Spoilers for Birthright and Conquest!
It's been three weeks since Fates came out, and many people are just now finishing up their second path. I myself bought Birthright physically, despite favoring the European aesthetic of Nohr, simply because I had heard it is easier and a better way to introduce oneself to the game. It took me about one week to beat Birthright, whereas Conquest took me a little over a week. I played both games on Hard/Casual. My thoughts on both versions:
+The story is standard Fire Emblem fare, but it has the added flair of fighting against your foster family, which adds an element of drama to the narrative that other FEs don't have. Comically evil villains are nothing new to the series, but you quickly find out that not everyone in Nohr is a crazy, murderous, occultist jerk. It's really just Garon and his underlings. I ended up feeling bad for the people who chose to stay with Nohr, which basically amounted to the siblings and their retainers, many of whom were not at all bad people. It's a decent B grade plot with added zest to it from the familial aspect. Not great, but not bad, either.
+The challenges are a little less interactive and convenient than the world map from Awakening, but not by much. Grinding is still fun if you choose to utilize it, and Birthright gives you plenty of opportunity to grind both levels and supports. Birthright is all about freedom, and this design philosophy seeps into its gameplay. Pair up whoever you want with whoever you want. Go crazy breaking your units. Or don't; it's up to you. Definitive plus for this version of the game.
+From a gameplay perspective, the siblings are insane on Birthright side. Ryoma and Takumi's divine weapons are almost game breakingly good. Ryoma is quite possibly the best unit in any Fire Emblem game. Hinoka works well as a Falcon Knight or a reclasses Spear Fighter. Sakura is the only one who ends up trailing behind her siblings, and even behind other healers in Hoshido, but her family makes up for her shortcomings and then some.
+Asian aesthetic is refreshingly new for the series. I really ended up liking Samurais, Ninjas, and especially Kinshi Knights a lot. And Hoshido has an abundance of spear fighters!! Nephenee's legacy lives on!
|Nephenee was the first playable spear fighter in a Fire Emblem game. She was also one of the best units in both games she appeared in. Since then, playable spear fighters have gone AWOL, until...|
|They return in Fates! This time, there's a lot of them. Pictured above is Oboro, the first to join your party.|
+++++++RANGED HEALING STAVES??? AWWWWW YISSSSS
-What's the deal with Corrin being able to turn into a dragon? Does Azura know something? What's up with Azura? The story is fairly self contained, but if you wanted answers to these questions, then you'll have to look elsewhere. The game does not touch on this subplot at all, leaving it as a breadcrumb asking you to please play the other paths. They could have at least dropped some hints.
-Takumi needs to chill out.
-Lots of hamfisted story deaths towards the end. Elise's death, and, to a lesser extent, Xander's, made a relative amount of sense, but the others felt forced. Elise's death showed how stubborn Xander is when it comes to loyalty, highlighting a positive character trait in a negative way. Very interesting to look back on that scene after playing Conquest, where he is a shining beacon of leadership.
-Kaze's Chapter 15 death is total BS. Better hope you have an A Rank!
+AMAZING cast of characters. Not that the Hoshidans are boring, but the Nohrian army is full of colorful, unique people. The supports on Conquest side add layers to the characters that go further than in most Fire Emblem games. For the most part, your army is still the good team, and the struggle with following King Garon and growing up in the impoverished and twisted Kingdom of Nohr lends itself to much more gripping stories for its characters to tell. This is especially apparent in the children characters.
|Ignatius was my personal favorite child unit in either route, and one of the most useful from a gameplay perspective. By the end of my game, nobody could touch him.|
+Map design is very creative. Conquest is sold as a classic Fire Emblem, but it really goes a step further than the classic games, adding in a sort of gimmick to every map. You will be forced to think harder while following King Garon. A good 70 or 80% of the maps have an objective completely unique to that map. The uniqueness doesn't end with the map design - you'll end up fighting units with much more specialized skills, such as magic counters, debuffing, and more. A very nice alternative take on the same gameplay mechanics.
+While it isn't necessarily a total 1:1 recreation of classic FE game design, old mechanics such as visiting houses and limited XP pools are back. Choose where you send your units wisely. Is that far away house worth it? There's only one way to find out... and if it isn't, decide whether the trek there was detrimental enough to be worth resetting.
-I defend Conquest's story whenever I can, because it's not nearly as ridiculous as people make it out to be, but it is a step down from Birthright's story. The confrontation with your birth siblings doesn't have the same emotional appeal that battling your foster family does, because Corrin has no history with them. Sometimes it's downright depressing to see what a bad decision Corrin made when returning to Nohr, no matter how justifiable it seemed at the time.
As to why It's not ridiculous; Corrin makes a choice based on his/her emotions and has to live it with it, despite realizing early on that it was wrong. In a last ditch effort to set things right, he and Azura come up with a contrived solution that feels more like grabbing at straws than anything else. Conquest is not a story about being the good guys. Conquest is a story of desperation, and the consequences of being unable to leave behind the kind family that raised you. It's not one made on morals, but one based on love and emotion. It's a unique take on the "dark side" story, as you and your siblings are still very much good people in a bad environment, and I like that they didn't go the good/evil route with the plot between the two games and instead went for something more nuanced.
I appreciate the different approach to telling a story, and I appreciate how it is more nuanced than simply choosing to be good or evil, but I do think it could have been told better. A for concept, C+ for execution. I do hope Intelligent Systems tries something similar again and learns how to improve.
