Fire Emblem Fates Birthright: Is It Worth Buying?

Image from Kotaku

Hey look, a rare gaming post!

As good as Nintendo’s 2017 was, 2018 has been a bit underwhelming thus far, at least in terms of new Switch content. With neither Kirby Star Allies nor Nintendo Labo catching my interest, I find myself leaning more and more on the 3DS’s back catalog to fill the void. This is not a bad thing, however, as it’s allowed me to dive into some Nintendo franchises that I had been curious about in the past, but not actually had the time to try out.

The latest of these series has been Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG series that piggybacked on the success of Super Smash Brothers to expand its reach outside of Japan in the early 2000s. A quick scan of the Internet indicated that Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright was a good option for series beginners, so I went ahead and took the plunge. What I found was a fun, usually-interesting, sometimes-bizarre tactical JRPG with some stellar character development and some unconventional world-building options.

My specific thoughts are as follows:

  • Before Fire Emblem, my only experience with tactical RPGs was a brief stint playing Final Fantasy Tactics, but I found the extra geographical dimension quite refreshing coming off of standard RPG setups like Pokémon Ultra Sun and Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. At its core, you and the enemy take turns moving your heroes around the map like chess pieces, engaging in pitched battles when opposing forces meet. While the fights themselves are quick and automated, choosing who, when, and where to battle is a complex question:
    • Should I charge the enemy lines, or wait and let them come to me?
    • What weapon should I use? (The game has a rock-scissors-paper weapon triad with a helpful Pokémon-style color-coding: Blue beats red, green beats blue, red beats green.)
    • Should I use a melée or ranged attack?
    • Should I send more beast-based units into battle, or rely on foot soldiers?
    • Should I place two units in adjacent squares for more offense, or should they pair up for a more-defensive stance?
    • Can Ryoma really take those three units on by himself? (The answer was usually “yes.” Seriously, that dude is super OP.)

The game gives you plenty of time and space to learn how best to battle, but don’t get too comfortable: The game has an annoying habit of one-shotting your units when you stretch your force too thin. (Also, you’d better enjoy the tactical combat setup, because that’s 90% of what you’ll do in the game.) All in all, it’s a decent challenge that never feels overwhelming.

  • The big twist of the FE Fates series is the choice of which side the player will actually fight on: Their Hoshidan blood relatives, or the Nohrians that raised them? It’s a weighty choice, and the game does a nice job making characters in both families interesting and sympathetic…but if you bought a physical copy of the game, the choice is already made for you: Birthright players are stuck with Hoshido, Conquest players are stuck with Nohr. (Apparently the digital copy actually lets you pick a side, and locks you into whichever version corresponds to your choice.) After all the buildup of the prologue, not actually having a choice is a letdown, so be sure you’re aware of that going in.
  • On the surface, the story is fairly boilerplate: Once you pick a side, you slowly cut a path through the opposing kingdom until you knock it over (or apparently take on the villain pulling the strings behind the scenes in Fire Emblem Fates Yellow…er, Revelation.) Things tend to progress is a more-or-less linear fashion, although there are “Challenge” options in between each chapter of the story that let you gain some extra XP and beat down some extra enemies.
  • If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my gaming preferences, it’s that character development is king…and these characters are fantastic. The most impressive feature of FE Fates is that despite having to create a zillion characters to fill up your roster, the vast majority of them are well-designed and unique enough to stand out from their peers. Even cooler, characters that interact on the battlefield often enough will form Miitopia-style relationships, capped off with some well-done vignettes that can be either touching, tense, or funny as all heck. (Watching Silas introduce super-serious Rinkah to a game of tag was the most I’d laughed in months.) Supposedly there are some battlefield benefits to these relationships as well, but I’ve never actually noticed them— I just like watching the characters interact. 🙂
  • Of course, having lots of characters is important if you’re going to end up losing them all the time. Fire Emblem‘s main calling card was basically being Nuzlocke before Nuzlocke was cool: At the default difficulty level, characters who die in battle are permanently lost from the game. I personally can’t stand this sort of thing, so I play only on Casual mode (fallen units return after the battle), but for those of you looking for an extra challenge, this option certainly raises the stakes and force you to play a bit more defensively.
  • In between battles, you have the opportunity to customize your own castle, where you can buy items, upgrade weapons, and talk to other characters. Where it never detracts from the gameplay, I never found that it added much either—since there’s no explorable world map, it’s just a convenient place to hang out in between battles.
  • The reason I used the phrase “sometimes-bizarre” early in the post is that at times, FE Fates comes off like a hypersexualized playable anime. Physical beauty seems to have been a huge part of many characters’ designs (some more than others…*cough* Camilla *cough*), and there’s a castle “hot springs” option you can build that seems to serve no purpose beyond letting you see characters in their underwear. (At least the game objectifies males and females equally: The men here are generally dreamboats and can be creeped on just as much as the women.) Character relationships can eventually bloom into full-fledged romances and marriages, and characters can even have children…who are shipped to another dimension for safekeeping…where they age faster than their parents…and eventually join your army? (I don’t get it either, but when the kid ends up kicking as much tail as Kana does, I’m cool with that.) While I wouldn’t say that any of this weirdness detracts from your enjoyment of this game, it’s certainly a jarring transition from something like Mario & Luigi.

Honestly, I’ve found FE Fates Birthright to be an engrossing game that suits the 3DS well, letting you squeeze in a few battles here and there as your schedule permits. It’ll make you laugh, cry, and raise an eyebrow at times, but it’s a well-executed design and concept, and a great way to introduce you to one of Nintendo’s slightly-less-heralded franchises.