Fire Emblem Fates has all the plot elements you’d expect from an entry in Nintendo’s fantasy warfare series. There’s a chosen one, a war between two kingdoms that represent the light and dark, magic swords, prophecies, and dragons. But at the core is the profound dilemma of nature versus nurture: Will you define yourself by your biological family or the one that raised you? That choice breaks the game into two halves, Birthright and Conquest, which feel complete on their own but are most fascinating when taken together as an examination of the impact a personal choice can have on those around you.
Fates stars Corrin, a prince or princess (depending on player choice) who has been raised in the kingdom of Nohr but learns that she is actually part of the Hoshido royal family. King Garon of Nohr has been holding her hostage since murdering her biological father, and in that time she’s been living with the king’s children, who have accepted Corrin as their sibling. Six chapters into the game, she’s forced to choose a side. Once you’ve reached that point, you can try the other option without playing through the preamble again—assuming you own copies of both games or decide to buy the second at a discount when the game presents the option after that fateful choice. Or you can even play through both versions at the same time.
Birthright, which puts Corrin back on the side of her native Hoshido, is the easy choice when it comes to both morality and game difficulty. Corrin has the whole kingdom’s support in fighting back King Garon’s forces, which manifests in your ability to scout for level-appropriate missions that you can play repeatedly to strengthen your forces and earn the gold needed buy them items and equipment. If you haven’t played a Fire Emblem game before or want to get a feel for what’s changed since Fire Emblem: Awakening, Birthright is the place to start.
Both campaigns follow the same basic structure as Awakening and the rest of the series. In each battle, players move their forces around a grid and engage in combat with enemy troops. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses based on the color of its weapon and its position in the game’s rock-paper-scissors-style hierarchy. But Corrin’s ability to turn into a dragon means she’s only vulnerable to a tiny subset of dragon slayer units. It’s good to be the chosen one.
Grinding out battles for money and experience isn’t an option in Conquest. Without the benefit of side missions to help beef up your troops, you’ll have to choose which units to focus on leveling up carefully. You may even want to artificially extend Conquest’s battles to give your soldiers more opportunities to earn experience points. Luckily, the combat scenarios in this version are also more interesting, breaking away from the standard “kill everything” template to offer objectives like racing enemies to a village before it can send out its guards to confront you.
The story of Conquest has Corrin returning to her adopted siblings and defying her corrupt father. Refreshingly, Corrin’s defining trait is her mercy, rather than her magical powers. She’s slow to resort to the violence most expect from Nohr and forces her countrymen to rethink their outlook, too. That results in some funny moments, like when a dark mage and a thief acting like stereotypical villains show up to help Corrin put down a rebellion and take her command not to kill anyone as a challenge. Playing on the Hoshido side in Birthright, we get to see how Corrin’s absence and the lack of her compassion allows the rest of the Nohrian royal family to slip into darkness. Their fall stings even more when you’ve experienced both stories and have gotten to know the heroes these characters could have become in Corrin’s company.
Corrin and members of both royal families also have the ability to activate Dragon Veins, which have dramatic effects on the battlefield, like drying up rivers or healing all your units no matter where they are. Those can provide you with a nice edge when you might otherwise be overwhelmed and help to make Fates an even more accessible Fire Emblem game than its predecessor. Another new feature that helps lower the barrier to entry is Phoenix Mode, where downed units pop back up within the course of the same fight rather than waiting until after the encounter, as they would on Casual Mode, or dying permanently, as they do in Classic Mode. As usual, that last option is especially brutal since even careful players can lose a unit to an enemy’s ill-timed critical hit or a missed strike that leaves you open to a devastating counterattack.
No matter what your path, you’ll get time to relax between battles in your own castle. When you’re there, you can place buildings that let you strengthen your troops for future battles or help you fend off invading forces controlled by the game—or by other players. You can also visit people’s castles to gather resources and pick fights of your own. Corrin even has a house for inviting other characters over to “improve their relationship” and a cute dragon that will help defend the castle in exchange for food.
Nintendo already plans to expand on the story with the March release of Revelation, a third campaign (currently only available in the game’s special edition version) where Corrin refuses to support either royal family. Until then, there’s really not a bad choice you can make at that pivotal sixth chapter. The decisions you make at each turn on the battlefield are much harder.