Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
As I continue playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I find myself torn between two conflicting sentiments: how much I enjoy the strategic flexibility of the actual in-battle gameplay, and how unsatisfying my actual customization-related choices seem to be. As I covered last week, the game breaks from series convention in a number of ways, one of which being that weapon type is no longer tied to class—which is to say, swordsmen can use bows and vice-versa. Any magic-oriented class has access to all types of magic. Et cetera, et cetera.
In combat, this allows for really interesting strategic decision-making. You might, for example, have a close-range fighter who also happens to be carrying a bow, and you could have to choose between attacking safely from range and doing less damage or moving in close for a riskier but more powerful strike. Add to this the wide range of offensive skills the game adds, and you have a level of tactical flexibility that far surpasses prior Fire Emblem games.
The trade-off for this is individual units end up feeling less unique, and where uniqueness exists it’s tied to innate character skills rather than player customization decisions. When healers and offensive casters can both heal and use offensive magic, specialization choices end up feeling less meaningful. Differences between classes are marginal rather than fundamental, and as the game progresses it starts to feel like customization choices are… kind of irrelevant. Characters naturally filter into certain playstyles based on their innate stats and unique skill, and while you can fight against that the most efficient option is typically just to let characters do whatever they do best.
And also to train everybody in archery because bows are just that good.
In a sense, this isn’t really any different from past Fire Emblem games, which would lock characters into one or two class lines. Curiously, though, the limitations in the older games made customization choices more meaningful—breaking from natural customization paths in order to pick up valuable skills came with opportunity costs, and crafting very specific unit builds was inherently more satisfying in a game that rewarded that kind of creativity but also didn’t make it easy.
In Three Houses, there’s really no reason to not just give everybody the most optimal skills (bows and a preferred weapon type for physical units, offensive and defensive magic for casters), as the complete openness means there’s almost no opportunity cost whatsoever. You end up with a lot of characters who feel more-or-less identical, grouped into large clumps. You have a handful with good defensive stats who can tank well, you have a handful who aren’t great at taking a punch but who deal a lot of damage, and then you have the casters, who are all basically the same (outside of Lysithea, who’s quite unique and generally rocks).
This has me feeling somewhat conflicted about the game. On the one hand, this flexibility works really really well in actual combat. Tactical role-playing games have some roots in traditional board games like chess, and Three Houses emulates that kind of feel to a large extent, with its flexible decision-making and its roughly uniform unit styles. My favorite games in the genre, though—the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fell Seal—blend that sort of strategy with rich and meaningful unit customization tools. In Three Houses, strong unit builds just kind of fall into place. In Fell Seal you have to combined different tools in creative ways to become especially strong. That customization is at least half the appeal of this particular genre of game to me, and Three Houses falls short on that front almost entirely.
I feel this is something of a deliberate choice, though. While Three Houses mirrors Tactics and its descendants in its foundational customization structure, everything else about the game mechanically points in the opposite direction, to a focus on direct in-battle strategy over actual customization. In a sense, this is a refined take on how Fire Emblem has been historically—a conceptually simpler TRPG series that prioritizes in-combat gameplay over out-of-combat gameplay. And Three Houses does this really really well. So it seems wrong to dock the game for failing to deliver on something it never really promised to begin with.
I find myself wondering whether this trade-off has to exist. Does incredible tactical flexibility by necessity infringe upon the value of customization options? If everyone can do everything, what’s the meaning in specialization? Is it possible to simultaneously allow for specialization and for strategic openness?
Strange as it is to say, I do find myself considering my strategic options in Three Houses more deeply than I do when playing Fell Seal and the like. In Fell Seal, I may have several options available to me at any given time, but by the end of the game most units are really good at doing one particular thing and can win most fights by just doing that thing. Combat is still satisfying, of course, but the satisfaction mostly comes from watching the planning that went into each character build pay off. It’s a different type of enjoyment.
The only TRPGs that I feel really strike that balance of strategy and planning are the Devil Survivor games, which force continual customization by effectively requiring players to rebuild their teams every few battles in order to stay caught up with the enemies. This means that while there’s a high degree of flexibility and battles are highly strategic affairs, there’s a constant need to push towards optimal team structure that scratches that planning itch.
Devil Survivor is a highly unique case that’s largely made possible by applying the conventions of the Megami Tensei franchise to the genre that is TRPGs, and I’m not sure how instructive it is for other TRPG series. Much as I love Devil Survivor I wouldn’t necessarily want other series to emulate it without reason.
Ultimately I think in-battle strategy and out-of-battle planning largely exist as a trade-off, at least in the context of this genre. I’ve written before about solving games in general versus solving specific battles one at a time, and while there are games for which both solutions are valid, I think most TRPGs tend to favor one over the other.
Games like Fell Seal favor general solutions, providing the tools with which to build exceptionally powerful units that can easily clear any fight. Games like Three Houses favor specific solutions, providing largely uniform characters and tasking the player with using those tools to strategically clear each fight. Neither is inherently better than the other (although I tend to prefer the former), and perhaps having a clear sense of which is meant to be the focus strengthens a game.
Ideally I’d want to be able to do either, but that might be a bit too much to ask.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was released about a week ago, and despite my general ambivalence towards Fire Emblem as a franchise I decided to give it a shot. Long story short, I’m glad I did.
