Fire Emblem Fates
Spoiler Warning: Though Fates may be over two years old at this point, both the main article and response contain a significant discussion of story elements that may be considered spoilers for all three routes. The beginning and end of discussion related to spoilers are marked below out of an abundance of caution.
While Awakening was a huge success for Nintendo, it was not beyond reproach. Specifically, the designers took the criticisms of Awakening‘s story to heart and brought in Shin Kibayshi, a manga writer and novelist, to craft the story of Fire Emblem Fates. This collaboration resulted in an ambitious project where the story would be split into three different paths: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. The story stars Corrin (this game’s customizable avatar), a member of the Hoshido royal family who, as a member of a peace delegation, watches as their father is killed and Corrin is taken hostage by the King of Nohr, Garon. Corrin is raised as a member of the Nohr royal family and now as an adult, Corrin must choose between the birth family, the family that raised them, or strike out on a third path separate from the two families to solve the conflict between the two nations.
Fire Emblem Fates has a number of ideas that are interesting in isolation but that don’t quite pay off when they are combined together with the story. Take the structure of splitting the story into three different parts. This has been seen as a money grab, but I tend to take the designers stated goal at face value: to create a game for less experienced players in the form of Birthright, one for series veterans looking for a challenge in Conquest, and a DLC story that could be played by both in Revelations. If Nintendo was truly out for cash, there are better ways to get a return on investment than creating essentially three separate games that don’t have a ton of overlap.
The problem I had with this setup was restraining myself from playing Birthright. Birthright was easy with plenty of side missions available for grinding experience. Also, the map and mission design was straightforward, with “defeat the boss” or “defeat everyone” objectives. This is great for players new to the series or not as fond of difficult strategy games, but for series veterans it turned into fifty hours of tedium before getting to the real gameplay in Conquest. It’s a shame because the eastern style of Hoshido was interesting and I generally liked the characters, but the map design and objectives were too simplistic to satisfy. In retrospect, I should have skipped Birthright and just played Conquest; the reduction in playtime probably would have left me less cranky with the overall experience. However, as a series fan, how are you supposed to just ignore a huge chunk of the story? That is the problem with this setup. Certainly, I’m partially to blame for this problem, but how realistic is it that fans will skip part of the story because the gameplay isn’t tuned for them? Also, Intelligent Systems did such a good job tugging at my heartstrings with the prologue, I had to see what happened with the Hoshido clan.
Another interesting idea that didn’t quite fit with the rest of the game was the My Castle feature. Combining bits of Animal Crossing with asynchronous multiplayer, players could design a castle for friends and others online to see. As part of the design, players could add defensive emplacements and online players could storm the castle, receiving items if successful and the castle owner getting a bonus if not. It was curious to add a social component to an otherwise single-player experience and the mechanic itself was fine, but it got shoehorned into the story through the magic of alternate dimensions, so the castle could be with you wherever you were in the game. Maybe this is a small gripe, but I’m tipping my hand at the bigger problem that got shoehorned into the story: the children.
Expanded support conversations, marriage, and the resulting children was one of the most popular aspects of Awakening, so it was inevitable that it would make a return in Fates. However, the way the plot was twisted to get adult children to fight in the party was just too tenuous. In Fates, when characters get married and have kids, the parents decide it’s too dangerous in the current world to protect them, so the children are sent to an alternate dimension where they will be safe. Conveniently, time runs faster in these alternate dimensions, so the kids become fully-grown immediately. Then demons invade these dimensions, so the fully-grown kids must come to the main dimension to live and fight with their parents. It’s not to say that Awakening‘s explanation for the kids is substantially different, it also relies on time travel/dimension hopping. The difference is that, at some point, shouldn’t the parents in Fates clue into the idea that the alternate dimensions the kids are being sent to aren’t safe? If they aren’t safe, what is the point of sending them in the first place? I’m sure I should just turn my brain off and let it go, but this sort of silliness bugged me to no end and highlighted how children and the My Castle weren’t included in service of the story, but instead, the story was manipulated to accommodate these elements.
I don’t want to be too negative about Fates, as there were a lot of good design decisions. The dropping of weapon degradation, which had been part of the series for quite some time, was a choice I was nervous hearing about but proved to be a great decision. I’m not sure that many people really want to manage the number of uses a weapon has left and save that really good sword for boss fights. I also think Conquest, and to a lesser extent Revelations, has the best map design of any Fire Emblem game I’ve played. There were some well-designed maps and I think those routes had a good variety of mission types as well as an interesting variety of locales.
