After suffering declining sales with each successive release, Nintendo had warned Intelligent Systems that the Fire Emblem series would face dormancy if their next iteration for Nintendo 3DS didn’t surpass an internal sales target set at 250,000 copies.
It is understandable that momentary panic set in, the esteemed developer scrutinising every decision that they made in an effort to make sure that Fire Emblem Awakening wouldn’t betray its heritage but could be made more accessible for newcomers to the genre.
Whether it was through fear that it would be their last, the passion that they poured into the game allowed it to become a turning point in the series. It has since shifted more than 1.9 million copies worldwide, their resolute commitment having averted the dire fate that would have otherwise awaited it.
It is therefore somewhat apt that Fire Emblem Fates is the entry that succeeds it, a name that I am sure wasn’t chosen to reflect on the new lease of life that the tactical RPG series has now been granted. While retaining the traditional elements that many have come to adore in the series, Intelligent Systems were once again posed with the challenge of where to steer it next.
That primarily comes in divergent narrative paths, which, for the first time in the series, sees the player presented with a choice between which storyline they would like to see unfold – Birthright, Conquest or Revelation.
You play as a long-lost prince or princess of Hoshido, who, early in the game, discovers that they were kidnapped and raised by the Nohr royal family. After a calamitous event, the player is forced to choose between whether to side with their birth family, with the siblings that raised you or to wander their own path.
Those that choose to return to their Hoshidan birth family will seek to put an end to Nohr’s lust for war and avenge the death of their father, treading a storyline that reflects on such peaceful ambition in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright. This version is described by Nintendo as a “classic” Fire Emblem experience, and, having played it through to completion, should be seen as a welcome starting point for those still perfecting their tactical prowess on the battlefield.
Any anticipated stress can be immediately eased, thanks to some particularly wide-ranging difficulty parameters. That will firstly see you choose between Normal, Hard or Lunatic, before considering options surrounding the notorious permanent death mode that has long been present in the series. That remains in Classic mode, which, if chosen, will mean that once a unit falls in battle it is lost forever – a choice that will result in repeated nail-biting scenarios. But, for those that don’t want such worry, Casual mode will see fallen units return in the next chapter and Phoenix mode is more carefree in seeing units immediately revived the next turn. However challenging you want the experience to be, Intelligent Systems has you covered.
The game’s opening chapters will serve as an introduction to the gameplay mechanics that underpin Fire Emblem’s tactical fanfare. That topic prompts range from teaching you unit movement and how to attack an enemy, to the importance of pairing units to strengthen their resolve with stat boosts.
Battles continue to be fought across grid-like maps that span castles, menacing forests and frozen tundras. Dragon Vein spaces are a new element that has been introduced this time around, which allow Hoshidan and Nohrian royal characters to alter the terrain – whether that be uncovering healing areas, creating new pathways or summoning whirlwinds to hamper flying units. This helps to make everything feel far more dynamic, which is only heightened by the 3D animated combat scenes that you shift into whenever you come to blows with an enemy.
The infamous weapon triangle remains, helping you calculate the most potent method of attack: swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords. You are always shown how effective an attack is whenever you recklessly charge at an enemy, so this shouldn’t be cause for too much concern if you struggle to recall how each weapon relates to one another.
Characters each have their own class that determines their abilities, with Ninja, Oni Savage, Shrine Maiden and Diviner being a handful that is specifically seen in Birthright. Once you reach Level 10, a Master Seal can be used to upgrade a character’s class – raising their stats and potentially altering their weapon specialities. There is considerable room for customisation, letting players tailor the army under their command to their own tastes.
With Challenge maps lending more opportunity to fill your coffers with gold and for characters to earn experience, there is more chance of uninterrupted success. But, don’t let that fool you into thinking that Birthright can’t pose a significant challenge on the harder difficulty settings.
Between missions, you will return to an area simply referred to as My Castle. This fortress can be freely personalised with the player left to choose which buildings to construct, whether that be the Dawn Armoury to purchase stronger weapons, the Lottery Shop to partake in a daily raffle for items, or the Records Hall to rewatch the game’s animated cutscenes.
It is the Private Quarters that has been subject to some controversy, in that decisions during localisation saw certain elements deemed inappropriate be cut from the western release. I didn’t find this to be of detriment, but the related content that remains now feels largely pointless. Characters will instead primarily increase their bond on the battlefield, and, as their relationship improves, will prompt some humorous dialogue sequences to witness. As always, those that the player character becomes close with can result in romance, and, inevitably, their child appearing in a side mission.
Players that you meet with StreetPass will show up in the Traveller’s Plaza, and you can choose to take on the StreetPass team that they have devised. This can see you take to battle in either your or their castle, which encourages you to spend time building your defences to fend them off. That multiplayer element carries across to Local Play and Wireless Battles, where you can pit your registered team against other players.
amiibo compatibility is as expected, in that the Ike, Marth, Robin and Lucina amiibo can all be scanned in-game. They will appear in My Castle where the player will be gifted special items on the first few occasions. After which, you can challenge them to a battle that will ultimately see them join your army if you can defeat them.
The Hoshidan character design and environments that you wander in the kingdom are breathtaking, which all take inspiration from Japan. But, if there is one area that fell short, it is the soundtrack. It relies too heavily on the repeated melody sung by songstress Azura, which, while integral to the story, is never developed in any meaningful way. Unlike Awakening, there is also no dual audio for those that would prefer to hear the Japanese voice over.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright presents a deeply captivating tale, woven around a masterful strategy experience that longs for you to sink time into its tactical depths. This is a gentler path than the other versions, but that doesn’t detract from its resounding success.