So in terms of games in 2016 for the 3DS, there was a major drought. At least, there was a drought for me. I got Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright the day it came out, and I was ecstatic. From descriptions from my friends and the internet, it seemed that people were in love with it. It turns out that I was…not one of the rabid fans. However, despite my conveniently rhyming title, I didn’t hate my time with Fire Emblem: Fates. I was decently satisfied with the experience as a whole.
But when I compare it to the nostalgic experience of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Fates crushes me. Birthright left me feeling empty. It was like I had my hours wasted. I tried to play Revelations after Birthright, but I couldn’t do it. It had all of the problematic symptoms of Birthright. It had the threadbare story, the recycled anime cliches, the plotholes – all the same issues but somehow worse.
So what makes Fire Emblem: Fates so disappointing compared to the other games in the series? That answer is easily explained with two problems: The story, and the characters.
PROBLEM #1: THE STORY
A strong argument could be made that the story of a video game is not a high priority. I concede that gameplay is the most important part of a video game, and thankfully, Fates expands on the great gameplay of Awakening. It remains addictive, while also requiring the player to think about their moves. It isn’t a generic RPG where battles can be solved through mashing the attack button until all the enemies go away. As a strategy RPG, Fire Emblem requires thought and deliberation. It requires knowledge of weapons and class weaknesses. It necessitates constant scouting of enemies and their abilities. Fates keeps the player constantly engaged. The gameplay in Fire Emblem Fates is very good, and it is the main reason why my overall experience with the game was positive.
However, what makes an RPG so engaging, is its story. The plotline an RPG weaves can keep players engaged and compensate for poor or generic gameplay. A strong example of this is the original Nier, which is a game plagued with bad gameplay but blessed with a fantastic story and soundtrack.
Fire Emblem: Fates succeeds as a reverse-Nier. It has fantastic gameplay, but a very weak story.
The first problem comes in the way Nintendo decided to distribute Fire Emblem: Fates. The previous game in the series, Awakening, sold much higher than the projected numbers Nintendo had. Nintendo wanted Awakening to sell 250,000 units, and it managed to sell over 1 million. For game sales, this does not appear very significant, but for a niche franchise that has never broken the 1 million sales mark previously, this was an astounding achievement. Through the quality of Awakening, Fire Emblem developed a large and very passionate fan base.
Nintendo sought to capitalize on this new interest in their franchise by splitting Fire Emblem: Fates into three separate games, a series first. These games were titled Fire Emblem: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. Each of these three games starts off with the same five chapters but allows you to make a decision that branches off into their own individual stories. The part after the branching decision is where the player needs to play each game. They make that decision with their wallets.
DISCLAIMER: I have only completed Birthright and the first half of Revelations. Because of this, I will not speak a single word on Conquest’s story, as I have not experienced it firsthand. Perhaps these problems are rectified by that game. Please let me know in the comments if I need to make any corrections. I’m only human. Pls forgiv.
Immediately, the first issue with the story comes in its beginning chapters. Regardless of which game you purchase, the first five chapters of the game remain the same.
The player plays as the main character, Corrin. Corrin lives with the royal family of Nohr. It is here that you are introduced to Corrin’s siblings: Camilla, Leo, Xander, and Elise. These are all really cool characters in their own right, and they all have their own goals, motivations, and personality. I don’t have an issue with them.
Corrin and his family are eventually sent out on a mission by the king of Nohr, Garon, to fight off soldiers from the rival kingdom, Hoshido. Corrin obliges, and it turns out that the mercenary sent to assist Corrin, Hans, intends to kill Corrin, because he poses a threat to Nohr. Corrin is attacked, but it appears that a mystical dragon-like power is unleashed, and he destroys the bridge he is standing on. Corrin then plummets down the canyon, isolated from his Nohrian family.
Corrin is then found by members of Hoshido, who, through a big plot twist that everybody saw coming, turn out to be his real family members. Takumi, Ryoma, Hinata, and Sakura are Corrin’s biological siblings, and it is discovered that Nohr kidnapped him when he was a baby to raise him as their own. They did this because they knew of his draconic abilities, and King Garon wanted to hone that to be a weapon of war.
