One for the Awakening fans.
Fire Emblem is supposed to be dead. Awakening was going to be the last game in the series, but Intelligent Systems poured their heart and soul into it, and it turned out to be an excellent game. While it created a divide between those who had stuck with the series for a long time and those who were new to it, Awakening was met with excellent critical reception and sold very well, and as a result, against all odds, Nintendo greenlit another instalment in the long running series.
The problem was that it created a schism- old fans who preferred the more punishing, strategically nuanced gameplay of older Fire Emblem titles, with all their political intrigue and world building; and the fans who had come aboard with Awakening and preferred its more streamlined take on series conventions, its emphasis on mechanics like relationship building and its more fantasy based story. It seemed that going forward, Intelligent Systems would be caught between a rock and a hard place. They would either end up alienating their smaller, older but more passionate fanbase, or their newfound larger one.
"Fire Emblem Fates- Birthright succeeds in what it sets out to do- if you liked Awakening, chances are you’ll enjoy Birthright as well."
So with Fire Emblem Fates, they decided to think outside the box and ended up making three games- one to appeal to series’ veterans, one for fans of Awakening, and a third version that serves as a middle ground between the two. Fire Emblem Fates- Birthright succeeds in what it sets out to do- if you liked Awakening, chances are you’ll enjoy Birthright as well.
In all three versions of the game, you play as Corrin, a naïve prince of the Nohr kingdom who’s lived a very sheltered life, growing up with loving siblings in the shadow of a cruel father. The first six chapters of all three versions are exactly the same, but right around this time you find out that as a child, you were kidnapped and brought into the Nohr royalty, and that you’re actually a prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Hoshido, a kingdom that has always had bad relations with Nohr. This is where the big choice comes into play, after which all three versions go in completely different directions- in the war between Nohr and Hoshido, you can either side with your adoptive siblings from Nohr, the only family you’ve ever known, or you can side with your biological siblings from Hoshido and fight against your adoptive father, a cruel and evil man, or you can decide to side with neither.
Birthright follows the story of what happens if you choose to side with the Hoshido. Along with your biological family, you try and stop the evil machinations of King Garon of Nohr, while dealing with accusations of treachery and betrayal by your adoptive siblings along the way. The story in Birthright isn’t anything special. It’s an interesting concept, and there’s a lot of potential for some great character moments and heartbreaking scenarios, but the game rarely takes advantage of the great situation it puts itself in. Most of the story devolves into “march into enemy territory and take down the evil king”. While there are subplots and undertones that provide for some interesting moments between the characters, they’re not nearly as developed as they should be and don’t get the amount of attention that they deserve.
What doesn’t help is the fact that the writing is, at best, mediocre. The writing in Fire Emblem: Awakening wasn’t particularly special itself, but it was always crisp and kept things moving. In Birthright, though, the writing often feels stilted and forced, and is a step down from its predecessor. Crucial narrative moments often feel rushed, character motivations are at times unclear or underdeveloped, and as a result of all this, it becomes harder to become invested in the story or the characters. The writing eventually finds its footing and becomes better in the back half, but even at that point, it merely goes from being below par to serviceable.
"Where the story and the writing of Birthright frequently underwhelm, the gameplay and mechanics are simply sublime."
Where the story and the writing of Birthright frequently underwhelm, the gameplay and mechanics are simply sublime. Combat is rather similar to what we saw in Awakening with a few tweaks and improvements here and there. The weapons follow a rock-scissors-paper system where each set is stronger than and weaker to other sets, and all manners of things such as environment and positioning on the battlefield play a role in how battles play out.
What’s most important though, just like in Awakening, is the Support system. Characters’ off-field relationships with each other affect how much they help each other on the battlefield, as does whom you pair your characters with. A good pairing would involve two characters who have a high relationship rank with each other, seeing them complement each others’ attacks, or helping each other dodge or maybe even jumping in the way of an enemy attack to block a fatal blow. This mechanic adds a great deal of complexity to the already strategically nuanced combat, and moments where two paired characters help each other avoid certain death, for example, make the payoff for pouring hours into this mechanic that much more satisfying.
