Fire Emblem: Three Hopes and the musou genre are a bad match


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Playing “Fire Emblem: Three Hopes” has been a strange experience for me. The game painstakingly mirrors “Fire Emblem: Three Houses,” even ripping certain character animations in cutscenes from the original game. Everything outside of combat — the story, the characters, the support system and base camp preparations — seems taken right out of “Three Houses.” This stuff is great. It feels like the Fire Emblem experiences I’m used to.

So let’s talk about the combat. “Three Hopes” is a “musou” game, a hack-n-slash genre which centers on killing thousands of enemies with easy button clicks and combos in theatrical real-time battle sequences — a style perfected by the Dynasty Warriors series. As my colleague Gene Park wrote last year: “the repetition is the point. Fans of the musou genre want to hear the same three power chords played over and over again.” In the past few years, musou games have trended toward melding with other intellectual properties to enhance their experience. (See: Persona and Zelda).

I think “Fire Emblem: Three Hopes” is, mostly, faithful to the source material. But the combat gameplay — the signature element of a musou game — is so against the tactical RPG philosophy that Fire Emblem is known for that it made “Three Hopes” almost unrecognizable to me as a fan of the franchise. Half of the time, it felt like I was playing a Fire Emblem game. The other half? Not even close.

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Fire Emblem games involve slow, meticulous gameplay; the series demands that players place units strategically and utilize all resources available to avoid extremely consequential failures. But I was able to get through around 25 hours of “Three Hopes” using just the “attack” and “dodge” buttons, and not really paying attention to the other combat mechanics.

Fire Emblem is a franchise with some of the smartest design in any tactical role-playing game I’ve seen. It requires you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your units on an individual level, strategically placing them on a grid-based battlefield in the hopes that they all survive the seemingly overwhelming enemy onslaught. Before 2010′s “Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem” introduced “Casual Mode” — where your characters can’t permanently die in battle — every move you made was important. Even the smallest mistake meant that a character you invested in could take a fatal blow and be out for the rest of the game. Reckless or unthinking gameplay was highly consequential. Your mistakes didn’t just make your army weaker. They ended entire plotlines.

In “Three Hopes” these consequences still exist, but the simplistic gameplay is wildly at odds with the stakes. Get hit by an enemy? Just one enemy used to be a giant roadblock for players to overcome. But in this game it’s no problem; any foe is just one of a thousand you’re about to slaughter with a few button clicks.

Place the wrong unit in a strategically important area of the map? In previous games, bad unit placement usually meant you’d lose a character. Here, there are tons of ways to get the right unit in the right place before it’s too late.

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Things break down further at the narrative level. One character, Bernadetta, is overcome with anxiety killing enemies on the battlefield. It reminds her of her father’s abusive tendencies, and she hides in her room for comfort, away from others. However, musou games by design have players slaughter a vast number of opponents in every battle, so it’s a hard sell that Bernadetta is barely able to leave her room, or that she’s that torn up about the cost of war. In “Three Houses,” this character arc already strained credulity; the gameplay called for players to constantly kill people. In “Three Hopes,” though, the arc is laughably out of step with what happens on screen.

It’s also disappointing that the character classes aren’t meaningfully different. Class-wise, the game rips directly from the source material — there are Swordmasters, Great Knights, Gremorys, etc., all fulfilling the typical roles of DPS, tanks and mages, respectively. But you quickly learn that they all functionally serve the same purposes: mowing down thousands of enemies, just with different graphical flair.

There are some combat mechanics in the game that attempt to emulate the systems Fire Emblem is known for. The “rock paper scissors” mechanic of “sword lance ax” is still there, putting players who don’t attack using the right weapon at an incredible disadvantage. Combat arts from “Three Houses” that gave your units combat advantages are also there. Finally, the adjutant system, which gives a stat boost to units the player purposely pairs together, seems to further imply the importance of strategy, especially in the pre-battle phase.

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To be fair, certain “conditions” (essentially tasks you’ll receive during fights) are better fulfilled by particular units in particular classes, since some of the conditions can only be completed in a certain amount of time. And at any moment, you can pause and direct individual units to specific points on the map. These mechanics give off a semblance of the strategic thinking found in other Fire Emblem games.

But these mechanics are entirely superficial to the format of musou gameplay. At the end of the day, the gameplay is simple enough to get through by mashing the attack and dodge buttons. Are you attacking with a lance or with magic? It doesn’t really matter. Only the animation on your way to killing your enemies changes. Flying on a wyvern or riding on a horse? That’ll change your character’s movement, but it doesn’t intrinsically change how you need to defeat your enemies or how easy it is to do so.

The Fire Emblem series is built around demanding, thoughtful gameplay. But the ultimate question raised by “Three Hopes” — and arguably all musou games — is: Why engage with mechanics beyond attack and dodge when the gameplay is simple enough to get by with just that? “Fire Emblem: Three Hopes” doesn’t give a compelling answer.

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Fire Emblem: Three Hopes and the musou genre are a bad match

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