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Stories don't need to be convoluted to be enthralling. A simple story can complement even the most basic gameplay and build a thriving, vivid world. Most of Nintendo's biggest franchises are a testament to this basic design principle. They leave the depth in the background for those who wish to seek it out, but their plots are very straightforward; a plumber saving a princess, a young boy on a quest to save the kingdom, a young child on a quest to be the best with cute monsters, animals in spaceships defending the galaxy. The gameplay in these series is equally straightforward, yet also contains an extra layer for players who want something more challenging.
But games find success by talking the opposite path as well. The Metal Gear Solid series requires a cork board, thumbtacks, and a healthy supply of yarn to map out its story, while the gameplay can have a steep learning curve to get far with minimum frustration. Dragon Age: Origins was the equivalent of a multi-book epic combined with the character management of Dungeons and Dragons. Final Fantasy Tactics took a political thriller, tossed in supernatural elements, and overlaid it with demanding strategy gameplay containing upwards of two dozen jobs your characters could take. All of these games have seen undying praise in popular gaming culture because of how well both story and gameplay meshed together.
Which is why I find it so strange that Fire Emblem has become a critical juggernaut.
First, let's get this out of the way: I'm not saying anybody is wrong to enjoy the series. There is no shortage of games in my library that have been panned by players and critics alike, and I'd like to think that builds character. It should also be made clear that I'm not saying the Fire Emblem games I've played are bad games.
I do think, however, that there's a lot Fire Emblem Fates tries to do which other games have done much better. That's not a fresh statement about any game, of course; even the games I respect the most have some major failings that newcomers should be warned about. Fates' problems have simply outweighed its positives in the 42 hours I spent in its world.
At a glance, Fates is a strong strategy game.
You're introduced to the world through a dire battle as two kingdoms fight over the main character's allegiance. The basics of the gameplay are explained during this sequence, giving you the ability to jump right into the meat of the game. Before either side may lay claim to your character's loyalty, you're woken up from a dream and shuttled off to another bit of tutoring against one of your brothers.
Tutorials can be difficult to pace properly. You have to balance giving the player enough information to operate in your system without overwhelming them on all the nuances of the mechanics. Being too sparse can result in a tutorial that lasts so long a player might lose interest. Fates' method mixes just enough story progression with the introduction of mechanics that you don't really feel like you're being artificially limited in gameplay; you're not locked out of basic commands before the game decides you're far enough to use them, unlike some games.
Many of the characters you'll spend the rest of the game interacting with are brought in organically throughout these early steps. It can be a little overwhelming to remember who is who and why they matter, but the story does well at making most of the central characters feel relevant. Personalities are laid out the moment a character comes on screen--for better or worse.
Character depth mostly comes from the Support system. In general, engaging in battle or performing certain skills while next to another character on the map will increase the bonds between those characters; position your soldiers just right, and you could boost one character's bond with several other characters all at once. A bond raised high enough will let you witness a conversation between two bonded characters when you're between chapters or before starting a battle. Some of these conversations can be touching, funny, break the fourth wall, and reveal a bit about a character's personality.
The more you raise bonds between characters, the more conversations you unlock. The more conversations you unlock, the higher ranking two characters will have with each other. Your first conversation will rank those characters at C, ascending to A, with some characters being able to obtain an S rank. Ranks cannot decrease, and each rank seemingly improves how well those characters will perform in battles together.
When you're not watching conversations, you'll be spending time building a community within your castle. Shops for various equipment, a place to forge better equipment, crops and mines to harvest from, a mess hall, private quarters; all standard fare you'd find in an role-playing game's towns. Most of these establishments can be upgraded to provide better items or interactions, and some of the things you can build will provide stat bonuses to your characters during castle invasions. Luckily, anything destroyed during an invasion is automatically reinstated once the battle is over. This provides a taste of building your own maps for battles as you strategically arrange everything in your castle to prevent invaders from seizing your throne.
All together, these are the traits of a well-made game. You're swept into the world, introduced to the key figures, with the main conflict contrasted by a glimpse of the side content so you're aware of the varied gameplay features to stave off tedium. Fates was designed from the beginning to be friendly to the player, and it shows in the first hours of the experience.
When the story splits is when the relationship sours.
Once the game has wined and dined the player so they're confident in its offerings, you revisit the battle from the introduction. You're on a large battlefield as the royal families of Nohr and Hoshido violently quibble over who's more worthy of your allegiance. And you must make a decision that will change the entire world. Do you stay loyal to the family you've known your whole life, or play traitor and join the side of your blood relatives?
