Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is by far the strangest game I’ve played in a while. Even putting aside the surface oddities, like the subtle intricacies to the rules or all of Chapter 3 (just trust me on this one), there’s a much deeper weirdness permeating the game. Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I found Birthright to be a compelling game; just not for the reasons it thinks it’s a compelling game. And to be perfectly honest, I’d very much prefer to forget those reasons altogether. But I can’t. They’re so strongly connected with Birthright’s greatest strengths that ignoring them is impossible. While they don’t condemn the game to outright mediocrity, they still hold it back in some very important ways.
Most of this makes itself clear from the moment you discover the game’s narrative premise. If you’ve seen the commercials, you might have an idea of what that premise is: you’ve spent your entire life being raised as part of Nohr’s royal family. Except you haven’t. A few chapters in the game, you learn that you were born to Hoshido’s royal family, and that the Nohrian King captured you from a very young age. The two kingdoms have been at war ever since. After a few opening chapters getting to know each side of the conflict, you’re ultimately forced to choose. Do you stay with the family who raised you, or do you abandon them and return to the family you were separated from so many years ago? (Birthright assumes you choose the latter.)
If you look at this choice as choosing between two nations (as the game wants you to), then it fails to hold any water. I’ll go into more detail about this later, but suffice it to say that it’s an incredibly silly choice. Looking at it as a choice between two families, though, lends that choice a great deal of weight. Part of the reason for that is because Birthright does a good job anticipating why and how you’re going to play and then incorporating that directly into the narrative. The protagonist (the person forced to make this choice) is somebody who can’t deal with loss and thus expends all of his energy trying to grow closer to everybody across the land – just like you’ll probably do when you’re playing the game.
But putting aside the main character and focusing on those around him, you get the feeling that Birthright is genuinely interested in the bonds forged between these characters. To that end, the game does everything in power to render these relationships as faithfully as it can. In enter Supports – those brief conversations where two characters get to know each other a little better. Many fans play Fire Emblem as though this is the only goal worth striving for, and for good reason: it’s the only way you’re going to know a lot of these characters. Avoid the Supports, and you’re likely to be left with flat and underdeveloped personalities, many of them ripped from the world of anime. Embrace them, on the other hand, and…well, I can’t promise this completely stops being a problem, but it’s definitely alleviated in some very important ways.
And really, it says a lot about Birthright that the most valuable character development takes place in this context: not in some greater conflict or even in isolation, but in these one-on-one moments with each other. I also find myself interested in just how much the main character means to each side. Both express a genuine emotional investment in seeing their little brother returned to them safely, and with potential parental figures evacuated from the story, there’s no feeling of coercion or hierarchy to undermine that investment.
Yet nowhere do Birthright’s talents shine more than in its battles. Despite all the odd changes to series convention (why do the enemies get higher hit rates on their own turns?), the game plays similarly to its predecessors. It’s like a game of chess: you move your army of swordsmen and wizards etc. all about the map, ordering them to engage in one on one combat or to heal an injured comrade or what have you. If that sounds like a lot to manage, it is, and I’ll admit it can be frustrating at times. That’s especially true if, like me, you’re playing on Classic Mode and refuse to let even a single character die. But I implore you to endure that frustration. Each chapter is its own elegantly designed puzzle, and it’s only after braving failure after failure that their elegance makes itself known. There’s no better feeling than finally nailing down that elusive solution. You wheel your army this way and that across the map. Movements interlock with other movements, and every action flows into the next. An undeniable beauty reveals itself to you.It’s like you’re watching a grand symphony unfold, and you are its conductor.
But that could describe just about any other Fire Emblem game. What makes Birthright unique is how well it’s able to adapt this schematic to work with the relationship angle. You want to recruit every single character into your army and make sure they all survive to the end? Fine. Might as well frame the entire story around that desire to reach out to other people. In fact, why not take things further and make pairing up characters the whole point of battling, too? If you want certain characters to grow closer together, you need pay attention not only to where they are in relation to the enemy, but also where they are in relation to each other.
That may sound overly complex, like the game has needlessly sacrificed a bit of its simplicity, but in practice, managing relationships is just another example of the interlocking principle that battles already operate on. And looking at things thematically, managing relationships in battle makes those relationships feel both more immediate and more grounded than they might feel otherwise. Watching characters take blows for one another or lend a helping hand at just the right moment, it’s easy to see that your army’s strength derives not only from your own tactical genius, but also the faith your soldiers have in each other.
