So let’s talk about the fight. “Three Hopes” is a “musou” game, a hack-n-slash genre that involves killing thousands of enemies with easy button clicks and combos in real-time theatrical combat sequences – a style perfected by the Dynasty Warriors series. As my colleague Gene Park wrote last year: “Repetition is the goal. Fans of the musou genre want to hear the same three power chords played over and over. In recent years, musou games have tended to merging with other intellectual properties to enrich their experience. (See: Persona and Zelda).
I think “Fire Emblem: Three Hopes” is, for the most part, faithful to the source material. But the combat gameplay – the hallmark element of a musou game – is so contrary to the tactical RPG ethos that Fire Emblem is known for that it has made “Three Hopes” almost unrecognizable to me as a fan of the franchise. . Half 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, finicky gameplay; the series requires players to place units strategically and use all available resources to avoid extremely consequential failures. But I was able to get through about 25 hours of “Three Hopes” using just the “attack” and “dodge” buttons, not really paying much attention to other combat mechanics.
Fire Emblem is a franchise with some of the smartest designs of any tactical role-playing game I’ve seen. It forces you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your units on an individual level, strategically placing them on a grid-based battlefield in the hope that they all survive the enemy’s seemingly overwhelming onslaught. Before 2010’s “Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem” introduced “Casual Mode” – where your characters couldn’t die permanently in battle – every move you made mattered. Even the smallest mistake meant that a character you had invested in could suffer a killing blow and be out for the rest of the game. Reckless or thoughtless gameplay was very important. Your mistakes have not only weakened your army. They put an end to entire intrigues.
In “Three Hopes,” those consequences still exist, but the simplistic gameplay is completely at odds with the stakes. Being hit by an enemy? only one enemy used be a giant roadblock for players to overcome. But in this game, that’s not a problem; any enemy is just one of a thousand that you are about to take down with just a few clicks of a button.
Placing the wrong unit in a strategically important area of the map? In previous games, poor unit placement usually meant you lost 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 more on a narrative level. One character, Bernadetta, is overwhelmed with anxiety to kill enemies on the battlefield. This reminds her of her father’s abusive tendencies and she hides in her bedroom for comfort, away from others. However, musou games, by design, require players to slaughter a vast number of opponents in each battle, so it’s hard to sell that Bernadetta is barely able to leave her room, or that she’s this torn by the cost of war. In “Three Houses”, this character already has strained credulity; gameplay called for players to constantly kill people. In “Three Hopes,” however, the arc is ridiculously out of step with what’s happening onscreen.
It’s also disappointing that the character classes aren’t significantly different. Class-wise, the game pulls straight from the source material – there’s Swordmasters, Great Knights, Gremorys, and more, filling all the typical DPS, tank, and mage roles, respectively. But you quickly learn that they all serve functionally the same purposes: mow down thousands of enemies, just with a different graphical style.
There are combat mechanics in the game that attempt to emulate the systems that Fire Emblem is known for. The “rock paper scissors” mechanic of “sword throwing ax” is still there, putting players who don’t attack using the correct weapon at an incredible disadvantage. The “Three Houses” combat arts that gave your units combat advantages are also there. Finally, the adjutant system, which gives a boost to units that the player voluntarily associates, seems to further imply the importance of strategy, especially in the pre-combat phase.
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To be fair, some “conditions” (essentially tasks you’ll receive during battles) are best met by particular units in particular classes, as some of the conditions can only be met within a certain amount of time. And at any time, you can pause and direct individual units to specific points on the map. These mechanics exude a semblance of strategic thinking found in other Fire Emblem games.
But these mechanics are quite superficial to the musou gameplay format. At the end of the day, the gameplay is simple enough to get away with by mashing the attack and dodge buttons. Do you attack with a spear or with magic? It doesn’t really matter. Only the animation on your way to kill your enemies changes. Fly on a wyvern or ride a horse? It will change your character’s movement, but it doesn’t inherently change how you should defeat your enemies or how easily it is possible to do so.
The Fire Emblem series is built around challenging and 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 away with this? “Fire Emblem: Three Hopes” does not provide a convincing answer.