Video Game Review: Fire Emblem Fates

Well, you guys all knew this was coming. I’ve mentioned for a while that I’ve been playing Fire Emblem Fates and now I can say with confidence that I have beaten the entire game.

So let’s review this game, shall we? Since the game is comprised of three core routes and shares a lot of similar features in all of them, I’m going to break this review down into four parts: the first looking at what is shared between all of the routes, the second focusing on Birthright exclusive material, the third focusing on Conquest exclusive material and the fourth focusing on Revelation.

Shared Between Routes

One of my main things that I really enjoy about Fates as a whole is that it doesn’t paint either side as outright villains. True, the side you choose not to team up with isn’t exactly treated as heroic figures in game, but there are cases when the other side shows support of what your avatar is doing and appreciates that you have a noble goal in mind. It’s a little thing, but it’s a surprisingly refreshing take on wargaming in general (considering most games where one side is in conflict with the other seems to demonise the side you aren’t siding with as without showcasing a human side to them to help you realise that there is a human element to the conflict) and means that you truly appreciate the struggle. It also makes the point where the game splits off between each of the routes all the more painful, as you can see why the other side feels betrayed by your choice and it actually tears them apart seeing your decision, which makes that point a lot more painful as a choice than you might expect on paper. I’m not going to lie, when I was playing for the first time and picked the Birthright route, I actually felt awful for the other side and their reaction to my decision was one that I completely understood.

The story starts out with five chapters (though you can skip to the sixth chapter, where your avatar makes their choice about which side to follow, from the main menu after the first playthrough, which is a move that I appreciate because it saves you a lot of unnecessary recapping!) that are the same across the versions of the game, so I’ll review them now. The story for this part is your avatar being allowed to leave the Norhian castle they have been raised in and being captured by the Hoshidans, who turn out to be the avatar’s birth family, having been stolen away by the Norhians as a child and raised as one of their own. After the avatar’s mother is killed in an assassination attempt that was caused by your avatar’s own weapon being stolen and destroyed to create an explosion, they manifest their dragonic powers and go to the battlefield to make a choice: do they side with their adopted family and try to solve the mystery behind the assassination attempt while reforming Norh from the inside or do they side with their birth family and try to end the war with the help of their birth family?

…Or do they take a neutral route by siding with neither and hope that they can solve the mystery with support from whatever allies they can find?

It’s a surprisingly well told story, considering it’s just cutscenes told between battles, and it does manage to show both sides very well. You see both sides of the conflict and it can be hard to decide who to side with. While I personally feel the story makes the most sense as a prologue to the Birthright side of the story, there’s a genuinely good reason behind picking all three paths and I do appreciate that it happens early enough in the game that the story doesn’t end up feeling like one story is just a retread of another.

As one might expect from a Fire Emblem game, the difficulty is fairly challenging, even at this early stage in the game. While I personally was playing on Normal difficulty with Casual settings rather than the more traditional Lunatic difficulty with permadeath on for my playthroughs (because I’m more interested in the stories of games than the difficulty of them), I did make an attempt to play through the first five missions in this more traditional difficulty and it certainly did not disappoint on the difficulty front, as I ended up stalling on chapter three simply because the difficulty got so intense that I struggled to get far through it. Even from this, though, I could tell that the difficulty is better handled than it was in Awakening, as the game doesn’t simply add more troops, but instead makes them more powerful and adds abilities which kick in frequently, which makes for a much fairer, but still difficult, challenge.

The art style of the game…I’m slightly split on it, if I’m honest. On the one hand, I like that it’s not as brightly colored as Awakening was (for the most part), but, on the other hand, the style looks slightly more hand drawn and seems a tiny bit off to me. It’s not badly done at all, but I think I VERY slightly prefer the art style of Awakening over the art style of Fates.

One change from Awakening (and most prior games in the series, actually) is that weapons do not degrade in battle any more. Healing staffs, items and the like still maintain this, but weapons in general do not, instead having different effects on top of their usual stuff. Part of me likes this, as I had FAR too many occasions when playing Awakening where one of my weapons broke at a bad moment and left me with a unit completely unable to attack, but I will concede that part of me misses having to check my weapons before every battle, as I would also be able to check what else I had picked up over the course of the battle and add it to the convoy. By removing that, I ended up with a problem where I often ended up having weapons and equipment being carried by characters for several chapters before I finally remembered about them! I also found that the effects and additions didn’t really make a huge difference overall, although I’m sure they might be more important to keep in mind for players on higher difficulties!