Dragon Veins were another great addition to the game. This system, available to characters who were members of the royal families, allowed the player to manipulate the map by moving a member of the royal family onto a marked square. These actions would be contextual depending on the map; they might freeze a lake, create an alternate bridge across a crevasse, or collapse walls that enemies were hiding behind. I especially liked that enemies could use Dragon Veins against players and that the use of Dragon Veins had a risk versus reward element incorporated within them. For example, a Dragon Vein near the start of a mission might allow you to freeze a lake and flank enemy defensive positions situated around the shore, but that would also allow enemy forces stationed on the far side of the lake to march across and immediately harass your characters. I love those sorts of strategic choices in an RPG.
While the combat mechanics were solid in Conquest and Revelations, the story doesn’t hold up its part of the bargain in these routes. In particular, the story in the Conquest arc undermined the characters on the Nohr side and lead to me not enjoying them as much as the Hoshido clan. It was an interesting turn having the Corrin choose to fight for the “evil” side and attempt to take King Garon down from within. This should have been an interesting look at compromising morals to achieve a greater good. Unfortunately, the story always backed away from the main character being tested at the last moment. At Fort Jinya, Corrin is ordered to take out Hoshido forces and, rather than kill everyone, Corrin forces them to surrender. This is immediately undermined by Iago — King Garon’s tactician — who comes along and slaughters everyone anyway. This happens again when Corrin is ordered by King Garon to execute Ryoma after defeating him in a duel, but Ryoma performs seppuku to spare Corrin the task. I understand that the designers want to protect the main character from doing anything truly horrible so that the mass audience of these games won’t turn on Corrin. However, I felt that it stretched belief that King Garon, a character who is fine slaughtering people left and right and who spends the entire game threatening to kill you if you don’t obey, just lets Corrin get away without participating in the slaughter.
I think the designers were also trying to delve into the conflict between duty to family and country versus doing what is morally right. There are several times that the Nohr family members wave away the King’s worst offenses, usually along the lines that he is doing what is necessary to defend the country. This is a common ethical conflict that soldiers have dealt with since time immemorial. There are plenty of instances in history where people have served in armies because of duty to country — or because they would be jailed or worse if they didn’t — and it’s difficult to condemn a footsoldier for crimes that are committed based on the decisions of political leaders. However, the cast of characters from Nohr aren’t exactly common foot soldiers. Xander and the other family members are the leaders of the army and are responsible for carrying out Garon’s orders. Because of this dynamic, I think the designers went too far in making Garon evil. Garon was evil for evil’s sake in much of Conquest — lots of innocent bystanders were slaughtered — and I think this undermined the rest of the Nohr cast. Garon was so evil that it made the Nohr cast look bad because they didn’t do a better job of standing up to him. I think that is why I didn’t mesh with the Nohr characters that well.
That leaves the third path, Revelations, which was a perfectly good balance gameplay-wise between Birthright and Conquest, but the revelations — see what they did there — at the beginning soured me on the entire Fates experience. On this path, Corrin rejects both families and runs off with Azura to forge a different way of settling the conflict between Nohr and Hoshido. She takes Corrin, via jumping into the Bottomless Canyon, to the kingdom of Valla where Azura reveals that the true enemy is the ruler of Valla, the dragon Anankos. He has been manipulating the conflict between Hoshido and Nohr all along, but Azura “couldn’t” tell the characters in the other two paths because of a curse where anyone who speaks of Valla outside of the kingdom will disappear. Strangely, it only occurred to Azura in the Revelations timeline that she could bring characters to Valla and explain the curse. It’s so frustrating to get to the final DLC route and discover that the other two routes didn’t need to occur if Azura would have explained what was really going on.
END SPOILER DISCUSSION
Now that I’m a bit removed from the release of Fates, I don’t have as much annoyance with it as I did in the aftermath of playing it. Looking back, there are more positives in the games than I was focusing on at the time. I continue to believe that Conquest has the best map design in the series and the games had a number of great ideas, even if they didn’t fit together in a way that satisfied me. I appreciate that even when Intelligent Systems is being cautious in one respect, like keeping marriage and children from Awakening, they continue to take risks in other areas, like making three routes with an interconnecting narrative. Fates isn’t my favorite Fire Emblem, but it’s still a really interesting experience.
Oh, Fire Emblem Fates. In an effort to pander to everyone, it’s a game (or set of three games) that is less than the sum of its parts. I was worried when it was first announced that Fates would be comprised of three games. It seemed like the resources would be stretched too thin, but I tried to stay hopeful. I do enjoy the games, but they have a lot of problems, many of which you identified and that I agree with. I also feel that Birthright is the dullest of the lot. I finished both Conquest and Revelation fairly quickly, but Birthright felt like a real slog despite being about the same length. One of my biggest issues with Fates, though, is wasted potential. I would have loved to see a focus on either Conquest or Revelation as the true next game after Awakening. The gameplay in these two campaigns, especially in Conquest, is fantastic, and while I do think the stories in Fates are better than Awakening‘s, they certainly need a lot of work. There is a good plot here, but it is stretched thin and obscured by contrivances and characters that could have been written better. It is also telling how much more I like Awakening‘s characters, or even how much I like Shadows of Valentia‘s cast, over Fates‘.
