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From the day it was announced that Fire Emblem Fates would be divided into two separate games, I was torn. Not because I found structuring the game this way to be a "cash grab" or a means to milk consumer's wallets; in fact, I actually relished in the potential the business model had for both the Fire Emblem series, and other Nintendo franchises as well. Each game was offered as a full experience, and playing through both meant getting to see two sides of a complex conflict, each from a unique perspective.
In reality, I was torn because the differences between Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright and Conquest existed on both a narrative and gameplay level, and each version had an approach to one aspect I preferred. I've written about the differences between Birthright and Conquest once before, and it'd be wise to brush up on those differences before reading this blog. To make a long story short, Birthright sees the main character siding with his biological family before an ensuing war, and features the same relaxed and casual difficulty level that brought many new fans into the Fire Emblem fold in 2013's Awakening. The game features simple map layouts and objectives, as well as endless opportunities to grind to ensure none of your favorite characters grow underleveled. Conquest on the other hand involves players choosing to side with their adoptive family instead in the very same conflict, and features a much more challenging campaign, with more complex map layouts, complicated objectives, and the omission of the ability to grind levels.
On a purely narrative level, whether you should play Birthright or Conquest first should be based on how you'd answer the following question - "What is more important to you, blood or bond?" However, from a gameplay standpoint, you should pick the version that suits your tastes as a gamer and past experience with the Fire Emblem series. Those that jumped on the series' bandwagon with Awakening or have never played any Fire Emblem games before would feel right at home in Birthright, while series veterans would better relish the satisfying challenge Conquest provides.While this sounds fine and dandy, it put yours truly in a bit of a sticky wicket. My heart wanted to side with my Nohrian family and choose Conquest. I've always valued the strength of bond over blood; I admire the importance of family, but at the end of the day, I believe it's more important to surround yourself with people you share strong bonds with, rather than a few paltry genes. Yet my mind wanted to choose Birthright. Like many other newfound Fire Emblem fans, Awakening was my first taste of the series, and I preferred its flexibility and more relaxed gameplay to the tough-as-nails experience of its many predecessors.
In the end, my mind triumphed over my heart; it crushed my soul to do so, but I picked my blood family, complete strangers to me at the time, to over the only family I ever knew. As I made the fateful choice that alters the rest of the game to follow, I immediately regretted my decision when my adoptive brother Xander branded me a traitor in disbelief and proceeded to fight me.
My Nohrian siblings were shocked and disgusted that I sided against them in Birthright, making me immediately regret my decision.
In TheDarkestLink's latest Fire Emblem blog, I contributed an entry/massive text wall explaining that as my time with Birthright progressed, I grew increasingly satisfied with my choice. Spending time outside of Nohr, I was able to see what a terrible, horrid man King Garon, one I once called "Father," was and had the privilege of striking him down in battle, rather than returning to and siding with the country he ruled. I concluded my contribution to TheDarkestLink's blog by saying I was ultimately very happy with my time with Birthright, and even feared playing Conquest somewhere down the line, as doing so would mean being forced to fight and kill the friends and allies I had made over the course of Birthright.
And so it was that I convinced myself I was done with Fire Emblem for a while, and Conquest's campaign was ever to remain a mystery to me...
Yeah, that didn't last long.I soon found that with Birthright completed, it left a void in its wake, as in the weeks since it released, it dominated the entirety of my free time to play video games, and even some of the hours I normally set aside for study. I was faced with a painful realization - I was addicted to Fire Emblem. I was also immensely curious as to what would've happened if I went with my gut on February 19th and purchased Conquest instead. And so I immediately set forth for the eShop and purchased Conquest to quell my addiction and ease my curiosity.
And boy am I glad I did.
On virtually every front, I am enjoying Conquest far more than Birthright, almost to the point I find Birthright woefully inferior by comparison. Today, I'd like to take a look at the various aspects that made my journey with the Nohrian army far more enjoyable than my stay in Hoshido.
