Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright Review
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest was complete and utter garbage, but I still ended up feeling like I could have looked past many of its more questionable changes if the story didn’t out it—and this whole “three paths through the same basic game” stupidity—as a giant cash grab that rendered each path an unfulfilling, incomplete fragment of a whole game. Fortunately, Birthright surprised me by having a much more coherent story, and even the gimmicky map stuff ended up being dialed back so that maps proved far more conventional and in line with previous games in the series. That’s not to say that the game is perfect, of course, because there’s still an exhausting amount of random stuff that really has no reason to exist beyond fan service/pandering, but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by how much better Birthright is. We’re still talking about a game that’s dangerously close to the bottom of the barrel as far as the series is concerned (it has a great deal in common with Shadow Dragon and I’d consider the two about on par with one another), but after the crushing disappointment of Conquest, even its middling, inconsistent experience proved a breath of fresh air.
I decided to go through a lesbian phase
If you haven’t yet read my review of Conquest, which is really just a 4,000-word screed criticizing it for everything under the sun, then it’ll be hard for you to understand the depths of my hatred for it. Yes, it’s the worst game in the entire Fire Emblem series, but it also represented the point where Fire Emblem ceased to be what it had been up to that point, a callous pushing away from its primary focus of hardcore strategy to cater to a different market with different priorities. This had been building up for awhile, from Shadow Dragon’s comically easy difficulty to the games after it (including the Japan-only Fire Emblem 12, Awakening, and now Fates) including an option to turn off permadeath, but I didn’t begrudge these kinds of changes when they only affected the games in minor ways, like how the hardest difficulties in Awakening were clearly balanced around permadeath being off. Conquest was the point where the entire game seemed to have been rebalanced with these more casual game modes in mind, though, with the difficulty being wildly inconsistent and the changes to the mechanics and gimmicks rendering the game needlessly irritating with permadeath on.
When I first put Birthright into my 2DS, the game actually recognized my character from Conquest and gave me the option to start from the branching point in Chapter 6 (everything before that point is identical between all three Fates games), but I had come to loathe my character after 20 or so chapters of him whining and crying about things in Conquest instead of actually fixing them, so I decided to instead create a new character. I hadn’t really been happy with my male character’s appearance, and character creation lacks the flexibility needed to create a male character who doesn’t look derpy in some way, so I instead switched to a female character and started coming up with ideas for a name and theme. Eventually I gave her bright pink hair, named her Cotca for the cotton candy she so strikingly resembled, and topped her design off with a flower in her hair. Once I finished, she actually looked like she belonged in the Fire Emblem universe instead of being a player-created character, something that my Conquest character never successfully managed. Still, I didn’t like the idea of pairing Cotca up with a male character, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and explore the lesbian love option while I was at it to see how that affects things.
That ended up being a good call
Since there’s only one lesbian option available (and even then, only in Birthright and Revelation), my character of course ended up with Rhajat, and the two of them quickly became unstoppable. That’s not a meaningless exaggeration, either—I finished the second to last chapter using only them, and like Conquest I was playing on the “hard” difficulty. By the end of the game, they had combined for over 700 kills. Granted, Birthright is a much easier game than Conquest even on the same difficulty setting, but it’s still pretty impressive how unbeatable they ended up being. Pairing them up also had the unexpected benefit of a childless romance, which saved me the weirdness of a male Kana (the main character’s gender determines that of their eventual child Kana, who’s always the opposite) and the trouble of having yet another character to split experience between. I thought for sure that the developers would find a way to give even lesbians children given the pocket-dimension-of-faster-time craziness they pulled to include grown children in the first place without the story justification Awakening provided, but they actually showed some welcome restraint here.
And the writing in general is of a much higher quality
There aren’t enough profane words available for me to adequately describe my disdain for Conquest’s story, and yet Birthright manages to create something much more coherent out of many of the same elements. You still come across the Rainbow Sage, who is yet again left a completely unexplained character shrouded in mystery who gives random characters extra power for no obvious reason, even when they’re on opposite sides of the same war, but this kind of story stupidity is offset quite a bit by the fact that the main character actually shows resolve when siding with their birth family. In Conquest, my main character spent the entire game making stupid plans, moping when siding with the bad guy didn’t magically create peace (no, really), and trying to spare everyone he fought even when doing so made no sense whatsoever and actively undermined his plans. Fast-forward to Birthright, where Cotca straight up kills a guy and is glad he’s dead. The main character in Conquest spends much of the game apologizing to everyone, but the main character in Birthright shows some spine from the very beginning of that path (again, the branch is at chapter 6) when they explain exactly why their decision makes sense instead of shuffling their feet around and apologizing to everyone.
