This game has taken over my life the past few months and absolutely dominated my 3DS playtime. After 160 hours I’m finally ready to write about how good it is. It’s gone above and beyond my expectations. The story is ambitious, the level design is brilliant, the characters are interesting, the soundtrack is rich, and the gameplay has evolved in all the right ways.
From the start, this game is INTENSE. You are thrown onto the battlefield, introduced to a dozen main characters, and exposed to both Hoshido and Nohr at once. Who are you? You haven’t just created an avatar, you’ve created a life, and now you’re going to live it. Whether you’re playing Birthright or Conquest first, they have the same intro and you have to make a choice.
My first path was Birthright, then Conquest and finally Revelation. Looking back, I’m very happy with that order. I always intended to do all 3 paths and this seemed like a good way to ramp things up. I got to know Hoshido and Nohr from different places. There’s no right or wrong way to start playing Fates, but that’s just what worked for me. Onto gameplay!
Almost immediately in this game I noticed a BIG gameplay change to the series. Weapons do NOT break anymore, at all. My kneejerk reaction to this was, “it’s not Fire Emblem anymore!”. If weapons don’t break then what’s the point of using crap ones? Where’s the strategic management? Why have a shop? Why not make Advance Wars? Where did my drink go? I was so angry I knocked it over.
This couldn’t be! My water had spilled all over the grass. Before declaring Fire Emblem dead as a series, the smell of wet grass calmed me. This could be a good thing, no more worrying about rebuying things? No more stressing about a weapon that’s about to break? Maybe it’ll make sense? Why can’t I have a glass of water that never breaks?
The weapon balance has adapted to this new system, as “strong” weapons now have weaknesses. The Silver Sword for example will lower your stats after using it, on top of having less accuracy than a cheaper sword like Steel. It’ll still do the most one-hit damage, but if you want the best accuracy possible, then Bronze Sword will be the most useful. Depending on the character’s speed, strength and skill stats, there’s a different ideal weapon choice and this opens up more strategy than before. It means that no weapon ever becomes useless in this game.
Another strength of the new system is that it makes forging weapons more intuitive. By combining two copies of the same weapon, plus some minerals and a bit of money, you make a stronger version of your previous weapon with increased stats. You don’t have to worry about your super special weapon breaking anymore, and you can even give it a custom name. Hold on, there’s minerals now? Slow down! Yep, you find these either in random challenge maps, your castle, or other players castles. The depth of customisation has been expanded quite a bit. Weapons as a whole have different variations in Nohr and Hoshido, with secondary stats and effects unique to each one. It adds some flavour to each side, and variety to the gameplay mechanics at the same time. There’s also a whole new type of weapon called the Shuriken that lowers enemies stats and is very fun to use in combination attacks.
So it turns out the weapon system has improved significantly in Fates and I was wrong. Looking down at my smashed glass of water, I forged the angry shards of glass into a Happy Shard of justice and pressed on. Felicia is making good use of it.
Getting back to the gameplay, there’s another huge change. I like Fire Emblem Awakening but the Pair Up system was broken and unbalanced. To explain it quickly, you could attach one character to another for increased stats. Buffing your best characters meant you could just storm through the field and win sometimes.
Pair Up is back in Fates, but with a twist. I was so excited to discover that ENEMIES can now use Pair Up as well, and they DO quite often! So finally you can use Pair Up without feeling overpowered, and it just feels so right now. This is how it should have been when it was introduced in Awakening. It remains a fair, balanced challenge while adding a significant amount of strategy when you have to account for 2 enemies in 1 space. It also makes you rethink using Pair Up all the time yourself, since you can get more attacks in with single units to get rid of Pair Up enemies when you’re overwhelmed. Do you want double attack, or double defense?
Skills and classes are back from Awakening but have also been expanded. Every character has a Skill completely unique to them, and there are brand new classes like Butler and Adventurer that are just really fun to experiment with. Fates is probably the only Fire Emblem game I’ve played where every character is useful for that reason. Even if someone sucks at combat and can not hit anyone in the field, they could use their specific Rally Up command, or a Skill that triggers within 2 spaces to give an ally the support they need to finish a hit.
A lot of times I’ve felt like I was stuck in an unwinnable situation, until a million different pieces fell together and turned things around. It’s such a good feeling when you use everything at your disposal to overcome the odds. Shelter a weak unit who might die, put someone else in the one square they can’t get hit, block off certain enemies with somebody who can tank them, Pair Up and switch to your character with higher health, activate Dragon Veins to change the map. MY BRAIN IS GETTING ALL TINGLY JUST THINKING ABOUT IT. Fire Emblem gameplay is just amazing and a lot of fun, and with Fates you get even more to play with.
Dragon Veins are another thing new to the series in Fates, even though I just casually mentioned them. Playing through all 3 paths has drilled Fates into my head, and now I can’t remember what my 3DS was like before Fire Emblem. Anyway, certain tiles called Dragon Veins allow you to interact with maps and add a whole new layer of strategy. Bridges can crumble, lakes can dry up, all with the power of Dragon Vein. This could expose your units to death or save lives, depending on your timing. It’s so awesome to see the stage transform under you and have that kind of power.
