Three years ago, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series was in dire straights. Fire Emblem: Awakening, the franchise’s inaugural 3DS release, was heavily rumored to be the last game in the series; according to a 2013 interview with developer Intelligent Systems in Spanish magazine Hobby Consolas, Nintendo was going to abandon the series if Awakening didn’t move a significant number of units. Call it an act of desperation or a savvy business decision, but this public declaration of Nintendo’s internal practicles was definitely not business as usual. And it worked: at nearly 1.8 million copies sold worldwide, Awakening moved nearly four times as many copies as either of its two most recent predecessors. After no fewer than 13 games, Fire Emblem had finally found its audience.
Fast forward to 2016, and the fate of one of Nintendo’s oldest but least-loved franchises couldn’t be any more different. On the heels of Awakening’s success, Intelligent Systems has followed up with not one, not two, but three concurrent Fire Emblem releases. If you’re worried this is some kind of Pokémon-style cash grab, banish those thoughts: while all three games are connected by an overarching narrative, each offers its own unique adventure. Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright tells a tale of war from the perspective of the Eastern-style Hoshido kingdom, while Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest has players representing the aggressor in the story—the Western-influenced kingdom of Nohr. For players who don’t want to take sides in the conflict, a third story path called Revelation is included in a Special Edition release of the game that packages all three versions together on a single cartridge… or, if you chose one of the standard versions, all three story paths can be purchased à la cart as DLC. It’s confusing, to be sure, but the important takeaway is this: as a whole, Fire Emblem Fates features roughly three times the amount of gameplay as Fire Emblem: Awakening, and each game is made richer by the experience of having played the others. If you’re a fan of the series, your time is now.
That said, the games differ in more than just narrative perspective, and the version you’ll want to start with is going to depend largely on what type of player you are. With that in mind, we’ve had three different writers play through the three versions of Fire Emblem Fates, so if you’re still not sure where to dive in, we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. We’re not going to dive too deep into the specifics of the actual gameplay; from a broad perspective, the series has remained largely unchanged for decades, and if you’d like to know how Fates plays, we’d suggest checking out our Fire Emblem: Awakening review. Otherwise, if you’re on board and just looking for a jumping-off point, read on!
BIRTHRIGHT IS FOR BABIES.
I was introduced to Fire Emblem with Awakening, and it’s still one of my favorite 3DS games. So when Fire Emblem Fates was announced, I was pumped to get back into the series with Birthright, which I’d heard was meant for players like me—fans of Awakening who enjoyed building up relationships between units and grinding for experience, but who aren’t looking for the biggest challenge. In that respect, Birthright is a decent follow up to Awakening, though it never quite lives up to its predecessor.
Where it stumbles for me is the writing. I fell in love with Awakening’s characters, who came alive through well-written dialogue that made me want to progress through the story and build up relationships among as many members of my squad as possible. Birthright, on the other hand, takes half of the game just to get the plot going anywhere, and the characters populating the kingdom of Hoshido feel more like tropes than actual people. Building rapport between units is still useful for the accompanying stat boosts, but I never found the inter-unit dialogue to be particularly interesting… even choosing my avatar’s spouse felt sort of like marrying for money. And that made me feel a little dirty.
Luckily, Birthright is still a fantastic strategy game that makes you take everything from terrain, to unit types, to weapons into account when deciding which enemies to take out and when. But at the same time, most missions consist of more or less the same goal: destroy the enemy. There were a few exceptions to the rule—for instance, a mission that commanded me to simply “Escape!”—and I found those to be incredibly fun. I wish there were more of them.
Despite my reservations, I’m still enjoying Birthright. Each battle is just as intense as anything in Awakening, and Fates provides even more options than its predecessor for novice players who just want to experience the game’s story, from new lower difficulty levels to an abundance of side missions on which you can level up your characters. It’s a great addition to the series that feels just a little too safe to me. — Austin
CONQUEST HURTS SO GOOD.
And then there’s Conquest, which is basically Fire Emblem for masochists. Conquest is a truly brutal experience that demands a holistic understanding of its systems, maps, and unit types if players hope to advance beyond the first half of the game. And despite having the same number of chapters as Birthright, the lack of grinding opportunities makes Conquest feel like a much leaner, meaner game. Literally every decision you make—who to level-up, how to spend your money, even the pre-mission placement of your units—can have dire consequences if you don’t think them through properly. You can actually paint yourself into a corner if you don’t take the long view, necessitating a total restart of your adventure… not the kind of choice you want to be faced with in a 50-hour game.
While Fates sticks to the refined version of the Fire Emblem battle system found in Awakening, a new ‘Dragon Vein’ mechanic adds an additional layer of strategy to many of the game’s missions. Dragon Veins allow players to manipulate the environment to their advantage—filling in moats to stop ground-based units from approaching, creating healing spots for units that are in desperate need of attention, etc.—but these effects can also be detrimental to your progress, adding even more tension to what often feels like an impossibly difficult game. For instance: those moats might keep enemy units away from your army, but they’ll also make your units sitting ducks if airborne enemy reinforcements show up to rain death from above.