There are a few additions to what Awakening did as well which are worth noting. The first is the My Castle feature, which allows players to create their own bases of operation and replacing the traveling merchants from Awakening. This includes a HUGE amount of stuff (not all of which is directly impacting upon the main story) and is actually pretty cool, in my honest opinion, as the base grows as you progress through the game. It’s a pretty neat little addition and, while some might miss the approach of Awakening, I think this actually makes the most sense for what the game is trying to do.

The support system…I’m not going to lie, it took me a while to get my head around it, having grown used to the system in Awakening, but I actually kind of like this system now because it offers a more unique tactical side to the system. For those not aware, you can choose to have units pair up with each other, which will make your primary unit stronger and more resistant to enemy attacks, but means your support unit will not be able to attack at all, or you can have two units stand next to each other, which means that they can attack alongside each other. It actually offers a surprisingly interesting tactical side of things, as it means that you have to judge whether you want to be more resistant to enemy damage or able to inflict more damage thanks to help from allies and is a much better handling of the system. The dialogue that comes from the support mechanic is still the same in terms of impact, although I do find it interesting to note the addition of an A+ rank that is effectively a platonic version of the S rank relationships in that you can only attain it between two same-sex units who reach A rank together (although, in terms of dialogue, it doesn’t actually add anything to the game).

The music in this game, while heavily based upon Azura’s song across a lot of it (which means that you’ll be hearing that a HUGE amount over the course of the game), is absolutely incredible. Seriously, the music might well be some of the best music I’ve heard from a 3DS game to date and can rival soundtracks on far more complicated systems with ease. I won’t pick individual highlights, but only because the entire soundtrack is so good that to highlight any tracks over the others would feel like a grave disservice to those I don’t mention.

A personal criticism I have is the decision to bring in second generation characters, as they have no impact in the story here. In Awakening, it made perfect sense to have them, since one of the core characters from the game had travelled back in time from an alternative future where their parents had died (sorry if that’s a potential spoiler, but if you don’t know who it is by this point, you’ve clearly not heard of the franchise before now!), so having them made sense because, well, it was already a core part of the game to have them anyway! Here, though, they aren’t necessary at all and it is very possible to play the game without them ever being found. I don’t know, it’s nice they’re available, but they could have so easily been cut from the game and nothing of value would have been lost, making their addition rather pointless overall.

I also feel I should point out something that is a change from Awakening. In Awakening, the loss of a particularly important unit (in that case, Chrom and the avatar) would result in the loss of a mission, even playing on Casual difficulty, where permadeath wasn’t a thing. While I can see why this was kept in, it did result in unnecessary frustration and felt like a programming oversight. Now, if you lose an important unit in battle in Casual mode, you can still complete the mission. This might seem like a weird thing to welcome to long time fans of the franchise, but, as a newcomer who always felt that the previously mentioned thing was dumb (they can’t die permanently in that mode, so why kick players from the game for their defeat in battle?), I feel that this is a good step towards making the game more accessible to newcomers, as it doesn’t unnecessarily penalise players when it doesn’t have to.

So, with all of that out of the way, let’s start discussing the Birthright route.

Birthright Route Review

If you choose to side with Hoshido, your story turns to one of an attempt to search for two of your brothers, which later turns into an infiltration into Nohr itself and a final assault upon King Garon’s castle itself, with the fate of the world in the balance. It’s not an especially complicated story, but everything does flow naturally together and I can’t say that I felt the story was badly handled. Some aspects are frustrating, I’ll admit (there are two plotlines which end up happening at least twice in the same story!), but there’s a decent amount of the game’s which actually works fairly well.

The battles tend to fall back on the same kind of missions, being to rout the enemy or defeat their commander. I do appreciate that the core of this storyline isn’t meant to be as challenging as with Conquest, but I feel that there was a lot of potential for more interesting missions than we are given with this route. This doesn’t mean what is on display is bad in and of itself, it’s just lacking some more interesting missions to keep things varied and prevent a vibe of “seen this all before” (although, to be fair, this is fairly similar to a lot of the missions in Awakening, so one could argue quite fairly that this is following on quite nicely from that!).

The challenge on Birthright, while mostly fairly manageable, does get fairly challenging towards the end, though nowhere near as intense as Conquest can get. It’s the sort of challenge which is difficult enough to test you, but not so difficult that you’re going to end up completely stuck while playing the game, a factor which is helped by the variety of side missions available giving you plenty of opportunities to level grind should you feel like you’re falling behind. I’ll admit, the only time I ended up having to dedicate time to level grinding was around chapter 20, and even that was more because I noticed that I had a lot of units which were close to being required to upgrade to new classes and decided to focus on getting that done than because I really started to struggle (although I will admit that I DID struggle with some of the missions after that grinding, so it’s likely that I might have had to do it anyway).