Bond Over Blood
One of the most heartbreaking lines of the Birthright campaign of Fire Emblem Fates comes from your adopted brother, Xander. As you lie in the physical and metaphorical ruins of the castle you once called home, he nostalgically remembers the times the two of you spent with your siblings at the dinner table without a care in the world, simply enjoying each other's company and sharing laughs. He says so with a smile and good intentions, but this exchange still exists to make the player lament their decision to side against their adoptive family, as that decision ultimately destroyed the unity and love the family members shared for one another. Fates explores the nasty consequences of the difficult choices we're forced to make in life, and it's very successful at making you feel terrible no matter the choice you make.
However, this exchange also made the reverse outcome all the more satisfying. I never fully felt at ease siding with Hoshido in the Birthright campaign. Your birth family is immensely warm to you, but they still feel like strangers. Corrin, the player avatar, hasn't seen them since he was a mere infant, so while they are ecstatic to meet you once more, the feeling isn't exactly mutual. Corrin has no bond with them. Over the course of Birthright I warmed up to all my biological siblings, admiring their strengths and laughing at some of their innocent character flaws, but I never shook the feeling that I was an outsider in their country.
Standing with your adoptive family immediately felt much more satisfying. The game does a far better job getting the player to connect with the main cast of Conquest over Birthright's before they are forced to choose between them. I found older brother Xander's tough love, Camilla's doting, Leo's chaffing wit, and Elise's overwhelming love for her brother far more compelling than the more stoic siblings you'd side with in Birthright's campaign. Since Corrin also has known these characters for his entire life, the love these siblings have for each other, and for the player, also feels much more real, and I felt a sense of belonging in Nohr that my stay in Hoshido sorely lacked.
It still hurt to turn my back on my adoptive family, particularly since I better knew their motivations and tics having played Birthright first, but it was satisfying to finally follow my heart and side with Nohr, instead of settling with Birthright simply for it's gentler difficulty curve.
Whether you side with Hosido, or Nohr, the decision you make in Fire Emblem: Fates will break certain characters' hearts. I was happy that in Conquest, none of those hearts have to be your Nohrian siblings.
Finding Friends in the Dark
I've made it abundantly clear up until now that I find the Nohrian siblings of Conquest to be far more compelling and likable characters than their Hoshidian counterparts in Birthright. However, these are not the only characters to appear in both games; each has roughly 30 units for the player to recruit (many of which are exclusive to each game), and once again, this puts a point in Conquest's favor in my book. Birthright certainly has its share of compelling and interesting characters. Some of my personal favorites include Saizo, a curt, direct, sarcastic, and rude ninja who has trouble carrying out conversations with people, and Azama, a priest who thinks "annoying serious people is fun!" and is essentially an RPG character with the same motivations as an Internet troll. Yet the majority of Birthright's cast simply felt...bland. Many of the characters lacked features and character traits that made them truly stand out from the rest of the pack. For example, I remember that Kagero...paints...yet I struggle to remember anything else interesting or noteworthy about her character, and she's not the only one that suffers from this problem in Birthright.
Many of the supports between the Hoshidian cast members were also rather disappointing. One thing that amazed me about the writing of Fire Emblem: Awakening is that you could pair up any two characters, no matter how radically different their personalities were, and the support conversations between them would almost always have a believable and sweet progression from friendship to love to marriage that somehow didn't feel forced.
Sadly, though in my experiences there were a few highlights, many of Birthright's supports were very cookie-cutter in structure, and all were rather bland. Most involved two units sparring with one another and learning their fighting styles...before suddenly realizing they loved one another, following in impromptu marriage proposals.
Thankfully, this wasn't the case with Conquest, as its campaign features a far more lovable, complex, and compelling cast. Personal standouts for me include Arthur, a wannabe superhero with an unhealthy obsession with justice, terrible luck, and hilarious voicework, Effie, a meathead knight who bench presses tree trunks and yearns to go to the gym during battles, and Odin, an edgy and dramatic dark mage with a penchant for shouting bizarre phrases such as "my aching blood!" and "my darkness is darker than yours!" Because these characters are wackier and more vibrant, their personalities clash in more interesting ways during supports.A couple of highlights include Effie threatening to smash edgy thief Niles' head like an apple when the latter starts to teach her younger friend profanity. A werewolf-like character brings innuendo into the forefront when talking about "bone holes" with your adoptive sister Camilla. Unsuccessful womanizer Laslow has his mind blown when farm girl Mozu says he is "cool," marking the first time a woman has ever complimented him.
