Fire Emblem: Fates is a fun game about numbers, and when I play it I’m usually worried. It’s a game that rewards careful, strategic planning, and I’m just trying to make sure my little sister can heal my best friend without my very upset blood-brother putting an arrow in her. It’s a game about two countries at war, and mostly I’m trying to make sure nobody dies at all.
In Fire Emblem: Fates, you are one of the princes or princesses of Nohr, an aggressively imperialistic kingdom of dragon descendents and the sworn enemy of neighboring kingdom Hoshido. You live a sheltered but happy life with your beloved siblings until you come of age at the beginning of the game. At this point you’re expected to join the war effort against Hoshido in the name of your father, the evil Garon (hereafter referred to for metaphorical purposes as Donald Trump). On one of your first missions, however, you are captured by the Hoshidans, who reveal that you are not Donald Trump’s child, but instead a prince or princess of Hoshido, kidnapped as an infant by Donald Trump on the same day he killed your birth father.
Early on, Fire Emblem: Fates splits into two games. During a pivotal battle, you are forced to choose between Hoshido and your birth siblings, or Nohr and the siblings you grew up with. Siding with Hoshido is Fire Emblem: Birthright, and siding with Nohr is Fire Emblem: Conquest. No matter which side you choose, you’ll be leaving behind allies, family members, and interesting characters you were just getting to know.
I’m tearing my hair out to make sure none of my fun, heavily-armed friends die before I get to know them better.
More than numbers, warfare, or anime inspiration, Fire Emblem: Fates is about relationships. As you progress through the game, you raise the soldiers in your army, carefully choosing when and whom they fight to ensure they get stronger while also staying alive. One of the most (in)famous aspects of the Fire Emblem series is its “permadeath.” Though you can turn the feature off, when you play on “classic” and lose a unit, they are gone for good.
Losing a unit is a big deal in a couple of ways. Practically, it’s a pain in the ass. You spend a lot of time and work making sure these characters develop into warriors you can use throughout the game. Depending which version of the game you’re playing, you have a limited pool of experience points and money, and you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of both on each and every character you want to use. When you lose that character, all that time and those resources are gone.
That’s not the real reason I restart the game whenever one of my soldiers hits zero health, though. It’s because I care about them.
Fostering relationships between your characters is crucial, and not because it can make them stronger in battle. Fire Emblem is all about getting to know your quirky anime soldier buddies. Every time you acquire a new unit, it’s through some variation of a flashy, nick-of-time entrance or, even better, a mid-battle meet-cute. In their recruitment conversations, you get a fun interaction that briefly introduces their personality and adds them to your team.
There’s an axeman obsessed with justice and helping the weak, despite being the world’s most unlucky person; a powerful witch whose magics won’t allow her to age, much to her chagrin; and a cast of other characters who will fight with you and chat between fights. I (like many players, I imagine) largely wound up playing the battles to get to the conversations that went on in between them. When two characters fall in love (with your matchmaking help, of course) they have a child, who through the power of silly plot magic also joins your team as a quirky anime soldier buddy.
All of these relationship mechanics have the effect of making me care a whole lot about my people. When I’m in a fight, I’m not thinking about crushing the enemy or fulfilling my objective; I wanna make sure the cute little villager Mozu is getting enough experience to turn her into a badass, or that my best buddy Silas and my sister’s aloof retainer Selena are paired up long enough to ensure they keep flirting when I get back to base (their kid will have red hair and it’s going to be adorable). Most of all, I’m tearing my hair out to make sure none of my fun, heavily-armed friends die before I get to know them better.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel this way about just my people, either. No matter which side you choose, throughout the game you’ll confront friends, former allies, and family members as enemies on the battlefield. The central drama of the game comes from the tense, difficult moments that happen when you’re forced to raise your sword against your brother, sister, or former friend. The main character’s quest is to bring an end to the Hoshido/Nohr war with as little bloodshed as possible.
You’ll win entire battles and afterwards it’s revealed—absurdly—that your army somehow didn’t lethally harm anyone. Your family members on both sides are important to the plot no matter what, and enemies often become friends or allies.
I played Fire Emblem: Conquest first, with every intention of playing Fire Emblem: Birthright immediately afterward. In almost every mission in Conquest, you’re forced into a contentious fight with a family member or would-be friend. Even as I fought them, I couldn’t help but think about all these characters’ relationships. The enemies you fight in Conquest are the people who are your friends, rivals, or even spouses in Birthright. If I had made one different decision I’d be fighting alongside them, building friendships. And when I play Birthright I’ll be forced to fight the people I spent this game getting to know and care about.
In Chapter 13 of Conquest there is a character named Scarlet who’s leading a rebellion within Nohr that you’ve been tasked with stopping. Being privy to the tropes of a Fire Emblem game I naturally assumed I’d be able to somehow recruit Scarlet—a cool looking blonde who rides a small dragon—onto my team. In battle, I couldn’t talk to her, but I didn’t lose hope; characters had joined my party after being beaten a couple times before. I had my shamelessly flirty criminal archer shoot her out of the sky and then I finished the mission. Scarlet didn’t join my team.
An evil faction within my own army, sent by my father to “assist” me, killed all the rebels I took prisoner. Scarlet herself was killed in a way that “made an example of her.” I thought I’d made a mistake. I went online and looked up a guide to figure out how I could save Scarlet and put her on my team. You can’t. She joins your party, as a full character with all her own support conversations, only in Birthright. If I had chosen Hoshido, she would be alive. She might be my spouse. She might have had a child. The protagonist remembers this incident and agonizes over it for the rest of the game. I will, too.
Like many games, Fire Emblem: Fates lets you pretend to fight a war. Like many games, Fire Emblem: Fates makes an anti-war statement. But the way Fire Emblem makes its statement is not like many games. I didn’t come away from Conquest thinking about the terrible cost or the dehumanizing absurdity of war just because the game told me to; I thought about these things because I felt them. I didn’t fight the battles to see if I could win; I did it to develop my characters, to make them stronger and watch their friendships grow.
Like the protagonist, I wanted to end the conflict, not just because it was “the right thing to do” but because I wanted my friends to be safe and I wanted to stop fighting my family. Maybe after the war is over there would be new support conversations; maybe I’d get to see how that cheerful, nihilistic Hoshidan monk feels about the ridiculous mage in my army who insists he is “dark” and shouts about his “aching blood.”
When I play through a chapter in Fire Emblem: Fates, usually I have to reset and start over three or four times. I’ll get distracted and make a mistake, and the hot ninja who defected to my side will take a lance to the face. I’ll read his final words, then turn off my 3DS and start over. This time I’ll get it right. This time nobody dies.
Harry Mackin is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. He’s very excited that Ninja are in Fire Emblem: Fates. You can follow him on Twitter @Shiitakeharry.
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