"Conquest fails to deliver on [its] promised ethical dilemma, instead telling a story completely devoid of nuance."
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is a stellar entry in Intelligent Systems' long-running tactics franchise. It also happens to be a game that I could hardly stand to play.
To be blunt, Conquest's plot is one of the most prosaic and outright boring stories I've experienced this year. The premise is undeniably strong: Protagonist Corrin, torn between his/her biological family, the friendly ragtag rebels of Hoshido, and the Evil Empire(TM) of Nohr that adopted him/her as an infant, decides to stick with the devil he/she knows in the hopes to change Nohr for the better from within. Telling the story of a "hero" on the side of the conquering aggressor has the potential to provide an exciting twist on the old Empire Vs Rebels plot device that JRPGs so dearly love, and promises an ethical dilemma for the protagonist — and by extension, the player — to come to terms with. It's unfortunate, then, that Conquest fails to deliver on this promised ethical dilemma, instead telling a story completely devoid of nuance.
The motivations of Nohr's power-mad, genocidal Emperor go little beyond "because he's evil", while Corrin and the rest of the Royal Family are portrayed as bastions of virtue, always merciful and doing the right thing, their conflicts with Hoshidan forces stemming entirely from misunderstandings. The Emperor and his wicked chancellor (of course) burn down villages, kill women and children, and force their POWs to fight to the death in an underground arena dungeon (the loser dies, the winner is rewarded with execution), and yet the game clumsily attempts pathos as your characters ruminate on whether or not the Emperor is truly evil. Conquest's narrative is a disparate blend of a simplistic fairy tale plot and overly self-serious storytelling, and despite how hard it tries, it can't have it both ways.
Treehouse's localization job is nothing short of excellent, but there's only so much a localizer can do with poor source material. However, they manage to let their hair down with the tongue-in-cheek support conversations that bring much-needed levity to its cast of dozens of one-note characters. Definitely the high points of Conquest's script, support conversations are always a hoot to watch unfold, and one only wishes the main story had such wit and panache.
Luckily, Conquest isn't just a lacklustre story, it also happens to have fantastic gameplay.
Building on the high points of 2013's Awakening
, Conquest narrows the campaign's trajectory to feel more in line with earlier Fire Emblem titles. Whereas counterpart Birthright
, like Awakening, is centred around a world map filled with encounters that allow at-will level grinding, Conquest instead sends you on a straight trajectory of difficult battles with varied goals, forcing you to consider each and every kill so none of your units fall behind.
At its best, Conquest feels like a diabolical puzzle game coated in a tasty tactics wrapper, and an immensely satisfying one at that. Many maps include stationary weapons such as ballistas and catapults that you can use to your advantage, while others include special tiles called Dragon Veins. When Corrin or another member of the Royal Family moves to a Dragon Vein, they have the ability to trigger an environmental effect that can drastically alter the battlefield. Dragon Veins can drain lakes, melt icecaps and cause rockslides, among many other effects that can spell the difference between victory and defeat. Draining a lake may give you a quicker route to reach the enemy general, but it's all for naught if you get surrounded in the dry lake bed by ranged foes on higher ground.
As the campaign goes on, your objectives tend to get pretty complicated: One map sees an incognito spy funnelling money from your reserves to the enemy forces. With a set number of turns before your war funds are depleted, you have to locate and unmask the spy, who can be one of three different NPCs, each located at a different end of the map. These objectives are creative and add a layer of difficulty and complexity to battles that was seldom seen in Awakening, though they occasionally felt a little unclear and arbitrary: One battle informed me that I had to defeat the boss or escape within 16 turns. I decided to try defeating the boss to see if I'd get any bonuses for doing so, but unfortunately, it wasn't clear to me that the game meant that I'd automatically lose on the 17th turn no matter what. What happens on the 17th turn that means certain death? Well, the game wasn't very clear on that, either. There was no flavor text or enemy dialogue to explain this limit, just a Game Over screen to tell me I messed up. I would've been less frustrated if the game at least pretended there were narrative consequences, like the arrival of reinforcements or the firing of an unavoidable weapon, but I realize this is just a small nitpick on my part.
In between battles, you spend your time at My Castle, a home base map upon which you can place buildings and shops to make a little town of your own. There's a bit of a simplistic Animal Crossing feel to My Castle; different players have access to different fruit orchards and gem mines, and you can visit a host of other players' castles via wi-fi to sample their wares, check out the sights, or even invade to battle a CPU-controlled version of their army for prizes. These invasion battles are just for fun, so losing doesn't cost you any units, with the trade off that you don't gain any experience, either.
Conquest boasts a striking and attractive visual style with vivid colors and excellent animation. The game's intro movie, in which two armies battle a giant golem as the camera pulls back to reveal the fighting as nothing more than a painting on a wall, is superbly directed and breathtaking to behold. The in-game 3D looks similarly fantastic; pop-out weather features like snowfall and rain add a distinct visual flair that manages to be simultaneously eye-catching and subtle. Conquest's expert use of the 3DS' capabilities may very well be the best that the handheld device has ever seen.
I was very much looking forward to Conquest, which made writing this review all the more difficult for me. Intelligent Systems are a talented bunch with a knack for creating thoughtful and intricate strategy battles. I have no doubt that they'll continue to develop fantastic Fire Emblem entries, but unless they step up their writing game, it may just not be enough to keep everybody coming back for more.