A couple of months back, I reviewed Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright on this blog. While there was quite a bit I admired about the game, I ultimately found it too idealistic to accomplish the goals it set out for itself. There were never any significant roadblocks for the relationships to overcome, and the narrative was all too willing to affirm the good/evil dichotomy between Hoshido and Nohr. So imagine my surprise when I found Conquest, a game born of the same blood, more willing to challenge many of these assumptions. In fact, Conquest is a lot more challenging a game all around; not just in the sense that it presents difficult tasks for the player to overcome (although that is part of why I liked it), but also in the sense that it’s more willing to challenge itself. The results speak for themselves. Conquest comes out as a more robust and grounded game than its Hoshidan cousin.
I imagine much of why that is stems from the story embracing a more difficult choice from the start. (From here on out, I’m going to proceed under the assumption that you’ve read the Birthright review and will thus forego summarizing the game’s basic premise.) Birthright has it easy. That game finds in its choice to side with the obviously good nation of Hoshido the justification it needs to uphold good/evil dichotomies. For Conquest, this isn’t an option. It can’t simply gloss over the atrocities that Nohr has committed and continues to commit, but at the same time, it refuses to accept the notions of fundamentally good and evil people. It might not look that way at first, since Garon and his cronies are eager to embrace their evil natures by setting out all sorts of ridiculous tasks for the Avatar just to see her suffer. Suppress a rebellion on your own. Kill all the dancers in this village. Bring me the head of your enemies.
Over the course of the game, however, this simplistic view of morality ultimately develops into something more challenging and nuanced. As much as the Avatar wants to see herself as the beacon of virtue (and as much as the game wants us to see her as such), her actions over the course of the game would suggest otherwise. This isn’t simply due to the level of atrocity behind those acts; her end goal could justify that. Rather, it’s because the goal she fights for may not be tenable in the first place. Her high-minded ideals constantly see themselves at odds with the more grounded political situation she’s forced to navigate, especially since uniting these two warring kingdoms often means killing the very family she wants to protect. Far more damningly, in keeping major secrets from Garon and the rest of her family, she’s forced to use and manipulate those she loves to see her own ideals come to fruition. In other words, she becomes the very villain she fights against.
The most immediate impact of these decisions is to build a character with much stronger pathos. We’re more inclined to feel for her because her goals aren’t guaranteed and the only way she’ll accomplish them is through blood and suffering. Yet there’s a much more profound impact here that’s worth discussing: namely, the return of Fire Emblem’s sense of nuance. On several occasions, I’ve seen notable voices in the critical sphere lambast the series as generic fantasy pablum, and each time I did, I was incredibly reluctant to accept their conclusions. Fire Emblem was never that comfortable accepting an easy view of the world. Whenever presented the opportunity, it would challenge those views and open them up to a discussion that might not have been there before. We see this in Sigurd and Alvis of Seisen no Keifu; in the racial hierarchies and medieval politics of the Tellius duology; and certainly in Conquest. As much as the game reveres the idea of the family unit, it realizes that there’s something amiss in a world where somebody kills (or is at least tasked with killing) a million people in the name of creating a loving family. It seems only natural that Conquest would make this dissonance the central conflict that drives its narrative.
More broadly, though, the game demonstrates a greater eagerness to interrogate family as an ideal. Conquest is very much aware of the historical, traditional views of family and wastes no time in addressing those views in its story. Take note, for example of how Garon and his cronies represent the hierarchical nature of family. How can that concept serve as an ideal when the parents hold a disproportionate amount of the power? How could it possibly work to everybody’s benefit if the system is designed to mold the children into a reflection of their parents’ own desires? These are significant questions for the game to grapple with, and it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that they appear in places beyond the main narrative. You see them when Jakob berates his son for not living up to his standards, or in the infamous Leo/Forrest paralogue. You even see it in the Hoshidan family members who nominally address you as your sister, but twist the knife deeper into your wounds with every interaction. Because you didn’t make the choice that was convenient for them, they refuse to ever respect that choice (or in some cases, even acknowledge it as a choice).
At this point, I should probably clarify that Conquest has never been interested in nihilistically tearing down the concept of family. The game instead finds solace in the idea of the constructed family. Completely free from the biologies and traditional hierarchies we see in the familial institution, the members of this family exist on truly equal terms. Compare that to the stultifying Nohrian royalty that Garon represents, and it’s easy to see how these characters can flourish. (What I’m saying is you can imagine the entire army as one big family.) This isn’t to say the idea goes unchallenged. I refer you to my earlier comments regarding family as it intersects with nation. Nor am I suggesting that Conquest’s conception of family is without its flaws. For example, I harbor suspicion toward the game’s choice of only allowing parent/child and adult/adult social interactions (IE children can’t engage with adults or even with each other). Yet Conquest demonstrates some awareness of the potential flaws in its conceptions of family and its ideas are stronger for interrogating them. True, these same themes were present in Birthright, but the abundance of narrative and ludic affordances robbed them of the foundation they needed to make any noticeable impact. With Conquest, we see that foundation restored.
Nowhere does this become more apparent than when the game hands control over to you. You can feel Garon’s pressure as early as the first few chapters, when your healing staves start running dry well before you receive the funds needed to replenish them, but his pressure doesn’t become truly agonizing until well until your conquest. It’s at this point when the maps become confident, bolder, and more willing to experiment; usually by taking away whatever affordances you thought you could rely on. Winging your army about in these grand movements becomes too great a risk, but paradoxically, you’re strongly discouraged from baiting enemies into your range and proceeding at a snail’s pace. Playing the game on hard mode (and refusing to let even a single unit die), it was a frustrating, maddening experience. For every advance I made in the chapter, no matter how minor, it was always matched by some cruel sleight of hand that forced me to restart the chapter yet again.
Yet it was for those very reasons that Conquest’s maps left such a strong impression on me. There are the obvious reasons for why that is – the hard earned satisfaction of completing a difficult challenge, the greater and more meaningful variety of maps to complete – but greater than those is how much these struggles helped me to better understand the character I was playing as. Just as she was expected to complete increasingly arbitrary challenges to achieve an impossible goal, so too did I feel the pressure of completing those same challenges just to see the next chapter. (Not out of recognition, mind you. This is just the way I’m used to playing Fire Emblem games.) Conversely, series traditions started to hold a much stronger meaning for me. I relied on Jagens/Oifayes far more than I did in previous games because I wouldn’t have survived the chapter without them. It’s no coincidence that doing so provided me clear evidence of the game’s faith in ad hoc families: just as the Avatar could rely on her siblings in trying times, so did I.
Now Conquest is by no means a perfect game. The pair-up dynamic, while thematically resonant, noticeably complicates battles in such a way that they’re not quite as elegant as their forebears. And the game’s treatment of Effie (fat jokes abound), Niles (Roger from American Dad), and Forrest (specifically all the horrible things they have to put up with) leave a sour taste in my mouth. On the whole, though, Conquest’s openness to fluidity and a plurality of perspectives and its uncompromising resolve toward its ideals results in the robust, scrutinizing narrative experience I found lacking in Birthright. If Birthright’s story was the safe and palatable Disney feature, then Conquest would be its Don Bluth: darker, more ambiguous, yet ultimately just as optimistic.