One of the factors which makes this game closer to Awakening than Conquest does is that, on this route, you can play non-essential missions in between story missions. How you do this is that you scout for an enemy and pay gold to summon them to the world map, whereupon you can opt to challenge them. If you’re like me and can happily spend hours trying to unlock every bit of dialogue from support trees, this can be a very rewarding experience in its own right and it’s a great way to get your weaker units stronger without putting them at risk if you’re playing with permadeath on.

I think that I should take the time to commend the game for handling the Nohr and Hoshido sides very well. There are several occasions where the Nohr siblings interact with the Hoshido side and you can see a very human side to them. This is mostly noticeable with Elise, but Camila and Leo can be seen to have elements of this more human side in their appearances and even Xander has his moments on this path (though only really in the final chapter with him in it). It’s not flawlessly handled, I’ll admit, but you can definitely tell that the Nohr siblings do still care a lot about your avatar even after you side with Hoshido and they do actively try to help at points in the story, which makes the later stages of the game all the more powerful for reasons which I won’t disclose here because of spoilers!

I do think that some criticisms of the game should be noted, however. Some of the characters can seem a bit lacking in terms of overall development, even within their support options, which can result in several S rank supports feeling rather weak. Related to this, the fact that your avatar can marry the Hoshido siblings will automatically seem a bit disgusting to most people (although there IS a reason for this in story which makes the situation a lot better, though, again, I won’t disclose it here because of spoilers!). Part of me accepts why this is in the game (especially with the knowledge I have hinted towards making it less unpleasant than it sounds on paper), but I’m wondering if it might have been better to have made the S rank supports with the Hoshido siblings deliberately not be romantic in nature simply to avoid causing potential alarm.

Ultimately, though, I find Birthright to be a very strong route that takes a lot of cues from Awakening, but manages to establish its own identity in a way that keeps it distinct from its predecessor. It’s a very solid path which might have some room for improvement, but which I quite enjoy overall. Of the two paths you can purchase in stores, I’d say this is the stronger of the two and certainly the best one to pick up if you want to jump into the franchise for the first time.

Conquest Route Review

If you choose to side with Nohr, your avatar finds themselves assigned to go on missions for King Garon while they plot to create a new Nohr which is peaceful while fighting to survive against not just the armies of Hoshido, but also deliberate attempts to ensure their death through the orders of Garon himself! This is a very different story entirely, but, unfortunately, a lot of what motivates it can be summed up as the Nohr siblings not realising something is up and failing to realise it until it is literally too late. Even from the start of the story, there is a point where Xander clearly recognises that Garon has sent your avatar on a suicide mission on their own and, rather than demanding to know why he is so willing to sacrifice the life of one of his children for no gain, simply opts to tip off some troops as to your location and asks them to follow you. This kind of thing might be excusable if it had only happened once or twice in the story, but it happens in enough chapters that, after a point, you just have to wonder how the Nohr siblings don’t realise something is wrong until the end of the game, when they literally have the proof in front of them! I can personally accept that people don’t like going against their family, but you’d have thought a father sending out a sibling on a suicide mission on their own several times might have caused some hard questions to be asked, if you see the point I’m making!

The story continues to escalate as your avatar is sent on suicide mission after suicide mission only to succeed at them (again, also begging the question of how the avatar’s siblings don’t realise something is wrong and start doing something about it). Over the course of the story, your avatar learns the truth about King Garon and finds themselves having to follow his orders so as to allow Garon’s true evil to be revealed. I do like how the story makes it very clear that the avatar characters hates what they are forced to do, especially when pit against the Hoshido siblings, and the final motivation for having to wage war against Hoshido is actually surprisingly clever (if, admittedly, not very well handled in the story), but I still cannot escape the feeling that there were other ways of handling it.

The difficulty of this path can be pretty intense. There’s quite a few reasons for this, but probably the big one is that there is no way to level grind between story missing (unless you have DLC maps, but I’m not counting that because I want to review the base game without add ons): the closest you have are missions where you recruit new soldiers and the My Castle battles. Unfortunately, this means that, unless you do some VERY careful playing or deliberately don’t use them where possible, you’re pretty much just going to stick with a force including the Nohr siblings (except for Elise, unless you’ve managed to get her to change class to allow her to use offensive weapons) and the most powerful non-sibling units you had prior to their recruitment if you want to get through the game, as the Nohr siblings are the most powerful units you get when they are recruited and will make the game a heck of a lot easier!