Hearing this choice out of context, it sounds like a difficult decision that tugs at the heartstrings. In-game, however, everything which leads up to this moment makes the emotional peak feel a bit contrived. You've just watched as the matriarch of your birth family was murdered because of plot in which you were the unwitting central actor, put into motion by the man you call father--the king of Nohr. The Hoshido family is one of peace and beauty in contrast to the grimdark bloodlust of your own. Hundreds of innocents lost their lives because the family you've known your whole life insists on reigning over all all of the lands you've been shown.
The game wants to know if you side with the murderers, or with the victims. And the only justification the kingdom of Nohr offers is that at least one of your brothers might not be as cruel as the king.
What this decision really boils down to is how much you want to spend.
Fates starts out with two flavors: Conquest or Birthright. This review is based on the Conquest path, which means you will be siding with the kingdom of Nohr. If you played up to this split and decided you wanted nothing to do with Nohr, you would spend another $20 to unlock the Birthright path (and vice versa if you had the Birthright copy). A third path, Revelations, was released as DLC within a month of the physical copies of the other two--for another $20.
In order to experience the entire story of a handheld strategy game, you're being asked to spend $80 on just the main story, along with additional DLC that has been released and explains even more of the machinations behind the conflict. That's a steep price, especially when the initial $40 cost for just the Nohr path provided 42 hours of gameplay.
You'll almost be required to have all three paths to really understand anything, by design. The main antagonist of the Nohr path makes occasional references to another entity driving their decisions, but you'll never face, meet, or otherwise interact with this being. When the main story was finished and the final boss felled, I couldn't believe the story was over. Where was the man behind the curtain who had been alluded to throughout the game? Why, after defeating the antagonist, was I fighting someone else who wasn't a driver at any point in the story?
Beyond the final battles, the ending itself is an ambiguous cliffhanger almost begging you to buy more of the game so you can figure out what happened. A character you've spent almost the entire game with disappears in what seems like a sacrifice, but you're given no indication that the true evil was eradicated. In fact, it almost seems like few of your characters even know who really caused all of their struggles.
A complete story that was sliced into three parts, and it sure feels like it.
The ending's problems aren't as much of a shock once you consider what you've been through. All over the game, you'll run into pieces looking for a whole that never comes.
One example is the Dragon Vein, a mechanic introduced during the tutorial stages. Certain characters are said to have a connection to dragons running through their body. Many of the battlefields you traverse will have special, glowing spots scattered across them. If a character designated to have the dragon connection moves onto this square, they will be given an extra menu option to activate the vein. In one battle, this will dry up a river for your characters to cross. Another will shatter pots spread across the battlefield, giving positive and negative effects to characters depending on which pots they're around.
They provide an extra layer of tactical consideration to the battles where they're present. A late battle utilizes veins to summon wind that can blow any unit within a specific area to another place on the map; it's a well-designed battle that is practically unwinnable without using the veins at the right moments, and thematically appropriate for that specific chapter of the story.
But no two battles where veins are present will utilize them in the same way. This design choice provides variety while diminishing any important meaning the veins may have to the story, making the veins often feel like padding for difficulty. One battle takes place in a very crowded cave which would put your very large party at a disadvantage to begin with; the veins add an unnecessary obstacle of opening or closing small sections in walls for your party to advance through. Meanwhile, the enemies and most of your party are standing still while you wait for one of your characters to activate the vein. Why does a vein in one battle open a door while another battle will see them smash a pot or dry a river? The game never tells you beyond the mystic power of pot-smashing dragons.
You'll never find out much regarding why dragons are so important to this world, either. Before the branching paths, the main character will be overcome with emotion and morph into a dragon. Another character helps you control this power with a magic stone. The king of Nohr talks to a dragon statue in the ceiling a few times. Both of the royal families have some kind of history that means some are born with magic dragon blood or something.
That's about all you find out about dragons. I don't recall facing a dragon in battle. I know Revelation explains more about an ancient, angry dragon guy. But Conquest (and I presume Birthright) is content with saying, "You can be a dragon, these spots are dragon power, and your dad talks to dragon statues. Kthxbye."
At the same time that you learn you can turn into a dragon, you're given a mystical sword said to be the key to peace. There are four rounded slots in the sword, two of which light up after key points in the story. Again, you're going to have to purchase the rest of the game to really see what power this sword holds, as it plays little part in the story beyond the player being told it's important by several characters. It doesn't even become a strong weapon by the time you've powered it up, paling in comparison to weapons you can forge rather easily in your castle.
