Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest Review

Anyone familiar with either me or this site knows that I’ve long been a huge Fire Emblem fan. I started with fan translations of Fire Emblem 4 and 5, and when the series finally started getting localized in English, I jumped at the opportunity to purchase the games. Radiant Dawn remains one of my all-time favorite games for any system. Awakening was a pleasant surprise. In my review of Shadow Dragon a long time ago, I even made a point to mention that the worst Fire Emblem game is still better than most games. Sadly, that’s no longer the case, because Conquest is most definitely worse than most games. Earlier today I saw a review on Youtube for a completely different game where the reviewer mentioned that sometimes developers seem to change things just for the sake of being different, even when it’s not actually to the game’s benefit, and that summed up my frustrations with this game surprisingly well; what we have here is a franchise that’s only ever made small alterations to the combat suddenly changing things in much bigger ways, in the process eroding the balanced strategy that was the cornerstone of the series. If this was all that was wrong with Conquest, though, I could find it in my heart to look past some of the questionable changes. Unfortunately, the changes to the mechanics are nothing compared to the butchery that’s been done to the story.

Translation and story

Much has been made of some of the liberties the translators have taken with the original dialogue, in some cases changing it entirely. I’m actually going to come to the defense of the translators here, though, because Conquest’s story is beyond saving. I will say that I noticed that the translation is of a noticeably rougher quality than previous games toward the very beginning and end, but it’s also worth pointing out that it’s consistent with the tone and general feel of prior games the vast majority of the time, so I wouldn’t say it’s anything worth getting up in arms about. Now, normally I’d be wary of spoilers when talking about the story, but the sad truth is that there’s nothing I can actually spoil about either Conquest or the other Fates games (the story is separated into three paths, with Conquest and Birthright having physical releases and the upcoming Revelation being download-only) because nothing is ever actually explained in the Conquest path. You meet mysterious people and travel to mysterious places that are never delved into, help the bad guys even though doing so makes no sense, and things eventually work out in the most contrived way possible, with so much left entirely unexplained or unresolved that I couldn’t shake the feeling that my time had been wasted.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t played Birthright yet, and Revelation hasn’t even been released as of this writing. I haven’t spoiled myself on the overarching story by wiki-hopping, either, so I’m coming at Conquest entirely blind, and it’s simply not a good story. In fact, it’s the same “good kingdom versus bad kingdom” setup that’s been seen in every other FE game, and yet it manages to portray the kingdom of Nohr—who you support in Conquest—as mustache-twirlingly evil monsters. The only reason you have for supporting them at all is your adoptive family of royal siblings, and even they’re completely impotent to do anything about the cartoonishly evil acts of the king and his loyal followers. What makes this so disappointing is that Radiant Dawn had a very similar setup, and yet both clashing kingdoms had their own entirely justifiable reasons for fighting to the point where you couldn’t really root for or against either (which is good, because you played as both). Instead of that, Conquest feels like a sliver of a complete game, an obvious third of a whole stretched out to full length despite no one putting any effort into characterizing the kingdoms beyond “the MWAHAHAHA king” and “the always-innocent people who are getting invaded.” It also needs to be mentioned that this is a full-priced game despite having the gall to bombard you with DLC notifications and not-so-subtle hints that you need to purchase Birthright and Revelation to actually have your lingering questions answered. I had faith when I found out that the game was releasing in multiple versions that each path would end up being worthwhile, but I was wrong—Conquest feels like a small piece of a whole game, rendering the story an incoherent mess devoid of anything resembling payoff.

The characters are good, though

While the story may be a hollow parody of itself, the characters do a lot to save it most of the time. Looking back at Awakening, I can’t help but think that the characters were mostly safe rehashes of characters from earlier titles. Those in Conquest have much more individuality and uniqueness, though, and while the large cast ensures that there will always be a few forgettable characters in each entry (Meg comes immediately to mind), I can’t help but consider the characters in Conquest third only to those in Radiant Dawn and Seisen no Keifu, which is high praise. Standouts would be the murderous Peri and gold-digging Charlotte (who shows up as part of a a Rocky and Mugsy-type duo with gentle giant Benny).

(Update: after some thought and playing through the other two Fates games, I’m walking back my statement that I like the characters or that they stack up anywhere remotely close to those in previous games. In hindsight, I cared infinitely more about Ninian in FE7, the entire Sacred Stones cast, and most everyone in Thracia 776. I mostly put that section about liking the characters in so that I could say something positive about the game, but the fact that the characters in other games stuck with me while those in Fates didn’t speaks to the sad truth that they’re colorful and wacky, but also meaningless and hollow like so much else in Fates.)

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

This is pretty much the game in a nutshell. It’s almost like siding with the guy who constantly goes “MWAHAHAHAHA” in all caps was a bad idea!

