Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is the second entry in the trilogy of games comprising the latest instalment in Nintendo’s venerable, and increasingly popular, series of tactical, turn-based RPGs. Where the first game, Birthright, saw you take the side of the kingdom of Hoshido, here you play through the campaign from the point of view of their enemies, Nohr. As you might expect, the new perspective helps ensure a quite different kind of experience.

Nohr’s ruler, King Garon, was the chief antagonist and “Big Bad” in Birthright, his malign intentions and lust for conquest driving the war between Nohr and Hoshido. Garon is just as ambitious and ruthless here, but your insider perspective means you get a lot more insight into what’s motivating him. Conquest sees you take the side of the invaders, and the player character, Corrin, is complicit in a series of crimes and atrocities committed by Nohr’s forces. Having sided with Nohr out of love for his siblings, Corrin is racked with guilt over the heinous acts he witnesses, and tries to moderate the cruel diktats of his father, Garon. Once it eventually becomes clear that Garon can’t be reasoned with, Corrin secretly determines to bring him down. But his private resolution comes at some cost, as Corrin is forced to carry out his father’s insane orders – including battling his natural siblings from Hoshido – while he bides his time for an opportunity to usurp the tyrant.

The story will not be to everyone’s tastes, and at times Corrin risks coming across as a hand-wringing hypocrite who lacks the courage of his convictions. But you can still sympathize with him, if you accept that the Conquest version of Corrin saw siding with his Nohr siblings as an emotional necessity; and that he’s nevertheless unable to reconcile his personal values with the antics of his father. Corrin says on several occasions during the story that he knows people won’t understand his actions, and may even hate him for them; but that to be hated and misunderstood, even by people he loves, is a price he’s prepared to pay for pursuing what he believes to be right.

To do justice to the writing, at least Corrin’s characterization is consistent over the course of the game. It’s not really the case, though, that Conquest sees you “play as the bad guys”, which some reviews would have you believe. The characters in your party have the same fundamental values as the ones in Birthright, more or less; they’re just under the thumb of an evil dictator. That said, Conquest‘s more mature and emotionally complex tone helps ensure that its cast of characters is much more varied and interesting than that of Birthright. The royal siblings of Nohr are more appealing than their Hoshidan counterparts, while Nohr’s retainers and ensemble cast are vastly superior to Hoshido’s. The character writing in Conquest relies less on anime tropes and cliches, and it helps that Nohr’s characters are generally older, meaning there are fewer kids knocking about.

On the whole, the character dialogue in Conquest feels notably better than that encountered in Birthright, whose the often insipid, asinine support conversations were a cause of complaint in my review. This might also be a function of the fact that, as Conquest is so much harder than Birthright,  you’re forced to concentrate on using your strongest units (ie, the royal siblings), and their conversations and skits tend to be more high-effort than the sometimes perfunctory dialogue written for lowly retainers. Indeed, you’ll probably find yourself having to relegate some promising characters to the bench: you can’t take everyone into battle with you, and the inability to “grind” optional encounters (because there aren’t any), means units can rapidly become underlevelled, and therefore redundant.

Conquest‘s reputation for difficulty precedes it, and its campaign is seriously challenging. Most Fire Emblem aficionados disdain playing on ‘Normal’ difficulty and go straight for ‘Hard’ mode. Well, playing Conquest on Hard is like playing most campaigns on Lunatic. It’s an unforgiving, relentless experience, with every map upping the ante and providing new mechanics and gimmicks for you to contend with – in addition to legions of hard-as-nails enemies. Conquest forces you to play carefully and strategically.

For the most part, this is very rewarding, and Fire Emblem diehards will relish this kind of challenge. It’s not perfect, though. As you progress through the story, you’ll encounter more and more gimmick maps – which are often ingenious, but occasionally frustrating – and it can be a problem when the effects of certain game mechanics are inadequately explained or communicated. It’s a key part of the compact you make with a game like this, that you’re prepared to be mercilessly punished for your mistakes, but that you have to know what the rules are. If the rules aren’t clear, or they’re inconsistently applied, then the player can lose faith in the experience. That never quite happened for me while playing Conquest, but the game did wear me out.

I found the difficulty of the game’s early maps to be perfectly balanced, not excluding the notoriously difficult Chapter 10. These early maps are probably easier for the designers to build, as there are few unknowns: they know what characters the player has access to, and they know the player hasn’t had a chance to customize their squad by taking characters through different class trees. For later maps, the designers have to consider that less experienced players may have lost important units, and that more savvy players may have developed overpowered characters by taking advantage of certain skill combinations. To me, towards the end of Conquest it felt a little like the game expected the player to be “min-maxing” their party using knowledge that isn’t readily available in-game. At least, that’s my excuse for how gruelling I found Conquest‘s closing chapters.

My recorded play time for Conquest was about 55 hours, but you can easily double that by including failed map attempts. It took a long time, but Conquest did eventually break me, a succession of brutal maps towards the end sapping my mental and spiritual powers. Like most Fire Emblem players, I refuse to lose a single member of my party, and instantly re-start a map if someone falls in battle. But by the end of Conquest‘s campaign, I just wanted it to be over and done with. Having mentally prepared to sacrifice everyone in the last chapter, I was then amazed to get through it without a single casualty; making the loss of Velouria in chapter 26 all the more painful.

Still, there’s no question that Conquest is a very fine tactical RPG, and if (unlike me) you’re sensible and play the game on Normal, rather than Hard, the difficulty will probably be much more forgiving. There’s no question that the Fates trilogy is an extraordinary achievement, and Fire Emblem fans should count themselves lucky for this kind of fanservice… even if they’ll often feel less than lucky while struggling through Conquest‘s campaign.