Every now and then, a game is released that comes in two different versions. The most common case of this are the Pokemon titles such as Red and Blue or Sun and Moon where the two games are essentially the same game with only a few things shifted around. No matter which version you pick, you are still getting essentially the same experience. Fire Emblem Fates, however, uses the second kind of approach to this style, releasing two games that use the same game engine but offer different events and story lines.
Fire Emblem Fates asks the player to create a character who is either the prince or princess of Nohr, a kingdom styled to resemble a fantasy take on medieval Europe. In the early part of the game, that character’s history is revealed, their ancestry actually belonging to the Japanese-inspired kingdom of Hoshido from which they were kidnapped as a child. Things reach the diverging point pretty quickly as you the player are asked to choose your allegiance in the war between these two kingdoms, but depending on the version you selected, you have already made your choice. If you wish to stick with your blood relatives, your story is told in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, but if you want to swear allegiance to the family that raised you, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is your version of choice and the one that we will be taking a look at here. Although the opening doesn’t play too differently between the games, when you make this decision, you are finally getting into the meat of what makes these two games different. Conquest focuses on you trying to reform the empire from within, as Nohr is quite obviously corrupt but not entirely irredeemable. On this path you’ll meet many good soldiers who swear loyalty to Nohr just like you, but you’ll also face others more similar in thought to the cruel king who carry out his dirty work. Although you have no real say in how the story unfolds, the plot involves you trying to balance staying within the good graces of the kingdom to be able to eventually change it for the better but having to face the difficult realities of fighting a war and quashing rebellions. Even though the game is split across two versions and has a third “true” story through the Revelations DLC, Conquest still manages to build a solid albeit simplistic story that doesn’t feel shortchanged just to push the purchase of the other versions… although it does sort of nudge you towards them with certain plot elements and dialog choices.
Outside of the story differences, Conquest is billed as the more difficult version, and while I have not played Birthright to judge, I can at least attest that the game is certainly challenging enough to potentially earn such a distinction. Conquest follows the same RPG battle style of most Fire Emblem titles, although elements like weapon durability have been mostly dropped. A large map is divided into invisible squares which are used to indicate how far a soldier can move per turn and their attack range. The player and the enemy will alternate turns, each side able to move each of their units once before turning control over to the opposition. When battles between units do take place, both sides of the confrontation get a chance to strike. Weapon choice, stats, and odds will determine how the battle goes, with weapon weaknesses determining who has the upper hand and accuracy potentially saving or dooming a certain battle. However, there is also the chance of critical hits happening, which dissolves away some of the tactical side of things just for the sake of a random element.
A brief aside, but I feel critical hits bog down a lot of strategy games since they punish the players who have done all they can to learn the mechanics and play intelligently. If it was knowing not to attack an enemy who has a 35% crit chance I could understand the presence of such a mechanic, but when enemies routinely ruined my plans with 1% or 3% chances of just killing my unit and my crits mostly seem to come when the enemy was already guaranteed dead, it mostly just seemed like a way to make me have to reset after a carefully laid plan is doomed by something I couldn’t have planned for. You can’t even be overly careful to avoid even the slightest chance of a crit in some areas because of timed challenges or the inevitability of enemies approaching to hit you anyway. I wouldn’t say that the presence of critical hits is something that makes the game worse, it’s just something that must be begrudgingly accepted since it seems to be the one thing the Fire Emblem developers won’t back down on. The game certainly has enough ways to throw in surprises without crits that make for more interesting strategic challenges such as reinforcements joining the fight and the abilities that can shift certain confrontations, but I feel having the option to remove crits would have been a bit better than the ways Conquest tries to alleviate its difficulty. In the standard version of Conquest, if you lose a soldier in battle, they are dead forever (save for some story characters who scamper off so they don’t miss their cues later), but Conquest also has two other modes on offer for players afraid to lose units, something that plays into the game’s attempts to establish your units as characters as well as the limited amount the game gives you. One mode will bring back any unit who died in battle after you have won, while the other mode, Phoenix Mode, seems a bit absurd in that units revive the turn after they die, which feels like a bridge too far in simplifying the game. There are also traditional difficulty settings on top of these modes, so if you are afraid Conquest might put you off with its harder battles, its difficulty can be alleviated a tad so you don’t have to miss out.
Outside of the basic pieces of combat, Conquest also introduces Dragon Veins, tiles that can only be activated by certain characters that can change the battlefield or the capabilities of certain characters. Combat is already based around the proper positioning of units so that stronger units can absorb blows and weaker units can strike from safety, so adding Dragon Veins can lead to more control over the battlefield to further increase your ability to strategize. Many areas are hostile on their own, requiring a different form of planning to avoid hazards and ambushes, and the game does a pretty good job of mixing up the layouts of the maps and enemies so that few battles feel the same. You must be tactical to succeed and sometimes might have to make sacrifices to win the battle, which is where the Fire Emblem style of gameplay really shines. Conquest does not really give you many ways to level up and improve your units outside of its main story missions, meaning that if you have permadeath on and aren’t going reset when you lose a unit, you can end up in a bit of a jam. However, the game does give you a few units like Xander and Camilla who are disproportionately strong compared to most units, so you aren’t always walking a tight rope of potentially being screwed over by a loss.
One thing the game does give you outside of the story missions that can help you improve is the My Castle feature. Between battles, the player can work on building a castle, establishing helpful shops and buildings to better your units or just give you something outside of constant battling to do. That doesn’t mean the castle doesn’t get involved in battles though, as the game throws a few invasions at you and you can go online to battle friends and strangers in their castle or yours for potential prizes. You can even get new units this way, and the My Castle feature adds a bit of longevity to the game outside of the main story as you can continue building up and acquiring characters. The My Castle feature also has some areas that play into a secondary aspect of Fire Emblem that has been rising in popularity in recent titles: matchmaking. On the battlefield, units that fight alongside each other will gradually begin to bond, unlocking support conversations that grow their relationship and make them more effective when they are in combat together. If they do this enough times, they can eventually marry and potentially even have a child, who, through time shenanigans, will join your army with the combined skills of their progenitors. You can choose to view marriage as a mechanical feat to make better babies or through an emotional angle based on who you want to see together, but the support conversations do play a bit into some of the weaker writing of Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest.
Fire Emblem Fates throws a lot of characters at you with varying classes and personalities, and when it’s telling the main story, characters seem to be competently written for the most part and have some depth to them even if the story itself is pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, when the characters speak as they level up or during the support conversations with other characters, it feels like the writers had to boil down every character to one or two personality traits and have a requisite hidden depth for them to reveal to characters they’ve bonded more strongly with. We have Nyx who either talks about fortune-telling or whines about looking like a kid, we’ve got Keaton who is proud and is obsessed with his weird trashy treasures, Elise who acts like a kid all the time, Effie who is all about being absurdly strong and hungry, and so on. Some characters manage to carry this well though, with Arthur’s bad luck and focus on justice worming into conversations more easily and Niles’s standoffish demeanor and saucy tongue opening him up to a bit more variety in how its expressed. Understandably, it can be hard to write compelling characters who might not only die at any time but also have to find something to talk about with other members of the large cast, but then the game sometimes chickens out entirely and just limits who the characters can even bond with. I would prefer better conversations over more abundant ones, but it also means they miss out on the battle synergy the support conversations unlock, meaning units like Gunter and Shura can’t ever become better companions for anyone outside the player avatar despite having a few other characters they could be compatible with. When certain characters intersect with the plot they seem like proper characters, but the reduction of personality seen in these side conversations is a bit of a shame and holds back one of the more interesting aspects of the game’s support system.
THE VERDICT: Even with all my complaints on critical hit chances and flat characters, I don’t feel like these things weigh the game down so much as exist as areas of improvement. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest puts up a good fight, with battles that require you to lay out mental plans as if you were a proper general rather than just some person playing a game, and this game will certainly punish you for trying to do things off the cuff. When I lost due to my own failure, I would reconsider my approach and learn from my mistakes, which is perhaps why it stung when something random ended my battle rather than something I could have planned around. It’s not unlikely you’ll grow a strong stable of warriors who you come to like even if their simple personalities might make you roll your eyes, and if you aren’t interested in the matchmaking side of growing your armies, it’s not hard to skip so you can get back into the battle side of things.
And so, I give Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest for the Nintendo 3DS…
A GREAT rating. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is a game that pushes you hard, but that’s what makes overcoming the battles satisfying. Even when things seemed tipped against you, sometimes losing is the best way of learning how you were meant to do it in the first place. That can lead to a lot of time sinks, especially with random elements sabotaging even the best laid plans, but overcoming a difficult map or taking down a formidable boss doesn’t lose its luster right up until the end. While some characters are a bit flat or even irritating, you can develop an army of characters who are both capable and endearing for the most part, even if the game doesn’t give you much room for trying to better yourself outside the main game. The My Castle feature is a nice touch at least, adding some longevity and return value to an otherwise linear experience. I do feel Conquest could have come out better if it wasn’t just a piece of a larger puzzle, but it thankfully doesn’t feel empty even with the knowledge there are two other similar Fire Emblem games out there with one even being billed as the “correct” option. If you want to stick with the family that raised you and take down the bad empire from the inside, Conquest’s plot treats that storyline as a valid option despite being cheated of some of the resolution that was saved for Revelations.
The development team having to split their attention between three versions of the game does mean the small things in Conquest could use a bit more tinkering with, but Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest still puts in a powerful performance, with some excellent Fire Emblem gameplay that usually does a fairly good job of balancing the difficult with the fair. With a bit more to do and some more complexity in the plot and characters, Conquest might have been able to stand on its own, but it’s still a fine choice if you only want to play one Fates title.