Enemy pairing is a good step

While Fates (and subsequently Conquest) introduces a bunch of new mechanics that undermine a lot of the strategy that existed in earlier titles, it also takes some steps in the right direction by allowing enemies to pair up. When Awakening introduced pairing up, only your characters were able to benefit from it. Now, however, enemies can use the proximity of other nearby enemies in order to effectively double the number of strikes they get just the same as you can, and while they don’t actively seek each other out to pair up during maps, there are the occasional enemies who are paired up by default. This took some serious getting used to and undermined a ton of my go-to Fire Emblem strategies (doubly frustrating because I started on the “hard” difficulty, which for Conquest is akin to “lunatic” difficulty on Awakening). Still, I eventually came around to see this as a natural evolution of pairing up, something that adds complexity to enemy formations and keeps you from approaching all mobs in the same way. The first time a paired-up enemy blocks all of your damage you’ll doubtlessly be screaming bloody murder, but it’s something you eventually learn to plan for.

The constant barrage of enemy skills isn’t

The number of enemies who have annoying skills is sickening in this game, and this is really where the core gameplay that’s defined Fire Emblem up to this point starts to be chipped away. Before, your positioning was pretty much a sacred thing, but an absurd number of enemies have the Lunge skill that allows them to switch places with you. This undermines any chokepoints you set up during maps when you’re protecting an area or under-leveled ally in addition to separating characters from each other, which means them suddenly losing their bonuses for being next to each other. Another thing important to the series is the viability of speed-based characters who rely on attackers missing their hits (often due to possessing comparatively low HP or defense). Speedy characters are no longer viable thanks to skills that grant guaranteed damage after attacking, even if the attack misses.

This means that two enemies with this skill can come at your fast character, both miss, and still reduce their HP to a sliver to the point where a single hit from anyone else in the area (and remember, they can now join nearby enemies to get twice as many chances to hit you) kills that character. Because of that, you’re forced to take an offensive approach to nearly every map, moving recklessly to eliminate such enemies before they get the chance to engage you. Want to play more conservatively and wait for these enemies to come to you? Knock yourself out, but know that your enemies are fast enough to consistently hit even characters with speed values of 40 (!) and above, so you’ll lose a bunch of your characters in the process. The whole thing seems balanced around permadeath being off rather than the hard-but-fair difficulty of prior titles. I mean, I’ve finished the notoriously difficult Radiant Dawn on its hardest difficulty without losing any characters, so I’d like to think that I know what a well-balanced Fire Emblem hard mode looks like, and enemies dealing guaranteed damage simply because they attacked first is the farthest thing from that. It can still be overcome, but it’s not Fire Emblem.

Those are just two skills, too. The game is filled with these to a comical degree. Random enemies now have the Counter skill (which returns from Awakening, where its usage was rarer and made more sense) that deals back any direct damage you do, so you can have characters literally kill themselves because you didn’t scroll through the 20-40 enemies’ various skills at length. Even when you do, you might miss a skill like this hidden in the backup unit of a paired-up enemy. Then there are the boss skills that allow fliers to not be weak to arrows, a staff-using boss to have infinite staff uses and a greater range, ranged units to use a normal bow (normally unable to attack adjacent enemies) at short-range, and so many others. Many of these skills aren’t even available to you so much as they were just added in to lazily keep you from approaching maps in certain ways.

I know this because Conquest doesn’t let you replay maps to grind experience, instead being a linear set of stages like older, pre-Sacred Stones Fire Emblem games were, so I was looking for a place to level up my units. Combining units until they achieve an S-rank support level with their paired unit causes the two to have a child and opens up a new paralogue, which is a side-level you can play for experience and a new character, and it just so happens that one of these levels has infinitely-spawning enemies. This looked like an amazing way to get some easy experience without having to worry about my stronger characters leaving none for my weaker units. That is, until I realized that the backup units came with a skill that caused them to give no experience. It’s just a cheap little skill thrown in there to deny you level-ups for your kills so that they can have their cake of infinitely-spawning enemies and eat it, too. This isn’t a one-off, either. There are other stages, parts of the main story even, that do the exact same thing. It used to be that you and your enemies were on an equal playing field, but now random skills are thrown around to cheaply cover up how poorly designed some levels are.