What’s especially sad about the story is how some of the most important bits of it are hidden or locked behind DLC. There is a room in My Castle that contains messages written in code called the Ancient Texts. There is a handy Rosetta Stone-like monument to translate them, but I imagine a lot of people skipped them — I know I did at first. Among other things, these monuments reveal that in the distant past, the world was ruled by the twelve First Dragons. They went to war with each other and used humans as their pawns. However, they started to go mad and degenerate into beasts (a common problem in Fire Emblem), so the dragons became spirits and left the physical realm behind. Anankos is one of the few First Dragons that didn’t ascend, and thus his hatred for humans is due in large part to his degeneration.
The Hidden Truths DLC maps went into further detail on Anankos’ backstory. Anankos loved humans and stayed out of the war with the other First Dragons. He was especially close to the kingdom of Valla and stayed there to act as a figurehead. Over time he felt himself being compelled by his base instincts and he feared that he would become a monster. Thus, he wrote songs that would be able to pacify him and gave the royal family of Valla a piece of his dragonstone, which is now Azura’s pendant. However, even the songs and pendant became unable to quell him and he eventually killed the king. Horrified at what he had done, Anankos tore off a part of his soul, which took a human form and eventually became Corrin/the Avatar’s father. The dragon Anankos completely succumbed to his madness and took over and cursed Valla, leading to the events of the game. While Revelation does state that Anankos went mad, it barely touches upon how tragic of a character he is, and he just comes across as a big evil dragon that wants humans to suffer. It would have been really nice to learn about all of this during the actual main story.
END SPOILER DISCUSSION
Another thing that bothers me to no end and almost soured me on Fates is the return of the marriage and children mechanics. Before Fates‘ release, I saw people on the Internet contemplate on whether these mechanics would return or how they would be incorporated into the story. I loved playing matchmaker and creating families in Awakening, but I thought it would get really old, really fast if this feature kept coming back. I also thought that the explanation for having the children fight alongside their parents would be difficult, or future games would have to resort to Genealogy of the Holy War‘s time skip. My worst fears came to pass when not only did marriage and children come back, but the justification given for the children’s existence was mindbogglingly stupid.
Never mind at how the parents didn’t realize that the Deeprealms weren’t safe; the numerous contrivances that would have to happen to allow the parents to have these kids are just too much for me to overlook. After a couple reaches S rank and gets married, they appear to almost immediately conceive a child. Do these couples not only send their children to the Deeprealms, but stay there themselves for nine months as well so that events in-universe aren’t stretched out that much as well? Chapters only seem to be separated by days or weeks, not several months! Then factor in couples marrying and having kids at different times, and you get this absurd image of characters going off to the Deeprealms to have their kids and coming back almost as quickly while the army is marching across the continent. In Awakening, the second generation characters are explicitly stated not to really be the parents’ children, but alternate universe versions of the kids they will have. The couples are not getting pregnant and giving birth during the campaign. It’s way too much of a suspension of disbelief for me.
One thing I am glad for is that while the Astral Plane/My Castle does get an in-story explanation, it only shows up once and never again after that. The children in Fates also play no role at all in the story. It’s as if, canonically, the second generation does not exist. Thus, I more or less retconned them in my mind as I played through the story. It’s probably telling that while I did pair up several couples in all three Fates campaigns, I was not eager to go and recruit their children, a very sharp contrast to Awakening. It’s hard for me to even like Fates‘ second generation as characters because the reason for their existence is ridiculous.
But yeah, gripe as I might, I do like Fates; mostly Conquest and Revelation. Aside from excellent gameplay in the aforementioned two, the music is fantastic and I do like several of the characters, especially on the Nohr side. I very much enjoyed having all of the royal siblings in Revelation, especially with how the Nohrian royals interacted with their Hoshidan counterparts. Even so, the way Fates turned out left me worried for the future of the series. After the release of Shadows of Valentia, I’m much more hopeful that Intelligent Systems won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Josh’s Response to the Response:
I just want to say I’m dumbfounded that Intelligent Systems hid the main antagonist’s motivation behind optional DLC. After one-hundred plus hours of gameplay, I was too exhausted by Fates to delve deeply into the DLC. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, but I’ve always had the impression that most Fire Emblem DLC was optional extra fanservice. It’s so frustrating to know that I’ve missed out on interesting bits fleshing out the story because they are buried among gold and experience farming maps.