Another factor for the difficulty of this path is the scale of the missions. Now, Birthright isn’t lacking for large scale missions, but the last third of the Nohr path is effectively your forces fighting a full scale war with a small selection of troops while Birthright doesn’t really reach that level. I might receive some ridicule from Fire Emblem diehards for this, but I was really struggling with the last few missions of this path and I was playing on Normal difficulty on Casual mode. The last mission in particular is one which I only won because I tried an unconventional strategy which avoided a direct assault that had always wiped me out in my previous attempts at the mission and was very surprised when it actually worked. I would definitely say that the lack of ways to level grind (in the default game) does not help this factor, as it added unnecessary frustration onto the game because I often found myself with units who literally could not damage the enemy at all and the good units I did have STILL weren’t able to take down opponents in one hit like might have been expected.

Another factor (though a good one) for the difficulty is the variety of maps on display. I would be lying if I said that Conquest did not offer some very interesting challenges to it on the mission front, because it has some of the most interesting missions available to players of the default game. I won’t spoil every mission I really enjoy, but there are missions it offers which offer some pretty interesting tactical challenges and I would certainly say that, despite the lack of any real optional missions, the variety of missions available here is much stronger here.

All of these factors combine together to mean that every level can feel like a genuine challenge, even on the easiest difficulty. However, it does mean that newcomers to the franchise will find this path unnecessarily difficult, because it is a lot less forgiving than Birthright and it is possible for players to hit a brick wall and be unable to progress due to how the game’s difficulty ramps up. This is ESPECIALLY problematic in Classic mode: should you lose your best units due to bad luck against bosses, you might find yourself stuck with a very underleveled force and be unable to catch up because you cannot go back and level them up. I appreciate that this is closer to what it is like in the older games in the franchise, so fans of the older games might like this more than I do, but I personally cannot call this a design choice that I like.

I honestly wish I could say that this is the end of my criticisms of this path, but there are still things which I feel I should highlight. I do appreciate that the Hoshido side needs to be made into the enemy for this path, but it goes about it by making them completely unwilling to listen to the Avatar (which, while understandable, is still a bit silly when you consider that the Avatar’s decision to save their royal family from execution by the Nohr side and refusal to actually kill anyone from Hoshido should have made them go “OK, something doesn’t add up here…”) and failing to notice Takumi is acting unusually aggressive compared to usual (which becomes VERY important at the end of the game, although I won’t spoil it here), which is simply not the sensible way to go about handling it. Having the distrust for the start of the path is understandable, but it gets ridiculous later on and the failure to notice the second thing would be enough to beg the question of how intelligent the Hoshido siblings actually are, especially considering they defended the avatar character in chapter 5 when Takumi verbally lashed out at them.

I also think that the support dialogue in Conquest is a bit lacking overall. Now, I’ll be fair, it isn’t bad overall, but there’s very few romances from this path which I feel hold up as well as they should do. I might be being unfair, but I think the supports on this path should have been better than they were, although there are certainly some good moments across them.

Ultimately, there’s nothing technically WRONG with Conquest, but I feel that it suffers from several design decisions which, while perfectly fine for long time fans of the franchise, makes it a hard sell when you consider that there is a better option available to a general audience within the same game and a plot which should have been handled a lot better than it was. It’s definitely not a bad path overall (despite what the internet might tell you), but it’s definitely not a path I would recommend to start out the game with unless you are a long time fan of the franchise. Even then, I still think that Birthright handles itself better on the overall front and feel that you would be better suited to going for that route first as a result. Of the two paths available to purchase in stores, this is the weaker of the two, but it isn’t completely without its good moments and I would certainly say that it offers an experience that you can’t get with the Birthright path (short of a self-imposed challenge not to play non-essential missions) which makes it worth a playthrough.