Map gimmicks become a serious chore

Fire Emblem games were once pretty consistent in terms of objectives. “Defend this area for a certain number of turns.” “Defeat the boss.” “Seize the area the boss is standing on.” “Escape the area.” It seems that after Awakening hit it big and new fans flocked to the series, however, the developers got cold feet about the tried-and-true and decided to include a ton of gimmicks into maps. The most ubiquitous among these are “dragon veins,” which are glowing spaces that can have pretty much any effect in the entire world (but that can only be used by princes and princesses and their offspring) and that never seem to be well explained. Early in the game, you use a dragon vein to blow away some rubble so that you can camp out in an area of healing tiles while fighting. Later, you use one to create a bridge. These seem like pretty standard uses, but then you get toward the middle and end of the game and suddenly dragon veins are labeled such things as “split each allied unit into two bodies.” What the hell does that even mean? I’ll tell you: it clones your characters into two separate parties, doubling the number of characters you can use in this stage. It could definitely be a bit more clear about that. You know what else could be clearer in this stage? The fact that characters in both parties share the same HP pool, so a clone being damaged by an enemy causes the original to lose that HP, too. This kind of crap ends up being used way too much, affecting everything from movement speed to enemy reinforcements.

And that’s just dragon veins; many maps have gimmicks all their own. One map has winds that blow your characters up or down, oftentimes right into the path of enemies they can’t defeat alone. Fun times. Another map features caltrops littered liberally across the ground, slowing movement and doing damage to anyone who ends the turn standing on them. Granted, you can disarm these with any character who has the Locktouch skill that’s used to open chests and doors without a key, but the game never tells you about this before the level in question. There are stages with floors that warp you all around, stages with “good” pots and “bad” pots that do various random things when broken, stages where you have to run around talking to allied NPCs to identify which is the enemy leader masquerading as one of your soldiers, and all kinds of other things that can be summed up in one word: gimmicky. It fails to be fun and varied because these kinds of things add nothing but busywork and randomness to the mix. Sometimes the gimmicks don’t even make a shred of sense, such as when a character attacked me in a cutscene and challenged me to a duel in a fit of rage after being convinced that I killed a relative of his, only for the game to inform me that he’d wait patiently for 25 turns before trying to get his revenge. Because that totally makes sense.

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

The new map objectives are more annoying than refreshing.

The constant debuffs are annoying

Almost as bad as the skills that deal out guaranteed damage are the debuffs, which come courtesy of the shuriken-using ninja and maid classes that are new to the series. Staff users can also inflict debuffs (including the annoying boss with unlimited staff uses, at least on the hard difficulty), but most of the time Conquest has you dealing with ninjas who swarm you en masse, each lowering your stats a little further so that the next does even more damage (update: I’ve since read that debuffs don’t stack, though the self-inflicted debuffs I’ll get into later when talking about weapon tradeoffs do, making the whole thing a confusing mess of wildly different approaches to the same mechanic). Being ninjas, they’re all obnoxiously fast and thus capable of hitting even your fastest characters, and they also tend to have the skill guaranteeing them damage no matter what. All of this combined makes for a truly annoying and unbalanced experience whenever they show up, and several of the late-game chapters are filled with them. It’s worth mentioning that your stats slowly return to normal, so the debuffs are surmountable like everything else I’ve mentioned, but unlike the challenges posed by earlier Fire Emblem titles, overcoming this kind of stuff isn’t remotely satisfying.

Miscellaneous annoying changes

Even having written all of that, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of this game’s flaws. The most notable change I haven’t yet mentioned would be the removal of weapon durability, which I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about. I mean, weapon durability had many uses in earlier games, and all of them are now sadly gone. For example, one of the little tricks I’d use to level low-level characters up would be to use up a weapon until it had only one use left, then use a fast character to take most of a high-level enemy’s HP out without following up with the lethal second strike (because the weapon broke). After that, the low-level character could swoop in and finish them off despite only doing a few points of damage, obtaining a massive chunk of experience in the process. Now that weapon durability is gone, that strategy is out the window. That’s not all, either, because weapons have been rebalanced so that higher-end equipment also comes with some pretty serious downsides. While a normal iron lance plays more or less like it always has (only now it’s unbreakable), a Blessed lance that’s powerful against monster-type enemies and restores a little health each turn comes with some pretty serious defense and resistance penalties, so you’ll take more damage while using it. The spear that was once a more powerful javelin has had its close-range abilities removed entirely, so you can forget about using spears to attack adjacent enemies. High-level dragonstones are great for their defensive and offensive capabilities, but also debuff your attack strength and accuracy every time you use them (and this stacks, annoyingly enough, forcing you to waste a bunch of turns regenerating your stats until the character in question becomes relevant again). These kinds of constant tradeoffs are rarely worth it, so gone is the feeling of progression from normal weapons to godly weapons that existed in previous games and added an entire layer of reward to late-game sections. Instead, I spent most of the game using the same few low-level weapons, some of which I had upgraded (more on upgrading later) to be almost imperceptibly better.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the absence of weapon durability is a minor sin, and while it contributes to parts of the game feeling surprisingly dull, it’s not anywhere near as bad as the game’s depressingly numerous other problems. Speaking of bigger problems, how about this one: the endgame chapter doesn’t allow you to save. I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with another Fire Emblem game where this is the case, but I’ve come up empty. It seems to be an entirely random limitation that came out of nowhere, and it means that every time you fail when playing the final map—which includes infinitely-spawning enemies in a tight space—you have to play the chapter before it all over again. This is the kind of random-limitation-to-artificially-make-things-hard that I expect out of much lesser games, and it hurts to see this kind of stupidity infest my favorite series.

