After three years, and now two games behind, I finally played the followup to one of my favorite 3DS titles, Fire Emblem Awakening. Or more accurately, I played one-third of the followup, Fire Emblem Fates, because this game did something a little different from before. So in case you gave Fates a miss, is it still worth having a look at before you get your hands on Fire Emblem: Three Houses?

Back in the day, Fates caused some uproar. Released in 2016 (2015 in Japan), developer Intelligent Systems decided to release two versions: Birthright and Conquest, both offering a different perspective on the same overall conflict, with certain characters unique to different versions, not too dissimilar to Pokémon. However, at least with Pokémon, you can trade with others to fill up the Pokédex, rather than splash out on another copy. Not here.

With Fates, if you want the full picture, you’ll be shelling out for both Birthright and Conquest—and then the downloadable Revelations that came out two weeks later, if you didn’t buy the three-story bundle, that is. In Conquest, you follow your adoptive family who are at war. In Birthright, you defend—you guessed it—your birth family. In Revelations you bring everyone together in the most awkward family reunion. Maybe one day I’ll experience the other two stories I missed out on. But for now, as I’m sure many of you will sympathize, I’m broke and can’t really justify buying another two games.

Fire Emblem Fates 2
If there’s any reason to pick this up, it’s the insanely lovable main cast.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s move on to why Fates is still worth a look: the gameplay. One aspect which I feel does justify the different versions is that each is aimed at a different sort of player. You see, for all of Awakening’s praises, long-term fans of the JRPG series felt betrayed at the toned down difficulty, even when playing on hard, in an attempt to reach a wider audience. This time around, Conquest is much harder and aimed at series veterans, whereas Birthright is intended for those who joined after the previous game’s success. This made my choice clear: Birthright it is.

The only issue with the difficulty structure of these games is that if you’re going to make Birthright the easier one, then please let us put the difficulty up when we’re ready. Awakening’s version of “normal” was just the perfect balance of challenge. Birthright’s is… well… I’ve made harder tactical decisions in Doodle Jump. If you’ve played any game in the series before, then do yourself a favor and pick hard. Curiously, you will be able to bring the difficulty down if it’s too much, just not up.

With no option to increase this difficulty without starting a completely different save file, it was jarring at times (I did the final boss in two turns. Two turns!). Yet thankfully, developer Intelligent Systems chucked a whole lot more into the game to keep us distracted. You now have your own customizable castle, which allows you to buy accessories for your units, feed them to boost stats, and bond with them after combat. This breaks the missions up nicely, which you’ll savor on harder difficulties. Your castle can also be invaded by NPCs or even other players online, which sees you playing defense to stop enemies taking the throne. It’s a neat little feature.

Fire Emblem Fates
The improved visuals make for some brilliant cutscenes.

As for the story, you’re made the absolute center of attention in this war. You control Corrin, or whatever name you may choose. Corrin will make or break the war, depending on what side you join. Awakening’s player character, Robin, was a mysterious stranger, staying on the sidelines of a story mostly about Chrom and Lucina. While Awakening’s approach had its benefits, such as leaving more room for roleplaying, taking command of Corrin puts you in the driving seat of the narrative, a departure that makes you feel much more connected to the units you send off to (hopefully not) die.

But what of the story that you star in? Reviews at the time claimed this to be a massive improvement, and for the most part, I would agree. The beginning is a convoluted mess of exposition, making me audibly laugh when it gave me the option to side with my adoptive family (à la Conquest), only to rip me from an incredibly tense moment in the story, to take me to the eShop to buy it. But once the branching paths are established, it becomes so much better. For all my love of Awakening, it all felt rather safe, whereas here the dangers of war are felt, and loss of characters really hits hard. Don’t think you’ll have any easy emotional ride just because you turned perma death off…

Fire Emblem Fates hair
Whatever the royal hairstylist gets paid, it is too much.

So while you will get a better story, there’s one aspect I can’t help wish got some more thought: the characters. The cast of Fates isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I just couldn’t get as attached as I did in Awakening.

Sure, I found Corrin a husband she could be happy with (and to boost her stats), but nothing in Fates matched the bond between Robin, Chrom and Lucina, and it was sorely needed. With that being said, the playable cast jumping from 43 to a staggering 60 makes it all the more impressive that they turn out as enjoyable as they do. The families are the standout stars who, ridiculous hair styles aside, come across as genuine and make you feel torn between both of them. And that’s exactly what the game sets out to do, which has to be a success.

So where does this all fit in? Well, Fire Emblem: Three Houses promises to change things up when it drops on Nintendo Switch this week. Nintendo confirmed the end of franchise mainstay, the “Weapons Triangle,” which appeared in every title since Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War. We’ll also be greeted with new features, such as a school system, seeing us teach our units, and having a set number of days to do activities outside of combat.

The daunting multiple releases of Fates might have put you off back in 2016, yet it’s aged well. Now at their reduced prices, it means we’ll always have some content to come back to. I will no doubt pick up Conquest and Revelations one day, but even so, I still feel like a got a decent story out of one-third of this tale. Whether this is your first venture into the franchise, or you’re a fan looking for a final slice of classic Fire Emblem before Three Houses, I can’t help but recommend you pick up a version of Fates.