I haven’t done a proper game review in ages, but my latest obsession provides the perfect opportunity. At the outset, let me admit that, yes, I’m a relative newcomer to Fire Emblem. The first game in the series to see a US release came out in 2003, and although I had a GameBoy Advance, for whatever reason I missed FE’s American debut. It wasn’t until 2014, in fact, that I actually played any FE game myself. That game, Fire Emblem: Awakening, was pretty brilliant, and I played the hell out of it. I was thrilled when I heard about the latest installment, Fates, and went so far as to have my US 2DS shipped to me here in Japan so I could play the English version. (Yeah, 2DS, not 3DS. Extra dimensions=poor cost performance.)
If you’re new to the franchise yourself, here’s the nickel version: the Fire Emblem games are turn-based strategies which, like all such games, involve directing your troops around a map so they can kill enemy units. The map screen is two-dimensional; when a battle is initiated the game switches to a 3D action view.
All of the games have a medieval, high-fantasy setting. In Fates, as with Awakening and presumably other entries in the franchise, you also have to manage relationships between your characters. Well, you don’t have to, but you should, because if your characters hook up they can make babies, a process which expands the narrative and provides more units for you to dump on the battlefield. (The children become adults instantaneously through some admittedly stupid storytelling mechanics involving time travel in Awakening and pocket dimensions with differential time flow in Fates. I told you it was stupid.)
In Fates you play as a confused amnesiac taken in by a royal family and thrust into a massive military conflict–precisely as in Awakening. The first five missions are largely of the tutorial variety, introducing you to the basics of the game and setting up the relationship between the warring kingdoms of Hoshido, a feudal Japanese-like nation, and Nohr, a dark and vaguely Europeanish country. The sixth mission forces you to choose a side (or no side), though you only have all three options if you’ve purchased the corresponding campaigns: Birthright, Conquest and Revelation are all technically separate games and aren’t playable until you pay for them. There’s something supernatural looming in the background of the war, and undead soldiers start popping up, and curses, and a demonic dragon–all kinds of goodness for you to carve your way through.
Awakening really appealed to the old-school RPG fanboy in me. I like grinding (fighting lots of small battles to earn experience, which makes your characters stronger) and then powering through otherwise difficult fights. Awakening allowed you to do that with unlimited random battles and a DLC map that let you farm experience quickly. In Fates, the ability to grind depends partly on which of the game’s forking narrative paths you choose. (Though Nintendo has again offered a DLC experience map for purchase, which I’ve use so much you guys.) I’ve beaten Birthright and I’m currently playing through Conquest, which is harder because it offers far fewer opportunities to gain experience. Leveling your troops is crucial if you want to survive, because unlike a lot of other games, FE famously features permanent character death. So even though somebody has an important role in the storyline, if they die in a fight, they die for good, and their role in the story ends. (In Fates and Awakening you can turn “permadeath” off if you choose, but I don’t because I feel obscurely that that would be cheating.)
I’m playing on the Hard difficulty level, and on this level even in Birthright experience was somewhat difficult to come by, as most enemies give precious little of it. On Conquest I doubt I could raise my characters to the level cap if I only played the story missions, which means I likely wouldn’t be able to complete the game. This is because it’s also crucial to promote your characters once they’ve gained enough experience. Promoting involves moving from a character’s basic role (e.g., cavalier) to a more powered-up version (paladin or great knight, in this case). But even that isn’t enough to really give you an edge in later battles. To craft a really powerful character involves jumping around between classes to collect new skills, which are permanently learned at certain levels and which stay with the character even when they reclass. But reclassing is highly limited by the scarcity of “seals,” necessary items that allow you to change classes, and by the fact that you can only switch to a certain class if you have the right type of seal. Many of these seals, in turn, depend on the kinds of relationships you’ve built up among your troops. So with our cavalier example, he or she can normally only use a Master Seal to become either a paladin or a great knight, two similar classes with different stats and skills. If you want them to become, say, a ninja, you have only a couple of options: you can use a Partner Seal, which will allow them to change to the classes their spouse can use; or a Friendship Seal, which will allow them to change to the classes their closest friend can use. Or you could use a Heart Seal, which offers two class options based on the character’s personality, whatever that means (but ninja may or may not be among them). Once you make the switch you can gain some experience as one of these new classes, learn some of their skills, then switch back to the original class using a Heart Seal. Or you can leave them as a ninja, or whatever.