Then there’s the little stuff that adds up. The Pegasus Knights have been renamed to Sky Knights for some inexplicable reason (yet another break from tradition in a series that had largely remained true to its roots up to this point), weapon proficiency takes an obnoxious amount of time to level up and you likely won’t reach S-rank for more than one character by the time you reach the end of the game, you can capture enemies and turn them to your cause in order to have cannon fodder but they just eat up the limited experience more important units desperately need, and most annoying of all, enemies can use ensnare staves to warp you away from spaces you’re trying to protect (like in maps where you have to keep enemies from reaching a certain area), but you can’t return the favor and warp bosses nearer once you obtain the same type of staff. I hate inconsistency.

There’s tons of random meaningless stuff

After chapter 6, you unlock the hub area you spend your time in between battles and start to build up “DVP” (which I assume stands for “dragon vein points” or something along those lines, but can’t remember ever actually being explained) after fights. You then use DVP to build the various structures that you can place around the hub area. The weapon shop and staff shop are self-explanatory and pretty much staples of the series, but you also have places where you can grow close to characters, a place where you randomly win prizes of the weapon/food/gem varieties, a smithy where you can upgrade weapons by spending gems and combining identical weapons into a slightly better version (but this offers none of the flexibility afforded by weapon crafting in earlier games), a hot spring that seems to exist solely to create quintessentially Japanese moments of awkwardness between the main character and various women in the party (though Charlotte’s reaction is admittedly hilarious), an accessory shop where you can play dress up, a mess hall where you can combine food items into temporary stat boosts for a portion of your army (leveraging this ended up being far more important than I initially expected), and various other fluff of varying consequence. If half as much work was put into balancing the game as was clearly expended filling the hub area with random objects, Conquest would be a much tighter and more enjoyable game. As things stand, though, all of this side content serves solely as a distraction pandering to those who were never big into Fire Emblem to begin with, a kind of depressing reminder that the series is taking large steps toward mass-market accessibility and the waifu-obsessed rather than doubling down on the enjoyable core gameplay that’s kept Fire Emblem relevant since 1990.

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Some of the dialogue is undeniably amusing, but support conversations overall tend to be of a lower quality than the rest of the game.

I hate change because I’m old

Part of me is happy that Awakening wasn’t the last Fire Emblem game like was originally planned, but another part of me hates that the success the series is currently seeing isn’t due to the series itself, but a bunch of waifu-obsessed weirdos who know nothing about Fire Emblem before Awakening (or if you’re lucky, The Sacred Stones). The large, unbalanced changes that Fates has made to appeal to these people leaves me with the feeling that the thing I loved has been murdered by something that’s now wearing its face around and pretending to be it, and that not only bothers me from a fan perspective, but also rattles my inner hipster contrarian who misses the days when Fire Emblem was a small enough thing that it could just be itself. Seisen no Keifu had a winding story that pulled off some wondrously devastating twists. Radiant Dawn refused to shoehorn motion controls in when doing so was trendy, and instead offered a story of political intrigue and moral nuance where almost everyone had understandable reasons for their actions. Now it’s a crime against humanity to not be able to pet your waifu (google skinship, or don’t) with a stylus in your story-incomplete Fire Emblem game. I really, truly hate this world with a fiery passion sometimes.

Hey, characters have feet now

I could swear that the peg-legged characters in Awakening were chalked up to system limitations (or maybe I’m so blinded with rage right now that I’m inventing memories), but they have feet now. Otherwise, the game is graphically similar to Awakening, though with a distinctly eastern vibe that’s difficult to explain. Suffice it to say there are a lot of cherry blossoms and such. I also found the game to be a bit less colorful than Awakening or the games before it, but that’s not an inherently positive or negative thing so much as a completely random observation.

The music has similar influences

To be perfectly honest, I know next to nothing about Japanese music, but the game’s soundtrack is what I’d expect if someone sat me next to a stereo and told me that I was about to hear “something with Japanese influences.” Other than that, things are very similar to Awakening, with both games using the simultaneous audio trick that causes the more relaxed map themes to transform into something more frantic when the camera zooms in to show combat. Overall, I’d have to say that the music is a bit less memorable here than usual, but it’s decent enough and largely unlike anything else in the series (and in a refreshing way for once).

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

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