The sword is at least given a little more relevance than several characters you'll encounter. A mystic sage tells you the importance of the sword, but he exists in the game solely for one battle and is barely mentioned again. While traversing to the Hoshido kingdom, you come across a community of forest people who can turn into beasts at will. Like the sage, they're introduced just before the battle and then forgotten about. The wind battle from above introduces another king and his prodigy son, both of whom are only there to test you before you go on your merry way.
Attachment is not a thing the game does well, is what I'm saying.
Support conversations provide a way to learn about the characters. And there's a whole lot of characters. You're given three difficult options when you start a game: normal, hard, and lunatic. All three give you the option of casual or classic, with the latter meaning any character that dies will stay dead for the rest of the story and game.
If you play without permadeath or play well enough that none of your characters ever die, and make all the correct choices, you'll finish the game with 28 total characters in your army. I couldn't tell you the names of more than a couple characters off the top of my head, even though I've used every one of them in at least a few battles and watched support conversations for all. Each character has their own personality, but the sheer numbers and the consideration of permadeath means only a small few will really matter to the story.
My favorite character was named Keaton. I used him in as many battles as possible while getting as many of his supports up when I could. He's a strong character who can morph into a beast and looks pretty fly to boot. After completing a certain part in the story, I can't remember ever seeing him speak in the main story cutscenes.
That's the fate of the majority of characters. You'll invest hours and hours into battling just right to boost your support bonds and get more conversations in your castle as the only way to feel like they've existed past the first time you met them. This gives variety in gameplay, but also brings a lot of exhaustion as you'll be replaying the same battles over and over when a character you want to learn more about dies because an enemy got a critical hit.
Managing your inventory is equally exhausting. Around a dozen characters can participate in a battle, sometimes more. There are several different types of weapons, and each character's class will specialize in specific weapons. Improving these weapons requires gaining enough money to purchase more weapons of the same time, forging them into stronger weapons. To make that weapon even stronger, you need to forge another weapon of equal strength and then forge those two weapons together. Conquest doesn't provide a lot of ways to gain money, which should add to the difficulty. After all, you've got to scavenge to make sure you can provide for at least a dozen characters to succeed in battle, right?
It doesn't really matter. Going out of my way to forge a few weapons into the strongest form I could afford had little noticeable difference in battle. Before getting near the ending, I gave up on forging all together. Successfully conquering the battlefield has far more to do with positioning two characters together so you can wipe out an enemy in one turn, and boosting a weapon by one or two attack points didn't have any part in determining the outcome.
There aren't many weapons to care about upgrading anyway. The strongest weapons are generally unique, meaning you can't purchase more for forging. A lot of weapons have a negative effect on the holder while being stronger than their neutral counterparts. I was hard-pressed to figure out what effect these had on battles themselves, considering the already large number of stats assigned to each character. Some of these stats would be boosted every time you gained a level, and were probably important in one way or another. But the only one that I found myself caring about was how far a character could move. That's not to say they're hard to understand; the information screen for a character will give you an explanation for anything you tap on. It's just that their utility wasn't presented in any meaningful way that mattered.
Several mechanics lack presentation.
When two characters are next to each other and one of them engages in battle, they will battle the enemy together. Depending on who they are, their support bonds may rise and you might get a support conversation after the battle. The only benefit of this bonding that I've found is the ability to make babies. There have to be other benefits, but I can't say with any certainty that I ever noticed them.
Part of this is due to the lack of information in the tutorials. While the basics are explained well, the deeper parts of the game have no explanation in the guide or tips. You'll be shown a couple slides explaining some new feature or mechanic, and then you're left to figure the rest out for yourself.
For example, consider the ability to have two characters pair up on the same tile. This is shown very early in the game, and enemies will use it to great frustration throughout the later battles. When you're paired up, every attack the designated lead of the pair gives or receives will increase a bar on the info screen. Once the bar has filled up, the next attack against that lead will be deflected by the secondary character. Additionally, pairing a character up with another will grant small stat boosts while they remain paired.
The only beneficial product of pairing I found was to pair characters with a low movement stat to a far-moving character, such as a mounted unit. Using the mechanic in this way allowed me to move my army together or move a significant character to a spot I needed them.
Otherwise, the mechanic was useless. Unpairing costs both characters a turn, diminishing your ability to carry a character into the midst of battle. The only character which can be healed is the lead character, who is open to enemy attacks. The stat boosts are insignificant. Any attacks you deal will come only from the lead character, greatly reducing the damage you can do in an engagement.
