Fire Emblem Fates expands on Awakening with three different storylines, two factions that not just look different but play different, and a completely revamped combat system. The price to pay is that now Fire Emblem Fates is split into three separate games and getting the whole game requires either finding one of the rare limited edition cartridges or buy the extra storylines as DLC. Fire Emblem Fates' story feels unfinished if players complete only one side, but the three storylines weave together so tightly that it's impossible to resist knowing everything.
The kingdoms of Nohr and Hoshido have been at war for a long time, and the player's avatar is at the center of the conflict, being kidnapped by Nohrian forces from his (or her) ancestral Hoshidian home when very little. Raised as Nohrian nobility, the avatar is captured by Hoshidian forces and shocked to know his origins, and must decide which side to serve. Hoshido is linked to the Birthright campaign, Nohr to Conquest. The third path, Revelation, is better faced after having cleared the other two campaigns. Each path has more than 20 missions (in addition to six common introductory chapters), its own set of characters, classes, and weapons, lasting roughly 15-20 hours each.
The biggest change in Fates are the weapons, that no longer have limited uses (with the exception of healing rods) and have more different effects. Weapons are still divided in three categories (swords, axes, lances) built with different materials (bronze, iron, steel, silver) and follow the usual weapon triangle. However, rather than simply increasing a weapon's strength with better materials, now weapons bestow a variety of effects to the wielder and sometimes to the target: or example silver weapons are powerful but weight a lot, making double attacks almost impossible and bestowing a dodge penalty to the user; small weapons like daggers and shuriken don't do much damage, but inflict a variety of stat effects to the target. This change keeps lowly iron weapons relevant throughout the game and allows the use of special weapons more frequently, rather than keeping them for bosses. On the other hand, silver weapons are often left unused as even promoted units seldom attack twice with them, whereas they do with iron and steel weapons. The change is more than welcome, simplifying inventory management and giving more variety to all weapons.
With two factions to choose from, developers opted to differentiate the warring states not only in graphical representation, but in unit availability as well: Hoshido uses ancient Japan as inspiration, with plenty of foot infantry ranging from ninja to units specialising in one weapon category, pegasus riders for hit-and-run tactics, diviners instead of mages, and free access to ranged healing staves for their healers.
Nohr has a strong cavalry, with cavaliers, paladins, and great generals; magic support is present but not as strong as Hoshido, and rather than speed and finesse the Nohrian army focuses on brute strength, their advance led by mounted units. Nohr might not have access to versatile healing items but do get access to killer weapons (increased chance of critical damage). Both storylines feature a couple of units from the other faction, but the result is that the Birthright and Conquest campaigns not only look different and follow separate storylines, but also play different.
The differences in available units affects map design and the player's avatar as well. Fire Emblem Fates once again allows players to create their own character; he or she will always be able to use Dragon Veins, but depending on the chosen favoured class, Corrin (the avatar's default name) will be able to change and progress to different classes. By default Corrin can turn into a dragon, but players can forfeit this ability for almost any other class in the game.
Dragon Veins are tiles that only royalty (including the player's avatar and related children) can activate. Their effects can be limited, like activating a healing zone, or can disrupt maps, like levelling hills, creating or destroying passageways, or stop the flow of enemy reinforcements. While a neat addition Dragon Veins are somewhat underused, often acting as simple switches for alternate ways of movement. Maps do an incredible job in keeping such a simplistic approach interesting, but after the introductory chapters featuring severe alterations to a map's layout, their use in the main campaign is somewhat disappointing.
Despite that, the maps in Fates are perhaps the most interesting in the series, especially in Revelation. All three storylines share some maps, though they are faced in different parts of their campaign and from a different tactical position (once as the defender, once as the attacker). In addition to the aforementioned Dragon Veins, there are moving tiles, teleporters, destructible objects, and more variety in terrain types than ever. More than any Fire Emblem before terrain must be fully exploited to achieve victory: the opposing units will, and their composition is more varied right from the start; the AI knows how to make the best out of the available systems to deliver the most damaging attack possible and will always go for it. Overextending with flying units or single units rushes are punished harshly, as the game is not shy of pulling criticals or special attacks. Playing aggressively pays off in determinate situations and in the Birthright and Revelation campaigns it's possible to grind unit levels, but level disparity in Fates is less of a factor than in some other Fire Emblem games, especially among promoted units. As maps are more elaborate and wide-ranging than ever, units with low movements like Knight and Generals still have limited usefulness, as there aren't many purely defensive situations in all campaigns.
Fire Emblem Fates offers two ways to offset its difficult: in casual mode defeated allies will be back for the next mission, as in Awakening; new to Fates is phoenix mode, where friendly units come back a few turns after being defeated. Permadeath mode is still present, as well as harder difficulty settings.
Between story missions players can engage in customising their own castle; as the story progresses new buildings become available, and those will be your primary source of weapons and items. Castles also serve as hubs where to receive players over the internet or Streetpass and challenge them; challenges take place in either player's castle, and while they don't bring any experience to a unit, they can bring extra abilities to participating units. These battles aren't directly fought against a human player, but rather against an AI following guidelines and unit positioning set by humans.
Fates' most glaring weakness is the writing. The story is pretty solid, offering plenty of twist and emotional moments punctuated by movies, but it's not without its shortcomings.
First, a couple of twists that should greatly affect Corrin come off as weak due to a rather tenuous link between Corrin and the other characters, whereas others involving primary characters feel a bit rushed. Second, the whole world seems to revolve around Corrin: even when he's not directly affected by an event, other characters will often reference the player's avatar. While it does make sense considering the premise, it places the war between Hoshido and Nohr in the background and often inhibits characters to gain an identity of their own and how they act toward other characters. This is particularly obvious when Aqua, the second most important character in the story, seems to favour Corrin over her own husband in some key scenes; while it's understandable that developers couldn't possibly factor in every kind of combination, some story choices do seem questionable.
Fire Emblem Fates is an incredibly well crafted game, that once again refines the tried and true Fire Emblem formula. The changes to weapon usage, class balancing, and map layout contribute to create the biggest Fire Emblem yet, though not without falls.
The Hoshidian campaign is the easiest of the three and plays in a similar fashion to Awakening (with free challenge maps to grind for experience) and the least interesting in a tactical point of view.
Nohr harkens back to old games in the series with a straightforward approach where every single unit and item count (it's still possible to grind in paid DLC maps, but even some of those don't give experience), featuring much more interesting maps and challenging objectives.
Revelation is the best of the three because it takes the best elements of the two previous campaigns and further elevates them.
The decision to split the game into three separate storylines is questionable, but every game can very well live on its own if the story isn't the main concern; unfortunately the cart with all three games on is excruciatingly hard to find, and most players will have to rely on Nintendo's dated online service to get Revelation. Nevertheless, Fire Emblem Fates deserves to be played.
Score: 8/10 (Conquest)
Score: 9/10 (Revelation)