Fire Emblem sometimes has trouble balancing difficulty but I found Fates very fair in that regard, perhaps the best. I played through Birthright on Hard and it was perfect. A lot of challenging maps, some okay ones, some brutal ones, but tons of options at your disposal to deal with them. You have to be very careful, but the game gives you so many tools to use it feels like a more in-depth strategy game rather than a trial-and-error death trap. Conquest takes a more “traditional” Fire Emblem approach by limiting your EXP, but the map design is crafted to perfection. EXP would not even help in many Conquest maps, because you have to take the right approach. The goals in Conquest vary a lot and the maps have unique conditions that are very fun to tackle.
The story of Fates is really unlike anything I’ve experienced, and truly ambitious. The royal art style is extremely strong on both sides. The castle walls of Nohr feel very thick and dark, and you just feel like the outside world stands no chance against the power here. Standing on the plains of Hoshido, you feel very vulnerable but proud. It’s not exactly a new concept to have two kingdoms fighting each other, but the way Fates builds a sense of comradery is unmatched. You’re fighting with your family. Your brothers, sisters, best friends, everyone fighting to protect everyone else. With their own strengths and weaknesses, every unit is extremely important.
The other big, obvious thing that makes Fates’s story unique is the alternate paths you can pick from the start. I played Birthright first and developed a biased perspective of Nohr, which only made Conquest’s story more interesting when I got there. I think Conquest’s story would still be enjoyable if I played it first, but not nearly as interesting. Nohr has a dark undertone and could be called the stereotypical evil path, but I honestly thought this was the more realistic story of the two. It has a slight political spin on the presence of evil and I found some of the quotes and situations quite profound and relatable to the real world. Birthright has a more straightforward justice approach, with Hoshido having a very strong sense of community that makes you feel close to your units. It’s very hard to talk about much more without spoiling it, but I’ll just say there are some great moments in both stories and lots of emotion. I just really enjoyed both Birthright and Conquest’s story for different reasons, and it’s amazing that both exist. You can’t possibly tell this story in a medium other than videogames.
Fates has a peculiar, somewhat awkward sense of humour that I can’t help but love. It’s amusing to see this very proper royal setting crafted to the finest detail, only to be demolished by sillyness when everyone is unwinding in the castle. It’s uncanny in a charming way, and there’s so much that you’re not going to understand if all you see are cherry-picked quotes in an internet meme campaign. This game takes itself very seriously. The delivery is very smart and the writing as a whole is top notch. Just the way the characters are so consistent with their mannerisms gives Fates a very believable layer. I found it a step above Awakening but that might come down to personal preference. Everything feels really natural to me in Fates and I’m currently trying to unlock all the support dialogue just to see what people say. I sometimes think about life hundreds of years ago, and what conversations people would have had during difficult times. I think you would need to be silly to keep your sanity.
The soundtrack in Fates is a huge effort. Azura’s song is absolutely beautiful and I’ve had it stuck in my head for so many nights. Every single song in this game is consistent with the atmosphere, while still innovating with compositions and structure. The main riff in Azura’s song is re-used quite a bit and becomes the “theme” of the game, yet comes with many different feelings. While Fates’ soundtrack is very strong, I personally still prefer Sacred Stones and Shadow Dragon’s soundtrack just because of the upbeat old-school style. That comes down to personal taste that I know not many people agree with, but it’s cool. I felt the same about Awakening, just a bit too downbeat overall. Every track from Fates is good, but the overall tone can feel too depressing at times. Some of them really stand out and have a huge impact, but I hope the next game has more colour to the music. To be fair, colourful upbeat melodies would not suit this game at all, so they did a good job.
There are some amazing battle tunes later in the game in each campaign, and the way the music evolves through the game is a brilliant part of Fire Emblem I’ve witnessed in every game in the series so far. It really gets you hyped when the campaign ramps up in intensity, and the music in Fates nails that feeling at least.
So, what about Revelation? I’m near the end of that campaign now, and potentially saving it for another article. It’s my favourite path of all 3, and I need a lot more room and perspective to explain why. It’s also hard to explain without spoiling anything, since it’s very unique. It takes all the best aspects of Birthright and Conquest from a gameplay standpoint, with clever interactive maps, and tons of stuff to do between chapters.
Fire Emblem Fates has been an amazing experience and it’s absolutely overwhelming how much content is in this game. I’ve still got more stuff to experiment with (online battles, children, unit optimisation), and I haven’t even touched any of the DLC yet. I can’t even fathom how the next Fire Emblem will exceed this. It’s one of Nintendo’s most ambitious games ever and that says a lot from a company continually re-inventing gaming. This is when Nintendo is at their best. Fates doesn’t just reinvigorate the core structure of Fire Emblem, but also brings the gameplay, story and map design to new heights and is sooooo much fun to play. In a year where Nintendo is meant to be struggling, we just got THREE games worth of content in a series at its absolute peak. This should be sung from the rooftops.
Daaaaawn breaks through the gloom, white as a bone
Lost in thoughts, all alone…