Like the support bonds, there are certainly tactical and beneficial usages in there, but nothing in the game gave any hint as to what they were. The enemies who utilize pairing to bulk the difficulty aren't difficult for being paired, but difficult to being overpowered--they'd be just as difficult as a single unit.
Similarly, the basic explanations of engagements themselves leave a lot to be desired. You're told in the beginning that weapons will follow a basic rock-paper-scissors scheme in the same way as Pokemon: red beats green, green beats blue, blue beats red. And this scheme will hold up the majority of the time. Where it doesn't hold up is where explanations are lacking. While blue beats red, some blue weapons won't do any damage against units holding red ones. Some weapons will get two attacks in a single turn against a unit holding a stronger weapon, but not against a different unit holding the same weapon in the same spot. It seems like classes will sometimes have a benefit against certain other classes, but then they won't.
A very confusing class is the ninja. No matter how much I leveled up a ninja, no matter how strong of a weapon I gave them, they felt completely useless 99% of the time. Yet enemy ninjas would be deadly! All the time! Good game design will give you some way of obtaining the information to utilize everything within, and Fates seemed to have none of that.
What it did reveal was less than tasteful.
One of the buildings you can place in your castle is an accessory shop. Accessories don't really do anything, but they can be cute things to put on a character and they'll show up in battle. A pink bow, a garish mask, all sorts of stuff. It's like a little bit of dress up and the only kind you get since the game doesn't deal with armor for equipment.
What seemed unnecessary was the need to have characters be stripped to their underwear when changing accessories.
Even less necessary was to apply this mechanic to the children.
Yes; in Fire Emblem Fates, putting accessories on characters means you'll see characters who do not look any older than 12 be stripped down to nothing but their underwear. This isn't counting the fact that Fates invokes the "looks 12 but is actually 1000" trope with another character, who wears the bare minimum that could be considered clothing.
Before Fates hit North American shores, it was revealed that a mini-game involving petting the faces of your army in your private quarters was removed during localization. I honestly cannot understand how the semi-nudity wasn't removed with it.
Now, it's not something you're required to see. You can pretty much go the whole game without ever touching accessories. But it's a little disturbing it was left in.
And this kind of strange voyeurism pops up in its own special building within your castle. You're given the opportunity to build a hot springs where your characters can relax. When entering, the main character will be stripped down to their underwear before being shown walking into a large spa. Other characters may be inside or enter later, and they'll get the same treatment. Sometimes, you'll be shooed out by a character if you don't have a high enough support with them, told that it's the opposite gender's time to use the spa.
There's absolutely no benefit from the spa. Your health restores automatically after each battle, so you're not going there to heal. It doesn't increase or build up any support bonds. There are no items to be received or information to be learned. At best, you just sit in your underwear in a spa with other people. At worst, you're sitting there with children.
The private quarters are also a very strange area that seem built solely on fan service. Between battles, you can enter your quarters and invite someone to come in. They'll speak a line about being excited to see you, the screen fades out, and it comes back with a close-up of the character's face. This is presumably where the petting would've taken place. You're in first-person view and have control of the camera, but only to look down. Meanwhile, the person you're speaking to will likely be flush and telling you something intimate as though you're dating.
So the purpose seems to be giving the player the ability to look at cleavage up close while a character speaks like you just finished making out. The strangest part is how you can have these interactions with your own family, or at least your Nohrian adoptive family.
Now, fan service isn't inherently bad; it's not always harmful, and it can serve as a way of balancing the more emotional stages of a game with something to keep you in high spirits. The art of Fates is certainly a wonderful aspect as characters and their outfits give a very distinct, recognizable look. Where fan service becomes divisive is in over-abundance or when applied to underage characters. Both problems can turn away an audience who came to the game with entirely different expectations--especially when those expectations were built by advertising that kept the fan service to a minimum.
Fates has this in spades. Female characters are frequently given armor that strategically exposes their cleavage or lacks any covering around their crotch and bum, meaning you have an army where some look as though they couldn't finish putting on their armor before rushing into battle. A story that tries to take itself seriously is undercut when support conversations are cheeky attempts at innuendo and talking to your sister in your private quarters implies an almost sexual interaction. At one point, you're even treated to the comedy of a first-person view wherein the main character runs into and bounces off of their sister's breasts, solely so the player can have a screen full of anime boobs.
If you're coming to the game with the expectation of fan service, your experience may play out much better than mine. Outside of the sexualized children, the rest isn't necessarily offensive or harmful, just off-putting. Some of the moments were certainly hilarious and felt like organic conversations or befitting a character's personality. Players who are fine with gratuitous fan service will feel like the game was made for them, while players who are here solely for the battles will likely be able to ignore everything else.
