It's hard to believe, but the "Fire Emblem" series came close to cancellation a few years back. After a period of declining sales, Nintendo threatened to ax the longtime strategy game. According to its producer, who spoke to Hobby Consolas magazine in 2013, that threat lit a fire under the developers.
The result was the stunningly deep and compelling "Fire Emblem Awakening" -- a strategy role-playing game combining complex combat with personal relationships. This fusion created a unique experience for American gamers.
Even though the developers, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo, faced no special pressure this time, they haven't let up on the gas. "Fire Emblem Fates" moves farther down the "Awakening" path by fusing an epic narrative with addictive gameplay.
In this iteration, players create an avatar (let's call him Corrin) who is at the heart of the conflict between the kingdoms of Nohr and Hoshido. These nations have been locked in a tense armistice, which blows up into full-scale war when Hoshido's queen is assassinated.
Corrin turns out to be the unwitting instrument of the killing -- which places each player in an awkward position, since his or her avatar is a member of both royal families. Apparently, Corrin was kidnapped and removed from Hoshido as a baby to be raised by Nohr's king.
Ultimately, players must choose between loyalty to the avatar's adopted family, which instigated the war, or his biological family, which is seeking justice. That decision determines which version of the game the player takes on -- "Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest" or "Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright."
Nintendo has released the two versions separately. Purchase of one means the buyer will have to pay an extra $20 to unlock the other. Each is solid, with a drastically different story from the other's. Yet alone, each has significantly less content than "Awakening" did.
When combined (and the combination includes a third chapter called "Revelations"), there's a mountain of narrative that requires dozens of hours to sift through. The sheer volume could seem intimidating, but "Fates" makes the time fly with its excellent combat system.
In each of the three "Fire Emblem Fates" chapters, a player commands an army that confronts a rival force controlled by the computer. Taking turns, opponents move their troops. The battle is akin to chess, in that each platoon member possesses skills, powers and movements of his own. Players, of course, try to outmaneuver foes, and they can even pair up to defeat the opponent.
"Fire Emblem Fates" also allows players to pick which troops to send into battle -- a practical option, since some have advantages over others. In addition, each soldier comes with a unique personality and backstory. As they interact, they may become friends -- and may even fall in love. The romantic relationships can lead to children, who are often more powerful soldiers than their parents. As in "Awakening," the possibility of children is an intriguing concept, but in "Fates," the idea feels shoehorned into the story.
Apart from that issue, these systems have a solid base. Overall, the designers of "Fates" have fine-tuned the story and added interesting features not found in "Awakening." One great twist is that members of the royal family can tap into special areas called Dragon Veins and, by doing so, alter the battlefield geography or heal troops.
Another new option is base-building. After Corrin sets up his headquarters on an astral plane, players can outfit it in the way they want. In addition, each base offers its own combination of resources, such as food and minerals. This feature encourages players to visit each other's bases.
With "Fire Emblem Fates," the franchise appears healthier than ever -- and proves that, even when a series loses its luster, it can bounce back from the edge of extinction.
Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei. ___
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