Also of note is that many of the same events happen no matter which side you’re on, which comes in good and bad flavors. The good would be the moments where things that were true in Conquest are also true in Birthright, but play out differently because of your presence. The most notable of these involves a certain possessed character I can’t get into detail about without delving into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that moments like these go a long way toward making it seem like things are happening behind the scenes rather than everything being driven entirely by your character. There’s also a bad side to this, however, with many maps and scenarios being very clearly flipped without much effort being put into making something entirely new. For example, where Elise came down with a rare sickness in Conquest and said strange things while asleep, here Takumi comes down with it and says strange things while asleep. Many maps are also reused (though the starting point and enemy types are often different), and you’ll again encounter one friendly beast-person and have to kill the other, with the ones you recruit and kill being determined by whether you’re playing Conquest or Birthright. It’s not always like this, though, so I’m filing this under “could be much better since both games are full-priced, but could also be much worse.”
The mechanics are still cheap, but now they’re cheap in your favor
I’m not going to pretend that the new mechanics in the Fates games make them better games, because they don’t. In fact, I hate the changes and maintain that they water down the series in numerous ways (see my review of Conquest for examples). Still, they manage to be less of a problem in Birthright, and that comes down to the game not stacking the deck against you by playing cheap. Not only that, but it often gives you the tools required for you to play cheap. Don’t mistake that for an endorsement, though—I loved the fair difficulty of older Fire Emblem games, so whether it’s you or your enemy benefiting from cheapness, it’s not a good thing. That having been said, you can always choose not to cheese your way through maps, so I can’t help but think that it’s slightly less bad to have this cheapness in your hands.
Of course, that’s all very vague, so let’s get into examples of some of the cheap tactics you can employ. The most immediate thing you may notice is that you’re given a lot of ninja-type characters early on who have shurikens, which allows you to swarm powerful enemies and slowly chip away at their stats since shurikens have a debuffing effect. That’s nothing compared to the random weapons you find with a range of 3 spaces, though. In Conquest, I only came across enemies armed with these toward the very end of the game, whereas I can’t recall seeing a single enemy armed with these in Birthright. What this means is that you can arm your powerful archer/ninja characters with these types of weapons and take shots at enemies without them having the ability to hit you back. This is the kind of thing that existed in earlier games in the form of long-range spells, of course, but those always had the downside of few uses before they broke. Now that weapons don’t break, you can use these weapons to chip away at any stationary enemy (including almost every boss in the entire game) without them ever being able to counterattack. Combined with pairing up, you can grant just about any character with any weapon the ability to hit a boss from far away.
Then there are the skills. Whereas Conquest sent you up against enemies with all kinds of skills that they had no business having (now that I’ve used Azama, I know he has no way of having the Counter skill unless he marries Rinkah, uses a Partner Seal to change to her class, obtains the skill, and then uses a Heart Seal to change back to his normal class—needless to say, a serious stretch completely unsupported by the story) or that aren’t even available to you (such as the one that grants infinite staff usage and greater range), Birthright’s enemies rarely have skills at all. We’re not talking about middle ground here, either, because apart from a few bosses who have one or two skills, most enemies are completely skill-less. Meanwhile, I had children characters like Azama’s daughter Mitama who gained her father’s Renewal skill that regenerates 30% of her health every turn. She proved so powerful that despite me recruiting her late in the game, she still managed an absolutely monstrous 133 kills in 136 fights. Almost nothing survived her.
You can even make enemies debuff themselves
Since weapons don’t break anymore and high-level equipment now comes with huge disadvantages including temporary stat drops (the fact that there’s no longer any progression from low-level equipment to high-level equipment since it disadvantages you is yet another gameplay change I absolutely hate), you can actually cause some enemies to debuff their own stats by simply attacking them with tank-type characters who don’t take much damage. Their counterattacks will cause their stats to drop until they become completely helpless, and while this was also possible in Conquest, it’s stunning how easy and frequent this is in Birthright. I really miss weapon durability, because attacking enemies with pimped-out iron weapons just isn’t the same as obtaining high-level weapons like the Sol/Mani/Vague Katti and Brave weapons.