Corrin then meets his mother, who is the queen of Hoshido, Mikoto. She is incredibly nice and accepting of Corrin, but then is assassinated by King Garon during a political rally. This causes the tension between Hoshido and Nohr to escalate to the breaking point, and they organize a massive battle.
Once the battle begins, Corrin, while on the side of Hishido, sees his Nohrian family on the battlefield. The Nohrian family believes he has been brainwashed, and are there to rescue Corrin. Corrin’s Hoshido family believes that they are attempting to kidnap Corrin again and use his abilities to destroy their kingdom.
This ultimately leaves Corrin with a choice. Side with his biological family in Hoshido that he hardly knows, or side with his Nohrian family that have nurtured and cared for him throughout his entire upbringing.
This is a fantastic premise…but it is ruined by a lot of major issues.
Firstly, is how the choice of which family to side with is made. Although the choice shows a standard selection screen, the real choice the player makes, is through the cash that they spend. To choose Hoshido, the player buys Birthright beforehand, and to side with Nohr, the player buys Conquest. This destroys any sense of tension or build up the player may experience, as they either already know about this decisive moment before purchasing and playing the game, or they do not, and they become frustrated when the game limits their options to decide. Nintendo makes the assumption that the average player would follow pre-release coverage, and they do not account for the casual 3DS owner who may just purchase Fire Emblem hearing that the series is very good.
One could make the argument that Fire Emblem is a niche franchise, and obviously its fanbase would know about the major in-game decision beforehand. The issue with this claim, is that it does not account for the attention that the previous Fire Emblem game, Awakening, garnered for the franchise. It brought in a lot of newcomers, and the inclusion of Robin and Lucina in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U likely brought even more attention to the franchise. Knowing this, perhaps a consumer also heard that there is a new Fire Emblem game coming out, and they would like to discover what the hype is all about.
Another issue with Fates’ assumption, is it ultimately makes the first five chapters of the game pointless. It makes all of its attempted character development and world building unnecessary. If I bought Birthright, then the struggles of Nohr and the kindness of that family are irrelevant. I have made my choice without every thinking about it.
Notice I said “attempted” character development and world building. Because it isn’t very good. And that is horrible for an RPG series that has generally been able to display moral ambiguities and turbulent politics well. Nintendo wants you to feel conflicted about the choice you make. They want this game-altering decision to be monumental. There is no going back after you choose.
Knowing that a monumental impact is necessary, the morality of the two kingdoms is incredibly rushed, and biased towards Hoshido. Nohr’s kingdom is seen as constantly dark and depressing. Its inhabitants are starving, it is riddled with thieves and poverty. Its leader, King Garon, is a totalitarian dictator who pillages nearby kingdoms to gain resources. Garon employs strict curfews and regulations on his citizens, ruining their quality of life. He is only focused on bolstering his army and conquering more land. Maintaining the land and its inhabitants, formulating a market or any semblance of happiness for his citizens is seen as meaningless to his ultimate goal of conquering. Hence the title of “Conquest” for the Nohrian side.
Hoshido, on the other hand, is depicted as an idyllic, feudal Japanese kingdom. Its citizens are happy and healthy. The scenery is gorgeous and lush. There is bountiful food for its citizens, and its ruler is a kind pacifist that objects to any proposed conflict with Nohr. They are, as much as Nintendo wants to deny it, the good guys. They are not the aggressor or instigator in conflicts. They do not attempt to take more land.
One tiny detail that could have been included or mentioned at the beginning by any of the Nohrian characters, is that Nohr does not have fertile land to grow food. They must conquer lands if they are to survive. They are not blessed with sunlight or fertile soil. This gives them a hint of complexity. Rather than looking like plundering barbarians, it gives sense to their conquest. They do not do it because they are cackling villains, but that it must be done to survive. The world is a cold place, and it is not accommodating for everybody. This also gives King Garon loads of complexity as well. Rather than depicting a ruthless dictator obsessed with power, he could be seen as a man who is trying to keep his people alive. He imposes restrictions in an attempt to sustain the life of his people. It is a cruel solution, but is the extreme he must take in the horrible situation he is in.
