Fire Emblem and Koei Tecmo’s Musou (Warriors) formula are a good fit. So much of what people love about the Musou series (a large roster with a big variety in the characters that are available), is also something that the Fire Emblem series is popular for, and while the Warriors games look like big action button mashers, the best ones also feature fast battlefield tactics (and a stiff challenge if played on the higher difficulty), and that, too is what the Fire Emblem series is renowned for.
The first Fire Emblem Warriors was a delight, but it was a fan service project. In this case, by “fan service” I don’t mean bikinis and panty flashes, but rather fan service in the same way that Mario Kart or Smash Bros. does it: by bringing together people’s favourite characters from across a lot of Fire Emblem’s history. In itself that is a lot of fun (why yes Lyn and Olivia do make a wonderful team), but it also meant that the resulting narrative wasn’t particularly cohesive or interesting. It was, basically, just an excuse for everyone to be fighting everyone else.
Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, meanwhile, exclusively features characters and settings from the same world as the previous “proper” Fire Emblem title, Three Houses. Indeed, it’s pretty much the same set-up, in that your protagonist joins an elite military academy and ends up throwing his or her lot in with one of the groups. From there it heads down an “alternative history” take on the world, and this was a smart move that allowed Koei to use the foundations of Three Houses while allowing the writers to craft their own narrative. This means that the three “groups” that you can buddy up to are comprised of the same people as the original tactics title, and while Byleth, the protagonist of Three Houses, is presented as an antagonist in Three Hopes, the setting and personality is otherwise going to be very familiar to players. I’m not going to drop spoilers here, but there are all kinds of twists and turns that you can expect through the narrative, and it’s nicely done in such a way that should surprise and delight fans of the original (which you really should have played prior to booting this up).
As anyone who is a fan of Fire Emblem will be only too happy to tell you, even more than the overarching plot, the key storytelling element of a Fire Emblem title is the little personal interactions that occur between characters on the journey, and how you gain a patchwork understanding of who they are from these scenes. There’s a lot of “down time” between the military action, and that is a critical part of how this series has evolved and become so beloved. Fire Emblem: Three Houses had plenty of this, and the tea dates with your favoured characters were particularly memorable. Much of this has been preserved in Three Hopes (including the bonding over good food and drink!), and while I’m not sure if the same writing team was involved, if it is a case of Koei Tecmo emulating the personality of all the characters, they’ve done a great job of it. With few exceptions the characterisation is spot on.
The only sour point with the characterisation is the new protagonist and their relationship with an extra-dimensional ally that only they can perceive. The protagonist is fine in isolation, but their ally represents some of the poorest writing I’ve seen come out of Koei Tecmo in quite some time. It is real laboured, B-grad anime stuff, and they’re present enough that it drags down the overall strengths of the storytelling at times.
Thankfully, once you’re on the battlefield, that stuff fades to the background and you can enjoy some of the most refined and well-designed combat that Koei Tecmo has brought to the Warriors series. The biggest and most stand-out feature is the tactics mode. At any point, you can pause the action and call up a map of the battlefield. From there you can direct allies to capture or hold key areas, or take the fight directly to enemy leaders. You will need to make frequent use of this feature because battle areas are expansive and major points of conflict will be raging on across a lot of it, so mastering the tactics map is essential in making sure that your allies are okay (you can play this with permadeath on, and that remains the authentic Fire Emblem experience), and that you’re addressing the changing dynamics of the battle as circumstances change.
Could this map be implemented more elegantly so that it transitions into and out of the action more seamlessly? Perhaps. It’s like constantly pausing and unpausing a save menu, and that can become mildly irritating when you’re pausing an intense base capture manoeuvre to direct some units around. But what this system does do positively is introduce what amounts to the depths of turn-based tactics to go with the personal action. This system was in place in the original Fire Emblem Warriors, and a couple of other Warriors titles over the years, but this time around it comes across as far more integral to the flow of each and every battle.
As for your own role in combat, you can enter into battle with up to four heroes under your direct command, and swap between them at will. They behave much like heroes from any other modern Warriors title, with a mix of standard, specials, supers, and unique “weapon” abilities. The latter was something that Koei Tecmo introduced in Dynasty Warriors 9, and has thankfully become standard because it adds an excellent additional texture to the already-fast combo systems. Touken Ranbu Warriors, released just a few weeks ago, plays in the same basic way, so it would seem to be the default for Musou going forward.
What distinguishes Three Hopes is all the little Fire Emblemisms (it’s a word and I’m sticking to it) that the team has layered over the Musou template. The “weapon” abilities consume weapon durability, which sharply limits how much you’ll get to use them in a battle. You can find potions along the way that can restore this, but you’re still going to be limited to just a couple of uses of these powerful skills over the duration of a battle. Meanwhile, the iconic weapon triangle remains firmly in place, and the consequences of a poor match-up can be severe. More than once I lose a hero because I mistakenly thought they could hold down a key location by themselves for a while as I concentrated elsewhere. But, no, I had accidentally sent a sword to fend off a spear, and before I knew it that hero was flattened. Except for Hilda, of course. The 300 Spartans of Thermopylae have nothing on what Pink Miku can do with that axe of hers. I never lost Hilda.
Fire Emblem’s levelling and class systems are part of the Three Hopes fabric too, and further reinforce the overwhelming sense of authenticity to the series that Koei Tecmo has captured in crafting this game. There are plenty of different character classes, and while two characters that belong to the same class will play similarly (not ideal for the Warriors series), the overall variety of combat abilities is strong.
One of the big advantages that Fire Emblem has that makes it particularly workable as Musou subject matter is that the customisation is kept fairly simple. Within Fire Emblem itself you don’t get to assign stat points to characters, and aside from assigning character classes, you don’t get much control over how characters are equipped either. Musou works best when the meta systems are kept simple. As much as I loved Persona 5 Strikers, you could see that the Koei Tecmo developers struggled to squish Persona 5’s enormously complex systems into an action Musou experience, but Fire Emblem is more straightforward and elegant, and its systems translate beautifully into fast action.
The game’s quite the looker, too. Musou engines don’t have a perfect record on the Switch, and that’s the case here too, with a frame rate that dips enough that even I notice it, and I would be hard-pressed to even guess the difference between 30fps and 60fps at most times. However, even when the frame rate does drop, it always remains playable, and given the epic scope of the battlefields, it’s still technically impressive in its own way. Meanwhile, the environments themselves are fairly simple (nothing unusual there for a Musou title), and the pop-in of the mobs of enemies is a bit of a pain, but character art is lovely and the big attacks are suitably flashy. The action is fast enough that the things that you have time to notice are the most visually impressive, and this ability to triage where the aesthetics are focused is yet more proof of mature, refined game development. Koei Tecmo has been working with these systems for so long now that they seem effortless.
Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes exists for people that liked Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It takes the narrative and characters of the original tactics JRPG and provides an “alternative history” take on events, and that was an inspired decision by the developer that has allowed the game to be both familiar while telling its own story. For anyone that fell in love with the characters the first time around, this approach makes this take very hard to put down, no matter how frequently you play the Musou releases. My overwhelming impression of this game is that it exudes confidence. Koei Tecmo’s team had a clear vision on how to turn everything that people loved about Fire Emblem: Three Houses and turn it into an action game, and with the exception of one new character that turns out to be a Jar Jar Binks-level misfire, the team has delivered on that vision.
Or, to put it simply: people loved Three Houses, and for all the reasons that they did love that game, they will also love Three Hopes.