fire Emblem fan.
The Bad Phoenix mode turns you from a calculating general into a blunt tool of destruction.
The Ugly Me singing Azura’s song in the shower. I just can’t get the damn thing out of my head.
Fire Emblem Fates Special Edition is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive. A review copy was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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