Still, Birthright leaves me a lot to question about it. The relationships it presents are incredibly idealistic. This is a world without incompatibility or unrequited love or mutual hatred or anything else that might be perceived as an obstacle between you and the relationships you want to see represented. Where even the hint of such obstacles exists, the characters contort themselves enough to overcome it. Azama and Sakura come to mind: during their Supports, the former spends all his time insulting and pestering the latter. Obviously, she hates it…unless you reach the highest Support rank, that is. Then she reveals that she’s loved him from the moment they met? What!? Granted, characters are never forced into these relationships against their will, but that’s exactly my point: Birthright is incapable of imagining characters who wouldn’t want to be with each other, or if it is capable, then it doesn’t treat that claim very seriously. It’s as though the game cares more about your own desire to see these characters paired up than it does their desire to live their lives as they see fit.
However, I’m less concerned with that than I am the story’s nationalistic overtones. Unlike Path of Radiance, which abandons good/evil dichotomies so it can give its own ideas the scrutiny they deserve, Birthright has little if any interest in interrogating its own dichotomies. Everywhere you look, the game’s goading you into choosing the clearly good Hosidans over those irredeemably evil Nohrians. Hoshido just wants to establish peace; militaristic Nohr has no problem utilizing underhanded tactics like betrayal, manipulation, or naked military aggression. Even during play, that message makes itself known. Your introduction to Hoshido involves fighting with them, whereas your introduction to Nohr involves fighting against your brother Xander.
I’m not sure what exactly the game stands to gain by depicting things in such simplistic terms. It doesn’t result in any compelling choices to make. If anything, I’m left wondering why the game makes that choice such a centerpiece if it’s already been decided for me. And looking at this from a narrative perspective, Birthright needlessly introduces some significant problems that it’s not equipped to solve. Take note, for example, of how Nohr is depicted as European while Hoshido is Japanese.
“So why don’t you just focus on building relationships?”, I hear you asking. As much as I’d like to, they’re too tied up with the Hoshido/Nohr conflict for me to easily separate. No matter which side you choose, the other side will inevitably want to see you dead for betraying their trust. So much for putting my personal happiness above what you wanted out of me. Yet even if that weren’t the case, national bonds still prove to be an insurmountable obstacle in building personal ones. As your Hoshidan family grows and prospers, the Nohrian family you abandoned falls apart at the seams. Siblings start fighting amongst each other, losing their trust, and maybe even their own lives.
It hurts to see in action, especially knowing these squabbles lie beyond your power to fix. At the same time, though, it’s difficult not to reflect on this and grasp just how flimsy these relationships are if the only thing holding them together is a single charismatic individual or a common enemy. In light of that, it’s hard to trust the game when it depicts said relationships as the source of a person’s strength.
In fact, let’s turn back to the battles for a second. It’s only in armed combat where these characters grow closer. More than that, even: it’s where they realize who they really are. Each character delivers their attacks with theatrical flourish, whether that’s spinning an arrow before firing it off or ordering their steed to leap into the air before landing the killing blow. In other words, they see those attacks as an important mode of expression, like they’re telling the world, “I take pride in what I do. This is who I am.” One character even inflicts extra damage when she’s fighting, in her words, “Nohrian scum.” So what happens when these characters finally achieve the peace they’ve been searching for, and in doing so, eliminate the one common factor that’s binding them together? It’s hard to say. The game ends with the two kingdoms reuniting and very brief descriptions of the characters’ lives after that, but these prove to be fairly vague hints. Based on what I’ve seen, I remain un-optimistic.
By the time you’re reading this, there’s a good chance I’ll be playing Conquest, the second of the Fire Emblem Fates games. Maybe I’ll even be done with Revelations, the third chapter where the hero rejects both choices altogether. But I wanted to talk about Birthright as a (more or less) standalone experience. Judging the game along those lines presents a complicated picture: one of strategic brilliance and fascinating relationships to explore, but also one of flat moral outlooks and flimsy bonds. What ends up defining Birthright more ultimately depends on how you approach it.