Fire Emblem Fates is out today in the States (its UK release date is still TBC, but certainly "2016") and it comes in two different versions: Birthright and Conquest. Even if you buy both versions, you still have to make a difficult mid-game choice: which one do you want to play first?
Fire Emblem Fates is not a Pokemon-type situation, where no matter what game you pick, you more or less get the same experience. Birthright and Conquest are two very different games, with different characters, gameplay scenarios, and philosophies.
Big picture, first. You should know that Birthright is aimed at both new and casual fans of Fire Emblem. If you’ve never played the tactical role-playing games before, or if you like Fire Emblem because of the characters (particularly if you’re in it just to make ‘em smooch each other), Birthright is your best bet.
Conquest, on the other hand, is built from the ground-up to be a challenge for Fire Emblem fans. Not only are enemies tougher in this version, each level tends to have a special condition for winning. “Kill everyone” is rarely enough. If you’re a die-hard Fire Emblem fan who wants a really tough challenge right off the bat, Conquest is the way to go.
OK, that’s settled. Now, some more detail on the differences between the two.
Fates tells the story of a war between two factions, Hoshido and Nohr. You play as Corrin, a young man or woman who is caught in the middle of the conflict between them:
Fire Emblem Fates’ story is a bit of a soap opera. Without getting too spoilery, you wind up having to choose between the faction that raised you (the Nohr of Conquest) and the family of your actual blood lineage (the Hoshido of Birthright).
Whatever camp you side with, the other side will become your sworn enemies. You will face them on the battlefield. You might even have some characters that would have fought alongside you, had you chosen the other campaign. Making matters more complicated, no matter what side you pick, you will always have people around who doubt your true alliance. Neither choice is necessarily the “right” one.
To illustrate the difference between the two: in one late-game Conquest chapter, I had to contend with serious winds that would push my characters all over the map. In Birthright, I met the same people from that Conquest chapter, except under completely different conditions. Instead, I was on a desert, where the sands restricted my movement a bit — but it was pretty easy to get rid of that nuisance. Actually, it was really simple to clear the level, period: I cleared it in about 20 minutes. The Conquest version of that same encounter took me about 12 hours.
Fire Emblem veterans might take this to mean that Conquest should be their game of choice. Well, maybe. I’ve been playing Fire Emblem games for more than a decade, and I found Conquest to be absolutely brutal compared to any of the other Fire Emblem games I’ve played. Even on the easiest difficulty, Conquest can be soul-crushing.
It makes sense, really. The story in this version of the game is that King Garon wants to make your life miserable for daring to come back to Nohr. He’s literally sending you on missions that should be impossible. Worse, you don’t have access to as many comrades on the field while playing Conquest. Enemies have more health, and they hit harder, too. Also, Conquest puts you up against constant environmental hazards.
Conquest also doesn’t let you grind, which means that every kill you make is significant. Relying on your toughest fighters might seem like the obvious measure here, except every time you do, you’re actively putting weaker units at an even bigger disadvantage, because they won’t earn XP and level up. It’s actually possible to play the game ‘wrong,’ and put yourself in an impossible situation that you can’t win because you didn’t level up your characters correctly.
On the whole, Conquest is a much bleaker game than Birthright, too. Even socialising between characters is more difficult. At 55 hours, most of my characters’ interpersonal relationships haven’t even reached B rank. In Birthright, everyone can get to know each other way quicker, which helps with building a sense of camaraderie throughout the game.
At the same time, Conquest tells a richer story than Birthright does. In Conquest, you try to change a corrupt kingdom from the inside. It is a decision doesn’t have the moral clarity offered by Birthright, and you sometimes have to do wicked things to achieve your goals. There’s more inherent drama Conquest as a result, and every time I faced Hoshidians I felt the sort of deep stomach ache I haven’t felt since first playing JRPGs as a teenager.
Birthright, on the other hand, is more about just trying to survive. You have this tyrannical kingdom coming after you for no reason, really, and all you want to do is make sure your family is safe. Birthright is about being the ‘good guys’ in the story.
Depending on the side you pick, you will be allied with completely different characters:
On the left here you have the Nohrian family, which has more of a medieval European thing going on. On the right you have the Hoshidian family, who take more after samurai. Do you have a preference? If you want to know more, here’s a breakdown of each group, courtesy of Nintendo:
To me, Conquest’s family had a darker edge to it. Not only are Nohrians terrified of their father — who would kill them for disobeying any order — there’s this constant feeling that Fire Emblem is teasing you with the notion these aren’t your real siblings. Some characters, like Camilla, seem to constantly flirt with Corrin. Birthright feels like the sweeter, more innocent game by comparison—your siblings just really miss you, you know? Both games let you romance family members, however.
It’s not just a difference of family, though. You have an entire army at your disposal. Here’s a helpful infographic, courtesy of GameFaqs, that shows you the characters you’ll meet in each specific game. Birthright is on the left, and Conquest is on the right. Neutral characters are the ones you’ll meet in both games. Click on the images to enlarge. Note that the names are based on the Japanese version, so they’re not all accurate. We’re here for the character designs, however.
Which characters look better to you? These people will be your allies or potential love interests, so choose wisely!
Depending on your challenge and character preferences, you might find yourself leaning toward a specific game. You also might want to play both, and you don’t have to buy the game twice — the second campaign can be downloaded at a discount straight into the first one. There’s also a third Fire Emblem game here, Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation. It’s a game that explores what happens if you don’t pick between Hoshido or Nohr. I’d recommend playing this game, which is available as DLC (or packaged in the special edition) no matter what...after you play Birthright or Conquest, or both.
Revelation is designed to give more insight into the events of the two other games, so you’ll get more out of it if you play it after either (or both) of them. Consider it the ‘true’ ending, if you will.
If you have hundreds of hours to spare and a determination to see everything, it’s certainly not a bad idea to play all three. I’d start with Birthright, graduate onto Conquest, and then end with Revelation. They’re all very different games, each each one with a different point of view, level of challenge, and narrative outcome. For some this might come across as a shitty scheme to suck as much money from people as possible, but after playing it I feel that the two games stand just fine on their own, and that Nintendo has created something with narrative complexity and remarkable ambition.
And if you’re still having trouble? Maybe this flowchart can settle it:
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) February 17, 2016
We’ll have a full review of Fire Emblem Fates sometime early next week.