What would you choose? The family and siblings you've grown up with and known for as long as you can remember or your family by birth, a family you were taken from at an early age and one that from the looks of it appear a lot more altruistic on the whole.
In Fire Emblem Fates you play Corrin (or any other name you pick), prince or princess (your choice) of Nohr or Hoshido (also your choice). Nohr is the kingdom you've grown up in, apparently mostly in isolation, but you do know your many siblings and they see you as one of them. Hoshido on the other hand seems to welcome you with open arms (for the most part, some siblings are a bit suspicious). Unknowingly you've been equipped with a bomb in the shape of a sword by the Nohr ruler, your adopted father, King Garon. The Hoshidan queen (your birthmother) sacrifices her life in order to save you from the blast, and you're faced with a tough decision. Do you side with the family you know, or the one who has missed you all these years?
The structure of Fire Emblem Fates is rather unique. There are three campaigns, two that are available at retail as separate packages, and one that's a DLC. Each of the two retail campaigns (covered in this review) are full length games, but they also share a prologue (6 chapters) and some of the base features, such as duel mode. They're not two separate games as such, but they are very different and they provide you with two entirely separate plots depending on what side of the conflict you choose. But it's not just the story that's different, the two campaign offer two distinct flavours of Fire Emblem, one more old school, the other with more options, and the characters you get to control in each campaign aren't mirrored versions of each other either. This is very much two entirely different experiences. Fans will likely want to play both (and perhaps even more so the third DLC campaign that lets you opt out of picking a side), but if your looking for a strategy-RPG and you're not to looking for three, you can pick up Birthright or Conquest and get a full experience.
Birthright sees Corrin picking her family by birth, the kingdom of Hoshido. Objectively speaking most players will likely want to play this as their first choice as Hoshido seems the much more benevolent empire, as opposed to Nohr where the warmongering King Garon just used you as a walking bomb to try and bring about war. Birthright offers a few more options to the player, including infinite Challenges that will let you level up your group of characters and thus ease the difficulty somewhat. However, don't make the mistake of thinking this is an easy campaign, as there are some massive difficulty spikes in there and level alone won't see you ease your way through Birthright.
Conquest, on the other hand, sees you side with Nohr, and while King Garon doesn't seem the most caring parent, your brothers and sisters are on your side as you try and stand up for what's good in an empire that appears thoroughly corrupted by evil. In terms of gameplay, there are no Challenges in Conquest, so you'll need to make smart use of the missions there are in order to level up the most useful units, the ones you'll want to take along for the entire campaign. We'd also say that in general there are some more interesting quest designs in Conquest.
The gameplay is largely intact from previous games. You guide a group of units through maps with enemies turn by turn, paying close attention to the range of your enemies in order to bait them to make foolish attacks on superior units and leave your less apt ones alone. The battles themselves are also turn-based, where the aggressor gets the first attack and depending on the weapons you may one or two stabs. Nearby units will offer support (an extra somewhat weak attack if that unit has a weapon), and you can also pair up two units and have them move as one (increasing defense, while also allowing say a flying unit to transport one that cannot fly).
You still have to consider the weapon triangle of sword, axe and lance, with magic and arrows sprinkled on top of that for good measure. It's not strictly the same as before, but it's easy enough to slip into as you'll soon notice an indicator showing whether the match up is beneficial. There are healers, who are rather delicate and won't last long in combat, there are flying units that you'll need to keep away from any archers, and there are armoured units that are best dealt with using appropriate gear (there are special weapons that are more effective against certain types of enemies). Then there are dragon and beast forms of certain characters. There are turrets to man in some maps. There are dragon veins that characters of royal blood can manipulate giving you an advantage or simply changing the terrain (flooding moats with water, freezing water, or simply dealing damage to enemies in a certain area). The latter does open up some interesting strategies in places, but for the most part it doesn't really make a huge difference.
Song has a major role as well, and Azura, who has the opposite predicament to yours as she's a Nohr princess kidnapped by Hoshido (even if she's fairly free and doesn't seem to mind it too much), is an interesting character. Her singing will grant another character a second move in a round, and this is naturally a key ability as you take on certain boss characters, or if you need to heal two characters with one healer in one round, or need an extra move to recover from a bad move. A seemingly weak character at first glance, but one that managed properly can be key, much like a pawn turned queen in chess.
