Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: May 21st, 2016 (AU), February 19th, 2016 (NA)
Price: $59.95 AUD – Available Here / $37.95 USD– Available Here
Fire Emblem Fates is the second 3DS Fire Emblem title and the 12th main game in the series that began long ago on the original NES. A lot has changed since then but the fundamentals remain largely the same with your army of unique units doing turn based battle on a grid like map against a united enemy in a grand story. I’ve been a big fan of the series ever since the first English release simply titled Fire Emblem arrived for the Game Boy Advance. How does Fates stack up against the strong legacy of titles that come before it? Read on to find out.
As with all Fire Emblem titles, Fates tells a grandiose tale about a royal family and their struggles against another faction. This time though there are two royal families, Hoshido and Nohr, and your created character is connected to both of them for different, yet equally important reasons. It becomes your very difficult choice to have to pick between the two houses in a decision that will not only largely affect the story but also which characters you will interact with and which maps you will play on as you progress. Unlike in Awakening how you had your created character and Chrom as the main Lord, your created unit is actually the central Lord figure of the game, giving you even more investment in your created character.
Because of this, outside of the first few chapters of Fates which are identical, the game is essentially three games in one once you reach Chapter 6. If you have the special edition you can choose any path freely (including the Revolution path where you choose neither family), however if you own Birthright or Conquest, you can only pick the one option that matches the game you have, unless you have purchased the other routes as DLC. This review focuses on the Birthright story path, however most things said here should apply to both.
I have heard Internet rumblings that choosing to side with the Birthright/Hoshido family path first will give you the most cohesive narrative experience, however the choice is of course yours to make and the choice is not an easy one as you can become pretty attached to these characters before you have to make your ultimate decision. Fighting your abandoned brethren can be conflicting especially when they have shown you such genuine kindness.
Beyond the big decision, the story here is lengthy, detailed and fleshed out. It’s hard to go into it without spoiling anything but expect plenty of intrigue, emotion, and surprise twist. Perhaps bringing the story down slightly are plot lines that are a little similar to games past, for example, the whole story of a Mad King such as Garon in Fates has been done a couple times now even in just the English Fire Emblem games I have played. I haven’t yet, but I am keen to play Revelations which apparently will answer some questions about the story in Birthright as well as the Nohr path, as it will be cool to see an alternate take on the events that transpire. Birthright’s story alone is great, but I think it will be that much better once you have the full narrative experience.
The dialogue is fantastic and is brought to light by a large roster of interesting and unique characters, all with their own personalities, relationships and way of speaking. While these traits are present in the story itself, support conversations and similar situations developer each character in great detail. Seriously most characters here have more development than the central character of a single player game, it’s ridiculous but that’s how Fire Emblem has always been and that wonderful tradition is upheld here. You will really find yourself invested in your personal armada, so much so that is it probably more common than not that someone will reset a chapter whenever a character dies in battle if playing with perma-death on.
Last note on story, I have to praise Nintendo for giving out some pretty cool additional story content for free. The free mission I played involved lots of nostalgia as I traveled back to Ylisse and battled alongside Chrom and his companions, which lead to some great conversations between the two camps as well as serving as a slight prequel for the Fire Emblem Awakening. Hopefully there will be a few more free missions but paid DLC maps are also on offer here, which I suspect like in Awakening will give numerous advantages to those who want to amass large amounts of gold and experience.
At it’s core Fire Emblem remains the same turn based tactical RPG it has always been. You have your army of unique units and the goal is often to route the map of the enemy or seize their stronghold which always has a powerful boss unit blocking the way. To achieve your goal, you guide your 13 or so chosen units (later in the game you pick the units you want from all the ones you have collected) across the map, taking out a multitude of enemies all with different strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities while gaining experience and growing stronger as a result. It’s fun, gets you thinking and is just really enjoyable if you like turn based games or strategy games at all.
The two key components to victory is the placement of your units and your attack strategy. That makes the game seem simple, but there is so much to consider (even more so in Fates) that influences your best move that it is incredibly rewarding when you pull off a great strategy or have a unit survive a fatal blow because you minimized the risk. Attack range, enemy numbers, hit points, stats, critical chance, type of weapon, partner skills, partner support levels, whether to pair up certain units, unit placement, terrain and probably more factors I am forgetting are what you will have to consider each turn, if you’re thinking only one turn at a time. Luckily, the patented ‘battle forecast’ provides a simple yet comprehensive overview of the outcome of any single battle down to the important stats of chance to hit, damage and critical chance, making that overwhelming list much easier to manage.
It’s a lot to take in but the evenly paced tutorial continues to provide new chunks of information in digestible segments, so by the first few chapters you’ve got a good grasp on everything the battle system has to offer. It’s hard for me to look at the series as a newcomer being so used to the gameplay and all its kinks, however I feel the lower difficulty levels (I am playing on Insane) would easily offer a welcoming entrance point to the series and allow players to ease into the nuances that make Fire Emblem the fantastic strategy RPG that it is. For those that don’t like perma-death, there is an option to have any characters that fall in a chapter come back at the end of it (or even quickly in phoenix mode) which new players will definitely appreciate it. I still like to play the classical way of getting through the game without anyone dying in classic mode, which is why it is so great to see the options available here.
