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.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition