Monday, July 11, 2016

RPG Talk: Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest was my present to myself for finishing my novel revision back in April. After having enjoyed Fire Emblem Awakening, I followed the development of Fates fairly closely. I liked the central conceit of the story, where the player finds themselves at the start of a war and faced with the choice of siding with either the family of their birth or the family that raised them.

Normally I get around to games fairly late after their release, so I don't worry too much about mentioning spoilers, but since Fates just came out a few months ago, be aware that I usually spoil things when I discuss the plot in my RPG Talk series and I will be including the ending of the Conquest storyline.

The protagonist is a scion of the royal family of Nohr with the default name of Corrin (which I'll use from here on). Corrin's name, gender, voice, and hair can be customized. To make it easy on myself, I'll be referring to Corrin as female in this write-up since that was the gender of my avatar.

At the start of the game Corrin is finally allowed to leave the isolated fortress where she grew up and join her father's court, but it quickly becomes apparent that King Garon is a tyrant rather than a benevolent king. The naive Corrin doesn't understand that he cannot be reasoned with, which sets her apart from her four siblings, who have learned to tiptoe around their bloodthirsty father for most of their lives.

After getting her first military assignment, Corrin is captured by a warrior from the opposing kingdom of Hoshido, but instead of being killed, she's taken to the Hoshidan capital, where she learns that she is actually part of the Hoshidan royal family. As a very young child her father was killed at a supposed peace summit and King Garon of Nohr took her for his own.

Hoshido is invaded shortly thereafter and Corrin finds her Nohrian siblings at the head of the army, coming to rescue her. But her new royal siblings from Hoshido do not wish give her back to the people who had taken her from them years ago.

Since I was following Fates prior to release, I had a good idea of which side I was going to pick, which was necessary because physical copies of the game have either the Conquest or the Birthright storyline by default, and the other choice has to be purchased as DLC.

I wanted to role-play my choice, and since I haven't been in the position of being raised involuntarily by another family, I viewed the decision as one of immigration. I'm ethnically Chinese, but was born and grew up in the United States, and I can't imagine leaving that. Even though the United States is not perfect, it's home.

I figured that my Corrin would choose to stay with the family she knew, rather than a bunch of strangers, even if it meant going back to a country that was wrong in so many ways.

Her birth siblings do not take the news very well (not unexpectedly).

The Conquest campaign from there is rather dark for a anime-styled RPG. Corrin has to come to terms with the fact much of Nohr is an oppressed country, and though she and her adopted siblings are a close knit bunch who want to be good people, they often aren't allowed to be.

They deal with their father's cruelty in different ways, trying to find a means to disguise their actions and cope even if they can't condone. In one case, this means that the younger brother Leo will possibly have to kill a few innocent civilians to maintain the facade that the witch hunt is actually happening, but by starting his search in all the wrong places he buys time for more innocents to escape.

Conquest writes King Garon as uncompromising and powerful, and his influence over his children is unmistakable. Older sister Camilla disagrees with his methods, but is baffled that Corrin doesn't understand just why they can't do anything about it. Elise, the youngest of all of them, is still young enough to believe that despite any awfulness, everything will be okay.

Eldest brother Xander is my favorite of the Nohrian siblings, because it's clear that he's a noble man who will do whatever he has to in order to serve his country, while simultaneously being unable to directly disobey his father. It's implied that he has done some reprehensible things for Garon, and we see early on that he's willing to execute prisoners in cold blood at his father's word. The early scenes that juxtapose both his power and powerlessness as the crown prince endeared me to him.

When Corrin returns to Nohr unexpected and unwanted, King Garon reluctantly allows her back into the royal family at the bidding of a higher power he calls Anakos. From there, Garon sends Corrin on a variety of missions to stomp out rebellion in Nohr before turning everyone's full attention to the conquest of Hoshido.

Corrin and her siblings lead their forces into Hoshido out of love for their country if not for their country's actions. They want Nohr to be a place of honor, mercy, and peace, but right now it can't be, and there is no getting around that they are the invaders.

They realize the only way to end the war with the least bloodshed (given their warmonger of a father) is to win it as quickly as possible. For Corrin, this means fighting against her blood siblings, who are still reeling from the betrayal of their kin. It's one thing for Corrin to abandon her birth family; another to lead the army to conquer them.

Conquest plays the sibling conflict for all its worth while Corrin pleads her case, that she wants peace as much as they do. She manages to convince younger Hoshidan sister Sakura to surrender and older sister Hinoka grudgingly agrees to go into hiding and pretend to be dead for the rest of the war under the condition that Corrin saves their eldest brother, Ryoma.

But saving Ryoma isn't in the cards.

The battle with him is just before the Nohrian army reaches the Hoshidan throne room. Ryoma knows that the Hoshidan army has been defeated if they've gotten this far, and the Nohrian advisor with Corrin wastes no time in presenting Ryoma with Hinoka's bloody lance and the news that Corrin has killed her, a falsehood that Corrin has to maintain in order to save face.

It's a tragic enough set of circumstances even without the melancholy battle theme that plays throughout. But the funny thing is, even though I could empathize with Corrin's horror at the thought of fighting and killing Ryoma, the first thing I thought of was what must happen in the Birthright campaign.

Assuming a parallel confrontation between all the siblings, that meant I would have to fight Xander near the end of the game, and I realized how much that would wreck me. Xander always stood by and protected Corrin, defied his father for the first time for his adopted sibling, and maintained that he always considered the two of them family regardless of blood.