Much early writing about Three Houses has drawn attention to the way it borrows elements from other games, particularly the structural cues it takes from the modern Persona games. While this is interesting, I find the most striking thing about Three Houses to be how much it chooses not to take from prior Fire Emblem games. This is embodied most directly in the game’s decision to remove the classic rock-paper-scissors-style weapon triangle. Fire Emblem has historically been on the simplistic side as tactical role-playing games go, but a significant piece of what strategy existed in the games rested on the idea that certain types of units counter certain other types of units, which means battles frequently became a matter of ensuring the right types of units were in the right places at the right times such that enemies would mindlessly fling themselves at units with which they had poor compatibility.
As an entry point to the grid-based strategy its genre is known for, old Fire Emblem worked well enough, but it was so much less interesting to play than strategically richer games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Devil Survivor. Much to its credit, Three Houses goes a long way towards making Fire Emblem more competitive with its fellow TRPGs, and it does so in part through subtraction rather than addition.
Removing the weapon triangle forces more flexible strategic thinking and necessitates more strategic options for the player. The answer to “dangerous axe-wielding enemy” can no longer be “throw a sword at it.” A powerful target is powerful no matter who you use to attack them and therefore must be approached carefully, which in the context of Three Houses usually means using a combination of ranged attacks, special gambits, and unique weapon techniques to whittle the target down in safety.
This isn’t completely foreign to Fire Emblem as a whole, and ranged attackers have existed for ages. Three Houses is only noteworthy because it prioritizes that sort of play. In older games, the only choices the player made on a turn were “where do you move?” and “what weapon do you use to attack?” The addition of selectable weapon skills adds another layer of complexity to that equation—one that’s standard in other comparable games but remarkably fresh in the context of Fire Emblem.
Where older games would often have long stretches of watching enemies throw themselves at a unit or two guarding a chokepoint, Three Houses develops into a pattern of bait-and-punish. Without the protection of the weapon triangle, enemy turns become more dangerous, and several enemies focus-firing a single allied unit will likely result in that unit dying. The solution is typically to draw an enemy group into the range of the allied units and then to find a way to defeat all of them (or at least as many as possible) within a single turn. This transforms each turn of combat into something of a miniature puzzle and means the player spends a lot less time watching enemy turns (over which the player has no control) and a lot more time actively making strategic choices.
It’s a massive improvement over past entries in the franchise.
There are a number of elements that make Three Houses successful at this, but ultimately I think it boils down to a willingness to experiment with a set of gameplay mechanics that have been largely untouched for decades. The weapon triangle was arguably the defining gameplay feature for the series—at least in the popular perception of the games—so choosing to remove it was a brave move on the part of the game’s developers.
I’ve written before about how Persona 4 is weakened somewhat for re-using Persona 3’s structural foundation without adapting it to meet the thematic needs of the new game, and I think long-running series staples can sometimes fall into that same pattern. Just because every game in a series has a certain feature does not mean the next game also needs that feature. In an ideal world a developer would approach each title as something entirely unto itself and only take mechanics from older games if they are necessary and important to whatever the newer one happens to be.
That attitude leads to brilliant games like Three Houses and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both games discard things that in the past were considered core elements of their respective series, and both borrow and adapt things from other works only to the extent that they advance the purposes of the games. You could argue that the games don’t “feel” like new entries in their series so much as entirely new works (especially in the case of Breath of the Wild), but the games are good enough that that really doesn’t matter. If anything, their distinctness is a strength.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Pokemon, which is an exceptionally stagnant series. Even games that appear to change something fundamental—such as Sun and Moon’s removal of gyms—typically replace those things with a functionally-identical substitute. Every Pokemon game feels the same, and the series runs a real danger of becoming boring as a result. Why buy a new game when it’s just going to be the same as what you’ve played however-many times before?
Pokemon is in some ways a victim of its own success. It sells exceptionally well and remains highly popular, so there’s little incentive to change things up. And maybe that means the series is fine. There are plenty of people who just want “the same thing as before with a little bit extra,” and Pokemon certainly delivers on that, but as a consequence the series has little chance of growing to become something truly great. I find people tend to be most attached to whichever generation of Pokemon games they played first, whether that’s the original games, or gen 3 (in my case), or the most recent ones, and I think that’s an outgrowth of every game being basically the same. A first experience with a Pokemon game is incredibly fun, but no subsequent game quite lives up to that first experience because there’s a nagging feeling that you’ve done this before.
I don’t mean to say, of course, that removing series staples is always a good thing. Ace Attorney 5, for instance, significantly streamlined the way its investigation segments work, and rather than helping the game’s pacing it just made that half of the game less compelling. (Fortunately, the series returned to the old style immediately after.) Certain gameplay elements or plot beats survive iteration after iteration because they are necessary and valuable to the games in which they appear, for one reason or another, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s just something that should be taken into consideration with each entry in a series.
I am curious to see how Three Houses holds up as I approach its back half. If it continues to excel it will almost certainly end up as my favorite Fire Emblem and may even revise my opinion of the potential of the series as a whole. It is much stronger for its willingness to break with convention, and I wholeheartedly respect that bravery.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition