Fire Emblem is 26 years old. This means that, excluding certain Nintendo sacred cows (Mario, Zelda, Metroid) and some of gaming's most known and revered franchises (Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest), this is one of the most veteran series there are. That's a lot of years for a series that has always been, so to speak, not quite mainstream. An even greater feat if we take into account the current situation of the industry, where video game production costs led us to see how the most of big developers play it safe and risk very little. We shouldn't forget that Shinji Hatano, producer of the series, once admitted that if Fire Emblem: Awakening didn't brake the 250,000 copies sold globally, it would have meant the end for the series.
It would be alarming to think about the consequences of this statement if it wasn't something retrospective: Awakening wasn't only one of the best and more surprising games of the first half in the life of Nintendo 3DS, but also became the best-selling instalment in franchise history (likely over 2 million copies have been sold to date). And thus, the continuation of the series was ensured.
The success also paved the road for an ambitious follow-up. While many people insist on comparing it with Pokémon's dual releases, we find the analogy with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages more suitable. Fire Emblem Fates comes to retailers split into two completely different titles: Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright and Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest. They are two independent games that follow the same basic setup from totally opposed points of view. Individually, each one offers the experience of a full game, and, besides, the owners of any of the two will have access to Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation, available only if you download it from the Nintendo eShop or in the already sold out special edition of the game.
Last week we had our first proper hands-on time with Fire Emblem Fates and it's difficult not to think about the metamorphosis experienced by this long-lived franchise, its transformation from cocoon to butterfly. In here, Intelligent Systems has spread the wings of their own sacred cow and, nowadays, it's hard to distinguish the elements we see today from its archaic origins. Nintendo has been in charge of this, making the universe visible through different collaborations in other games (Monster Hunter Generations, Project X Zone 2, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE) and several Amiibo (Mario, Zelda and Fire Emblem are the Nintendo series that offer the most figurines). In other words, Fire Emblem is already a genuine triple-A production.
Throughout the nearly two hours that we spent with the game at Nintendo's showroom in Madrid, we constantly felt that in Fates, everything is more and better. The characters' editing tool itself is a great hint of their intentions, and it increases the possibilities that we had already seen in Awakening, with more customisation options of the main character, from the appearance to their strengths and weaknesses. They have also included three difficulty levels (easy, normal and hard) and three modes: Casual, where the defeat of an ally doesn't mean their permanent death; Phoenix, that will allow our allies to come back to the combat after a number of missed battles, or the already known Classic mode, where the defeat of our allies means terrible permadeath.
We start up the game. A battlefield serves as tutorial and starting point of the plot. Our character is called Corrin, he or she (you get to pick their gender) suffers from amnesia and is in the middle of a battle between the two main factions of the game, the kingdom of Nohr and the kingdom of Hoshido. Fighting for Hoshido, we soon realise that everybody on the other side seems to have a deep sympathy toward our character. Throughout the first six chapters Fire Emblem Fates brings us into Corrin's past and the circumstances that led them to this battle, in which, as players, we had to make one of the hardest decisions we had ever made in any video game: fighting for the army of our siblings by blood from the kingdom of Hoshido, the ones we shared a huge personal tragedy with; or fighting for the step siblings from Nohr, those we were brought up with and the only ones we've known as siblings in our life.
The consequences of this decision will determine the rest of our experience: the first will bring us to Birthright, a closer experience to the one we enjoyed in Awakening, where we have more control over the progress of the characters and their upgrades. However, if we choose to fight for the people of Nohr, we'll start the plot of Conquest, where we'll find a darker and more urgent plot, where the progression of the characters is slower and the leisurely pace of the strategy (not so much the power of our fighters) will be essential to winning slightly more difficult battles than what we're used to seeing in this saga. Omar Álvarez, Nintendo's rep for the specialist press, told us that no-one (except ourselves) had chosen the path of fighting for Nohr, because of the dark and vengeful nuance of its history. Maybe this is why: the first episode with Nohr forces is called "Embrace the darkness".
These initial episodes are also useful in letting us have a look at several interesting new features. The most striking is the use of the dragon power through the Dragon Veins, which will allow us to transform elements on the battlefield during the game. As far as we've played, we drained a riverbed, we moved away the debris of a room, invoked a healing circle, removed hills that the enemies used as defensive cover, and built bridges over abysses so that we could cross. All this provides an additional strategy component to the battles: only those with dragon blood in their veins can use these circles, so you have to know how to control them on the battlefield and use this ability in the moment that benefits your army the most.
We also got to know some of the new classes and transformations, such as the singer, which allowed us to add an additional turn to one of our characters; or the transformation into a dragon, much more powerful than the one we had in the previous instalments with the lagul race, that could also turn into different beasts. These new classes come together with a new system of weapons, where the limited uses found in the previous instalments of the saga is gone. Now we can use a weapon as many times as we want to, but it's true that the classic system of Sword, Spear and Axe widens as we've already said in our changes and new features preview.
Another new thing that we could try out at the beginning of Episode 7 is the "My Castle" mode, where for the first time in the saga, we can move freely, without turns. At the very start of the game we'll find out that one of the main characters is a dragon. Lilith will guide us to the Astral Plane, a parallel dimension where the original dragons lived. The place is now empty, and we take advantage of this fact to build our operating base there. "My Castle" allows us to build a customised base where we can set up several stores and barracks to train units. We can also train our allied dragon to help us during the battles to defend the castle. An interesting addition that will take advantage of the online features of the game.
However, the thing that surprised us the most in this mode lets us get our camera closer to our character and see our castle in 3D. This is further proof that shows us how comfortable Intelligent Systems is with the graphics engine of the game. Together with the amazing animated videos, we find better detailed environments, completely recreated in 3D, with tons of details during the battle in order to create a greater sense of immersion. For instance, when a battle is ongoing, the camera goes down directly to the exact point in the battlefield. They're also adding the possibility of controlling the camera during battles, and also the pace of the battles. All this with the objective that we follow the best battles from the angle we like the most and we share them on Miiverse or the Internet.
Ultimately, the two hours that we could dedicate to Fire Emblem Fates, left us wanting more, much more. Intelligent Systems confirms once again their expertise in this area. We have to spend more time investigating the respective plots of Birthright, Conquest and Revelation, but if they develop as well as the beginning of the game, we might be lucky again. We're looking forward to seeing more of the game in May 20th in order to fight with Corrin, no matter the side we choose to support!