Over the past five months or so that I’ve played the game, Fire Emblem Fates has proven quite the journey. Even though all three games in this pseudo-trilogy are made up largely of the same parts, each one leaves their own distinctive mark. Birthright, for example, while structurally sound, was nonetheless uneasy about challenging or otherwise experimenting with anything it presented and suffered for it. Then Conquest picked up the mantle, doing more to challenge its story while preserving a lot of its predecessor’s idealism. The result was a richer, far more grounded counterpart to the Hoshidan campaign.
So where does that leave Revelation? Somewhere in between. This may not sound that surprising for a game that expects you to have completed both of the previous Fates (and is impossible to play unless you already own one of them), but it’s honestly the best way I can describe Revelation. For everything the game does to forge its own path, it achieves that by remixing various bits and pieces from the last two games. Unfortunately, such an awkward approach doesn’t work, at least not as well as it could have. Any chances Revelation had to realize its full potential are noticeably reduced by creative decisions that either distract from or drag down the story’s thematic thrust. Some of that potential shines through, but it also casts a long shadow of what the game could have been.
Those of you who have paid attention to Fire Emblem Fates are no doubt already aware of the games’ narrative premise. Two nations (Nohr and Hoshido) have been at war for as long as anybody can remember, and the Avatar, the only person of influence with ties to both sides of the conflict, is forced to choose which nation she’s going to fight for. In addition, anybody familiar with the general structure of Fates can probably surmise that Revelation begins with the Avatar rejecting both sides that she might unify the two kingdoms in peace. What may not be obvious, though, is how the game infuses this basic plot outline with conspicuous Nietzschean overtones. We have:
- The charismatic lone hero whose steadfast committal to her ideals attracts a passionate following.
- That hero’s desire to rise above ideologies that purport to represent the whole of existence (in this case, nationalism) and to confront the uncomfortable truths underpinning human existence.
- A rage-against-the-heavens conflict that ends with humanity killing God and reclaiming control of their own destiny.
These are just a few examples, but suffice it to say that there’s a strong undercurrent of Nietzschean motifs flowing beneath Revelation’s surface.
If it sounds like the game is making a sharp break from what the other Fates titles explored, well, that’s because it is. In fact, that’s part of what makes Revelation work in the first place. What better way to lend credence to the Avatar’s desire to break free from accepted ways of looking at the world than by having her navigate predicaments she never would have encountered if she’d picked a side? So strong is this shift from Birthright and Conquest that even plot points from the opening chapters (the only common element between all three games) find themselves recontextualized to fit Revelation’s own story. The main tension in these early chapters is no longer the Avatar trying to make sense of Nohr’s cruelty against Hoshido (or at least it’s not just that); it’s now her realizing her own semi-divine heritage and reasoning out how best to use that in the mortal realm.
Of course, I should clarify that Revelation only recontextualizes its predecessors’ motifs; it doesn’t break away from them entirely. Were the game to commit to something truly outside the Fates purview, it would risk appearing flimsy as it searches in vain for material with which to construct its story. Although I’ll admit that flimsiness is a problem Revelation has to deal with (and one I’ll look at in more detail in a bit), that has just as much to do with a reluctance to commit to these themes as it does with their irrelevance.
Besides, the broad plot strokes are immune to these sorts of problems. This becomes a bit easier to understand when we consider what exactly the Avatar is fighting for: a world where nation need not fight nation, and where people can transcend national division to bond with whoever they please. It’s the same cause she was fighting for in Hoshido and Nohr (and thus has the same effect of making the game thematically cohesive), but because she’s fighting for it outside either of those nations, the emphasis is different. Now the story focuses on what a willful hero she is. It presents her numerous challenges that test the integrity of her beliefs, but rather than question that integrity or focus on the possible degradation of her values like Conquest does, Revelation chooses to reaffirm how strongly she believes in her cause. What you get is something in between the other two Fates, combining the conventional narrative of Birthright with Conquest’s scrutiny.
The game’s ethos similarly benefits from this sort of recontextualization. Nietzsche worked mostly with classical philosophy over his career, and that exerted a powerful influence on his thinking. More importantly, concepts like heroic individuals and the insignificance of human life in the face of the vast, infinite cosmos fit nicely with the mythos Revelation builds for itself. In fact, that mythos leaves more of an impact here than it might have without these influences. Secular conflicts find themselves imbued an otherworldly significance, and battles which would have felt more human in scale before now encompass something much grander. Villages are encased in ice; fire billows out of the ground like the last scene from The Lion King. Any sense of a stable world is eroded as every other map forces the player to navigate some new, alien logic.
