Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest review

4 August 2016 by , No Comments

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Once upon a time, there was a franchise called Fire Emblem. It was a rather unique little strategy role-playing game, since every unit you could recruit had a name and a backstory and died for good if you lost them. It was a great series but it never quite made Nintendo’s A-List and, for a time, the low sales seemed to herald the beginning of its end. Deciding to face death with dignity, developers Intelligent Systems said, “Screw it! The franchise is over, so let’s go nuts, throw every mechanic from every game into the melting pot, and go out with a bang!”

That game was Fire Emblem Awakening and, against all the odds, it became a bigger hit than anyone anticipated. While not perfect (because no game is), it was charming enough in all the right ways to become my game of 2013 and I distinctly remember thinking at the time that I’d be okay with this being the final chapter in the series. Fire Emblem had always ventured into such dark territory thanks to stories about murder, betrayal, genocide, and a horrifying amount of child abuse, so maybe seeing it go out with a smile and a salute to the fans that had stayed with it this long was the for the best… except that, when that game came out, all of a sudden the series became more relevant than ever and, with that renewed relevancy came the inevitable demand for more. But what form could that “more” take? I always thought it would be hard to continue the series after Awakening. A spiritual successor, that I could picture, but another game in the franchise? Surely not. You’d have to get pretty damn creative to make a worthy follow-up to a game as big as Awakening. And, well, I’ll be buggered if they didn’t sort of do that.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is a weird game. It’s trying to be its own unique entity but it’s also very obviously meant to be the second entry in a greater pseudo-trilogy. Each Fire Emblem Fates game follows the story of Corrin, a young royal living in the shadowy Kingdom of Nohr. However, one fateful day, Corrin is spirited away to their nation’s rival, the Japanese-inspired Kingdom of Hoshido. After learning that they were originally a scion of Hoshido before Nohr’s wicked King Garon stole them away, Corrin must choose whether to fight for justice and defend their true homeland from the Nohrian invaders or return to the land of darkness to change and redeem it from within. Conquest follows the path of a Corrin who chooses Nohr over Hoshido, a decision that haunts them throughout the story. Hoshido is very clearly portrayed as being “the good guys” throughout the adventure and is led by much more archetypical Fire Emblem heroes, so Corrin’s doubts about their loyalty to Nohr are quite believable and there are some rather well-written moments of character drama throughout the adventure when they clash with their trueborn siblings. However, as it happens, Nohr isn’t quite as monstrous as it’s been made out to be. While the kingdom’s rulers are utterly corrupt, the common people and soldiery are largely honest and decent – and even the ones who aren’t have enough redeeming traits that it’s hard to truly label them villains.

This brings us to what I think is my favourite part about Conquest’s story: the characters. A lot of Fire Emblem games will typically feature at least one noble antagonist who fights against the heroes not out of malice but because they believe in their own cause too much to be swayed from it. Conquest gives us a more up-close and personal look at the sort of drama that such characters have to deal with and, for the most part, it actually works. Corrin’s Nohrian siblings in particular have truly become some of my favourite characters in the franchise and they’re not alone. Because you’re not following the typical Fire Emblem journey, the characters you recruit can afford to be a little different. Instead of a chipper young archer, you have a jaded ex-con with a very dark past. Rather than a boisterous warrior in search of good fights, you have a painfully unlucky young man desperately trying to bring justice and hope into the world. Where once your constant companion was a wise old mentor, now it’s the lost Princess Azura: a mysterious woman who walks a fine line between being a supportive friend and a cynical outsider. While, as is often the case, some characters are better-written than others, the ways in which the cast differs from the norm very much help to make the game feel fresh and new.

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The gameplay is also noticeably different from its predecessor’s. Going back to the series’ roots, Conquest doesn’t allow players many opportunities to train up their characters in-between story missions. You’re expected to fight through the campaign’s chapters back-to-back with little time to breathe. This makes the game significantly more challenging than Awakening, particularly on harder difficulties, but also much more satisfying. Yes, you’ll probably lose half your super squad and need to reset every other chapter two or three times but you’ll appreciate your victory and the lessons you’ve learned all the more when you do finally beat it. As harsh as Conquest can be (and it can be a very harsh game), it is fair. For the most part. Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that the game has cut out a lot of the series’ fluff and put some serious work into mixing up the game’s character classes, forcing players to spend a decent amount of time re-learning how all these units play off against each other. For example, players might have access to bulky Knights who can tank hits from weaker soldiers but Hoshido’s Spear Fighters have the ability to lower their enemy’s defence, so taking them on directly can sometimes be a death sentence. The new Ninja class is a particularly brutal unit that can lower an enemy’s attributes with their shurikens and deal extra damage with poison, which can very easily screw over some of your faster and frailer units. Some old favourites like Pegasus Knights and Swordmasters return but Hoshido has enough new recruits to keep you very much on your toes and while Nohr does have a few newcomers of their own, most of its classes are variations on existing ones. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as these changes have helped to give some a new lease of life. The icing on the strategic cake is the game’s approach to weapons. Whereas once each one had a limited number of uses, now they can be used as many times as desired – but are balanced out by being fewer in number and coming with drawbacks, like Steel weapons requiring more Speed to double-attack with or Brave weapons lowering the user’s defences with each strike. It’s an interesting experiment and while I don’t necessarily think that the series should continue it, I’m glad that they were willing to give it ago.