Birthright isn’t open like I expected
When Conquest promised to be a more traditional Fire Emblem game and Birthright claimed to adhere more to the gameplay of Awakening, I naturally expected an overworld map like in Awakening or The Sacred Stones. Instead, the chapter select screens for both Fates games are nearly identical, with the important distinction being that Birthright has “challenge” maps that are basically random mobs of enemies you can choose to fight for experience. These appear over time if you wait (I’m not sure on the time required, but I seemed to get something like one new mob/set of events per day), but are also replenished when you finish a normal/paralogue level. If that’s not enough, however, you can spend gold—which you accrue more of than you’ll ever need—to spawn new mobs to the map, with higher-level mobs costing more money. The cheap mobs may not grant you much experience, but they also tend to cost around 1,200 gold or so and drop around that much gold from enemies, and beating these mobs advances the in-game time so that new events at your castle become available, making them great when you’re grinding support conversations, weapon proficiency, food and gem resources, support hearts, lottery items, random item drops you sometimes get when ending your turn in sparkly map spaces, Lilith level-ups, and more.
Which is to say that there’s a lot of fluff
I touched on this in my Conquest review, but there’s a lot of fluff in the Fates games. Birthright is no exception, and it giving you the ability to grind actually exacerbates this side of things quite a bit. In Conquest, the only way to get new events was to either finish a chapter, wait a day or so, or use the free “Before Awakening” DLC to move time forward. Using DLC felt like cheating, though, so I got to the point where I refused to use it, and that made many parts of the game completely inaccessible. For example, leveling weapons up, which requires both gems and two identical weapons. This means that leveling up a weapon to +1 requires two of the same ordinary weapon, whereas leveling one up to +5 requires two +4 versions of that weapon (which themselves require combining two +3 weapons twice, so this mechanic requires purchasing dozens upon dozens of the same weapon to continue leveling a single one up). That’s the easy part, believe it or not, because the gems are where the problems start to pop up. See, you need a different type of gem depending on which type of weapon you’re upgrading, and your castle area that serves as a hub only produces a single kind. That leaves you to continually fight random mobs so that events show up at your castle that grant you more gems (either that or convert gems at a costly exchange rate), and even then you’ll often have to send your characters to the arena to try to turn 1 gem into 2, 4, or 8 depending on how many battles they can win. Of course, which characters show up to the arena is completely random, so you have no control over who ends up there and it won’t always be someone capable of winning. Losing causes you to forfeit the resource you bet, so sometimes it’s best just to fight another mob of easy enemies to get all new events and have someone else show up in the arena.
I know how fatiguing all of that looks, and it’s equally fatiguing to actually play through. Sadly, we’re only just getting started. Some items can’t even be bought, instead only becoming available through random drops, so you’re constantly fighting weak mobs to reset events so that you can gain more items and have a better chance of obtaining a second version of something you already have so that you can fuse them together into a moderately more powerful weapon. As for the gems, they’re one of two resources that are a pain to acquire (the other being food—again, you only produce one kind at your castle), and you also spend these food and gem resources to buy accessories at a shop.
These accessories are mostly meaningless except for the stat bonuses they provide during the castle battles, which are online fights you can get into. Both Conquest and Birthright have 3 offline castle battles over the course of the game, though, and while they’re optional, you definitely need the experience in Conquest. Then there’s Lilith, who’s a necessity if you do castle battles. Basically, she’s your little dragon friend who assists you during these “invasions,” and she starts off with pitifully low stats and only becomes stronger as you feed her food, but you can only feed her when she’s hungry, again requiring resetting castle events by grinding on low-level mobs. Feeding her obviously requires food, too, which itself requires more grinding on mobs to be able to use the arena more (oh yeah, did I mention you can only use it once each time castle events respawn?) and win enough food to be able to level her up and still have enough left over for the Mess Hall. I’d consider the Mess Hall the only part of all of this fluff worth saving in future entries, with random party members manning the kitchen and producing dishes based on the ingredient/s you choose, with their personality and randomness dictating the quality of their dish and the temporary stat gains it provides. Sometimes you can gain +1 strength and defense for the next fight. Other times the dish will be better than usual and provide an extra +1 to each, or to another stat entirely. Sometimes the dishes only affect male units. Sometimes the dishes are burned and reduce certain stats while providing gains in others. Taken all together, this allows the characters’ personalities to shine while giving you temporary stat gains and forcing you to deal with randomness and resource management. It’s just a shame that something so relevant to the gameplay is hidden beneath a million other completely meaningless features.