Speaking of logic, though, there are some important holes in the game’s logic that are impossible for me to ignore. I could pull at a few strings here and there, like pointing out how religious institutions have just as often been at odds with the state as they have supported it; or that the Avatar’s quest is set in motion just as much by her level of privilege as it is her willful spirit (how many of us can stand outside nationality like her?). However, I think my energy would be better spent criticizing how Revelation frames its central conflict. As Azura explains throughout the story, the main threat to human autonomy is the divine dragon king Anankos. After ascending to the Vallite throne through illegitimate means, he abuses his power by turning Nohr into a puppet state through which he can destroy the entire human world.
What’s strange about this is that these are all very political actions for a divine actor for take. Anankos becomes so heavily situated in political processes like these that he stops functioning as an inscrutable divine figure and starts functioning as just another king. In other words, the game has retreated from its “humanity against the gods” plot structure in favor of the nation against nation structure we’ve grown accustomed to. The immediate effect is that the story is deflated of its revolutionary spirit – how can the characters transcend the divisive logic of nationality when all they’ve done is weaponize it against Valla?
But there’s also a subtler effect to look into: by shifting focus to the gods, the human characters don’t have to take as much responsibility for their actions or beliefs. Such is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the philosophy Revelation draws on. Nietzsche was concerned with humanity’s psychological relationship with the cosmos. Even if the gods have an objective existence like they do in the game, the relationship they forge with the gods is still within their control and thus worthy of examination in its own right. I don’t think the game is fully aware of this. By presenting Anankos and Valla on human terms and focusing largely on the objective facts of the situation, Revelation avoids having to force its characters (characters who aren’t Azura or the Avatar, at least) to confront their erroneous outlooks on the world. By choosing not to examine those outlooks, the game can that much more strongly reaffirm the very ideology they’re ostensibly fighting against.
Moreover, the parts of Revelation that work from a gameplay perspective only work because they were designed with this game in mind. Anything borrowed from Birthright and Conquest more often than not fails to demonstrate its relevance to Revelation. Some of the maps are a dead giveaway, especially in the first half of the story. Every one map that creates a strong mood is followed by one that’s stripped of whatever emotional content it possessed in its source material but hasn’t been supplied with anything to match this new material. Combine them together, and you come away with an uneven first half that lacks any real unifying principle to work with. The good news is that this problem fixes itself when the action’s taken to Valla (and the game can’t repurpose old maps without seriously reworking them).
The bad news is that the Supports can’t fix their problems in quite the same way. They already exist as self-contained stories, which, as I’ve detailed in previous reviews, creates its own set of problems. Those problems are only amplified when the Supports are transplanted from their original story into a new one and expected to function the same as they did before. They can feel disjointed and unconnected to the surrounding plot. Why is Rinkah so cold to the Avatar in their Supports when she previously found the Avatar’s faith in her beliefs so compelling that she had no qualms joining that person’s fight?
Speaking more generally, the core concept of “Hoshido and Norh join together as one” isn’t explored sufficiently since most of the characters still talk to each other like they’d never left their respective kingdoms. Even when the Hoshidan and Nohrian royalty are interacting with each other, any concerns about them being from different nations seem to fade as their personalities exert greater influence over the Supports. Things reach peak absurdity with the epilogues for paired characters, half of which are a vague “happily ever after” tacked onto one of the character’s solo epilogues. It’s strange to see the writers struggle to think up resolutions to narrative arcs they made the effort to write. A naive reading of this situation would say that these generic supports solidify the earlier issues about nationalism. Looking at it with more scrutiny, though, it would be more accurate to say that themes like that were never much of a concern in the first place. So while the Supports work as a basic form of entertainment, they lack the rich sense of depth they could have had otherwise.
And really, that’s what all of this comes down to. As a fantasy story, Revelation works reasonably well, especially once the characters reach Valla in the second half. And as a tactical war game, it’s serviceable enough. Yet both elements lack the richness they could have had if they’d committed more strongly to what they’d promised. It seems that Revelation won’t be able to join Fire Emblems like Seisen no Keifu, the two Tellius games, and Conquest – games that augment their fantastical hero stories with smart, grounded, well explored themes. Instead, it will have to exist just a bit above games like The Binding Blade and Birthright – somewhat decent titles without much to offer beneath the surface.