Fire Emblem: Awakening, arguably the best game on 3DS to this day, was originally planned to be the last entry in Nintendo’s long-running series. Despite perpetual praise from critics and fans, sales of Fire Emblem games had been waning in the years leading up to Awakening‘s release, and with that finality in mind, the game’s designers ultimately created what many regard as the pinnacle of the series The success of Fire Emblem: Awakening saved the franchise emphatically, though, and now the next installment, Fire Emblem Fates, is set to launch in two separate versions on February 19. That’s an incredible reversal of fortune for a series on the brink of retirement, and Nintendo is doing its best to make sure Fates positions Fire Emblem as the flagship franchise it has always been poised to become.
Not that the Japanese company hasn’t been working towards that goal some time now. Fire Emblem first found life on the Famicom in 1990, but it wasn’t until Marth and Roy showed up in Super Smash Bros. Melee in 2001 that most western gamers became aware of the series’ existence. With the seed of intrigue planted, Nintendo then released Fire Emblem (known as Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken in Japan), the first Fire Emblem game to launch outside of Japan, on Game Boy Advance in 2003, which was met with widespread praise and followed quickly by a sequel, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, in 2005. Anyone who took a chance on Nintendo’s strategy series found deep, challenging mechanics and a riveting narrative, but it built a reputation as an unforgiving franchise that made it appear inscrutable to many of Nintendo’s core consumers.
With Fire Emblem: Awakening, Intelligent Systems introduced new difficulty settings and customization options that finally made the series accessible to players of all skill levels. That more inclusive design philosophy is being carried over into Fates, but the game’s two-version format has allowed the developers to evolve the format of the series even further. Both versions of the game will feature multiple difficulty settings, including the brand new Phoenix mode that revives fallen characters merely a turn after their death, but each version is also imbued with its own distinct style of play, in hopes of delivering a Fire Emblem experience that will cater to fans new and old. Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is designed more like Awakening, allowing players to replay missions to grind for experience and money, but Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest doesn’t afford such liberties. Its campaign is more restricted, forcing players to take greater care in how they distribute experience and manage their characters, and features more challenging and diverse objectives in its chapters. Both versions can be made simpler or more demanding by selecting different difficulty settings, but Conquest is clearly the more challenging variant by design.
The gameplay isn’t the only difference between Fire Emblem Fates‘ two versions. Birthright and Conquest are each played from a different perspective of the same conflict between the Hoshido clan and the kingdom of Nohr. Both games are the same until the fifth chapter, after which the player must choose to fight alongside the Hoshido, your blood relatives, or Nohr, your adopted home. Buying a physical copy of either Birthright or Conquest means you’re locked into your decision before you even boot up the game, but downloading Fire Emblem Fates digitally allows players to make that pivotal decision in the moment, locking away the other side’s campaign until you buy it for a reduced price. Owners of physical copies can also buy the other version’s story, but if you’re worried about being cheated out of the meaty Fire Emblem experience you’ve come to expect, fret not: Nintendo claims both Birthright and Conquest contain just as much content as Awakening. That’s a whole lot of Fire Emblem, but the folks at Intelligent Systems were so passionate about Fates’ story that they felt compelled to create a third, downloadable campaign as well, called Revelations. It’ll be available at launch, but by the time you work through both Birthright and Conquest to prepare, it could be close to 2017.
Simultaneously releasing two versions of the same game is a bold move for any franchise. It’s been especially effective for Pokemon, but Fire Emblem doesn’t have the same mass-appeal of Game Freak’s series and likely never will. That makes Nintendo’s decision to do just that with Fire Emblem Fates even more impressive. It’s a display of support that, along with adding the game’s protagonist Corrin to Super Smash Bros., will hopefully help the game enjoy commercial success equal or superior to that of Awakening. Fire Emblem has been one of gaming’s greatest series for over two decades, but Fates may finally see it become the flagship franchise it has always deserved to be.