Reviews: Fire Emblem Fates
Time for FE to return to consoles
Fire Emblem Fates is an interesting game to review. In terms of the moment to moment gameplay it is an improvement over its predecessor, Awakening. But taken as a whole it is a step down from the game that saved the Fire Emblem franchise. Fire Emblem Fates tweaks the strategy mechanics to be more balanced, and the level designs and objectives are more varied and diverse than Awakening's, even in the easier Birthright campaign. As a result, playing the individual stages is more enjoyable than ever. But Fates suffers in its story and characters. What made Awakening such a memorable game was the way its story, characters, and mechanics meshed so well together. The story of Fates does not mesh with those same mechanics, like the child characters, who have no place in the story this time around. And new elements like the other-dimensional base just seem out of place. Characterization is also weaker. This may be a result of having so many characters over 3 versions of the game, but outside of the 2 royal families, Fates does a poor job of introducing the side characters compared to Awakening. The support conversations help flesh them out, but the initial motivation to see the supports in the first place is missing. I can't help but wonder if the problems in the story stem from the game being on a handheld with 6th gen level hardware. They tried to make the story more ambitious, and it backfired. With the announcement that an HD Fire Emblem game is in the works for the Switch we will see if the increase in file size and specs can help the develops tell a truly epic story that gives enough time for the side characters and works to enhance its gameplay mechanics rather than making them feel out of place. While I've been largely negative in this review, I do think that Fire Emblem Fates is a great game. But it ultimately cannot reach the heights of its immediate predecessor.
What I am so impressed by Fire Emblem as a franchise is its ability to evolve and keep itself refreshing just enough to justify every new sequel. Fates builds on Awakening's previous formula, carefully improving upon the gripes (overpowered Pair Up/weapons), while also testing the waters with new features like Phoenix mode option for casual players, different "versions" and My Castle. As far as Gameplay is concerned, Fates is a masterpiece. Great maps, addictive leveling system and fun classes, with balanced challenges and improvements to the dual systems. Some major changes were added like weapons no longer having durability limits, but all in all, it all works well because of smart design choices. I found myself not missing durability at all because of the shift in focus from simply using the strongest weapon, to using the smartest weapon. A lot of thought went into revamping the gameplay for balance while still maximizing fun. The pay off for successful battles are still the Support Conversations and unlocking them all is still an addictive and rewarding journey. A big goal for Fates seems to have been making it as universally likable as possible regardless of the audience. New features like My Castle was provided to cater to fans who really enjoy getting attached to the characters, not to mention vastly extending playtime and adding fun online interactions. Phoenix mode was included for players who struggle with strategy but enjoy the story. Meanwhile, the fans who enjoy classic FE hardcore gameplay will love Conquest for its return to older FE style of limited grinding and resources. There's a little something for everyone, which is a plus for any long-running franchise. There is always room for improvement, however, and the most glaring flaw is the story. The premise of Fates with its bloodline vs loyalty theme is certainly intriguing, but ultimately what was needed to successfully provide three different perspectives and conclusions to a conflict was a mountain of contrivances and plot holes. It's clear the focus was not on a silky-smooth story, and more so on fun strategy combat, which is where Fates excels superbly. Sadly, suspension of disbelief is very difficult to maintain, especially for the third route. With its latest entry, Fire Emblem has taken many steps forward in the right direction. It has refined and improved its strengths (combat, support system), while fixing many past problems. Still, some areas could use some work. I feel a story that relies less on grabbing the Idiot Ball to fuel conflict would be more appreciated in general, and the voice acting and the implementation of the Children units was an overall step down from Awakening. Even so, Fire Emblem Fates does a lot right, maintaining its great record of taking more steps forward than backward, and I eagerly look forward to what the next installment will bring.
As a game, well-made. As a story, workmanlike... but could have been great, had it but courage.