For fans of the series a major change is that there is no weapon degradation (although rods still come with a limited number of uses). It means you'll have to micromanage one less aspect (although there are new aspects to micromanage in its stead), but it also means you're going to have to sell off a lot of weaponry as you progress through the game and the economy doesn't seem quite as balanced (getting 5000 golds from an enemy, means very little part way into the game). It may be a result of how we chose to play the game (i.e. wanting to keep the entire cast alive, and waiting to use the all powerful class upgrades - Master Seals - until our characters had reached level 20), but the campaigns certainly come equipped with some difficulty spikes. For instance, as early as in chapter 12 in the Birthright Campaign you're going to face a rather difficult scenario. It's not a straight forward "rout all units" type of scenario, instead you'll need to try and keep your units safe while Corrin escapes. Losing a unit here due to carelessness is very easy, and there are also extremely powerful units in this scenario that you're not equipped to take on just yet. Getting all units safely through this chapter took some persistence on our part.
Speaking of difficulty, Fire Emblem Fates is a game that will test your strategy skills and your patience. There are three difficulty levels, and keeping the entire cast alive even on normal does require a good strategist. Of course, that's if you opt for permadeath (classic mode). There is also a Casual mode where fallen characters are revived after each mission, or Phoenix where fallen characters bounce back the next turn. It should be said that some of the charm of Fire Emblem is removed if you opt to go with Casual or Phoenix rules, and once you turn down the difficulty you can't switch it back up. To be perfectly honest, we're not sure the new Phoenix mode is something that should have been added, as the quick revives makes strategy a bit pointless.
In addition to what's there in the realm of Nohr and Hoshido, there's the Castle. Located in the dragon realm, this lets you manage relationships, buy items and weapons, but also access streetpass features and the like. It's a neat little addition to what's already a game full of content. It should also be noted that the Birthright and Conquest versions of the Castle differ quite a bit in what they allow you to do. So once again the content is not the same across the two versions.
While we love Fire Emblem and appreciate much of the dialogue, with Fire Emblem Fates the sheer amount of dialogue is, simply put, overwhelming. Much of it is silly and unnecessary and it actually distracts from the main plot. It feels as if every single character needs to have a say, and then there's the dialogue that's tied to relationship levels, the rather chatty paralogue missions, how your group enjoys the meal you cooked them (one of the things you can do in your Castle), short exchanges in the castle grounds, and well, there's dialogue pretty much everywhere you turn. With so many characters and so much dialogue it's hard to keep track of everything, and in the end you'll likely skip through a great deal of it. It's a shame as while the story is a bit formulaic, the approach of two (actually three) campaigns in parallel does offer a lot of potential. It feels as if this rather interesting premise would have been better served with a more succinct and focused narrative.
We realise that this expanded story and dialogue is part of one of the game's most appealing aspects, namely the meta game that involves relationships between characters and them having children. This is something that you'll need multiple play-throughs to fully explore (as you'd expect), and there is tremendous depth to be had here (not just what's explored in the Paralogues, but even in terms of alternate endings). Anyway, you can skip the dialogue and still get the gist of the story, so perhaps it's not of major concern.
There's tremendous lasting appeal here. If you feel finished with one campaign, there are two more to pick up, and even just the base pack with either Birthright or Conquest offers more gameplay than you've been treated to in the past with a Fire Emblem title. Generally speaking Birthright offers the more appealing package as it eases some of difficulty thanks to the infinite amount of challenge maps you can use to level up the characters, and it is certainly easier to side with Hoshido, at least in the early part of the game. Of course, siding with Nohr doesn't mean you play as an evil prince or princess, Corrin seeks justice and fairness regardless, but you'll still go up against Hoshido at times. The stories of both campaigns are lengthy, almost 30 missions, and on top of that there's all the side content - amounting to easily 20 hours per game. Probably more if you want to keep everyone alive in classic mode.
We could probably have spent even more words telling you about what's on offer in Fire Emblem Fates, and we'll no doubt spend countless hours more in the game as we still have some missions left in Conquest and then need to take on what promises to be an interesting DLC campaign in Revelations. This is another great outing for the series.