Speaking of meaningless features, support hearts. I don’t know what these are technically called, but when you marry off your character, your paired unit suddenly appears in your Private Quarters area and can be “bonded” with, which shows you a short cutscene where a little heart is filled. As the little hearts are slowly filled in these cutscenes, they turn into big hearts and fill up the bigger containers. Some of the hearts have exclamation points that promise new stuff, which seems to be the “blow on the screen to cool off your partner” and “wake them up with the stylus” minigames (these don’t appear to serve any purpose whatsoever, though scratching at the screen to wake them up poorly is entertaining), but otherwise I have no idea what these hearts do. I even made a point to fill up all of Rhajat’s hearts, but nothing seemed to happen as a result except for the little hearts re-filling the third heart and giving me another line of little ones. This isn’t at all like inviting random members of your army to your private quarters, many of which have a heart icon next to them and whose support rank with your main character rises afterward; here, you’ve already achieved support rank of S with your partner unit (which is how you got married in the first place), so I honestly don’t see the point of any of this except to pander to the anime-obsessed.
Some miscellaneous minuses and one plus
Let’s start with the translation. In Conquest, the story was so bad that the translation was passable merely because the story was beyond redemption. Here the story is put together in a much more sensible and enjoyable way, so the low quality of the translation shines through, mostly through its comical overuse of caps lock and ellipses more suited to a tween’s diary than a professional translation. Beyond that, there are strange speaking quirks that appear and then suddenly disappear forever, such as Azura suddenly using the word “sage” as a synonym for “wise,” which is technically correct, but something I’ve never seen in my entire life before this game. She uses this twice, and then never uses the word again. I can’t recall her using the word once in Conquest, either, and this kind of thing gave me the impression that someone started to give her a unique way of speaking, only for it to be abandoned soon after. Speaking of unique speech, this caused the generic nature of some of the “mother-child” support conversations to really show. This was most notable when it came to Setsuna, whose constant ellipses are a reflection of her absentminded and careless nature. Once she has a support conversation with her child, however, this speaking quirk suddenly disappears, replaced with generic dialogue that looks like it could have come from anyone else in the army. I strongly suspect that this happens because children come from the father and the mother could be any of a dozen or so characters, so they created catch-all dialogue for everyone. Giving someone like Setsuna such a unique manner of speaking only serves to drive home how generic this dialogue really is.
Then there are the map gimmicks, which are far rarer than in Conquest, but that still occasionally exist. The most annoying of these is a fight with ninjas where having multiple characters stand in certain areas collapses the ground into hidden spike pits that do damage each turn to anyone standing on them. You simply don’t have enough safe spaces for all of your units to move forward at once, and I found it really annoying. The second most annoying (and only other bad gimmick I can remember off-hand) is a late fight with one of your adoptive siblings where the level is split up into 3 sections, and each turn she does 10 points of damage to whichever section has the most party members in it. Even that was an easy enough level for me to get through it on my first try, however, and most gimmicks are inoffensive, such as a repeating one where you activate winds to slow down flying units. All in all, it’s still a step in the wrong direction compared to earlier titles, but it’s definitely better than Conquest.
Finally, we have the fact that there’s no endgame chapter save yet again. I expected this since it was the same in Conquest, but I still don’t like it (even though I finished the final chapter in 1 turn thanks to the seriously improbable and totally reckless use of a hexing rod on the final enemy, which hit its 53% chance to land the effect and successfully halved his health). Beyond that, all I can think to complain about is the fact that keys don’t work the way they used to anymore. You can send a key to your convoy as always and retrieve it during that map, but the key now disappears once the map is complete. I don’t like this change; you used to be able to save up keys for when you really needed to open a chest or door but couldn’t get someone with the Locktouch skill in position fast enough. While it may not really become an issue here, it nonetheless represents the further dumbing down of the Fire Emblem formula. And since I promised one positive in this section, here’s something that made me smile: I invested a lot of time and effort into making Arthur a viable character in Conquest, but he sucked no matter what I did. Imagine how amusing I found it when he showed up as an enemy and attacked my defenseless archer with a 90% hit chance and two opportunities to land a blow, only to miss both attacks. Never change, Arthur.