Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: February 19, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
The road to Fire Emblem Fates felt like a long and ambiguous path. Initially, it was fueled by unabashed excitement after the excellent turn-based strategy-RPG Fire Emblem: Awakening on 3DS, which garnered not only many new series fans but it also reinvigorated a long-running franchise that was on its last legs with its surprising financial success.
Things then quickly took a confusing turn closer to Japan's debut release as people learned that the next title in the Fire Emblem series was no longer just one game, but rather two entirely separate retail releases: those being Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright and Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest. Not only that, but the two titles intend to justify their retail segregation by featuring entirely different campaigns with different mission design. Birthright is intended to be more approachable with its progression while Conquest is more akin to older titles in regards to difficulty/structure.
No matter which version you choose, the first six chapters of either Conquest and Birthright are identical. Both games briskly give you a taste of the two nations of either Nohr and Hoshido, and which "family" of yours is associated with each, before the war between them quickly escalates. Admittedly, the story leans pretty heavily into making the Hoshido side (Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright) look like the would-be "good guys" while Nohr (Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest) is made out to be far more sketchy because of early narrative spoilers. Though Birthright is encouraged for a first playthrough I decided that both the gameplay and narrative setup seemed more to my liking in Conquest.
The most intriguing aspect about the storytelling on Nohr's side is that it is not simply the "evil route" it may come off as with a first impression. Corrin, the lead character, very much has good intentions but simply uses another means to try and resolve the conflict. As solid of a premise as trying to fix the kingdom's corruption from within is, the storytelling unfortunately ends up being rather ham-fisted in Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest. There is a strong dissonance with the narrative it tries to tell as the cartoonishly one-dimensional empire leaders constantly try to send Corrin to his/her death each story chapter.
To make it all the worse, both Corrin and the Nohr family act very dense throughout pretending their evil intents are anything else-- going as far as to trivialize entire massacres to prove "truth." The generally weak writing and many clearly unexplained story devices, likely avoided for Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation, does not help its case either.
Thankfully, the main hook of Conquest is in its gameplay structure. Though both games inherently have the same system mechanics from general combat that refine's upon Fire Emblem: Awakening in many subtle ways to the new "My Castle" functionality, Nohr side loves to flip the script with its challenging and varied main mission design. Not only that, it also significantly limits player resources to prevent easy grinding for either money or experience, unlike Birthright. For the most part it is all on the player to take risks to earn mission rewards and also maintain a balanced party mid-battle so that they may succeed in further trials.
As implied before, Conquest has a lot of variety in its in story objectives and will force you to play outside of your comfort zone to claim victory. One early campaign mission that certainly showcases this initially starts off with an tower defense mindset as you prevent an onslaught of foes from advancing. You can use turrets to soften enemies up or create choke points at bridges they will attempt to cross. As the mission progresses, however, the boss of the level uses their "dragon vein" skill (which the lead and other characters can also use depending on the stage) to completely evaporate the water under the bridges. This causes both enemies and allies to move across the terrain unimpeded and makes the battle far more scary of an encounter as you are vastly outnumbered but also need to hold a defensive line for a certain amount of turns.
Even if it can be quite mean on the standard difficulty (with "classic" character permadeath, at least) -- especially compared to Birthright -- the varied design, generally fair challenge, and creative mission scenarios honestly makes Conquest's campaign quite enjoyable. Frankly, the maps and scripted objectives in the game have the most fun battles that I have ever encountered in any Fire Emblem and even made my subsequent playthrough of Birthright feel that much less engaging in comparison.
A long staple of the series, which are the "supports" events between two characters who pair up close together in combat, to eventually make friends or would-be lovers, also makes a return. Like Awakening, it capitalizes much on what made it popular from marriage to children between those individuals. Admittedly, though the main Conquest cast and other recruitable characters are quite lacking in the main narrative, they are noticeably more charismatic in these support scenes even if none of them are particularly deep individuals by themselves. Of course, you will have to suspend you disbelief towards their hammy romances, and especially the awful narrative justification for children units even being playable in Fire Emblem: Fates at all, for the sake of a fun gameplay mechanic. Well, some borderline creepy "waifu/husbando" pandering here and there aside.
Also engaging, though not exactly exclusive to Conquest, is the new feature to the Fire Emblem series called "My Castle." The tempting comparison for myself would be to say it is sort of like the main hub on Disgaea 5 but less in-depth and has a bigger social emphasis. As you level up and progress the main story you have several options to develop your castle from upgrading various shops to adding facilities like a mess hall, prison, or an accessory shop with points as you play through.
In addition to this you can also visit other people's castles online or via streetpass. There is a strong incentive to visit other people's castles regularly as you can get free materials, fight or negotiate with other players, use their castle facilities, and plenty more. Fire Emblem Fates creates a smart, addictive routine with "My Castle" through its constantly rewarding loop to keep players coming back for more.
It is so strange that Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest lives on as an amalgamation of being greatly satisfying as an strategy-RPG and very unfulfilling with its script in the same breath. It may very well feature one of the most poorly told stories Fire Emblem history, with generally shallow characters to propel it, that makes for a real shame for its cool premise. And yet, it is a fantastic strategy-RPG with Conquest being the most tactical and rewarding of the two main versions of Fire Emblem Fates, especially for those who have a taste for the added challenge it presents with its creatively varied, addictive campaign.
For as much as I'd advocate it as being one of the absolute best strategy-RPG experiences on the 3DS, it can just as easily leave a bitter taste in one's mouth with its jarringly poor storytelling that I can only hope is remedied in Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation.
+ Excellent variety in main story battles thanks to clever "Dragon Vein" mechanics and many unique battle objectives
+ Satisfying challenge that forces player efficiency and prevents using repeat level grinding as a crutch
+ "My Castle" makes building up your fortress, and visiting others, fairly addictive with its constantly rewarding progression
-Very shallow main narrative script that is much less engaging than its core premise
- A bit too much pandering with returning ideas that were introduced in Fire Emblem: Awakening to even certain entirely recycled character designs
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
It may have been pitched as the far less approachable title, both thematically and with its occasionally ruthless challenge, but in its best moments Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest stands proudly as not only one of the absolute best strategy-RPGs on 3DS but also amongst other Fire Emblem titles in gameplay alone -- which is by far its greatest asset even in the face of its very poor storytelling.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using a physical 3DS copy purchased by the reviewer.