thefakepsychic's Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright (Nintendo 3DS) review

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Fire Emblem Fates doesn't feel as worthy a successor as it should.

Fire Emblem Fates is the very definition of a mixed bag. With some interesting additions and intelligent subtractions from the gameplay systems that result in one of the better playing Fire Emblem games, it seems to come at the expense of moving forward with the wrong lessons from the past game, Fire Emblem Awakening.

All three versions of the game, Birthright, Conquest, and the forthcoming Revelations all begin with the same first six chapters. The universal introduction borrows liberally from Awakening's intro, starting with a brief flash-forward, then some simple missions to introduce the player to the game's systems. But it's all paced so poorly, with the flash-forward at the beginning flashing-forward to a scene that's about 45 minutes to an hour later that it makes the whole thing seem pointless.

The introduction also serves as your introduction to the warring kingdoms of Hoshido and Nohr, and the game's major selling point. Do you side with the kingdom that raised you, or the kingdom that you were born into? It's an interesting narrative concept, if they made any attempt to make the decision remotely balanced. Over the course of the intro, it's revealed that the King of Nohr kidnapped your character after murdering your father, the King of Hoshido, in a faux peace summit. At no point is anything relating to Nohr ever portrayed as sympathetic in the intro, with your Nohrian siblings coming off as abrasive at best, irritating at worst.

The major choice feels almost on the same level of inFamous in terms of binary decisions, except instead of “Be good but it's hard” and “Be evil but it's easy,” it boils down to “Be good, which is easy” and “Be evil, and it's hard.” More egregious is the fact that you literally have to make this choice before the intro even plays out, given that it's presented as a choice in the story, despite being tied to which version of the game you bought. The whole thing just feels bizarre.

Once the games diverge, the writing never gets that much better. Seemingly every character is boiled down to generic anime stereotypes, one of the things the series had always managed to avoid. Sure, examples exist, but it was never THIS bad. Mix that with the fact that there seemingly exists two and only two nations in this world, the geopolitical struggle aspect is completely removed. Sure, there are locations called out as “neutral” nations in the story, but each one fits in with either Hoshidan or Nohrian themings, or end up allied with one or the other all along.

I also want to call special attention to certain characters on both sides of the war. In Conquest, these characters are Selena, Laslow, Odin, and in Birthright, these characters are Asugi, Caeldori, and Rhajat. The Conquest characters are literally the child units Severa, Inigo, and Owain from Awakening, and the Birthright characters are nearly identical in design and completely identical in personality to Gaius, Cordelia, and Tharja. It's an unimaginative, lazy crutch to throw these characters back in for a second time, and the game suffers for it. None of them serve any purpose to the story, and could just as easily be replaced with new characters.

For all these complaints, it's lucky the game plays so well. Weapon durability is removed, which is seemingly both a blessing and a curse. The stat penalties on certain weapons makes balancing attacking and surviving an interesting calculation, but on the other hand, it seems like the mission designers went “Oh, there's no weapon durability anymore? That means we can throw WAY MORE enemies at the player,” which is both a thing that does happen in the game, and is really quite unfortunate. The weapon triangle picked up another update, with tomes, bows, and new concealed weaponry (think throwing daggers or shurikens) joining the rock-paper-scissors rotation. For all the worry that removing weapon durability would make the game easier or less tactical, it most certainly does not.

You also end up with a castle you can retreat to in between missions, that you can design and run as you see fit. You can place things like shops, resource farms, and an arena in your castle grounds, as well as things like statues that raise your characters' stat caps and defenses. The castle (and the defenses you place) are what tie into the game's StreetPass usage, where you fight off invaders to your castle. It's not that interesting, and the rewards aren't all that great, unless you enjoy having other people's avatars to field in your army, unfortunately.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' venerable Fire Emblem series underwent a rejuvenation following the release of 2013's Fire Emblem Awakening, which, according to developers, had enough success to guarantee future titles in the series. With a roster of deep characters, toning down some of the impenetrable systems, and a plot that focused in on the political intrigue of multiple nations that Fire Emblem does outstandingly well, Awakening was a fantastic entry to the series.

Following Awakening's success, it seems like Intelligent Systems were desperately trying to make lightning strike a second time, doubling down on what they perceived were Awakening's strengths in such a way that makes them now some of Fates' largest weaknesses. There's seemingly a narrative focus on making each character “quirky” in ways that Awakening's characters were “quirky.” The problem arises when Awakening's quirks were derived from having fully realized characters, and the quirks arose in a way that felt natural. Fates seems like the characters began with quirks and never moved past into becoming characters.

It's a shame, Fire Emblem has always felt like one of Nintendo's more intelligent (pun intended) series in their library. Fates seems like the series' more popular cousin. It's fun to be with, but your time with it never feels meaningful or interesting. They also make questionable decisions with your money. In the end, while it's a game I don't regret playing, I don't really recommend it either.

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