For those who aren’t new to the series let’s talk about what’s new in Fates. One addition is the Dragon Vein, special spots on the map that certain characters can use a turn to activate which will often transform the battlefield itself in some way, most of the time revealing new path ways or healing spots. This is in no way a huge addition it but can open up some strategic options. Weapons no longer break but there is now more balance and variety among the ranks, with stronger weapons like silver swords lowering some stats. That brings up another new feature in stat debuffs, which several new weapons like knives and shurikens can inflict on the enemy and again bring a new layer of strategy. The fundamental weapon triangle has also been modified slightly to include magic and the new hidden weapons (knives and shuriken).
There is also a much greater emphasis on skills (you can equip 7 now on one unit as opposed to 5 and there are much more than before) and thus army customisation. Gone are the days of meeting a character who is of the predetermined Archer class and having them evolve at level 20 into a Sniper. Different types of seals allow you to re class any unit to essentially any class you see fit. This allows you to build a unit how you would like, taking the unique skills of any classes tree or changing certain units to classes that suit their stats better. This gives you incredible freedom to create your very own custom army. The marriage system from Fire Emblem Awakening makes a welcome return here as well, allowing you to marry two characters and then recruit their future child who takes both visual, gameplay and personality traits from the parents.
Between chapters users can return to their castle, which represents a more tangible version of the barracks or camp site all past games had but never really expanded on. In here you can set up your own fortress, decorating it with shops and statues that can help you on your journey as well as talking to random people from your crew that helps increase your support rates. As you progress through the game you can expand your vision further with better shops and so on. You can even visit other players castles online and can set up a defense for yours in what acts like a pseudo PvP mode. While those who just want to experience the maps will be in and out of this mode quickly and probably just use it like in old games to manage their inventory, those who want a break from the story or like management type games will find some enjoyment here.
Visually the game is on par with Fire Emblem Awakening however we now have actual feet on our character models as opposed to stumps! In my opinion, the 3D models and textures are rather lackluster technically and look pretty rough on the 3DS hardware. The game does make up for that somewhat with impressive animations, quick and seamless transition from the overhead grid view into a 3D battle scene and a battle camera you have complete control of (I love going into slow motion mode when pulling off a risky play).
The combat maps themselves look better and the detailed sprites ensure you never confuse one unit for another which is both great for gameplay but also a nice throwback to older games that used sprite work. The games UI conveys a healthy amount of information whilst never looking cluttered or confusing which is essential in a tactical RPG. I tried the 3D but almost instantly went back as there was just way too much ghosting on my original 3DSXL.
Unlike past games that always seemed to have a bronze age sort of theme to them, Fates Birthright heads east, providing a Japanese theme that applies to every facet of the game from its visuals, character design and even classes. The Japanese motif is adapted strongly and gives rise to some really cool and inspired character designs, which anime fans will definitely love.
The portrait art which you will see a lot of the time during conversation is fantastic as always and even has a couple different emotional looks the characters can take on which adds a bit more depth to the numerous conversations. The beautifully rendered CGI cutscenes are also a standout and there are a nice amount of them to see here in Fates. They are a little compressed, again most likely due to the limits of the 3DS hardware, and while it is noticeable the cutscenes still look great on the small screen and bring the more epic story moments to life.
Another appreciated feature that carries over from Fire Emblem Awakening is the ability to design how the main player character of the game looks, which includes a custom portrait as well. I spent a good 15 minutes toying with the fair amount of options to make my royal Lord look to my liking and had fun doing it. The option to choose between gender is also appreciated and will be fun in subsequent playthroughs as this will also open up different conversations with members of the opposite sex.
Fire Emblem has never dissapointed on the sound side and Fates does not bring an end to that tradition. A wide range of beautiful instrumental pieces, a catchy vocal song and fitting battle and UI sounds culminate to create an enjoyable and immersive audio experience. This is one game you will want to whip out the headphones for.
The only negative is the absence of full voice acting outside of cutscenes which is just made of random sentences or sounds which try to convey the message in the dialogue. In saying that, with there being so much dialogue here it would be unreasonable to expect full voice acting and it would most likely irritate those that read quickly, so Fates gets a pass there for making a decent effort.
Fire Emblem Fates is a fantastic addition to the Fire Emblem series, the RPG genre and to gaming in general. The engrossing story with its well written dialogue and huge yet unique cast of characters make the fun and strategic gameplay even more enjoyable. The visual representation while starting to feel dated on the 3DS is still above average overall and the orchestral soundtrack paired up with the voice acting and sound effects makes for a near perfect audio experience. Whether you’re a long time fan or complete novice to Fire Emblem, Fates: Birthright is well worth your time.