Canadians are notorious for hibernating in winter, but the Fire Emblem Fates pre-launch event at the St. James Cathedral conference space was packed, despite an extreme cold weather advisory. For those like me who are new to this franchise, Fire Emblem Fates is a content-heavy turn-based tactical RPG with an emphasis on challenge. Part of that challenge is explaining what, exactly, the game is.
Fire Emblem Fates is a 3DS-exclusive story broken into three parts. The first two branches—Birthright and Conquest—are available on February 19th. Birthright, the story where you ally with the Hoshido, your blood family, caters somewhat more to new players. Conquest, where you stay with the Nohr, the siblings you grew up with, has more limited resources. Once you complete one path, you can download the second for a discounted price—$24.99 versus the base game cost of $49.99. A third game, Revelation, will be available as DLC March 10, 2016. According to Nintendo's website, that path retells the story with you siding with neither faction, and is intended to be played after the other two games.
For the first time in a Fire Emblem game, the story focusses on the player's customized character. “In Fire Emblem Awakening, you had your avatar, you could customize your look and become part of the story. But you were more like a sidekick to the main character Chrom. But in this game, you're actually the main character, the prince or princess. This is your story.” Explained Chiko Bird, the Fire Emblem Fates assistant manager, product marketing for Nintendo of America. “You grew up with four brothers and sisters who love you but you're closed off from the world until you come of age. Then one day, you discover you were actually kidnapped when you were little and your father was martyred in front of you. That person you thought of as a father was actually the person who killed your real father, and then kidnapped and raised you. He created this plot to send you back to your own kingdom, to assassinate the queen by using you. What do you do?”
I had about twenty minutes hands-on with Birthright, and there was a lot to take in during that relatively short time frame. I was thrown into the game at chapter 13, controlling a small army of characters of varying experience levels. The map was surprisingly large, and planning moves took care. But since i knew the basics of turn-based tactical gameplay, I didn't get slaughtered. This speaks to the accessibility of the title.
The party selection and levelling of party-based RPGs was there, but there was also the chess-style element of a tactical strategy game. Long-time fans of the series who were in attendance spoke of the games almost reverently. They assured me that the “classic mode” permadeath element of of the series is part of the experience, but it was less intimidating to try the game knowing that there's a “casual mode” option that allows you to turn that off. Having played it now, however, I understand the appeal of classic mode—there's a greater sense of satisfaction when you complete a map without losing any of your friends. Classic mode, however, was clearly popular in Awakening: Fates is introducing a Phoenix Mode that allows characters to be resurrected within the same match. It's an interesting mix, which reflects the diverse player base on the 3DS.
“The game is still hard; it's very deep.” Chiko insisted. “But only for those who want it. For those who don't want it, but who want to enjoy the story elements, who want to enjoy the battle tactics without that much risk, they can try out this game. They can get the experience, so they know what they're supposed to do, so next time they play it, they might be able to play it in classic mode.”
Chiko took me through the basics of the different character classes and the core weapon triangle—a rock/paper/scissors situation that gives you conditions to consider beyond hitpoints and armour strength. You can also pair up characters for various benefits, including protecting weaker units, creating unique special moves, and even building up the ongoing relationship between the characters.
The members of your party talk to each other too, especially when they're teamed up, and it's this building of attachment combined with potential permadeath in combat that gives the Fire Emblem series its unique charm. The character designs are also serious cosplayer bait. “Fire Emblem Fates has an even bigger character lineup than Awakening” Chiko assured me. “The style is very similar, but it's a completely different set of characters.”
“The main character's [spouse] is a big thing for the fans.” Chiko said. “You learn about their background story, about their childhood, what they like to eat.” The personal relationships element in Fates has been a subject of some controversy because of some changes to the Western version of the game. I was initially planning to cover this element more fully; however, after playing the game, I feel like that would be doing Fire Emblem Fates a disservice. I'd rather spend article space discussing the many things that Fates offers than one stylus mechanic that has been removed. I don't see many Fire Emblem fans being too disappointed that they can no longer be a non-monogamous regarding petting the faces of digital anime-style characters. The core gameplay is the battle system.
Furthermore, there's still plenty of sex appeal: the main antagonist in the demo, Camilla, has boobs the size of her head. They're the first thing you see when you're introduced to her... and she's your character's adoptive sister!
The game boasts some voice acting and high quality cinematics. Using the 3DS' popular StreetPass function, you'll be able to view and battle other players’ avatars. You can also visit other players' customized “My Castle” areas and even get items from stores other players have set up. There are also local and online multiplayer modes, where more experienced players are handicapped so it's based on player skill, not levelled up characters.
And of course, there's amiibo functionality. Marth, Ike, Lucina, and Robin, which are Fire Emblem characters from the Super Smash Bros amiibo series, are compatible with the Fire Emblem Fates games. These characters aren't available in the base Fates games. The amiibo interaction is pretty involved, and you can't recruit the amiibo characters for your Fates party until you beat them in very challenging battles. In this way, Nintendo is minimizing the potential pay-to-win pitfalls inherent in toys-to-life technology.
I came out of the launch event really stoked for Fire Emblem Fates. The presentation is complicated, but the core of the game is a classic tactical turn-based RPG: a game on-the-go with a lot of depth, beauty, choice, and story.