Nintendo’s long-running Fire Emblem series of strategy RPGs arguably reached its peak with Fire Emblem Awakening a few years back. The series’ 3DS debut retained the depth and the charm of its predecessors, added some clever new features, and helped the franchise reach new audiences while preserving the challenge and substance that previous games were known for.
When Nintendo announced that the sequel, Fire Emblem Fates, would be split into two simultaneously released titles and a third, DLC-only campaign, there was understandably some skepticism. Though Awakening undoubtedly provided a solid foundation to build upon, there was an undeniable possibility that these entries could feel incomplete and bare individually, since the developers worked on all three at once.
If Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is any indication though, then Nintendo and the developers at Intelligent Systems seemed to take this worry to heart. On its own, this version feels just as meaty as the likes of Awakening, retains many of its best features, and adds some enticing new ones as well.
The main protagonist of Birthright is a fully customizable male or female character with the default name of Corrin, who has spent their life as a secluded member of the royal family of the feudal kingdom Nohr. The first few levels of the game see Corrin training with other royal siblings and eventually getting his/her first mission out in the field from their father, King Garon. Various circumstances from this point lead to Corrin ending up in Hoshido, the Japan-like neighboring kingdom. From there, not only is it discovered that the king has been carrying out some very despicable actions, but that Corrin is in reality part of Hoshido’s royal family, kidnapped at a very young age by Garon himself.
The first few levels of Fates are actually identical across all three versions, with the key turning point coming in the sixth chapter, where Corrin makes a final decision: which kingdom to side with. If you pick up a physical version of Birthright like the one we received for this review, the choice is initially locked to ally with Hoshido, though the path for Conquest, the other version available at launch, can be purchased as DLC, and the third campaign, Revelation, will follow suit in March.
Going into and even starting out Birthright, I had no idea what incentive the game would provide to leave the Nohr family Corrin has known for years, especially since the first few chapters establish that the rest of the royal family is generally good-natured. Ultimately, though, the Birthright path provides a solid justification, as Corrin mainly chooses to side with Hoshido so they can put a stop to Garon’s violent actions for the greater good after a tragic event.
From this point, the plot adopts a more straightforward approach, with the royals of Hoshido and a gradually-growing band of allies facing off against many map’s worth of enemies, with the end goal bring to end the Nohrian threat and restore peace to the land.
While the previously mentioned prologue section works well, I thought that the overall plot didn’t start throwing interesting moments at me until about halfway through the main campaign. Also, the general cast of allies, while containing some standouts, didn’t come off quite as memorable as Awakening‘s expressive group. Granted, none of what I mentioned is done poorly, but I’d say that little factors like those are what make Birthright an equal to Awakening for me, rather than blatantly superior.
In terms of the actual gameplay, no changes made here are for the worse. You can select from dozens of preset characters with unique classes and abilities, like swordsmen, archers, mages, healers, flying units, and so on. Battles see you moving individual characters on each grid-based map to attack, use items or buffs, and even manually pair characters into one unit for better stats, with the AI-controlled enemies doing the same in the following round.
The classic rock, paper, scissors-like dynamic with the classic sword, axe and lance weapons remains untouched, though the incorporation of many other weapon types still adds additional variables when considering each classes’ weaknesses. It’s also refreshing to see lead characters take on classes besides the usual swordfighters of past Fire Emblems. While Corrin can still rely on a blade, you unlock an innate ability to transform into a dragon at will early on, resulting in the potential to be quite a powerhouse. There’s also the mysterious Azura, who relies less on fighting herself and more on her singing ability that enables previously used characters to have another turn.
One notable new feature in battles is the Dragon Vein mechanics. Many maps have glowing symbols at specific spots, and if Corrin or another royal character (easily identifiable by having a crown icon on their profile when highlighted) is willing to use up a turn by walking over to it and activating their mystical power, a context-sensitive event will happen that can provide players various benefits in battle, like clearing out trees for increased movement range or rain that temporarily lowers enemy stats.