One refreshing change to the Fire Emblem formula (included in all three versions of Fates) is the addition of a castle that serves as a base for your army. Between missions, you’ll head back to your castle to restock on supplies, forge new weapons, and more. This is especially critical in Conquest, where the lack of side quests means you won’t be discovering those high-ranking weapons that are normally hidden in optional missions. Your castle is also a great place to take the edge off: you can strengthen support between units via optional relationship-building activities, throw them into low-stakes arena battles to win extra resources, or dress them up with accessories that also give them stat buffs in Fates’ StreetPass battles. You can also customize your castle, from deciding which structures to build and where to place them, to choosing the music that plays in the background, and more. By default, everything is viewed from a top-down, traditional RPG viewpoint, but you can switch to a 3D, third person view that makes the whole place feel more alive.
I have no problem admitting I’ve been having a tough time with Conquest, but I can see the appeal for players who’ve been with the series since the pre-Awakening days. From what I’ve played so far—roughly half of the game—Conquest is a worthwhile experience that rewards perseverance and a strategic mind… but it’s going to take quite some time to make my way through it. Newcomers who awakened to Fire Emblem with the previous 3DS entry, this is probably not the game for you. — Tony
GOT WHAT YOU GOT AND STILL UPSOT? TRY REVELATION.
Through a series of events that aren’t worth recounting here, I got stuck reviewing Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation, and truth be told, I’m sort of regretting playing it before Birthright or Conquest. Don’t get me wrong—I loved Revelation almost as much as Awakening, which is in my top 5 3DS games of all time—but from a narrative standpoint, Revelation is meant to be played after the other two games, and I suspect that once I start playing the other versions I’ll look at some of the characters in a different light than Nintendo intended.
That caveat aside, I’m actually really happy to have started with Revelation. The basic premise of Fates is that you have to choose a side in the Nohr-Hoshido conflict; without giving too much away, choosing Revelation means you’re able to recruit characters from both sides of the war, using your cross-national army to fulfill a grander purpose than what’s asked of you in either Birthright or Conquest. Revelation is a great place to start if you don’t want to choose sides, but it’s also the best way to get to know the entire cast, especially if you plan on playing another version once you’ve finished it. I actually wasn’t too eager to play Conquest any time soon—I only have so much time to spend on one game, I’ve already spent more than 50 hours with Revelation, and I’m ready to move on to Birthright soon—but I discovered through Revelation that there are characters I like equally on both sides of the war. I guess what I’m saying is, Revelation made me more invested in seeing the entire tale through to its completion, even if each subsequent playthrough feels like a bizarro alternate reality version of the one before it.
From everything I’ve read in editing Austin and Tony’s reviews, Revelation feels squarely in the middle of Birthright and Conquest, in all regards. The difficulty is all over the place—I’ve finished some late-game missions in fewer than five turns, while some early missions I’ve failed altogether multiple times, even on Normal difficulty. The mission structures are also nice and varied; sure, there are plenty of “wipe them all out!” objectives, but there are many other missions that require more strategic thinking, and these are the ones I enjoy the most.
Even though I still prefer Awakening over Revelation, Nintendo has gone out of its way to make sure Fire Emblem Fates is a worthy successor to its 2013 title, and it shows. It’s in the little things, like the way enemy armor falls apart when you defeat them, or the easier-to-navigate mission list (I’m still not sure if I’ve finished all the Paralogues in Awakening, but Fates makes it abundantly clear.) And all things considered, I loved the cast of Fates. I actually had to come up with a system for myself, governing when it was okay to reset the game after a character died, and when it wasn’t, because it was really hard for me to let go of some of them. Also, I was able to recruit Lucina to my army by scanning her Amiibo. Lucina’s the best. Just saying.
Most of you won’t have played Revelation before experiencing Birthright or Conquest, so if you’ve played through either or both of those games, Revelation is a logical next step. If you started with Birthright, Revelation will be a step up in difficulty, but not unreasonably so; if you’ve already finished Conquest, the transition to Revelation will be a lot less jarring than to Birthright. Regardless of which order you play the games in, Fire Emblem Fates demands to be played in its complete form… but pace yourself. There’s over 150 hours of play among all three versions of the game, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice by burning yourself out before you get the total experience. — Michael
Invisible Gamer’s review of Fire Emblem Fates is based on eShop downloads of Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright and Conquest, and a physical Special Edition for Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation. Birthright, Conquest, and the Special Edition, which includes all three story paths, were released on February 19th, 2016; Revelation was released as DLC on March 10th, 2016.