-Siblings are a total reverse of Birthright side. Camilla starts out as a beast but becomes progressively less useful towards endgame, Leo has better stats but a worse divine weapon leading him to not be as broken as Takumi, and Xander is tankier than Ryoma from a purely defensive standpoint, but his weaker offense and inability to dodge leaves him lacking by comparison. They're still among the strongest characters in their respective route, but they don't shine as brightly as their Birthright counterparts do. Whether this is due to their design or the more challenging nature of Conquest, I don't know; regardless, they seem less useful overall. Although I will admit that Elise is much more useful than Sakura.
-The game is too hard. Hard/Casual will have enemies one shotting your team in the later chapters unless you're super careful. Limited funds and XP are not the only challenge - the maps have tougher objectives, and enemy units are stronger and have a greater arsenal of skills. I would strongly advise not to play hard, or even classic, unless you enjoy a very substantial challenge or are into min/maxing your team. This might be a plus for some, but I think they went a bit too far.
-Azura didn't have her black dress on during most of the game for some reason. She was advertised as such in most marketing material. It would have been a nice touch to differentiate her in either route.
What both games do well:
+Traversal from Hoshido -> Nohr and vice versa: I love how each game has you taking the reverse path. Some maps are shared, but even when they are, the objectives and circumstances are totally different. You get to see parts of Nohr from Birthright side that you don't from Conquest, and vice versa. The final series of maps in particular are very aesthetically pleasing on both routes. Castle Krakenburg is dark and oppressive, and Castle Shirasagi is gorgeous, especially its outdoor maps. A+ for treading the same terrain but giving a completely unique experience either way.
+Gameplay improvements from Awakening: No more same turn reinforcements. No more durability. Enemies can pair up. In my opinion, all changes made were for the better.
+Jakob throws shade as well as he throws shurikens. I love this guy. So glad he's shared between games.
+Corrin's battle animations are super cool. Both of his/her promoted forms also look very cool.
+++Music is insanely good.
What both games do poorly:
-DEEPREALMS. What is this nonsense? It's like they wanted the child system back from Awakening, couldn't figure out how to justify it through the plot, and came up with the laziest excuse ever to explain it. It doesn't feel natural at all. A ten year old would find it forced. A ten year old could come up with the concept of Deeprealms. It made sense in Awakening, with them coming from the future. Not so much here.
-Garon and his lackeys were comically evil, to the point where it was laughable how little reason was given for their behavior besides the fact that they were the bad guys.
-The plot's narrative lacks in comparison to its concept. The idea of choosing a side and fighting against the other is great. The story itself could use some work. Again, I hope IS tries this again and learns from their mistakes.
Each sibling plays off of a stereotype or trope, and conveniently for the narrative, has a same age counterpart in their opposing kingdom. Funny how that works out so well, isn't it? Regardless of each sibling coming from the same mold, each one ends up using that mold to create something unique; no Hoshidan sibling feels all that similar to their Nohrian counterpart outside of their most basic similarities, which I found to be a very impressive show of skill on the scriptwriter's part, regarding writing two sets of royal families into the story. Either way, let's take a look at how the game presents the siblings to you.
Stoic older brother:
Xander > Ryoma
Xander has more charisma to his character. He makes some really good speeches in his supports and in some story scenes about what it means to be a good leader and a good person. Ryoma is pretty boring by comparison. He lacks the charm that Xander has. Although, to be fair, Xander becomes much more brazen and unlikeable on Birthright side than Ryoma does on Conquest side. Still, Xander and his struggle with growing up as the future leader of a kingdom in turmoil lends itself to much more captivating narratives than Ryoma's strict bushido warrior personality, which seems to permeate everything that he says and does.
Doting older sister:
Hinoka > Camilla
Camilla is a mentally unstable, creepy mess of a human being. Her sadistic tendencies and sexual overtones added to almost everything that she says are all red flags for someone with a lot of problems, not to mention her unhealthily clingy behavior towards Corrin. Hinoka is a much more level human being, and has the added virtue of having fought her way to greatness just for you. She became the badass that she is to get you back, and treats you well without being a borderline incestual pedophile about it.
Snooty younger brother:
Takumi = Leo
I can't choose between these two. Easily the most nuanced siblings in both paths, both as allies and as enemies. They both have insecurity issues that manifest in different ways, and both of them probably have the most interesting plot related moments when made into your enemy. Takumi has lower lows than Leo, but his insecurity feels like it goes deeper than Leo's does, with his more brazen personality acting as a front to make up for it. Leo plays himself very straightly compared to Takumi. Both excellent takes on the same archetype. Best siblings.
Cute younger sister:
Sakura > Elise
Elise can be a bit bratty at times. Sakura, on the other hand, is truly the sweetest girl. Elise has more of a presence whenever she's on screen, but Sakura has more depth to her character. She struggles with not being as courageous and bold as her siblings, feels guilty for not having a history with Corrin, and is constantly trying to better herself and be nice to everyone that she meets. Elise is pretty one note by comparison. I like them both, though - it's hard to dislike either of them.
Overall, I slightly, slightly prefer Birthright to Conquest, but I ended up loving them both. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Tomorrow, Revelations is released in the west for those of us who weren't lucky enough to nab the special edition of the game, so I greatly look forward to seeing how it compares to the two main routes!