Fates is, in pure gameplay terms, an improvement over Awakening. It retains many of the best ideas of its predecessor, principally the reclassing/skill system, while adding a number of new tweaks and ideas. Unbreakable weapons, with trade-offs between the more- and less-powerful options, is a genuinely great idea, one that adds more tactical depth beyond pure scarcity. Merging reclasses with supports to add in concrete rewards for "S" and "A+" ranks is inspired, as are the reworked "team up" mechanics. And the new map designs are universally quite good, with the Dragon Vein mechanic, siege weaponry, and mission objectives besides "kill everything" or "kill that boss" giving the series new tactical possibilities. And while some units are... more useful than others, none are rendered useless, and each has unique skills attached, ensuring that, theoretically, no unit is a perfect replacement for another unit. Finally, while the writing doesn't always serve them well, the new characters are generally quite strong. Some are a bit "one-note," but none are completely restricted to a single set of silly personality traits, and even seeming comic-relief characters like Arthur have interesting backstories in their support logs. Unfortunately, it is here we must begin to talk about the game's biggest weakness: the storytelling. Despite what you might've heard, it's by no means terrible, but it's certainly... unremarkable. Competent and workmanlike. From the too-brief time between the branched-off routes to the game trying just a little too hard to underscore how much all your family members love you (except Takumi), the setup to the big narrative crux is a bit weak, even disregarding that, without spending extra money, you don't get to make a choice at all. And the storytelling is too generic and safe to be truly great. Everyone and their mother complains about Awakening being a bit too black-and-white in its morality, but Fates is, if anything, even worse. Yes, the Nohr army contains many sympathetic characters even on the Hoshido route (one reason it's competent rather than bad), but that's as far as it goes. We could've had a Fire Emblem with the unique and interesting story of two beign sides fighting for mutually-exclusive ends. Instead, the designers chose to put a black hat on one and a white hat on the other, and the fact that they made the Japanese camp the white hat is just the tip of that unfortunate decision. Finally, the game's business plan did direct violence to its quality. This is not a title that needed to be sold in pieces, especially when clues in the other two routes are clearly supposed to add up to a solution in the third. Fates is a fun, well-made game. It is worth at least one purchase on that alone. But, if its storytellers had a little more courage and its managers a little less greed, it could've been a great one.
Nohr / Conquest Gamplay Review
Having played Nohr / Conquest and having only the most basic understanding of what's going on... Unfortunately, the plot isn't that fantastic. It relies on a lot of Idiot Ball similar to the Dawn Brigade / Daein of Fire Emblem 10. On the plus side, that's the ONLY problem Conquest has. The characters are fantastic with a wide range of personalities and design. Conquest is billed as a more classic Fire Emblem and this is indeed true. It plays like Path of Radiance with relatively no breaks in between and a pretty sharp difficulty curve. What this means is that you should plan your strategy in advance because if you spread the EXP too thin or don't capitalize on class seals when you should your team will not be strong enough for the later chapters. This can be avoided by abusing Wi Fi / Spotpass / DLC but if you don't have access to it prepare for a lot of pain and a lot of units taking heavy damage. I had to rely on Phoenix Mode quite often because of the combination of enemy attacks and skills specifically designed to decrease my unit's stats. Guard Stance and Attack Stance replace the Pair Up mechanic and while I'm still learning about them but it's definitely a good change in terms of balance and makes you think about damage output versus what you're taking. Galeforce (the other oft abused skill in Awakening) has been equally nerf'd and Dark Flyer isn't even a class available through a normal first playthrough. Additionally child characters which were insanely broken in Awakening are often not the effort in Conquest as you don't have a lot of time in normal gameplay to even build up S-rank without lots of pre-planning That said there are new options for seals that make parents (your main units) much more flexible. You can switch a unit to both their spouse's class through a Marriage Seal or their buddy (A+)'s class through a Buddy Seal. This means almost infinite possibilities provided you have the time. You can also extend their max levels up past 99 for those who want max stats across the board. A lot of the replayability will rely on Wifi where you can challenge other people's teams to battles of various types. You can also use Wifi to buy opponent's skills so that's welcome. So in short - aside from the plot definitely a fun and challenging game.