I realized that the thing I least look forward to in playing Birthright is facing him and similar accusations of betrayal, especially knowing what Xander's like and how much he cares about Corrin.

The thing that Conquest does really well (and perhaps Birthright as well) that I don't see many games do is showcase the bonds between siblings.

All the critical plot scenes are between family; Corrin, her four royal siblings, and Azura, another Nohrian sibling who had been kidnapped and raised in Hoshido shortly after Corrin had been taken by Nohr. When it comes down to the final battle, it is Corrin and her five siblings standing together, not Corrin and her love interest plus motley band of heroes.

It's a different dynamic than I'm used to, but one I could easily get behind. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to take everyone into the final battle with me, I guesstimated that I would be allowed 15 units (in truth it worked out to 16) and planned accordingly to take all family members plus assorted spouses.

(This planning was necessary because Conquest doesn't allow for free leveling outside of story missions, so I had to settle on who my likely final party members were going to be about 60% of the way through the game.)

I had heard prior to beating Conquest that it has a somewhat inconclusive ending, but I found it fairly satisfying. Even though there are unanswered questions, there is no doubt that this is an ending and the characters treat it as a new start.

I had expected that the final battle would be either against King Garon or the mysterious Anakos. In truth it's neither, though Garon is the penultimate boss. After conquering Hoshido and convincing Garon to sit on the throne that reveals the truth, Corrin is able to show her adopted siblings that the man they had called Father has been corrupted into an inhuman creature.

Incredibly (but believably, considering the family dynamic we've seen), they still have trouble standing up to him until Xander speaks up, since he's the only one old enough to remember Garon from when he was still a decent human being. Garon does get defeated, but rather than facing Anakos, Takumi, the last Hoshidan sibling shows up.

We've seen throughout the Conquest storyline that something has been eating away at Takumi's mind, and after a scene that resembles the King's Cross afterlife moment at the end of the Harry Potter series, Corrin comes to understand that the Takumi everyone knew is already gone, leaving only this shell and whatever is animating it.

It makes for a strange last battle, and I can see why the ending feels a little inconclusive because we don't learn what happened to Takumi other than it's probably similar to what happened to Garon.

In what is potentially the most out of nowhere moment, Azura also sacrifices herself by singing a song powerful enough to allow Takumi to be defeated and lain to rest. She makes a comment (clearly not overheard by any of the other characters and therefore only for the player's benefit) about knowing that there would be consequences for her decision to side Nohr, and that by doing so she was unable to save Takumi, so she's going to make up for it now.

We know Azura's songs are magical in nature, from earlier scenes, so it comes as no surprise that she would have something to assist in the battle, but afterwards, she simply disappears, and Corrin and the rest of the siblings are unable to find her.

While most of the ending moves firmly on to epilogue material (Xander is crowned the new king of Nohr, Nohr's army withdraws, Hinoka prepares to become the new queen of Hoshido), Azura's disappearance is surprisingly not more of a freak out. The general assumption seems to be that people feel that she moved on without saying good-bye of her own volition, which would be in character except for a couple things.

Since characters can get married in this game, Azura left her husband and two children behind, none of whom are featured in the ending (since they're not part of the nuclear royal family), and you'd think they would be freaking out and making it clear that Azura's disappearance with not voluntary. It would have put a damper on a happy ending, but probably would have been more realistic.

I suppose it's possible Azura could have taken a moment to say good-bye to her husband and children since the game makes it clear she was still with everyone at the moment Takumi falls and only vanishes while the rest of her siblings are busy talking (maybe she stepped off camera for farewell), but it's the one part of the ending that doesn't jive with me.

If Azura had remarried unmarried to the end of the game, I would have been perfectly satisfied with the ending, even without knowing who or what Anakos is. It's clear that the damage between the two warring countries is being repaired and that everyone else is ready to move on to a brighter future.

As with Awakening, Fates also has character-based epilogues that play during the credits, which shows what happens to everyone after the game ends. Unfortunately it's a lot drier than in Awakening. The endearing thing about marrying everyone in Awakening, was reading about how the couples spent their lives together after the game ended.

For instance, I had married Frederick to Cherche in Awakening and their epilogue was: As Ylisse's new knight captain, Frederick took charge of keeping the peace and training new recruits with his wife, Cherche. Students quickly learned to fear the couple's famously disarming smiles.

It's cute.

But in Fates it's much more common to get one stand alone sentence for the husband, and one stand alone for the wife, and they won't intersect, so it rarely looks like they're even sharing a future together. Sometimes they're bad enough it's like one hand wasn't even talking to the other.

For instance, if Leo marries Selena in Fates we get: Leo sacrificed much for Nohr, leading the effort to spread King Xander's radical new policies. After marrying, he and his wife, Selena, disappeared from records. They likely lived happily ever after.

Somehow, Leo manages to both work really hard on spreading his brother's new policies in Nohr and to disappear from the record after getting married (and you'd think a prince disappearing would be a huge calamity). Clearly, Selena's line is meant to be generic for whoever she marries, and in most cases this is probably fine, but looks incredibly weird when paired with Leo.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Conquest. I did find Corrin a little self-flagellating for taking the steps needed to get the job done, and unfortunately her personality is preset, but the darker storyline is much more engaging since it's so rare to play from what is typically the bad guys' side of the story.