Fire Emblem Fates review

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Fire Emblem is a series that thrives on backing the player into a corner at every opportunity, forcing you to make brutal choices that not only affect the outcome of the narrative but of the lives and relationships of those that you hold closest. Never has the pressure to deliver on the battlefield felt so demanding, as emotionally taxing as it does here in Fire Emblem Fates. It’s a difficult tactical RPG that rewards the bold, and punishes just about any player that dares play it.

While many of the mechanics are comfortably familiar (it won’t take long for Awakening fans to adjust), you’ve never played a game quite like Fates. It’s an experience comprised of three games that diverge at a critical junction, just a handful of hours into the story. It’s a difficult decision to make so early on, forcing you to decide where your loyalties lie. At this point, you’ll have bought at least one version of the story, and you can choose to continue with this one or purchase one of the other two options that are left. It’s a huge decision, too, defining the tone of the campaign, the difficulty and the path that your hero pursues.

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We did, admittedly, have our concerns that this was fuelled by business intent rather than a choice made in service of the player. A decision made, not in earnest, but in the hope that Intelligent Systems could take Pokémon’s successful generational split to a new extreme. Thankfully, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Fates delivers three captivating stories across the versions, with the entire experience working to cultivate a narrative arc that constantly leaves you questioning the road not taken.

That’s because Fates forces you to side with one of two factions at war for land and honour. After just a few short hours of introductions to Nohr, your adopted family and the quintessential bad guys, and Hoshido, the rebel nation built by your blood relatives, you will need to make a decision that affects the tens of hours in front of you. Side with Nohr and you’ll be heading off to siege the land in Conquest, decide to fight for your freedom and family, you’ll want to choose Birthright. Decide that you hate both factions and want to go your own way? Then you can always play the digital-only Revelation path.

Regardless of the path you choose, you’re getting the full Fire Emblem experience. Expect multi-hour missions in your push towards resolution and many a tear to be shed as your comrades fall through indecision. The Conquest and Birthright campaigns feel distinct, and are certainly the main attraction if you’re just joining the fray. They force you to confront the severity of your decision; the family you side against will become your enemy in battle and this is a war that takes no prisoners.

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There’s always another side to the story in war, and Fates gives you the opportunity to live it. But be warned, while you might spend the first play through wondering what friendships and relationships could have been should you have taken a different path, it’s all the more difficult to face off against former friends and partners on the opposing front line.

The dramatic moments in Fates are largely engrossing, even if many of the story beats are eye-roll-inducing, forcing you to confront tough moral decisions and tactical choices throughout the adventure. Conquest offers a tougher challenge, the difficulty ramped up to reflect the stronger medieval military archetypes under your command, while the composition of Birthright’s Hoshidan army – Asian warriors, ninjas and samurai – will often mean you’re forced to approach battles using stealth.

Birthright probably offers the best campaign of the three. It’s engineered to give you exciting battles that, while never easy, always seem fair. It also gives you ample opportunity to cultivate strong Support relationships and foster new bloodlines across the enormous cast of characters, which is still one of the franchise’s best features. Conquest, on the other hand, can be gruelling and daunting (perfect for series veterans), as this path seems to actively ensure that one of your troops dies per battle, gone forever in the flash of a blade. In fact, a character dying has an even bigger impact than ever before as the Support relationships you build offer huge in-game benefits and tactical variety to your squad. Greater affinity between two characters will ensure they receive and deliver stronger support and protection when paired up with a buddy.

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Outside of battle, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with your troops and deal with the needlessly complicated class adoption mechanic (used to help shape characters into their strategic prime form) in your own customisable castle. It’s a big addition, though it feels a little underdeveloped; here you can manage and decorate your castle grounds, building and upgrading helpful structures (such as shops and an armoury) and fostering friendships from the comfort of your private quarters. It’s an interesting addition, but it doesn’t feel like it brings anything to the table that couldn’t have been achieved in a town or communal hub area – it’s also frustrating to put all that work into building it, only for it to be lost when you begin a second or third campaign.

Fire Emblem Fates is a challenging, deep and engrossing turn-based RPG with huge narrative ambitions. That single choice made at the beginning of your adventure has huge ramifications, and Fates spends many hours pondering the pitfalls of it. Intelligent Systems may have failed to improve troop management over Awakening, but it has once again built a game that succeeds on the strength of its punishing, rewarding tactical prowess. Every decision, in combat and outside of it, has a consequence and Fates takes pride in forcing you to live, love and fight with every single one of them on your shoulders.

8
A tough, tactical adventure