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Friday, 3 June 2016

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright

Okay, I am pretty tired of doing television reviews now, so the last Disappointment Dice review is going to have to wait until next week.

In the meantime, here's a video game review.

Fire Emblem Fates

So, last year I played Fire Emblem: Awakening, then the latest entry in the franchise and, it was fair to say, the most blisteringly popular one, something it owed in no small part to its Casual Mode and its wide array of interesting, diverse characters. It just missed out on a mention in the Fission Mailure Awards, due to my playing it in a year with a lot of good games, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and I was very excited for the one/three new Fire Emblem games.

I say one/three because while all three are nominally one game split into three parts - Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation - both Birthright and Conquest (and, one presumes, Revelations, but that's not out here yet) contain an entire game's worth of content, and can be bought as separate physical games with different boxes (or you can just buy one and buy the other as DLC, marked down to a little less than half price), and both parts manage to diverge significantly from each other in both story and gameplay.

In Birthright, you play as Corrin, a prince or princess born in the sunny, Japan-inspired country of Hoshido but raised in the gloomy, Britain-inspired country of Nohr, as the son of Nohr's king, Garon. When out on a mission for their father, Corrin is kidnapped by Hoshidans, and gets to meet their birth family, only for disaster to strike when their sword, a gift from Garon, explodes and kills Hoshido's queen, dispelling the barrier around the country and allowing Nohr to invade. Siding with their Hoshidan blood siblings over their adoptive Nohrian siblings, Corrin sets out to win the war in Hoshido's name, launching an infiltration into Nohr with intent to topple Garon. Joining them is Azura, a Nohrian princess raised in Hoshido, who possesses a mysterious power - a song that can dispel darkness and return any who hear it to their true mind, but which carries a terrible cost.

The pre-rendered cutscenes are very pretty.

In terms of gameplay, Birthright is almost identical to Awakening: You have a variety of named units with different abilities, weaknesses, and strengths (and who gain buffs to their stats if they're adjacent to units they've developed close relationships with) which you can maneuver around a field to attack enemy units, in a series of battles that almost always have the objective of 'defeat every enemy' or 'defeat the boss.' Birthright notably offers a different range of units from both Awakening and Conquest - as a feudal Japan-esque country, you have units befitting that, with samurai, onmyoji, shrine maidens, mechanists riding robotic liondogs, archers wielding yumi, and so on. While Awakening's troops were very diverse, Birthright's tend towards being light, fast units (with a particular focus on flying units - you get a lot of flying units).

The biggest problem there is that the lack of diversity in mission goals and set-up means that you often feel like you're playing the same mission over and over again with minor quirks ("In this mission, you're trying to kill a boss, but there are pools of acid on the floor; and in this mission, you're trying to kill a boss, but there are pools of speed-sucking miasma on the floor,") and that can get pretty tiring.

There are a few other minor changes from Awakening, including the addition of a fortress that you can build armories, mess halls, hot springs, etc in, and which you can choose to have invaded. 

As is the promotional art.

The big gameplay change from Awakening, though, is the introduction of an easier mode than Casual Mode - specifically Phoenix Mode, which restores any fallen units to life with full health at the beginning of each of your turns. I did briefly try it to see what it was like, and I found that it made the game interminably boring, but for people who just want to get at the story, or who are struggling on a particular mission (since you can switch difficulty between Casual and Phoenix at any time, meaning you can switch for one mission and then back again), it's a useful little addition.

It's notable also that Birthright is marketed as the easiest of the three parts, with unlimited opportunities to gain XP and money meaning that you can level grind with ease, something you can't do in Conquest or Revelation. While that level grinding was useful, I quickly found that over the course of the game, it became a chore. 

Graphically, the game is also basically identical to Awakening - very similar character models, very similar character portraits, very similar landscapes. Which is fine: The graphics stand up pretty well. 

Azura, I'm not even sure what you're wearing.

The story, meanwhile, is a little oddly paced. While Awakening was divided into three clear acts with three clear enemies, Birthright is basically all about trying to get into Nohr and kill Garon, meaning that a great many of the missions consist of 'on the way we arrived at some woods where wrong'uns were waiting for us', which gives it a somewhat ponderous pace at times. 

Nor does it help that this is, in essence, the first third of a longer story, so while you learn a lot about the political and geographic make-up of the world, a lot of questions like 'what is King Garon's deal' and 'what is Azura's deal' and 'what's up with the invisible people who want to hurt us' are left unanswered, there to be expanded upon in Conquest and Revelation.

It's a solid, coherent story, though, and I did find myself rooting for both the Hoshidan siblings and the Nohrian siblings to get out of it safe. It's also noteworthy that while you're fighting against the most ridiculously evil-seeming kingdom ever - It's covered in perpetual darkness, all its buildings are black and twisted, it has places with names like 'the Woods of the Forlorn', and its royal palace is called 'Castle Krakenburg' and located in a fiery pit of doom - the game actually does take some time to flesh out Nohr, clarifying that King Garon's madness is pretty new, and that Nohr's imperialistic nature is at least partly motivated by how impoverished it is, and how nobody can grow much food when they're covered by perpetual shadow.

Your family. Well, some of them.

Romance also turns up again, and it's much like Awakening's, in that since it's boiled down to four conversations (three of which must also be applicable for friendship), it's kind of abrupt and out of the left field and ridiculous. New additions to Birthright and Conquest include same-sex options, which is good, and about eighteen different varieties of incest, which is bad. 

All in all, I really enjoyed Birthright, and basically the day after I finished with it I downloaded Conquest to start playing that, as well, so expect a review of it next week. Revelation is due to come out for digital download in Europe in about a week, so I'm looking forward to that as well. 

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