The class system is thus surprisingly complicated, and creating your ideal characters takes a massive amount of time. I’ve sunk an embarrassing number of hours (really, it’s embarrassing) into the DLC experience-farm map, but even that is excruciatingly slow. Between feeling like the DLC is a kind of cheating–paying for experience, almost, even though you have to work really hard to earn it–and the gruelingly slow pace, I keep getting frustrated and nearly quitting, which for me would mean playing through the main campaign in one go and not bothering to level. But I don’t quit, because Fire Emblem has its dumb, weird hooks in me. It’s an addiction, and I don’t fully understand how I got hooked, but I did.
I’m not a completionist, but I do want to try out different classes with my favorite characters, equip them with the best skills, and breeze through the story battles. But FE is stacked against that play style. DLC helps a bit, offering some especially powerful classes like the Witch and Dread Fighter. There’s also a feature called the Unit Logbook which helps by enabling you to learn skills from players you’ve beaten via online play, and by carrying over skills from a selection of your characters after you beat one of the campaigns; but even then you still have to pay gold to learn the “preserved” skills, and they only apply to the character who originally had them. The logbook is thus only slightly helpful, especially since not every character is present in every campaign (at least, they’re not all shared between Birthright and Conquest–I haven’t played Revelation yet). I didn’t realize at first how this worked, so when I beat Birthright I picked out my favorite characters to add to the logbook, not knowing that the point of so doing was to preserve their skills, nor that most of the ones I chose wouldn’t be available in Conquest. So I went back to my last save in Birthright, beat it again, and chose different characters to add to my logbook–making me feel, again, like I was cheating. This is how my crazy Irish conscience works.
(On a related note, according to a fascinating article on GameCrate, the logbook has apparently spawned some bizarre Internet-based, game-breaking cheating. The cultural implications of this “infection” are especially interesting.)
This convoluted class/level system is one reason why I’m hooked (frustrating though it can be). The “support” system is another, and an equally frustrating one. This is for all intents and purposes a simplistic, one-dimensional dating sim. Characters grow closer the more they fight at each other’s side, and eventually they can marry. (Fates is notable for being the first game in the series to allow same-sex marriages.) They have children (if they’re able) and those children are squirreled away in alternate dimensions for vague reasons having to do with safety, but inevitably their home realms are invaded by badguys and they have to come join their parents. It’s all nuts and very J-pop and I hate it but also I freaking love it.
It’s all so weird, you guys. On one level, I admit, it’s fun to see characters I like get together–hence the whole shipping phenomenon in fan fiction. This is essentially that, but built right into the game. On that level it’s no different from games like Mass Effect which likewise enable you to get your scifi groove on. But… come on, Nintendo. Some of what happens is just painfully, unabashedly- just- anime. With all the weird baggage that term might conjure. For instance, once your main character gets married, you can “bond” with your spouse, which leads to weird player interactions like having to “awaken” your sleeping partner by stroking the 3DS touchscreen with the stylus. In another, your partner explains that they’ve just taken a bath and are feeling hot, so you have to actually blow on the console’s microphone to cool them off (as if that makes any sense). The pandering in these scenes is blatant and eye-rollingly dumb. (To the game’s credit, I guess, they can happen with both male and female characters. So at least the weird sexual stuff is egalitarian.)
Perhaps worse, nearly any male character can marry nearly any female character, including the ones who are clearly underage, like the farm girl Mozu or the Hoshido princess Sakura. Japan has a much lower age of consent than most Western countries and this is reflected in the kinds of relationships that can form in the game, and these relationships weird me right the hell out. Relativism has its limits. As an American player I find it pretty creepy, for instance, that Nyx, a dark mage, is an adult trapped in a pre-teen’s (hypersexualized) body, and can still form relationships with other characters. Similarly, an adult male can happily marry Elise, the child princess of Nohr, and will immediately beget a child with her. Thankfully there’s nothing explicit (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that there would be, this being a work of Japanese popular culture). It’s all still creepy as hell, though. (Kotaku has an interesting piece about this issue which discusses the ongoing debate over localization–or censorship, as some gamers think of it.)
These issues aside, Fates is a good game. An addictive game, even. Its narrative isn’t as strong as Awakening’s, its characters not as fully realized–there are just too many–and its play mechanics more grindingly, er… grindy, but it’s still a lot of fun.
For the gamers, what do you all think of using a DLC experience-farm map to grind for EXP? Does that break the game? And what about the issue of localization? Is it censorship, or is it appropriate cultural awareness?