Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
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