(Courtesy of Nintendo)
(Courtesy of Nintendo)

Fire Emblem: Fates
Developed by: Intelligent Systems
Published by: Nintendo
Available on: Nintendo 3DS

I have a secret. The last classic-style JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) I finished was “Shining Force,” a relic of the 16-bit era. I apologize. I’ve never played “Final Fantasy VII.” Cloud Strife means nothing to me.  And it gets worse. Though I’m an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the demo for “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.” When I think about why I’ve overlooked such a slice of the gaming scene for decades, I’m left guessing.

It might be because turn-based combat — a genre staple of JRPGs — doesn’t immediately excite me, or perhaps I have an aversion to amnesiac heroes and over-the-top emotions, which, from my armchair perspective, seem to form the backbone of many of the stories.

Based on this information you would likely assume I’d be put off by the Fire Emblem series because it features turn-based combat, highly emotive characters, and a surfeit of storytelling clichés. Yet, for the last week, I’ve been bewitched by “Fire Emblem: Fates,” the sprawling new game for the 3DS. During this period, I’ve started movies and then stopped them because I’ve had to give a level “just one more go” only to suffer the glare of a paused television for much, much longer than necessary. The game made me wonder if I was experiencing something like gambling fever, so finely tuned are Fire Emblem’s systems of risk and reward.

(Courtesy of Nintendo)
(Courtesy of Nintendo)

In “Fire Emblem: Fates” you chose a hero — a prince or princess — who, gasp!, can’t remember much of his or her past. At the start, all you know is that your avatar grew up in Nohr living a cloistered existence in the kingdom’s stronghold, surrounded by doting siblings. The halcyon days end when the King gives you a magical weapon and sends you on a scouting expedition with one of his flunkies. Unbeknownst to you, the mission is a ruse concocted to provoke the neighboring kingdom of Hoshido into war.

By twists of fate, you end up captured by the Hoshidans. They bring you before their queen, who — brace yourself! — you learn is your biological mother.  Soon you’re forced to choose from one of “Fire Emblem: Fates’” three branching pathways: Birthright, Conquest, or Revelations. In Birthright you side with the Hoshidans, in Conquest with the Nohrians, and in Revelations you remain neutral. If you own the Special Edition of “Fire Emblem Fates,” you’re free to choose from any of these paths. If you don’t, you’ll have to buy the three variations separately.

Conquest is harder than Birthright and Revelations and was designed to be completed after the other two paths. I played a bit of the previous Fire Emblem game, but I’m by no means adept at the series.  As a result, I chose the Birthright path on the Normal difficulty level after losing too many allies a quarter of the way through testing the game on Hard.

Another key decision you are required to make at the start of the game is whether to play the game in its Classic or Casual mode. In Classic mode, the lives of your allies hang in the balance with every battle. Lose your favorite ninja and she is gone for the rest of the game unless you quit out of match. In Casual mode, downed enemies return to your side. Naturally, I selected the Classic mode to honor to my masochistic tendencies.  This is a game where I’d resigned myself to losing one but not two allies per battle provided that I didn’t lose the maiden (who is actually a princess!) whom I wanted my prince to marry.

(Courtesy of Nintendo)
(Courtesy of Nintendo)

Since Fire Emblem was developed by a company that calls itself Intelligent Systems, you’d assume that this is a game where the gameplay glistens, and you’d be correct. Battles unfold across tiled maps whose settings range from towns, to harbors, to the insides of a dragon. Similar to chess, each of your allies has their own movesets as well as their own strengths and weakness against other enemy classes. But as fans of the series know, the game prioritizes relationships between the characters.  Characters bond by healing or empowering one another as well as fighting together tile by tile. The higher the stats of their relationship the more damage they can dish out together. Two characters can also coexist on a single tile with one lending his or her character-variables (e.g. speed, strength, dexterity) to the other who assumes all of the risks.

The mechanic is wonderfully insidious. Although I assured myself that I didn’t care about the characters in the story, I became attached to them on the battlefield as tactical possibilities bloomed in my mind. Over time, after losing a number of allies along the way, most of my remaining posse became indispensable, which caused me much grief in the form of shameful restarts. If ever there were a game that I liked in spite of myself, it would be this. For the foreseeable future, if I’m not reading something, I know what I’ll be doing the next time I’m waiting in line.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

More game reviews:

‘Firewatch’: The mix of subjects will appeal to office-bound dreamers everywhere

‘The Witness’: A daunting, confounding, maddening, and beautiful game

Oxenfree:’ A compelling, supernatural mystery

‘Life is Strange’  passes the Spielberg test for video game as artform

‘Xenoblade Chronicles X’ takes the pleasures of wasting time to a new extreme

‘Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist’ is a very long title for a short, great game

‘Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege’ turns the war on terror into a sport