The girls look better on the cover of Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright compared to the Conquest version. Easy decision to make. And that might put me in the targeted demographic for Intelligent System’s recent direction with the series, opting for attractive anime portraits and dating dynamics amidst a campaign of grid space tactical battles. But couple that with Birthright’s offering of side mission content and my decision felt wise enough. Indeed, this meant my hero prince, when faced with the dilemma that branches the game between its versions, would abandon his family from Nohr for those that are truly of his blood in Hoshido. The two nations warring, I must take on the devastating task of conquering the opposing region and facing the family I turned from.
The hero is a blank slate as to more easily project your desires for the other units. He otherwise amounts to little more than a pile of exclamatory remarks and innocent inquiries, but also takes a pacifist viewpoint on war, opting to save lives wherever possible. His royal blood allows engagement with glyphs on the field that can create traversable terrain, shower healing upon a segment of the map, or create whirlwinds that slow enemy flyers. These situational glyphs are often the deal breakers in some of Birthright tighter skirmishes, and are a fun interaction to find in each. Aside from that, the prince is a unit like any other, beginning as a base class that can be upgraded quickly for an early advantage, or patiently developed into a unit with better stats.
Relationships improve on the field when attacking or defending in the vicinity of one another. Effects of adjacency in Fire Emblem Fates also form the key component in dealing and mitigating damage. Units on neighboring spaces will attack simultaneously, the field transitioning to a close up view of combat. Hana, a samurai, dashes in for a strike as her ally a space behind her, Kaze, unleashes two of his Ninja shuriken. The couple splits experience points and a heart icon bubbles up between them. They’re a little turned on now, and might unlock some more personal bits of conversation back at base, increasing their bond and thus their stat boosts when fighting alongside each other.
Attacking in pairs is less a decision than it is a natural occurrence, because circumstances encourage your platoon to be tightly knit. Step outside protection with a fragile mage or archer, and enemies in Fire Emblem Fates will not hesitate to make a B-line for the stragglers. Poor planning and losing a single character — even if the battle is easy and still winnable — is what prompts frustration and many restarts in Birthright, especially on Classic mode where death is permanent. This adds a welcome challenge to an otherwise manageable game, but one not all so majestic. Some characters die while others who are important to the story merely retreat. I lost one unit who instead took a knee and ran because the plot needed him to sacrifice himself the next mission. In this way, Classic mode should be seen as a forced form of difficulty rather than a source of quality drama.
Proper defense can prevent the threat of having a unit one-shot by a nasty elite enemy, or a flying unit you didn’t expect to make a trip half across the map to slay your priestess (I’m bitter, I really am). Using ‘Pair Up’ will have one unit share the space of another as their buffer. The buffering unit lends their stat affinities to the partner, and hides herself from being a direct target in combat, instead stepping in for the occasional block save. Weapon types in Birthright find vulnerabilities in others, dealing massive damage to those on the opposite spectrum, further encouraging smart unit placement and the use of these unit pair ups to account for deficiencies. There is a penalty, however, in that the buffer character misses a great deal of experience points, and so choosing when to pair up and how long to glue together becomes a real chin stroker.
You won’t be stroking much else in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright. In fact, the mini-game that allows you to rub the face or blow air on your love interest’s anime portrait has been largely gutted from the Western release. Really, it looked like a cheap cereal box erotic game anyway, so I’m hardly holding the removal of it against the final product. The real issue is that bonding at the private quarters in between missions is naked of any interactivity or interesting dialogue. In my campaign I pursued the dark skinned tribal warrior, Rinkah, who was a hostile and standoffish type of girl. To my disappointment, it took but a few missions and short conversations about her bottled up feelings to completely melt her heart. She suddenly became steamy eyed and all worshippy. Boring stuff. And when the much hotter mage, Orochi, came by, I saw no option for divorce.
Not every unit relationship needs to be intimate, though, and most of the support dialogue in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright revolves around understanding your troops and solving their inner dilemmas or quirks: A clumsy maid who just wants to help as best she can, a recluse Ninja confused over social routines, warriors with brash egos or those reluctant to trust you, the dialogues are unlocked as you fight alongside them. It’s cute stuff, though never endearing, impressionable, or stepping past surface level.
The main plot is much the same, the aforementioned main character incapable of creating interesting drama when his only purpose is to be constantly shocked at enemy ambushes (every mission). The battle setups themselves are great, however, showcasing varieties of terrain and lethal boss units. One mission is comprised of narrow boardwalks where troops must be organized dangerously in single file. Activate a glyph, though, and turn the surrounding water into traversable ice. The battlefield opens up but also to the enemy, a decision you might come to regret!
The whole campaign comes to be a satisfactory 20 hours, a healthy challenge on Normal, and a slight motivation to try another installment on ‘Lunatic.’ In fact, I may grab Conquest and see the other side of the story from the kingdom of Nohr. But learning from this experience, I now expect to skip every cutscene or dialogue segment in favor of focusing on the pretty characters, class assembly, tactical conflicts, and creating an army to admire.