Review: Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes
Despite what it may seem like, I am actually not an enormous Fire Emblem fan. I am, however, an absolutely unreserved massive fan of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
This isn’t to say that I traditionally have disliked Nintendo’s long-running second-party series of strategy RPGs, just that they have rarely risen above “well, that was fun while it lasted” in my overall estimation. Slowly, elements of the series have morphed into my preferred place, and by the time of Three Houses it seemed like everything was perfectly in place. A gripping plot, compelling characters, interesting tactics, flexible class mechanics, and a whole lot of party management all came together to provide me with a game that I played nigh-on to death and I am still endlessly interested in replaying whenever the mood strikes me.
So Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes kind of had me on the hook for at least checking it out before the game ever came out. It was a chance to go back to Fódlan and explore the story again, face off against different battles, and… oh, it also happened to have a totally different set of mechanics, one that I rarely engaged with prior. So is this game a worthy successor to its more strategic older sibling, or is it less of a necessary companion to players who enjoyed its predecessor on the Switch?
The first twist to Three Hopes comes right from the premise. Rather than being a retelling of Three Houses with a different combat style, this is an alternate universe where things start different right from the beginning. You play as Shez, a mercenary in a small company that winds up being pitted against Jeralt’s mercenary company… and his child, Byleth. (You can rename both of them, if you want, and customize both of their genders.) In Three Houses, Shez is dead by the start of the game, a minor enemy that Byleth fought and killed with absolutely no significant impact on Byleth’s life.
Here, however, Shez comes into contact with a being named Arval, a supernatural entity similar to Sothis from Three Houses but bearing visual markers that will make veterans of Three Houses instantly suspicious of Arval’s origins and intentions. Yet Arval has no particular motivation beyond keeping Shez alive and killing Byleth… and thus begins the deviation from how things went in the original story.
See, instead of running into Byleth on the road, the leaders of the three houses at Garreg Mach wind up running into Shez, who rescues them from bandits. That disrupts the pace of things, and Shez is invited to join the academy as a student rather than an instructor. That further alters how the various machinations and events play out, and the game basically gives you a brief prologue explaining how the academy phase played out differently story-wide before thrusting you right into the war phase in which everything has been put together with different opponents, allies, and goals.
All of this is fascinating from a story perspective. If you’re familiar with Three Houses you’ll pretty immediately recognize Shez as a disrupting presence, someone who causes events to deform around them. Someone is rescued and doesn’t die. Edelgard’s plans take on a different cadence. Dimitri experiences different events, Claude has different plans in motion, and so forth. Everything is thrown off because Shez – who should be dead – was there to meddle in events. Whether or not it makes things better or worse is left as an exercise for the viewer.
Of course, to someone who isn’t familiar with Three Houses, the plot is… kind of impenetrable. Instead of several missions and events of buildup to lead to Edelgard turning on the Church, for example, it just sort of happens and you’re not given a whole lot of context for why. It’s probably the only way to make the game flow at a decent clip, but it has the problem of not really giving some of these plot points the space they need for expansion.
Still, I consider this a kind of minor problem. Three Houses is out there, it’s excellent, and it provides all of the extra reading material you could want (and then some) for all of these characters. For a faster-paced game that is an explicit followup, it wants to jump right into the meat of how things are different, and thus it isn’t going to waste a whole lot of time explaining who Manuela and Constance and so forth are. If you want to know, you can find out. And if you already know, it’s nice to just be able to get into a plot and setting you know and focus – as mentioned – on the parts that are actually different.
On some level, Fire Emblem Warriors had a kind of conceptual issue. How do you go from a very deep strategic game into a game that is fundamentally a hack-and-slash adventure? I can’t speak to how that title managed it (as I haven’t played it), but I can say that Three Hopes squares that particular problem with a trick: It’s only somewhat a hack-and-slash title.
Don’t get me wrong, there is hacking and slashing. Your character has a class-specific action, uses light attacks in sequence with the Y button, has powerful attacks with the X button, dodges and targets and hacks through huge numbers of enemies. Holding down the R button lets you use one of your two set skills or use a limited-quantity healing item; Shez can also transform into a powered-up form from that menu. There are big smashy screen-clearing effects in a few different forms, more powerful enemies to stun and defeat, and so forth. All well and good.
But that’s just one controlled character. On a given battlefield you’re deploying several units aside from your controlled character, and you use the tactical map to assign them various objectives. You can swap to different characters for different situations if you’d like, or you can focus on controlling one character and relaying orders to everyone else. Individual characters can also be set as Adjutants to basically accompany one character, unlocking extra support options in battle. But the main element is simply being able to dispatch your troops as needed, managing the flow of battle and deciding where your direct control will have the most advantage.