Battles feel like giant, epic games of chess. What raises the stakes even more is the typical Fire Emblem concept of permadeath. Knowing that one bad decision on the battlefield can result in the death of a valued, beloved character really makes you think that much harder about your strategy. Deciding who to sacrifice for the greater good, or seeing a character escape certain death when you were getting ready to say goodbye makes you realize how incredibly designed the combat system of Fire Emblem Fates is. What’s even better is that those moments aren’t scripted, but rather the immediate result of what you do on the battlefield. There are easier difficulty settings that remove this concept of permadeath too- Casual, which sees characters revived at the end of the battle, and Phoenix, which sees them revived at the end of that very turn- but seeing as the real joy of Birthright is not in the story, but in the tension of combat, I personally would not suggest those.
"Battles feel like giant, epic games of chess."
Visually, battles look just as slick and tense as you’d want them to. The incredible animations and battlecries of the characters from Awakening are all back in prime form. Birthright has also received a very noticeable visual upgrade. When two characters go at it against each other in the middle of a battle, the camera swoops in up close and shows them fighting each other, with the battlefield being shown in the background in complete detail with respect to where those characters are positioned. Oh, and characters in Fates have feet!
What also adds a great deal to the combat is the fact that the maps you fight in are always impeccably designed. Ranging from environments like frozen lakes and volcanoes to ships and crumbling castles, the maps in Birthright always make smart use of the combat’s mechanics. A new mechanic known as Dragon Vein allows a select few of your characters to go to specific spots in the maps and change the layout to something more favourable- for example, freezing a body of water or clearing debris. It’s a smart new addition that adds more to the excellent combat system.
On the other hand, what’s a bit of a shame is the fact that Birthright somewhat wastes the great potential of these excellent maps by having a very repetitive mission structure. Missions in Birthright almost always come down to similar objectives- it’s either rout the enemy (kill all foes) or kill the boss (kill the freaking boss). While the inherently excellent combat keeps the game from becoming even slightly dull or monotonous, the fact that the game’s sister version Conquest has much more varied objectives makes you wonder why Birthright couldn’t have had more kinds of missions.
"The My Castle hub is a very slick way of presenting the multitude of peripheral mechanics that Birthright has."
Outside of battles, Birthright still gives you a lot to do. A consolidated hub has been created to be your base of operations with the My Castle feature. This feature lets you build your own fortress, allowing you to build places where you can buy new weapons, upgrade them, feed your army, or just hang out with the people in your army to build better relationships with them. You can even defend your castles against invaders to get some extra experience or gold on the side, but these invasion missions have next to no long term (or short term) effects on the development of your castle.
The addition of this feature ultimately adds a lot to the gameplay experience, despite its somewhat basic nature in terms of customizability. It makes your out-of-battle activities less abstract, allowing you to further invest and immerse yourselves in these characters and their lives. The My Castle hub is a very slick way of presenting the multitude of peripheral mechanics that Birthright has. Rather than having the player navigate a series of endless menus, the hub adds a very real and tangible feel to the proceedings.
Presentation, though, seems to be a strong suit of all of Birthright in general. As mentioned before, the animations in the battles and the look of the battlefields themselves are top notch, but the fidelity of the game’s visuals goes further than that. Fates boasts of a great many more cutscenes than what we saw in Awakening, and those cutscenes are all beautifully animated. Voice acting, too, is generally strong.
"Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is another success story for a franchise that logically should have died three years ago."
Where the visuals are good, the musical score of the game is even better. The soundtrack manages to simultaneously convey the scope of the story- something the narrative itself doesn’t do very well- while also always feeling true to the intimate and personal nature of the characters. Some of the tracks, in fact, will be stuck in your head for some time- the main battle theme is my personal favourite.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is another success story for a franchise that logically should have died three years ago. It makes a few mistakes- the story and the writing are mediocre at best and atrocious at worst- but the strong combat, the deep sense of strategy and the incredible and improved support mechanics make for an unforgettable experience.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.
Incredibly nuanced, layered combat that promotes strategy and planning; Player agency in battles makes for some great emergent moments; Support system adds another dimension to the gameplay, both on the battlefield and off it; Beautifully animated cutscenes; My Castle feature is a convenient hub that consolidates all extra activities neatly; Excellent soundtrack; Impeccably designed maps
Story is underdeveloped and oftentimes uninteresting; Bland and awkward writing make it hard to get invested in the narrative; Repetitive mission structure.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is a sensible evolution of the series and a definite must-play for fans of the long-running franchise, especially those who enjoyed Awakening.