I went into Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest with the understanding that it was a more difficult strategy RPG than its counterpart, Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright. I vowed to challenge myself and play in Classic mode--where characters who die in battle are permanently disabled--and I told myself I wouldn't back down from the loss of a valuable comrade by resetting my 3DS and reloading an old save. It would be a mark of pride to finish the game under these conditions, whether everyone I commanded made it out alive or not.
Eventually I had to relent; by allowing a few too many people to die (three), I had doomed my little army to a massacre. If I had the chance to grind for more experience to bolster my party, I would have, but Conquest wouldn't allow it. Conquest is a forward march that offers little time for anything other than story missions, and while the challenge of playing under strict conditions led to tense battles and meaningful victories, I ultimately missed having the opportunity to take a step back and enjoy the long-game of raising an army.
Like all versions of Fates, Conquest is a turn-based strategy game where you spend most of your time in battles and a little bit of time back at your castle managing your party. Your role is that of a noble child caught between two families, and in Conquest, you side with your adopted family over blood relatives--the opposite is true in Birthright. Despite the caustic setup, Conquest's story is fairly middle-of-the-road, but it introduces a variety of genuinely charming characters that you ride into battle with. And if you're lucky, into bed. Fates allows you to form bonds between characters during combat, and back at base, and you can ultimately make two characters become best friends, or parents who give birth to future soldiers. Can love bloom on the battlefield? It can in Fire Emblem, and producing offspring is vital to your survival in Conquest if you chose to play in Classic mode with permadeath enabled.
Strategy is born from patiently scanning your enemies and comparing their stats and equipment against your own soldiers'. There are three categories of weapons and, in a rock-paper-scissors arrangement, each one outperforms the other. Before committing to an attack, you can compare yourself against the enemy by looking at the 3DS's lower screen, where the game predicts how much damage a character can give or receive, and how likely they are to hit their mark. Your army is comprised of social butterflies who are quick to grow attached, and the more two characters fight side by side, the faster they will bond and support one another during battle, either by helping you attack or deflecting an incoming blow.
Conquest features a variety of mission objectives that go beyond simply defeating every enemy, calling for new strategies and mixing up the moment-to-moment combat. Sneaking into a labyrinth to seize a key location, or to take out a boss, are two scenarios that force you to go on the offensive, while other missions challenge you to hold your ground against waves of incoming enemies for a set number of turns. You are regularly outnumbered, but in later missions, Conquest becomes even more difficult as new waves of enemies appear with each passing turn.
Back at your castle after a fight, you can use the connections forged on the battlefield to stir up conversations between characters, and each of these encounters will increase the pair's support level. The way Fire Emblem Fates intertwines relationship-building with combat is its defining characteristic. How you fight informs your ability to bond with others, and your bonds make you a better fighter. With each mission lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, it's incredibly refreshing to shift your focus to less stressful, more joyful pursuits for a while before jumping back into the fray. The game has a bit of a split-personality, but it works so well because its two halves balance each other out.
Conquest's demanding challenges force you to work hard as a strategist and a matchmaker, but it never lets you revel in either on your own terms. I do appreciate how hard combat is, and I get a lot out of the relationship building opportunities that arise, but I desperately wanted time with my army, on and off the battlefield. Every version of Fates has 28 chapters, but Birthright and Revelations give you the chance to go on scouting missions, where you can give the plot a break to train and get to know your soldiers on a more personal level. No such option exists in Conquest.
The omission of grinding made playing Classic mode in Conquest all the more difficult, but more importantly, it robbed me of gameplay that's readily available in the other versions of the game. For practical reasons, I yearned for the chance to raise my characters' stats before heading into a battle that I knew was too tough, but even when I wasn't facing impossible odds, I just wanted to fight for the sake of fighting without the unrelenting pressure of Conquest's story missions.
On one hand, the constant push forward ensures that Conquest will be challenging. On the other, you can also enable Phoenix or Casual mode to allow fallen comrades a second lease on life. Furthermore, Birthright can be made just as challenging as Conquest by raising the difficulty level and turning on Classic mode. Realizing this, I felt empty-handed by the lack of optional training missions. Conquest is a lesser game than its counterparts, and the omission of scouting missions isn't quite remedied by a slightly greater variety in mission objectives.
Disappointed as I was, I still enjoyed my time with Conquest. It's got a charming cast of characters that range from vulnerable, to overconfident, to hell-bent on silly pursuits like carb-loading and working out. I fought over two dozen difficult missions that pushed my army--and my brain--to its limit. Not counting numerous attempts to backpedal and keep my allies from dying in Classic mode, it took me 20 hours to beat the game, and I would have gladly spent another 20 grinding for experience and relationships alone, but I didn't have the choice. Conquest is a great game, and I fell for its hardcore lean at times, but when I was backed into a corner after a series of hard fights with no resolution but to lower the difficulty, I wished I was playing Birthright instead.