And in that field, all of the classic Fire Emblem attributes are in place. Swords are strong against axes and weak to spears, for example, while arrows are lethal to flying units and magic pierces armor. Your teammates can be armed with specialized weapons to take down dangerous targets as you want.
Oh, I mentioned classes, didn’t I? Because those are still a thing, just like they were in Three Houses. Ever character has a class line that they’re most suited to, with all basic classes unlocked and subsequent classes unlocked by mastering earlier classes and paying seals to further advance down the tree. And yes, every class line has certain abilities it teaches, from weapon skills to magical spells and passive buffs. And also yes, there is a reason to invest in different skills along the way.
That’s not even getting into all of the party management stuff back at camp. Just like its predecessor, a lot of time goes into managing support levels, and that means eating meals with your comrades, going on dates with them, doing chores with them, and training alongside them. The only real difference between the systems here and in Three Houses is just that you don’t have the specific skill leveling system that the prior game did, but considering how much else you have to manage it’s really a secondary concern.
Also, you have a whole system for building up your camp, specializing in different items and making your team more powerful along the way. Just in case you were under the misapprehension that the game was less complicated than the original its based off of.
It obviously would have been possible, if reductive, to build a game that was almost entirely focused around just hacking and slashing with one or two characters through hordes of troops. Instead, this game is built up to offer a whole lot of alternative advancement and stuff to do, almost blindingly more to do than you expect. There’s even an option to reset a character’s level to 1 and build them up from the start on a more advanced class for more aggressive stat growth without losing all of their abilities. It’s a lot. And quite frankly, it’s so much good stuff that I could spend a lot of time playing this game just for the management and strategy side before ever getting back to, you know… the actual part where your characters go to war.
Yes, this is a hack-and-slash game where there is so much strategy, planning, and overall thought involved that I feel like the hacking and slashing is almost the weakest part of the overall experience. And that’s fun to do too. It mostly suffers in the sense that a lot of the classes feel kind of same-ish in their implementation, so whatever you’re playing as is mostly differentiated by flavor instead of having a unique weapon loadout and role in battle. But that’s a minor quibble at best.
The game very much inherits the look of its immediate predecessor, and that’s a good thing. It’s a gorgeous game to look at in action – smoothly animated, flashing lights where appropriate, masses of soldiers clashing and unique looks for your own troops. Everyone has a new look for the war phase instead of just inheriting their models from Three Houses, which is nice. (Less nice is that you cannot just carry over outfits from Three Houses even with a fully-unlocked save file – you do get goodies in the game for having that, but if you’re more fond of how Bernie looked in the original game, you’ll have to just deal with her new look.)
The voice acting in the game is extensive and up to the same high standards as the prior game, with everyone delivering their lines well and with character. Even the couple of characters whose voice acting I don’t like all that much (Jeritza, for example) are still consistent with their prior portrayals, so it feels contiguous. I should also note the fact that Billy Kametz turns in an excellent performance as Ferdinand once again, and if you missed the heartbreaking news of his passing at age 35, it’s worth paying extra attention to see just how talented an actor he really was.
Music is another area where the game has largely inherited its predecessor in many places, though much of the new music is… less catchy than the original. Still, it’s functional and it tries to sound contiguous with a game that often was much slower-paced, so I can hardly call it bad.
Here is my kind of weird takeaway from this game: Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes is a game that I really, really like. Its biggest weakness is that it reminds me that what I really wanted was more Three Houses. I like the strategic depth this game offers, the building and character options, and I kind of wish more of these systems were operating at the forefront instead of being more backline elements. Yes, it means that my ultimate takeaway is that this is a game that feels a little too in-depth to be… its own game.
Lest that feel like a sharp criticism, though, I want to make it clear that this is not a bad game by any means. I enjoy it. I have fun with it. I think it’s a crisp, responsive, and neat hack-and-slash title wherein my biggest criticism is that the strategic depth it has is enough that I want more. And considering that I expected the game to have less depth than its predecessor, I am comfortable and happy to report that it instead highlights and manages its depth, keeping itself a sprightly and engaging title while also giving players a lot of chances to take more tactical control.
So in summary, Three Hopes is really good. Really, really good. If you’ve already loved Three Houses, this is beyond a worthwhile purchase. If you haven’t, then here’s another point of entry to a world I love. And considering how different this game is from its predecessor, it makes me happy to see that the game’s setting and characters can hold up even in a very different context.
Game purchased by reviewer for Nintendo Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Nintendo.