The supports between the cast members of Conquest are mostly hilarious, but there are also a few sprinkled in with a somber and touching tone, that deal with subjects of grief and homesickness. This isn't to say that Birthright's supports lack any of this, merely that in my experiences, Conquest's deliver powerful emotions at a more regular and reliable rate.
Ultimately, having a more likable cast to fight alongside meant I'd work even harder to keep my friends alive in Conquest when playing with permadeath on. While playing Birthright, I was mostly indifferent to character deaths, but since I cared more about the Nohrian cast, I put more thought into my strategy to ensure none of them met an unnecessary end. Simpy put, Conquest's characterization is so good it actually get me even more invested in the title's strategic gameplay, which is a real testament to its strength.
Score one for the localization team! The support conversations in Conquest seldom disappoint and make an already likable cast even more colorful and compelling.
Another key difference between Birthright and Conquest is the nature of the army you side with. Hoshido is essentially a fantasy version of feudal Japan; the architecture of the kingdom has an Eastern influence and cherry blossoms litter the countryside. More importantly, the game features classes and weapons to match its aesthetic; in Birthright, you'll be playing as speedy ninja and samurai instead of bulky knights and cavaliers, and wield katana and naginata instead of traditional swords and lances.
Naturally, Nohr takes more influence from Western, specifically European history. Medieval European castles dominate Nohrian territory, and Western-inspired classes and weapons that series veterans will be familiar with are on display. In Conquest, you'll wield bows instead of yumis and command Paladins instead of Samurai for example. Even Nohr's characters and culture mirror Western traditions, with the nation's emphasis on glory and strength mirroring that of the Roman empire, and Crown Prince Xander bearing a strong resemblance to Alexander the Great.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a rather minor touch, but I've noted on this website before that I'm a bit of a history buff, and am currently studying to teach it myself. I'm particularly enthralled by Western Civilization, and this, coupled with my familiarity of the returning classes Conquest leans on, has made me more fond of the classes and weapons Conquest has to offer.
The weapons, classes, and setting of Conquest remind me of savage medieval European warfare, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
The Bagpipe is Mightier than the Sword
Before the rest of this bullet point, I need to emphasize that the soundtracks of Birthright and Conquest are virtually identical. By the time you've reached the end of both games, you'll have heard many of the same map themes. However, there are a few tunes exclusive to each version, and each game plays certain tracks at a more regular pace. The tracks that play more frequently in Birthright are an extension of the game's feudal Japan setting, with noble themes and Eastern instruments. Conquest on the other hand, features more grandoise and dramatic tunes, bringing to mind colossal castles and grand knights. Conquest's musical tracks take cues from Gaelic and Nordic instruments (hence the epic bagpipe tunes), and I generally preferred them to their Birthright equivalents. I've yammered long enough it this blog up until this point, so I'll let a few tracks from each game speak for themselves. I lean towards Conquest's musical direction. Which do you prefer?
The musical tunes of both games are similar, but differ in the instruments employed and tone. Here are two from each. Which game's direction do you prefer?
Learning to Love "Classic" Fire Emblem
I've spoken at great length up until this point about the superior characterization and style of Conquest over Birthright, but spoken very little about the differences in gameplay between the two versions of Fates; gameplay is not only arguably more important than the aforementioned points, but the main reason I initially chose to play Birthright instead of Conquest, so it needs to be addressed.I've made it no secret up until now that Awakening was my first proper taste of Fire Emblem. After playing it and falling in love with its flexible gameplay and lively characters, I went on to play previous entries in the series only to walk away severely underwhelmed. Fire Emblem purists will want my head for saying this, but I found the characters of older Fire Emblem games to be too stuffy and dry, and the gameplay too harsh and unforgiving. I felt nothing when characters in the Game Boy Advance Fire Emblems died; this was especially problematic since this was a regular occurrence due to how brutally difficult the gameplay was, with few chances to grind or obtain better weapons, and the titles' complicated maps and objectives.