Those here for the story will probably be disappointed.
My biggest problem with the game is there was little redemption compared to the problems experienced. While Conquest was praised as being a difficult game, the only difficulty felt artificial or was the result of a random number generator giving the enemy critical hits when they only had a 1% chance. The side content was fun to start but ultimately had little payoff to justify the time spent. And support conversations, while interesting at first, became boring as I had nothing invested in the characters and they, in turn, invested nothing in the story I was here for.
But, to be honest, I lost interest in the story at some point, too.
Part of it came from the realization that I was only playing a third of the total story with my full-priced game. Three paths for $80 is just hard to swallow, when a game like Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker can offer 9 different endings for half the price and with similar gameplay. Final Fantasy Tactics, while not having different endings, still remains one of the best strategy games ever released and is less than a quarter of the price.
Part of it came from a message being espoused time after time by the central characters. A common refrain in stories across all media is that a person controls their own fate. It's a nice way of saying that if you work hard enough and believe, you can make a good life for yourself or overcome any obstacles thrown your way.
Fates uses this message at various points in the story to remind the player character that they can achieve peace as long as they don't give up. What dilutes the message is that the characters relaying how anyone can overcome their hardships are members of a royal family, born into luxury and granted all the opportunity they could want.
The story and the gameplay don't really reconcile with one another. You're in charge of your fate and can overcome anything, but you could lose a strong character in an otherwise winnable engagement because the computer gave the enemy a critical hit when there was a near-zero probability. No amount of preparation and strategic planning can overcome this possibility.
This problem also has to do with permadeath as a mechanic. If the lone farm girl you save from a smoldering village was important to the story, she'd be the one giving you the message of overcoming everything. And it would make sense, because she came from absolute devastation and poverty, eventually being part of a group taking down the forces of evil to bring peace to all. But permadeath means she can die at any time and never come back, so making her important could mean the player loses a major part of the story--and the important message they wanted to send.
It's entirely possible what the writers were going for included these two possibilities; you can overcome everything, including the sudden loss of characters you've invested hours of time into. In this way, the biggest obstacle would be the random number generator that decides whether or not a character receives a critical hit. Unexpected death will happen, and those in control of their fate will persevere.
That's a little weird, isn't it? Those in control of their fate should be able to fend off unexpected death. They would, theoretically, only die when they felt the time was right. Does this mean those who you lose unexpectedly were not in control of their fate? If this is the implication behind the message, what determines whether or not a character was in control of their fate? Again, they can die at any moment due to something beyond their and the player's control.
So we're given a message the gameplay doesn't reflect in execution. The real message seems to be that control over one's fate means reloading a saved game every time you lose a character--padding the amount of time you spend with the game--just to circumvent the completely uncontrollable element of that character's fate. You don't control your fate so much as you respond to fate and keep rolling the dice until fate wants to be nice.
Focusing on the story's message is presuming that the writers believed in that message. It's just as likely they were relying on a tired trope as part of their rather basic hero's journey; a lone soul chosen by a legendary sword and said to be the bringer of salvation for all.
Such stories are common, and there's nothing wrong with them. Gameplay and story segregation is equally as widespread because those writing the story and dialogue generally aren't the same ones designing and implementing all the systems and mechanics.
Fates' story itself is fine when taken as a whole without diving in too deep. But a story divided behind multiple purchases with a contrived choice of who to side with, is not an interesting story.
It's a boring explanation for middling gameplay and an obvious grab for cash. However...
When all the pieces fall in the right places, it is fun. There is a certain accomplishment felt when you've got the enemy leader surrounded by your entire army and everybody gets a piece. There is a certain pride that comes with finally devising a strategy to breeze through a battle that's been giving you trouble for the last couple days. Some of the story moments and support conversations have their own charm or emotional moments.
The game also does add a little variety in its characters. The majority are still white, fit, and gorgeous, but there are a few obtainable characters who stray from the standard video game palette. Your main character is also customizable to a degree, in both gender and skin color. Still lacking, but it's something.
Moreso, the voice acting is very well done. Even if you don't remember why a character is in your army, you'll be able to recognize who they are by the sound of their voice alone.
So if you're ok with the $80 price to get the full story, it's a fun strategy game with pretty solid mechanics, some challenging maps, and enjoyable characters. If you don't care about the story, just buy a single path and enjoy the core gameplay. You may even figure out the things that never occurred to me after 42 hours, and find charm in the fan service where I couldn't.
But don't forget to pray to the Random Number God.