Fire Emblem: Fates feels bigger than the games that came before it. Bolstered by the surprise success of 2014’s Fire Emblem: Awakening, Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems have literally doubled down on the franchise, offering not one, but two inter-connected games under a larger banner. However, in attempting to make a bigger, flashier Fire Emblem, developer Intelligent Designs weighed down the game’s core pleasures with bloated new features and unrefined mission design.
In Fates, players control Corrin, a hero whose complicated genealogy and childhood amnesia plays directly into starting a war between neighboring nations of Hoshido and Nohr. The narratives for the two versions of Fates, called Birthright and Conquest, follow Corrin’s campaign based on whether he or she chooses to fight for one side or the other.
Aside from its double-sided narrative, the two versions of Fates serve both sides of a potential rift in the series’ fanbase that’s grown out of the series’ evolution towards a more forgiving, RPG-style experience. Mechanically, Birthright gives players more characters, resources, and, like Awakening, offers random battles so players can earn money and experience. Conquest offers a tougher, more spartan strategy game that expects players to make calculated decisions in and out of battle.
Making Fire with Fireworks
Though they have separate stories, the two parts of Fates form a single game built on the strategy RPG core that has defined modern Fire Emblem games for more than a decade. Players control a cadre of soldiers, navigating them through a series of turn-based battles with increasingly difficult odds. Traditionally, the stakes of those battles have been heightened with a potentially heart-wrenching combination of a relationship mechanic, where characters become friends and even fall in love based on how often they’re paired in combat, and the fact that characters who die in battle stay dead.
While Fates returns with those core mechanics intact, the game uses flashy mechanical conceits to bolster levels that do not feel as polished or intricate as past games have. Many of these conceits revolve around specially marked squares called “dragon veins,” which certain characters can trigger to alter a level in some way, such as freezing a lake to make it passable, or cast a large, area-based spell. While a magical sigil explains, canonically, why a character might be able reach a spot on the map and heal every character, the dragon vein is used, and overused, as a catch-all for “switch.”
For every interesting level designed around them, there’s another that feels propped up, and that, with a little more time and care, might have been more enjoyable without them. This seems doubly damning in light of the fact that game rarely uses many of the devices that Fire Emblem games have used and reused to great effect for “spicing up” levels, such as late-arriving allies or split formations.
Strategy games, like any kind of puzzle, make you feel clever for pulling off a complex maneuver or figuring out a loophole that turns the tide of a battle. While its novelty mechanics make for challenging fights, the battles in Fates never really need to be “cracked;” you simply figure out how survive long enough to complete them.
So Much to do, Not Much to Say
The biggest changes to the series, however, occur between battles. After every fight, Corrin and his party are transported to a castle outside of the story — don’t ask — that serves as an upgradable overworld where Corrin can speak to his or her comrades and buy new equipment before the next fight.
The nerve-wracking decision over risking a character’s life with every move has not diminished.
The game has been streamlined to make choosing what gear your characters have much more important. While players no longer have to worry about weapon durability — spells and items still have limited use — a larger array of special use-case weapons makes micro-managing equipment as important as position your fighters against the right enemies.
In addition to the essentials, players can build and shift around a variety of improvements, such as a garden for farming vegetables, which can be used at the “mess hall,” which turns vegetables into stat-boosting meals for troops, or to feed the player’s guardian pet.
Yet, while the castle offers many more things to do between every battle, much of the time spent factors into a self-contained and ultimately hollow castle-building metagame. Every upgrade technically offers some kind of practical benefit, though many are geared specifically towards players’ time within the castle, either between fights or during optional “invasion” battles, which take place on the castle map.
Players can share and invade other players’ castles with other players via Streetpass, though, frankly, the customization options are such that, once you’ve laid siege to one castle, you’d laid siege to them all.
Even the areas of the castle that do impact the main game feel superficial. Players can, for example, invite other characters to Corrin’s “personal quarters,” which triggers a brief first-person dating-sim style interaction, which allows players to view characters “face-to-face.” Despite the change of perspective, without any meaningful conversation or gameplay, it’s a strictly mechanical way of gaining relationship points.
The Lines Have Been Spread Too Thin
The castle isn’t the only aspect of Fates lacking depth. The narrative focuses intensely on the relationships between Corrin, his or her siblings, and the royal family of the opposing army, often to the neglect of the game’s wider cast.
As a game driven by relationships, character development has always played a key role in making Fire Emblem compelling. Perhaps because the game’s focus remains squarely on the two games’ core casts, secondary characters rarely get even a one or two battle story arc. Too many characters join your team simply because its expected. Even characters that show hints of personality are often relegated to simple emotional caricatures or tropes.
While there may be kernels of information spread across the many relationship conversations one could earn by pairing characters in combat, those insights are too slight and buried too deep to be meaningful for anyone except for the most committed fans.
But at Least it Looks Sharp
While so many of the game’s new features fall flat, it’s worth noting that Fire Emblem Fates may be the most interesting one to look at in modern memory. Both parts of Fates, but especially Birthright, trade in the series’ standard medieval fantasy aesthetics for a Japanese-influenced art style.
The series embrace of its Japanese pedigree, from new classes, such of the spirit-summoning Diviner, which are borne of a non-Western mythology, to the decidedly Japanese dating-sim style “personal quarters” activity, gives the series more aesthetic character. Though the gameplay may feel similar, you will not mistake Fates for a different Fire Emblem.
At it’s core there’s still a solid Fire Emblem in there
Fans waiting for the next Fire Emblem will certainly not feel cheated by Fates: The nerve-wracking decision over risking a character’s life with every move has not diminished. That said, with its many attempts at innovation falling short of their marks, and its core gameplay lacking the refinement seen in its predecessors, perhaps Nintendo should signal a tactical retreat and focus on making the best Fire Emblem possible.