31 May, 2016

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

I came for the blushing anime brothers, in truth that was what I stayed for too, despite the sad lack of face stroking… Here’s my review of part of Fire Emblem Fates!

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest banner

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Fire Emblem Fates is an exciting proposition, the kind of weird release that I feel passionately about, a change of format that has the potential to fundamentally change how a videogame story may be told. That’s also part of the reason I defend downloadable content (DLC) and post-release support so vehemently. But just as DLC may be ill-conceived, designed in a way that retroactively detracts from the base game, so too may a multipart release.

Conquest is one half of Fire Emblem Fates, I hesitate to call it quite one third, but suffice it to say it is not the entirety of the experience. Conquest follows the Nohrian royal family, Birthright (the other retail release) the Hoshidans, and Revelations (the DLC-only release) a neutral, independent path. Narratively and structurally they are quite divergent, unlike say the multiple releases of the Pokémon games, which are mere shades of the same game. However, this review is solely based upon my time with Conquest. When I contrast it with Birthright and Revelations, I refer only to facts, not direct experience.

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest Xander sword

I chose Conquest for one reason, and one reason only; the Nohrian’s have the keenest fashion sense. Why the game bothers using writing to convey the despicable, warlike nature of the distinctly European Nohrians I don’t know; if the royal purples and abyssal blacks weren’t enough, one look at the sickly King Garon would do the trick. Hoshido, the peaceful fantasy version of feudal Japan, sport blazing reds and soft blues, their Queen Mikoto serene to the point of insincerity.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the art of Fire Emblem Fates. The anime-style portraits and occasional pre-rendered cutscenes are high quality, the characters evocative. But this stark delineation between good and evil in the form of the two nation’s colours, epitomises my greatest problem with Conquest. It is not that the lines are drawn so blatantly, or that the antagonist is so obvious; the previous Fire Emblems’ I’ve played did much the same. The problem is, is that it really is that shallow. There is no twist, no moment of gut-dropping doubt, no point at which it moves beyond.

The protagonist, despite finding themselves in positions of extreme distress and moral crisis, never does the unexpected, never finds a clever way of traversing their trouble. They are remarkably submissive. Likewise, their adversaries, evil and conniving, never actually manipulate or scheme in any way that feels truly alarming or tense.

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest king garon

In 2012’s Fire Emblem Awakening, the plot with all its twists and temporal turns, strung me along for days. Although, it should be noted that I played during what was perhaps the darkest period of depression I can recall – I was more than welcoming of the escape the game offered. Nonetheless, in Awakening your character was important to the story, key to its resolution, but it was largely driven by Chrom and his family. Your character had agency through their position as strategist and all-around confidante, and by extension I felt I had agency. Thus I was able to fill my character with myself. By contrast, I felt no connection to the protagonist of Conquest, beyond the shallowest appeal of the character art. I was never able to ground myself in them.  No matter how the game tried to present their moral and emotional turmoil, I always saw the frame, always felt as if I was watching – reading actually – an exceedingly rote and simplistic play. The story, in all its flatness, was happening to an underdeveloped hero. One who really needed a touch of humanity, a hint of actual bravery or dynamism to lift their die-hard compassion into action worth experiencing. They weren’t in the story’s flow, nor was I; it washed past us both, distantly.

The Conquest protagonist is in many ways, the worst possible character a videogame could have. The game never allows the protagonist to take action – but let’s them talk about it plenty. Rather it is taken against them. And of course, with no protagonist driven-action, there is no opportunity for player influence. The result is a limp shell, too rigidly defined to easily allow one to insert themself. A shell written with no confidence and thus possesses no sense of self on its own.

The wheels of Conquest’s narrative fall off soon after the journey begins, left in the dusty roadside because the axle, that is the protagonist, is too brittle and ineffectual to hold them in place.

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest tactics

Your protagonist, male or female, stern or cute, has familial relations with both the Nohrians and Hoshidans. And while I don’t think Fire Emblem Fates sets the scene particularly well, I do feel that is best left unexplained and unspoiled. The first half dozen missions are the same in both versions of the game; they lead to a standoff between the two factions, the two families. It is at this point, this branch of fate that you choose who to side with; Nohr, Hoshido, or neither.

It’s the kind of choice that clearly tears your character apart. Not me though. I already made that choice when I added Conquest to my cart. Unless I opened the eShop and downloaded the other two releases, there was no choice to be made.

