The Fire Emblem series has a long and storied history. The first game was one of the progenitors of the now-popular tactical RPG genre, combining role playing and turn-based strategy elements in a way that, at least back in 1990, was unheard of. It went on to spawn numerous sequels, spin-offs, crossovers with other games, anime and manga series, and even a trading card game.
Despite all this, it’s a relatively unknown franchise outside Japan – or at least, it was until Fire Emblem Awakening’s release a few years ago. It wasn’t until the seventh entry, in 2003, that the series saw a Western release, and though almost every game since has been localised, it was something of a niche franchise until the release of Awakening. As a marquee game for 3DS designed with franchise newcomers in mind, Awakening revitalised the series – it certainly helped that it was an excellent and widely-praised too.
Which brings us to Fire Emblem Fates. Far more than just a sequel, Fates is a celebration of the whole series’ history, from the more accessible style of Awakening to the brutal, unforgiving nature of earlier games. Rather than trying to combine these two rather contradictory design philosophies, Nintendo decided to split the game in two. Depending on which of the versions you buy, you’ll have a very different Fire Emblem Fates experience.
On the one hand, there’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright. Like Awakening, this is a bit more approachable. Encounters are easier, objectives are simpler, and you can grind to your heart’s content in between story battles. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, in contrast, is far more challenging. Battles are tougher, with stronger enemies and more complex, multi-faceted objectives. Encounters are limited, so every experience point counts, and screwing up your party through a poor levelling strategy is a very real possibility.
Far more than just difficulty changes, each version of the game tells a different story. Both focus on Corrin, a princess (or prince) caught in the middle of a conflict between two warring nations, Hoshido and Nohr. Born to Hoshido, she was taken in by Nohr at a young age and raised as one of their own, but upon discovering the truth of her heritage and the extents her adoptive father will go to in search of victory, she’s forced to choose a side.
Birthright is the story of her joining Hoshido, and in keeping with that game’s more accessible approach, it’s a lighter and more familiar tale of a noble, peace-loving people fighting back against the encroaching forces of an ambitious empire. It has its dark moments – characters you love will get killed off, suddenly and without warning, for example – but overall, it’s more of a fun, adventuresome journey typical of JRPGs.
In Conquest, Corrin sides with Nohr, but despite how overtly evil the king is, this isn’t a story of Corrin choosing the Dark Side. Rather, it’s grim tale of her efforts to cleanse a corrupt kingdom from within. Just as Conquest is more difficult on a mechanical level, it’s narrative is more challenging and confronting.
So, Birthright and Conquest are very different in almost every regard, but each one feels whole and complete enough to justify being sold separately. This isn’t a single game being cut in half, but two full, individual games that share assets and mechanics, and being able to buy the alternate path at a discounted rate through DLC certainly takes the sting out for people who want to see both sides of the tale. You could argue that it should have been sold as one package, especially given that the collector’s edition has all three paths (Birthright, Conquest, and a third neutral path) on one cartridge, but I don’t think anyone could play a single path in full and claim they’d been shortchanged.
The issue I do have with the version split, however, is just how different they are in terms of difficulty. This is the intention, of course, and fits the themes of the stories beautifully, but if you buy Conquest without knowing what you’re getting into, you’re probably going to have a bad time. It’s brutal, even by Fire Emblem standards, and if it’s too hard, you don’t have the choice of just turning down the difficulty to Birthright levels. For Fire Emblem veterans looking for a challenge, Conquest has it in spades, but I do worry that people might pick this version up unknowingly and be turned off the franchise for life.
I also think that, as much as the difficulty is a noteworthy and thematically relevant part of Conquest, some sort of easy mode that brings it down to Conquest’s level wouldn’t go amiss. I’m sure I’m not alone in being curious about what that storyline has to offer, but finding it just too difficult to make any sort of progress. I guess that’s kind of the point – weeding out corruption is an arduous, never-ending task – and that King Garon’s ambitions have bested me, but it’d be nice to at least be able to see what would have happened, had I not given up, without having to turn to YouTube.
As different as the two versions are in story and design, they’re very much the same in other ways – after all, they are two different sides of the same game. Though objectives differ wildly, core mechanics remain the same, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a tactical RPG before (and even if you haven’t, it’s very easy to pick up assuming you’re playing Birthright). In between battles, you’ll have chances to strengthen your party, slowly build up your castle, and develop relationships between characters to discover side stories and improve their strength when fighting together.
Regardless of version, you’ll grow attached to the various soldiers who join your cause, making their inevitable losses (either through plot, or by having permadeath turned on) gut wrenching. As expansive as the cast is, every character has a depth of personality that outclasses most other games. This is only helped by an excellent localisation job, regardless of what certain pitchfork-wielding corners of the internet might say. Dialogue is compelling and feels natural, giving each and every character a life of their own – which certainly makes it a difficult task choosing who to have Corrin marry.
Whether Birthright or Conquest, this is an absolutely beautiful game. Character designs are vibrant and captivating, even within an art direction that leans more towards realism than the anime-inspired approaches often seen in JRPGs. Sprites on the battlefield and 3D models in cutscenes and attack animations all look great, but they pale in comparison to the cel-shaded approach used for certain key moments in the game, which rival Guilty Gear Xrd in selling the 2D look. Top it all off with a beautiful soundtrack and fantastic voice acting, and you’ve got one of the best-looking, best-sounding, just best-presented games available for 3DS.
If you have a 3DS, Fire Emblem Fates is a must-buy; if you don’t, it’s yet another reason, on top of so many others, to get one. Just be sure you do your research, and stick to Birthright unless you’re absolutely ready for the challenge Conquest has to offer.