Revelation Route Review

If you choose to side with neither Hoshido or Nohr, you find yourself hunted by forces on both sides while trying to prove that you have not betrayed either side. As you continue to do so and win allies over on both sides, you learn that the conflict is on a far larger scale than originally thought, with a third party pulling the strings and the fate of the entire world in the balance…

I’m not going to lie, when I first started playing this path, I got annoyed at it on the story front. While there ARE hints towards this third party in the Conquest route, nothing about the third party is really shown in the other two routes and, as a result of the third party’s actions, it made my victories in the other two paths feel very hollow as a result. This REALLY should have been handled a lot better, as I feel that the fact that the third party barely gets any acknowledgement in the other two paths cheapens the impact of the victories achieved in them. I am aware that there is little reason to actively bring in the third party in the other two paths, but that does not mean that the lack of foreshadowing is suddenly justified: there could have been hints that there was still a threat out there that needed to be dealt with and had that deliberately left unresolved, though acknowledged by the avatar character so that they are aware that they have only succeeded in ending the war between Hoshido and Nohr: they haven’t actually dealt with the third party yet and hopes that they will find them someday so they can finish off what they started. Maybe I am being a bit harsh here, I’ll admit, but I just find this a major bugbear for me.

That said, I do think that the story is actually fairly well told, for the most part. It handles the emotions of both sides over your avatar’s decision very well and has them come to their sense fairly quickly (which is a step up over the Conquest route already), it has some pretty surprising moments (even if some of them make no real sense when you think about them hard enough) and it actually shows all of the sides coming together very well even if you don’t have support discussions happen, making it a story which truly feels like people putting differences apart for the sake of the world as a whole. I can’t fault it too much in that aspect, if I’m honest.

The difficulty is a pretty good middle ground between both sides, being less difficult than Conquest at its hardest, but still having enough challenging missions to make it more difficult than Birthright on an overall level. While I do think some missions can be a bit more difficult than they should be (one of the levels in particular was one that I scraped through with just two units, only to get through the levels after it without coming that close to a game over), the challenge is much fairer than might be expected from those who have gotten through Conquest. The maps, unfortunately, return back to the Birthright level of design for the most part, but there are still some maps from Conquest that return in Revelation and some of the unique maps can actually be pretty interesting. Unfortunately, several of them seem to fall back on creating gimmicks rather than actually offering a genuine strategic challenge and don’t really add anything to the game as a result.

The supports, at least between characters who have supports with each other in previous routes, are still the same, but it is the routes between those of other paths which can get REALLY interesting. I won’t spoil them here, but there are some genuinely excellent supports on this path which can be great to read.

One thing which I appreciate about Revelation is that the design idea for leveling up units is based on the Birthright path, so the ability to level up units through grinding is available on this path. This might be a disappointment to fans of the Conquest route, but I personally was pretty grateful for this when I got to the end of this path!

With all of this said, there are still problems I have with this path, and, unfortunately, it’s that I feel that aspects of it weren’t thought through as well as the other two routes. There are quite a few cases where units return to fight with your force despite being far too powerful or far too weak to be right to include at the point they are brought back in, with probably the most glaring being Chapter 17, where several new characters are brought in…and four of them are so underleveled that they will be killed in one round unless you are REALLY lucky. I also find the repeated levels from other maps leaves me a bit suspicious that somewhere along the line, the team found themselves running out of time and simply included missions from other paths because they could rather than because they were actually worth bringing back to the other path. To be fair, there ARE missions on the same maps in Conquest and Birthright, but those tend to have different objectives on them. Here, there’s NO changes at all. I also have to ask what the development team were thinking with regards to Chapter 10, as it runs on a gimmick which drags the level to a crawl and which more players would find unnecessarily aggravating as a result.

Ultimately, this is a very good path that takes the good of both sides, but feels like it needed some further playtesting to refine elements of it, some further development time to allow some of the maps to have their own unique challenges to them (or even develop new maps entirely) and ran too much on the logic of creating gimmicky maps rather than genuinely strategically challenging maps. As paths go, I would say this is only not my favourite path due to my earlier mentioned bugbear with the nature of the story of it and the issues which I feel drag it down further than it should have done: had those been handled better, there wouldn’t really be a lot I would have to complain about with Revelation!

Overall Conclusion

Weighing up the game as a whole, I feel that Fire Emblem Fates is a very good game and all of the paths have their appeal, but it is flawed in quite a few places and none of the paths are without issues of their own. Fans of the franchise who were let down by Awakening might be disappointed that Fates has continued down that route (albeit with some changes) and fans of Awakening might find that some aspects of Fates do not live up to what Awakening offered, but, in its own right, there’s nothing that I feel is outright bad about Fates. It has its issues and, as much as I enjoy it, I doubt it would be right to name it as a potential game of the year, but it certainly does not do enough that I dislike for me to call it a bad game in any fairness. A flawed game which has room for improvement, but still enjoyable enough to be worth playing if you like turn-based strategy games with RPG elements.