But this depth is dashed in favour of making King Garon literally Satan. He is the epitome of evil, and he is the one who issues Corrin to be murdered by Hans. Why would the player, or Corrin, return to a family that endorses that? Conquest makes it clear that people listen to the kindhearted Xander, and not Garon. However, this is only discovered later in Conquest’s main timeline, and not within those critical beginning chapters.
The morality of Nohr vs. Hoshido is summed up in the promotional art for the game. It is literally White vs. Black. Good vs. Evil. It is even seen in the characters’ outfits. Nohr has dark mages and sadists, Hoshido has pacifists and healers. Tough choice.
My moral decision was made as thus: My brother bought Conquest, and I bought Birthright. We then shared our copies. Nothing about the game’s content dictated our choice. Just a financial one.
As I completed Birthright, I will discuss its story mainly. I mean, I would like to go in-depth with it, tear down every small detail, but I can’t. Because Birthright was incredibly forgettable. Birthright’s story seems aimless and padded. Pretty much almost every chapter is “hey, let’s go to this place now. We are at this place. Woah a battle. That place is a place that happened. Let’s never talk about it again.”
This is what the first 10 chapters of Birthright feels like: filler until you finally get every Hoshido sibling together, and decide to invade Nohr. The characters you meet on this journey are not very memorable either, which is problematic. If the locations you visit appear once and do not have anything memorable about them, are they even worth the time?
The first few locations in Birthright have no consequence, and if they were cut from the game, then the overall story wouldn’t change. They are just mindless skirmishes with forgettable commanders who disappear after you kill them. Rather than feel you are formulating a Hoshidan army to invade Nohr, it just feels like the story is going through the motions.
Another crippling about Birthright’s story is the character Azura. Azura is a character who is a constant across all three versions of Fates. She is essentially Corrin’s sidekick and the second main character. Much of the story revolves around her and her abilities. Because of this, she is incredibly mysterious, and for the entirety of the game, gives off the vibe that she knows much more about the world than she lets on.
Her secrecy is constantly building up to a major reveal. It always feels like there is tension, and that she is about to drop a bombshell that re-contextualizes the entire narrative. When the characters attempt to ask her what is going on, she always replies with “I cannot say.” It is aggravating to say the least, but it is understandable if it all leads up to a satisfying conclusion.
…The conclusion never happens. It happens in the other games, but it doesn’t happen in Birthright. Birthright has the player going from forgettable location to forgettable location, fighting lackluster villains, and never really building up to anything other than a potential reveal from Azura.
I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE ENDING OF BIRTHRIGHT TO ILLUSTRATE MORE PROBLEMS WITH THE STORY. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
In the final chapter of Birthright, the Hoshidan army takes out King Garon, who turned out to actually be Satan. Once they defeat him, Azura begins to fade away, not revealing what she knows. Hoshido promises Nohr to have a peaceful relationship, and Corrin ponders if they truly understood everything that was going on.
Does that sound anti-climactic? Because it is. This brings me to the final, and most major problem overall with Fates’ story: it feels like a single video game story stretched out across three video games.
Birthright got the least of this story. From the summary I have provided you, would you have guessed that there is a hidden world called the Illusive Kingdom, and that there is a demonic force there commanding Garon to destroy the world? And would you have guessed that speaking of this Kingdom causes you to die and fade away like Azura does? Probably not, and that is because, in the grand storyline of all three of these games, Birthright is completely pointless. You learn absolutely nothing about the world and its inhabitants, and it plays out exactly as you think. There are no major twists other than a few shocking character deaths, there are no new developments, there is nothing. The mission from the beginning of Birthright was to take over Nohr, and you do. In fact, the ending to Birthright is insulting chipper and clean. Rather than take revenge against Nohr, a peace treaty is formed. It is calming, but it is ultimately pointless, because in Birthright, you don’t do anything to halt or destroy that demonic force from the Illusive Kingdom.