The campaign’s chapters themselves have also been improved thanks to their unique objectives. While Awakening, like many games in the series, tended to ask players to defeat a boss to beat each chapter, Conquest pays homage to the more experimental games like Blazing Blade and Path of Radiance by providing levels where you have to defend for a certain number of turns, levels where you have to escape an incoming enemy army, and even levels where winning requires using a new gameplay mechanic called “Dragon’s Vein”. Part of the game’s backstory is that the royal families of both nations share blood with the godlike dragons that once ruled over the land and, as a result, each highborn hero can harness the magic in their blood to change certain elements of a map. This can mean drying up a river, melting a glacier, burning down a forest, and even replicating their entire army so that the player has twice as many units to use. If I had to pick the most interesting new element of Conquest, this would be it, hands down. Of course, there are some levels that employ this gimmick better than others – changing the speed of your units or the position of enemies is generally more fun than just building defensive barriers – but the effort put into giving each chapter a unique feel through the Vein’s varying effects should be commended. It’s is a fantastic innovation for the franchise and one that I really hope sticks around because I’d love to see it refined for future installments.

The music is also a thing of beauty. The main theme, Lost in Thoughts All Alone has been pleasantly translated from the original Japanese “Hitori Omou” but the real stars of the musical show are the map and mood themes. Garon’s leitmotif is a wonderfully foreboding anthem worthy of any great tyrant and gameplay themes like Dusk Falls and their battle arrangements are a real treat for the ears. It’s just a shame then that most of the boss themes aren’t quite up to the series’ usual standards and, while the main theme is indeed rather pretty, some may find that it gets re-used just a *bit* too much. Granted, I’m not one of those people but I can see how they might have that complaint. As far as visuals go, however, the game is pretty much a refined Awakening. A lot of that game’s more cartoonish designs have been toned down, helping to bring it in-line with the more realistic designs of the older games. While there’s still the odd weird hairstyle, the overall look of the game is clearer, more distinct, and pretty damn beautiful in parts and it’s also nice to see the old gender barriers being broken down. Female Berserkers and male Troubadours were things I never knew I wanted until I had them and I certainly hope that the franchise never goes back on this.

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I’ve said a lot so far about Conquest being better than Awakening in many, many areas and that might lead you to conclude that I think it’s the superior game. And, well, it kind of is. It has a deeper cast, tighter gameplay, more interesting levels, and a tonne of great new features. What’s not to like? Well, unfortunately, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that stops me from getting quite as excited about this game as I was for the last one. Perhaps it’s the chapters themselves. While they certainly have better goals and offer much more diverse objectives, they’re just not quite as interesting to look at. Awakening took us to icy fortresses, dusty old ruins, volcanoes, a giant tree, and the back of a colossal dragon flying through the air. Conquest is certainly pretty but, once you strip away the Japanese trappings, the locales just aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. The visual style is certainly clearer than before but I can’t help but wonder if that works against it at times. Artist Yusuke Kozaki’s designs always seem better-suited to more over-the-top characters, so it’s just a bit strange to see them in a subtler and more personal tale.

It could just be that Awakening had a better sense of what it wanted to be. It knew that it could be the last game in the franchise, so it ended on the happiest, most gleeful note it could by turning into a fantasy rom-com. The good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and the whole thing was a silly little party that everyone who ever loved the series was invited to. This game, on the other hand, is clearly part of a more experimental project. That’s not a bad thing but it does mean that it lacks the focus of its older sibling, particularly in the storytelling department. The game’s unique selling point is that it’s all about a noble soul desperately trying to revolutionise a corrupt empire from within but despite a promising first half the potential is largely squandered in the second as events take a turn for the moronic and characters start taking impossibly stupid actions with ridiculous consequences that could have been avoided if they’d just calmed down and thought about things.

It’s also possible that the game’s difficulty has complicated my relationship with it. See, I played on Hard mode, which most definitely proved to be a fantastic challenge for the first two thirds or so and showed me just how much life and innovation Fire Emblem still had in it. Sometimes I’d get a mission that felt completely unfair but, for the most part, I did feel like my failures were the result of human error rather than a lack of game balancing. It was only when I got to the twentieth map or so that alarm bells started to go off in my head and I realised that we were hurtling towards gameplay that hadn’t been designed to challenge the player so much as it had outright handicap them, culminating in a final chapter that didn’t have a pre-battle save point. This meant that if I failed to clear the game I’d have to replay the last two missions back-to-back without a checkpoint. Ridiculous. Archers that can trade positions with one of your units on a map, powerful winds that blow units across the field, these are things that offer challenges and force you to mix up your strategy. Making you waste time like this is just annoying and it’s what ultimately led to me abandoning my “no deaths” run out of sheer frustration.

I’m rather glad that I don’t give review scores because Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest would be hard for me to rate properly. For what it’s worth, it’s a vast improvement over Awakening as far as gameplay goes. Alas though, my fear that a post-Awakening Fire Emblem would struggle to be its own thing turned out to be right on the money. The story is truly quite bad despite the reasonably high quality of dialogue and the final act completely drops the ball in regards to providing a fair challenge. The phrase, “Growing pains” comes to mind. It’s great to see this franchise messing about with new ideas again and enough of them work that my faith in the games having a future has been restored but it clearly needs a bit more time to find its feet again before taking the next step forward.

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