Fire Emblem: Fates Review
Fire Emblem: Fates is a fantasy chess game where you can make the chess pieces kiss. You meet all these sweet weird funny folx ready to fight beside you, and they can fall in love with you or with each other, and have kids who grow up and fight beside you and fall in love too, until it's a game that's more about a family than it is about an army. Fire Emblem: Fates is the game that sets that family against you.
It’s hard to talk about the plot for Fire Emblem: Fates, because I have read a book before, and so I have standards, and the plot does not meet them. After playing through most of the Conquest version, I switched to Birthright and the very first thing that happened was me betraying a brother who had, in the other game, been doing everything in his power to protect me from our terrifying father, and he was angry and disappointed and hurt but the very worst thing he said to me was “no matter what anyone says, you are my sister.” It’s easy when they hate you. It’s so hard when they forgive you.
Fire Emblem: Fates is about a choice so big the consequences are their own games, unique campaigns with their own story, levels, characters and pacing. Birthright sides the player with Hoshido, a peaceful kingdom drawn from medieval Japan and the royal family of the protagonist’s birth, while Conquest involves siding with the brooding and ambitious European-esque kingdom that raised you, Nohr. Conquest plays more like older Fire Emblem games, and Birthright more like 2014’s Fire Emblem: Awakening, but what this more specifically means is that in the Hoshido-aligned route you can fight side battles to earn as much experience and gold as you want while Nohr is limited to the main story missions.
This is the reason why marketing copy has said that Conquest is “harder” than Birthright, but what they really mean is that your resources are limited and the levels have more strict or conditional ways to complete them. In Nohr there’s little temptation to waste time and the stakes are very high—in Hoshido you have time to mircomanage and do everything at your own pace, and the game even expects it to a degree, as your units start off generally lower level than in Conquest. So, if you’re not interested in spending a lot of time on idle leveling you might find Conquest less tedious.
I do like tactics and unit raising, but building a multigenerational chosen family is what makes Fire Emblem: Fates so special. There are not a lot of games that do this—games about raising armies and unit customization don’t usually give the rank and file distinct personalities or character development and instead rely on unit customization and emotional projection (XCOM, Massive Chalice) and games about relationships tend to focus on a single protagonist’s romantic entanglements (the Bioware model). It isn’t very common to show relationships in games as anything other than player-proxy romances, and because Fates has such a ridiculous number of characters—two full casts and two full royal families for the two mostly unique versions of the game—by nature it has to give the same sort of attention and care to relationships between lovers as it does between friends, siblings, parents and children.
There are unignorable faults with the plot - it’s so reluctant to let the protagonist ever do anything bad that it has to depend on implausible coincidences and magic to make anyone fight her - but a great deal of care and effort went into writing the characters. While the plot does little to make those relationships believable, the side conversations between your troops do, so after playing the other route it really does feel wrenching to have characters you watched make friends and fall in love curse your betrayal from the bottom of their hearts.
Fire Emblem: Fates’ overarching story is ten times as melodramatic and implausible as Awakening’s. I can’t honestly say it’s “better” from any kind of writing perspective, but now it’s a game where you see your family’s worst and most hopeless moments alongside their best, and there’s really nothing else like it. As a writer I am very embarrassed by the standard of writing in games but then I’m also totally humbled when games manage to make me feel something complex no matter how hard they stumble to get there.
Every unit has a name and a personality and conversations with a big slice of the cast, usually amusing and sometimes touching little skits, and while they’re pretty short individually there are an overwhelming number of them. Because any given character will have scenes with about a dozen other characters, Fates achieves a unique depth-through-breadth method of characterization as you see the different facets of each unit through their relationships with each other, and much more than that by letting you see them as antagonists as well.
The game gives characters these exaggerated personalities and then throws them against each other until something ridiculous happens, then it’s all about seeing how the latest recruit is going to deal with Setsuna’s perpetually laconic and deadpan attitude to her near-death experiences, or if they can survive Niles’s possibly lethal flirting, or if they’ll bring out a surprising new side of Azura, the protagonist’s mysterious confidant.
And then there’s the moment where you have to fight every single one of the characters who was your friend in the other game. Most cruelly of all, they get a unique exchange with the protagonist when they meet on the battlefield. They talk about fighting to protect their homeland, they curse you for betraying them, they beg you to come back. It’s a little thing, but this game is made up of the weight of all those little things; what they yelled in the world where you’re enemies, the conversation you had as friends, the line they used to flirt with you. It’s a game about seeing people from all of these different angles, where even the smallest facets matter.
Aevee Bee is the editor in chief of ZEAL, a small site for queer and alt essays and comics on pop culture. She also wrote the horror/relationship visual novel WE KNOW THE DEVIL. She is very cute and all of her opinions are wrong but interesting.