Since Conquest's gameplay prides itself in taking inspiration from these games, I was more than a little worried I would feel overwhelmed by the gameplay and underwhelmed by the characters once more, yet thankfully this is not the case. I've already discussed the top-notch characterization, but the gameplay matches it in quality. A satisfying new wrinkle to the Fire Emblem gameplay absent in older installments is the addition of "Attack" and "Support" stances. By placing two units next to each other on the battlefield, entering a battle with one with initiate "attack" stance; in this mode, only the unit attacking or being attacked will be able to take damage, but the other unit will be able to offensively support the lead unit, potentially donating enough damage to defeat the foe and save a precious turn. Support stance functions similar to the Pair Up mechanic introduced in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Two units will move as one, only occupying one space. The lead unit is still the only one that takes damage, while the supporting character boosts their stats and occasionally protects them from attacks. However, unlike Awakening, the supporting unit will never attack any foes, meaning the support stance remains useful without becoming as overpowered as its Awakening counterpart.
Both stances allow for new strategic possibilities, giving player more options at their disposal than older Fire Emblems, while still maintaining the challenge. Of course, this mechanic is also present in Birthright, but it's far more important players both implement and master it to complete Conquest's brutal campaign. These two stances give players a key advantage in battle older Fire Emblem games lack, but more importantly, they gave me the motivation to master Conquest's challenging levels, and ultimately, fall in love with the gameplay model of "classic" Fire Emblem games.
I now appreciate that for as satisfying as losing a unit to a critical hit is and being forced to press on without your favorite character (or reset the game and lose an hour of progress), it's also extremely satisfying to successfully execute a master strategy on a complicated map without any members of your army dying. Clearing the notoriously difficult tenth chapter of Conquest while keeping all my allies alive has become one of the most satisfying moments in my gaming career.
Conquest ultimately has more interesting maps and objectives than Birthright. You'll deal with harsh winds pushing around your units in between turns as you navigate a complicated maze of ruins. You'll defend key strategic locations or escape bosses instead of simply murdering everything in sight for ten chapters straight. The missions and terrain require more cognitive prowess, meaning Conquest isn't a game you'll just play to have fun and kill time for ten minutes, as it's a very demanding experience. However, this ultimately makes the game more engrossing, involving, and ultimately satisfying to play. In Conquest, I strove to keep the members of my army alive more than I did in Birthright, and this meant carefully analyzing the map terrain, choosing the right characters to bring to the fight, and carefully weighing all possibilities when attacking. I grew better at all of these things as the game progressed, and with my newfound skills I'm eager to return to older Fire Emblem games and give them a second chance.
My time with Conquest has molded me into a more confident Fire Emblem player. Once I'm finished I'm looking forward to diving into its many predecessors and enjoying their level of challenge in a way I never could before.
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is not perfect. My biggest problem with the game is how frustrating its overarching narrative is, as it's troublesome and annoying to watch Corrin and his siblings continue to do evil deeds for their King Garon time and time again without gathering the gall to stand up to him for much of the campaign. However, I really do believe that the characters, setting, soundtrack, and gameplay of Fates are so well polished that it's easy to overlook the narrative's faults and bask in what I believe is the best Fire Emblem game to date.
In the span of a week, I went from dreading playing Conquest due to its harsh difficulty and the fact I'd be forced to kill the allies I had made in Birthright, to relishing in its characters and challenge. Right from the outset, choosing to side with my Nohrian siblings felt...right. Alongside the rest of the kooky cast, I felt like I belonged in this army, a feeling I never truly had in Birthright, and the wonderful Western influence into Nohr's design, and the complex, satisfying gameplay only solidified my belief I made the right choice in Fates the second time around. I'm ultimately happy with the business decision to split Fates into two separate games to explore two radically different outcomes to the same tragedy. But if I ever find the urge to re-play the game and make a fateful decision once more...I will follow my heart yet again and choose bond over blood.
Have you played both versions of Fire Emblem: Fates yet? Which version do you prefer more and why? Do you want my head on a platter for criticizing older Fire Emblem games? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!