I understand why that choice exists in the way it does, and can imagine the Fire Emblem fan who buys and installs all from the get-go and feels weight of that decision. A game changer in the most literal sense. In Conquest at least, that choice was the only explicit one I ‘made’, the only major point of narrative divergence I witnessed. Surfacing it in the manner it did left me wanting, and thinking about my ability to juggle two, possibly three game reviews at once. Immersion vanquished.   

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest magic

Conquest is the most inflexible path of the three; while Birthright and Revelations feature Awakening-style skirmishes between missions, Conquest serves up only story missions, a more traditional Fire Emblem experience in that regard. This limits the character experience and gold that can be earned, making it more difficult than Birthright, where one could grind character levels and money to one’s hearts content. Even on the easiest difficultly though, which is what I played on, Conquest is hard. The missions and scenarios are not particularly complex, but the combat is unforgiving.

Permadeath is optional – if you choose, defeated allies can die outright. Alternatively there is ‘casual’, that sees fallen characters return unscathed after the mission is over, and ‘phoenix’, allowing them to return the turn after they were defeated. Phoenix does suck just about all of the tension from the battles, yet its inclusion is valuable – I for one was not prepared to replay any mission more than three of four times. Particularly missions that saw victory repeatedly snatched by some Pegasus-riding grunt, flying halfway across the map to nestle on glowing square I had defended just fine for the last fifteen turns.

Combat and the core gameplay is largely unchanged from previous titles, namely Awakening; turn-based tactics on a grid, with rock-paper-scissors inspired weapon mechanics. Weapons no longer degrade with use – staves do –reducing the time spent managing characters’ inventories. Fire Emblem Fates allows you to swap camera angles in the 3D fights between characters – I particularly enjoyed the first-person perspective; the combat doesn’t often look good from there, but dumb enough to satisfy.

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest battle

There’s also ‘dragon veins’, magical tiles that alter the battle map; evaporating a river to allow you to cross, for example. There are missions that feature dragon veins with tactically rewarding results, help you to outmanoeuvre or disadvantage your enemy. Often though, they merely remove obstacles, functionally no different than breaking a wall or defeating an enemy.

Between missions you manage a castle, this entails the construction and upgrading of buildings, and the option of watching social interactions play out. As with previous Fire Emblem games, characters who aid each other in battle gain social ranks, each time unlocking a new scene between them. Every character – there are dozens – can interact with every other – this is not so secretly the real reason I play modern Fire Emblem games. Conquest’s narrow path means you’re not as free to explore these interactions, you have to really consider who you pair characters with each mission if you are determined to see their arcs through to the end. Making an already difficult game all the more so if the characters in question do not readily complement each other in combat.

As if it were a Pokémon game, or perhaps more pointedly a Metal Gear Solid game, you can capture enemy soldiers and hold them in a prison, where they can be persuaded to join your cause as controllable, named characters, or released. They act as any other character but naturally don’t possess social interactions. I imagine that employing these soldiers is key, or at least highly beneficial to runs played with permadeath turned on, to replenish one’s inevitably depleting ranks. I didn’t play that way and generally used the story characters, so as to unlock their social interactions. I did find myself trying to catch them all whenever the opportunity arose however.

Some buildings are tied to the social side of the game, but most are shops offering weapons, items, upgrades, and the like. Your character’s private quarters and to a lesser extent the hot springs feel largely pointless, with the ‘skinship’ mechanics removed from the western releases; you can invite your brother into your room to blush for a few seconds, but you can’t stroke their faces. The why I understand quite fully, localisation is a crucial aspect of development, but what’s left feels half-baked. An open wound that really should have healed over before anyone saw it.

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest Xander

Review – Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest mediocre 3/5Fire Emblem Fates is an intriguing construction, and I honestly want to see it all, but Conquest alone did not satisfy; it disappointed me as a standalone story, and as a successor to 2012’s Awakening. Underdeveloped though it was, I enjoyed the premise, and most of the side characters. Weak-willed and bolted to the tracks of a straightforward and hollow plot, the protagonist was not grown to the extent which they could support themselves, yet was too rigidly defined to allow me to establish a character of my own. While I welcome the new gameplay mechanics and changes, there were few standout missions, those that were often leveraged the dragon veins in interesting ways. Furthermore, regardless of whether I would have enjoyed the cut skinship features or not, they were just that, cut, not replaced or redesigned. Their foundations remain crudely visible.

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