What truly sealed this horrible story for me, was Fire Emblem: Revelations, the third game in Fates’ arsenal. It is because I learned everything the story had to offer in the first two chapters of Revelations. You discover in Revelations that the conflict between the two kingdoms is pointless, as there is a world destroying being named Anakos who is getting ready to act. King Garon is not held accountable for his actions, because it was just a demon possessing him. All that war and political drama? Pointless in the grand scheme of things. Conquest and Birthright’s threadbare stories are meaningless. They are experiences that change nothing, and they are stories where you learn nothing. Other than great gameplay, they do not offer anything of value to the player.
Problem #2: The Characters
My favourite feature of Fire Emblem: Awakening, was the support system. If the player paired units up together in battle, they would gain friendship points, and you would unlock personal conversations between them. This really fleshed every character out and made the experience more personal. Maybe you could even discover a unit that you could relate to, or a character that you fall in love with and marry in-game.
It is what kept the game so addicting. After every battle, if you position your units strategically, you were rewarded with great cutscenes and exchanges between the characters. It gave the 50+ character cast so much depth and uniqueness to them.
Fates has the pretty much the exact same relationship system, but a problem arises through its bloatedness. Since Fire Emblem Fates is strewn across three games, it accounts for almost double the characters that Awakening had. It does not matter how skilled of a writer you are, this is too many characters to write hundreds of lines of dialogue for each. It is impossible to make all of these characters have depth.
Because of this limitation, Fates often latches onto a single quality of its characters, and uses that to define them. For example, Izama is a trickster who plays a lot of practical jokes and never takes too much seriously. This side of his character is almost all there is to him, and not much is explored beyond that point. His support conversations exist to show this characteristic mesh with another character’s traits. It isn’t very interesting, and again, what you superficially know about these characters is almost all there is to them.
The characters who get the most love are the siblings and Azura, which I totally understand. Priority had to be given to the characters who mean the most to the story. I have no problems with these characters having more development, but when it seems that they exclusively get character development, it becomes very noticeable.
It also doesn’t help that Fates literally re-uses characters from Awakening, but gives them a different name. Their presence is never explained unless you play through Revelations, which is incredibly frustrating. If you played Awakening and recognize the voice and design, but can never have a single character inquire about how they appear, it just becomes annoying.
They attempt to explain it away with parallel dimensions and that every Fire Emblem kingdom is somehow interconnected, but this story would fit a science fiction setting much better than a fantasy one. For a story that builds up to a war between two kingdoms, it has no problem disregarding it completely.
It also becomes too trope-ey for a lot of these conversations. Not only are a lot of the characters flat, they are also stereotypical anime characters. Very few of them are unique, and a lot of them are completely generic and forgettable. I am so sick of try-hard Naruto-esque protagonists whose only defining characteristic is how hard they work and believe in themselves. I agree that those are good values to have, but they are not interesting or unique.
Fire Emblem Fates is likely a series of games I will never replay. The story was stretched so thin over the course of multiple games, and it relied too heavily on generic, cliche characters. But, I like how ambitious Nintendo tried to be. I like the idea of seeing a conflict from a different perspective for each playthrough. I like the concept of actions having lasting rammifications on the world, but Fates completely flops in this regard. Fates wants to have moral ambiguity, but the conflict is generic good vs. evil. Fates wants to have a variety of locations impacted by warfare, but they all just feel forgettable and underwritten. Fates wants a massive cast of characters who struggle, develop, and change over the course of the game, but it only feels like a handful of them truly matter.
Fire Emblem: Fates was a disappointment. There is no other way to describe it. It isn’t at all the death of the series though. It seems Nintendo has learned from this lesson and the newest Fire Emblem Game coming for the 3DS does not split its story apart. I have high hopes for this franchise still, as Fates was just a small, tragic blemish on a series’ legacy.