First, a confession: I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before. Despite enjoying plenty of portable strategy games, like the Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars series, I never got around to checking out Nintendo’s beloved entry in the genre, which first started in Japan in 1990 on the original NES. That all changed with Fire Emblem Fates, which launches today on the Nintendo 3DS. And it turns out that my much-belated stab at the series came at a great time, because Fates is a perfect entry point for new players.
The first thing you’ll need to do when you decide to play Fates is which version to buy. The game has been split into two versions, Pokemon style, and each one tells a different story. The first six chapters of each version are the same, but from there they diverge, changing depending on the choice your character makes. Fates puts you in the role of a young princess or prince — you create your own character — who is torn between two warring factions, one represented by her adoptive family and the other by her birth family. In each version of the game, called Birthright and Conquest, you side with one of those families. (The special edition of the game gets you access to both versions, along with a small but excellent art book.) If you want to play the other campaign afterwards, you can purchase it separately as downloadable content for $19.99.
I’ve played around 15 hours of Birthright so far, and I don’t want it to end. The game tells a complicated, suitably epic story, with a huge cast of characters and plenty of surprises. People fall in love, people die, and there’s lots of betrayal. It’s sort of like an anime Game of Thrones, but without all of the blood and sex.
Sort of like an anime Game of Thrones
The core of the game is its turn-based combat. These chess-like battles have you taking turns with your opponent; first you’ll move all of your characters, and perform whatever attacks or spells you need to, and then your opponent does the same. Rinse and repeat. It’s a style of combat that requires careful thinking and planning, since it’s easy to put yourself in a vulnerable position, and there are lots of interesting wrinkles that make it a lot of fun to play. You’ll have to deal with constantly changing battlefields, for instance, ranging from swamps full of regenerating monsters to snowy mountains that make for slow movement. It’s like chess if the board and pieces changed slightly each time you played.
What’s great about the combat is that, at least for me, it manages to be challenging without being overly frustrating. Battles were never a cakewalk, but they also never felt unfair. (Since this was my first time with the series, I played on the "normal" difficulty setting.) It has just enough strategy to keep you engaged without feeling overwhelming. This is also true of the character progression. Each member of your budding army will gain experience and become stronger the more you use them, and you can outfit them with new weapons and gear to improve their chances in battle. It felt like just the right balance: I had some control over how the characters evolved, but I didn’t have to fuss around too much.
What makes Fire Emblem different than most strategy games is that those characters in your army aren’t just nameless grunts. They’re fleshed out characters who you will grow close to over the course of the game. Outside of the combat sequences, Fates also has a town-building mode, where you’re building a settlement for your ever-growing following. And in addition to creating new structures for buying weapons or cooking food, you can also use this time to have conversations with characters, forming relationships between them. This has a gameplay benefit — as characters become close, they work better together in combat — but it’s also just fun. Though the cast is large, it feels like almost every character has depth, and I kept wanting to push to learn as much as I could about everybody. (On the harder difficulty levels, characters who die in battle stay dead for the rest of the game, which is something I don’t think I could handle.)
The result is a game that feels both epic and personal at the same time. Sure, you’re commanding large armies across a vast continent, but you’re also fighting a war between families, facing off against siblings and friends. It’s a big, engaging story coupled with excellent just-one-more-turn combat that I had a hard time putting down. Even now, writing this article, I’m thinking about the next battle, and what the best strategy is. I may have never played a Fire Emblem game before, but as soon as I’m done Birthright, I’ll be diving right into the other campaign.
Fire Emblem Fates is available on the Nintendo 3DS starting today