I was skeptical about Fire Emblem Fates being separated out into two distinct cartridges. While even Pokémon can easily be labeled a money-grab hoping to boost sales of the product, the spirit of the split has functional purpose. By making certain pocket monsters exclusive to each cart, players are encouraged to interact and trade. Fire Emblem Fates offers no such feature. Not in as effective a manner, at least. At best, you can fight another player’s A.I. controlled units within their customized fortification, claiming one of their units as your own. However, that unit cannot develop relationships with other characters and has relatively limited use. That it’s after a battle with the A.I. also discourages the actual interactivity.
Instead, the divide between platforms is purely based on narrative. Being unable to catch all the Pokémon does not inhibit the player from enjoying the full experience available within each game. Fire Emblem Fates, on the other hand, presents you with two (later three) choices after a few hours of gameplay, and actively tells you that you cannot choose a path that belongs on another cartridge. The option is visibly there, but it is locked away. While a single cartridge can be a suitable and fulfilling campaign on its own, the story itself will always have loose ends that can only be tied up by purchasing yet a third campaign.
Nintendo did try to mitigate the damage to one’s wallet, at least. Rather than having to purchase both physical cartridges, the second cartridge is available as $20 DLC (downloadable content). Rather than spending $80 on two carts, they can spend $60. Unfortunately, if they want the “best” experience, they’re going to have to spend another $20 on the previously mentioned third campaign, only available as DLC. So the total spent on a single game is $80.
I’m not going to sit here and discuss how much a game is truly worth. Considering I got almost 100 hours of playtime out of Fire Emblem Fates, I’d say there’s a pretty good time to dollar ratio going on. However, I’m not convinced dividing the game into three separate campaigns was truly the best decision. Not with their execution, time, and budget, at least. My concerns are much less how much money I spent and more that, I enjoyed the game, but the best version of this game does not exist.
Let’s begin with comparing Birthright and Conquest, the two carts sold separately at retail. Mechanically speaking, they’re each designed to appeal to a different experience level. Birthright is intended for beginners, offering the player side missions where they can earn money and grind experience. Very few of the maps also have special conditions or environmental obstacles to consider, being much more straight forward battles. Unfortunately, the nature of these maps also makes the campaign the least interesting and requiring the least grind. Its benefits are wasted on a dull campaign.
Conquest, on the other hand, only rewards experience in story battles and offers no side missions for grinding money. The only thing the player can grind in side missions or DLC are the character’s relationship levels, whose stat bonuses become of much greater value. Almost every map also has some twist or set of obstacles that add dimension to the player’s strategy and tactics. It’s a much more satisfying experience marketed for veteran fans craving a challenge, but happens to go too far that direction. Anyone playing on Classic—the setting in which players die (or “retire”) permanently—is bound to lose their most valuable characters and forced to continue on with weaker ones. Without the ability to grind, losing characters eventually becomes a non-option. If the player tries to use their entire roster throughout the campaign, then they’ll find themselves under-powered entirely.
One cartridge runs the risk of being too easy and boring while the other runs the risk of being too difficult. That is, unless you change settings so characters come back after the battle. While this certainly makes the game more possible, it also removes some of the joy in discovering the depths of the game’s strategy. There’s real value to be had in playing on Classic, forcing the player to analyze situations, equipment, and character capabilities more closely and cautiously. Any other mode can simply turn into a consequence free war of attrition. The only people that really “win” with Conquest’s set-up are those that would rather have a more laid-back experience, one that is engaging enough without requiring too much mental energy or effort to enjoy. Because even on Classic, there’s really nothing notable about Birthright’s campaign.
This is where Revelations comes in, the DLC-only campaign where the player chooses a third option intended to unify both story and gameplay styles. Theoretically, it is the best campaign in the game. The variety of Conquest’s maps while permitting the grinding of Birthright. Depending on just how much Fire Emblem Fates you’ve been playing, however, the very idea of grinding could generate the same response as a teenager being asked to take out the trash while it’s raining outside. In regards to the maps, while some of them are the best Fates has to offer, others are rather irritating. You suddenly realize how much an endeavor it is for the team to create roughly sixty-nine unique maps for a single game.
Even then, it would all be worth it as long as the story wrapped everything up in a satisfying conclusion. All the loose ends may be tied up, but I would argue that the writing in Revelations is the worst of each campaign. You already know all the side characters and their arcs. There are no more twists to be found in half the game. There’s less opportunity to build out the characters as it’s too busy trying to pool all the cast together in a smaller timeframe. The drama feels cheap, hackneyed, abridged. The final “revelations” are predictable and emotionally empty. There’s no real payoff to it all.
In the end, I can only conclude that Fire Emblem Fates would have been better as a single cartridge. Not only because the three separate campaigns fail to be satisfying in their own right, but to allow the team more time to fine-tune each map, crafting a single campaign that takes its time to tell a story rather than three. I admire what Nintendo is trying by demonstrating three potential sides to a single war, but the concept is far, far beyond the time and writing talent available. Instead, it would have been better to have the game be a long form of Revelations, having perhaps forty or fifty unique maps rather than sixty-nine. That each downloadable campaign is hardly enough to fill up a single cartridge alone only makes the financial damage seem worse, as space available was clearly not an issue for dividing up the content. Most of it is already on either of the carts you buy in store.
Honestly, I would almost recommend sticking with Awakening instead. That single campaign was, on paper, more satisfying than any of the campaigns in Fates. The only thing that inhibits me from such advice is that Fates happens to have a lot of great mechanical improvements. Aside from simple quality-of-life changes to the User Interface, Fates also tweaks how weapons and equipment work. Rather than having a finite number of uses, weapons are permanent equipment that differentiate based on attributes and modifications. So weapons that would, say, offer a greater chance at critical hits but have fewer uses than an alternate blade instead decrease certain statistics for the wielder. Weaker weapons may grant bonuses to dodge while stronger weapons will penalize evasion. It adds a new contemplative layer to the combat that goes beyond positioning and the rock-paper-scissors of prior games. It now requires deeper situational awareness, the ability to read not only the current move, but the moves that will follow.
Speaking of the rock-paper-scissors chart of vulnerability, that has also been simplified to a Red-Green-Blue code. Each color is vulnerable to the one before it, making comparisons quicker and easier to comprehend (especially for equipment that didn’t previously fit into the Sword-Axe-Spear triangle).
In terms of combat, Fire Emblem Fates is a major improvement on Fire Emblem Awakening. Instead of wanting to replay a campaign in Fates, however, I’m left yearning for Awakening to be rereleased with the mechanical updates. It was a much tighter experience by keeping a more reasonable scope.
A game that offers me the ability to make a life-changing choice, exploring the notion that there is no “bad guy” in a war (except for the ancient God of evil manipulating it all, natch), it is all a narrative I’d love to explore. But Fire Emblem Fates was unable to deliver that experience in a satisfying manner by insisting on splitting the game up into separate products. By trying to please everyone, it instead fails to be as thoroughly satisfying a package.
Here’s hoping that the next game doesn’t turn this split into a trend.