Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright – (Not a) Review

Originally published on Trevor Trove on March 21, 2016

TL; DR(eview that’s not a Review) – Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is more Fire Emblem. The tactical combat pretty much feels identical to Fire Emblem Awakening so if you enjoyed that game, you’ll probably enjoy this one. But if you want the fullFire Emblem Fates experience you’re going to have to cough up the money for an extra two games.

When I originally purchased my Nintendo 3DS a couple years ago, it was to play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. But I had heard so much about Fire Emblem Awakening that I picked up that title as well. I wasn’t disappointed. The Fire Emblem series is one of the few well-supported franchises with a heavy focus on tactical turn-based strategy (that doesn’t require a high-powered PC, X-COM) and, fortunately, they do it really well.

Fire Emblem Fates brings back they same sound level of gameplay and you lead an army through increasingly more challenging battles. Play the game as originally intended and you’ll be forced to carefully consider every move or else suffer the permadeath of a character you’ve spent the entire game leveling up. Call me a baby gamer all you want, but I tend to opt for the Casual experience so I don’t have to lose all that progress if I misjudge a moment or get screwed over by enemies appearing out of nowhere on a map.

The core combat of traversing an area and attacking enemies is standard fare. Fire Emblem includes a relationship factor within your party though and units who repeatedly fight next to each other will become increasingly closer and stronger pairs. These little relationships play out in between battles where you can watch little stories play out. Which actually leads me to my biggest gripe with the game…

…the story (rant incoming).

All three of the games in the Fire Emblem Fates triad (Birthright – which I have played, Conquest, and Revelation – which I have not) start with the same six tutorial chapters introducing you to the war between two families. As the game’s protagonist, you have been raised a member of one family, but quickly discover you were actually born to the other. But you don’t know this from the start because you suffer from that age-old storytelling trope: amnesia.

Every year or so, I’ll wind up in a spirited (read: alcohol-induced) conversation with some of my friends about the state of theatre and somebody will suggest that we need a 10/20/100-year moratorium on producing Shakespeare. I kind of feel the same way about the amnesiac protagonist, which only exists to dole out information to the audience at the same rate as the character in question. Sure, it can, or rare occasion, lead to a great moment (Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind) but more often than not, it’s just a short-cut to produce a blank slate of a character that the player can use to fill-in with their own traits.

So right off the bat, Fire Emblem Fates left a bad taste in my mouth story-wise. The fact that the story can go one of three ways interests me. But that interest is completely washed away by that fact that each of those options is told through an entirely separate game. And I see virtually no reason for it other than a blatant cash grab since A) all three titles did fit onto on cartridge for the Special Edition and B) players can just download the other two “fates” to their system. They took the Pokemon model, which is certainly itself a scheme but at least it’s built around trading and competing with friends between the various versions of the same game, and just threw it into this series with zero social benefit or reason for the decision. From my point of view, they just found a new way to trick people into buying three copies of the same game. Congratulations Intelligent Systems: Game Freak/The Pokemon Company must be so proud.

Putting that aside, the problem inherent to a game where permadeath is a feature means that the story pretty much has to be bland enough that any configuration of characters can tell the same story. And by the end of the games tutorial chapters, I was pretty much just mashing the A button to skip through the story scenes as quickly as possible, until I realized that pressing the Start button actually skips them. (This is also the main reason this is a “(Not a) Review” instead of just a proper review.)

The biggest other new addition to the series was the base-building component. Instead of traveling from location to location in Awakening to seek out battles or find towns/stores, Fates pretty much gives you a single castle where you can place shops and other items that you can visit in the breaks between skirmishes. I don’t know if I just overlooked the tutorial but I played through half the game before I realized I could actually add new buildings and/or level up the ones I had already placed. I’m sure there are players out there who will dedicate time to make their castles beautiful. As for me, I just places everything as tight as possible in order to minimize the distance running between buildings.

All in all, Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright has been a nice enough distraction to play as I drift off to bed or watch some Netflix, but it has been a mostly forgettable experience: a decent enough tactical RPG marred by a lackluster story and a shady business tactic that I don’t have the time or patience for right now.

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