Fire Emblem is fundamentally a series about choices. You're presented with decisions like which classes to upgrade, when to take calculated risks, and occasionally, whether to accept that a soldier was killed in action or start the battle over. Fire Emblem Fates uses choice in a way unprecidented for the series, and in the process illustrates truths about war and personal responsibility--albeit with the series' chirpy anime spirit.
The Branch of Fate
Fates presents you as the son or daughter of the corrupt king of Nohr, and you quickly fall into the hands of the rival Hoshido kingdom only to learn you were kidnapped by Nohr as a small child. You are actually Hoshido royalty, and the rift over who gets to rightfully claim you leads to an all-out war between the kingdoms. The choice comes in as which side you pledge loyalty to: your birth family of Hoshido (Birthright) or your adoptive family in Nohr (Conquest).
I had thought that this Pokemonification of the series was a marketing gimmick, and that may be to some extent, but Fire Emblem capitalizes on the version differences more robustly than Nintendo's perennial pocket monsters ever did. These are wildly divergent paths with substantial story and gameplay differences.
The clash has strong overtones of European imperialism over Asian territories, but Nohr isn't presented as wholly evil and Hoshido isn't entirely blameless. Both Birthright and Conquest tell a complete story, but the thesis of Fates as a whole--that a person's choices can have a large impact on those around them--is really only illustrated by playing both and seeing their differences. Choosing a side makes you personally complicit in everything that follows, eventually making the third path (Revelations) a welcome compromise.
The Conquering Hero
Not only do the versions vastly differ in terms of story, but they also present extremely distinct play experiences. Birthright is an easier ride, with less aggressive enemies, more straightforward objectives, and lots of optional Challenge missions to grind for levels. Conquest is much harder, targeted at long-time Fire Emblem fans, with rare opportunities to level grind, tougher enemies on the whole, and more nuanced objectives. One mission might have you rooting out a spy, while another has enemies that can turn invulnerable every other turn.
I appreciated the variety in Conquest more, and the extra challenge kept me on my toes. I have to admit I was slightly concerned seeing the full story is gated behind a harder experience, since those who prefer Birthright's easier pace will likely find themselves stuck at some point in Conquest. This trilogy of games is really meant to be taken holistically, so the differences come as a double-edged sword. It allows for some truly great distinctions, but might render the whole thing impassable for some players.
Thankfully, Fire Emblem Fates retains its flexible challenge selection, and even introduces another tier of it. The battle difficulty can be set to Normal, Hard, and the aptly-named Lunatic. A separate revival setting lets you choose between Casual, in which units revive after a battle is completed, or Classic, the perma-death setting. A new "Phoenix" setting tones down the difficulty even further than Casual, reviving units in battle a turn after they've died.
Purists may scoff at yet another setting that softens its kid gloves, but it's a low-impact way to address the inevitable concerns about players not being able to see their way through the story as intended. Besides, if you want to play on Lunatic with Classic revival settings, you can, you crazy person.
Your Home is Your Castle
Fates also introduces a new My Castle feature, a customizable mission hub that lets you set up shops, Arena battles, Lottery drawings, and even defensive buildings to fend off enemies in the optional Invasion missions. While it was a decent enough diversion between missions, this was the one area that felt tiring as I played through multiple versions, since the castles upgrades are essentially identical regardless of which faction you choose. Building up your keep in one version, only to start from scratch in the other, made the process a little dull the second time around.
The same can be said for some, but certainly not all, of the relationship options. Since a decent amount of the characters join your quest regardless of which side you choose, you're likely to see the same dialogue as you build up relationships with them. My princess character even married the same man in both Birthright and Conquest, so I saw the exact same romance blossom. The dialogue is witty, even if it is a little verbose. Sometimes when itching for the next story mission I just wanted characters to get to the point as I was reading through their latest relationship drama.
All of this is built around the classic Fire Emblem strategy foundations, which owes a large part of itself to Awakening. A revised weapon wheel is more complex, but it's color-coded to give a better sense of enemy weaknesses. Several new classes have been introduced with their own signature animations, and each of these is a joy to watch the first few times, before it becomes old hat. Each game on its own is also a little shorter than Awakening--around 15 hours versus 20, according to my game clocks--but all together they're significantly longer. These are smart improvements, but for the most part it simply doesn't attempt to fix what wasn't broken.
Fated for Greatness
Fire Emblem Fates exemplifies the best way to approach a sequel. It maintains and iterates on Awakening's best qualities, while also introducing new systems that have a profound impact alongside a richer and more poignant story. It's more than just a worthwhile successor to a recent hit. Taken as a whole, it's the best Fire Emblem to date.
This review is based on a 3DS special edition copy provided by the publisher. Fire Emblem Fates will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on February 19, for $39.99. Owning Birthright or Conquest will allow you to purchase the other through the eShop for $19.99. On March 10, Revelations will also be available for $19.99. The game is rated T.