Which path will you carve into Fódlan's history?
Is there any worse feeling in gaming than reaching the end of a demo you’re really into? That happened to me with the Fire Emblem: Three Hopes demo that launched last Thursday. There I was, fighting alongside Prince Dimitri, Felix Fraldarius, and the rest of the Blue Lions as we were demolishing bandits, mercs, and Empire soldiers alike. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be: just as I was about to rendezvous with the Church of Seiros, my progress into Chapter 4 was impeded by the dreadful message of “You have reached the end of this demo.”
Cue a drawn-out moan of despair. I’d just gotten reacquainted with Fire Emblem’s best cast in what amounts to an alternate take of 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and after all the spicy new lore and heartening character foibles and interactions, I’d have to wait another two weeks to learn the fate of a war-embroiled Fódlan? Perhaps, but then I remembered: much like the original game, the Azure Gleam route I’d just previewed was one but one of three paths featured in Three Hopes – the other two being Scarlet Blaze and Verdant Wildfire. Would I be able to resist the allure of another campaign on my plate?
Seeing as how Three Houses has held me rapt three years and nine playthroughs later, you can imagine what happened next. Having completed two of the paths (that being Scarlet Blaze; I’ve decided to tackle Verdant Wildfire upon the game’s release), I come from this meaty demo full, satisfied, and yet hungry for more. It bears repeating that Fire Emblem: Three Hopes isn’t necessarily a sequel to the 2019 Fire Emblem game – much like Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, this is a Dynasty Warriors-framed action game (“Musou”, as called in some circles) within a contextual “what-if” scenario that emphasizes direct hands-on combat rather than elaborate games of chess. Not that these are brainless beat-em-‘ups devoid of cerebral engagement, mind; in everything from timed missions to weapon match-ups, strategy remains vital to winning the day.
Despite the shift in genre, much of Three Houses’ mechanics translate flawlessly. You’ll foster relationships with your units through stat-boosting meals and class-boosting training sessions, all meticulously managed within your traversable encampments. (Albeit within much more condensed bases – the daunting size of Garreg Mach Monastery from the previous game was not an uncommon complaint) Much to our surprise, every last Three Houses student (and then some!) makes a playable appearance – while the game’s class system results in more homogenized movesets than your typical Warriors game, each vocation comes equipped with their respective weapon types and passive skills, rendering your armies prime for some heavy customization. You want the mousy Bernadetta to bring on the fisticuffs with some Iron Gauntlets? Go ahead, champ.
Warriors games often guise themselves as stress relievers in pitting enemy hordes against your one-man armies, but they’re quick to put on the pressure, and Three Hopes is no different. For instance, get too carried away with pounding on mobs, and you’ll have your base taken over by enemy reinforcements courtesy of sneaky meet-ups. Meanwhile, as opposed to Three Houses, the series’ signature Weapon Triangle – a rock/paper/scissors-inspired combat system where sword beats axe, axe beats lance, and lance beats sword – makes a return here, so you’ll have to carefully consider who’ll you take into any individual battle.
(Alas, the frame rate does take some heavy hits in combat – while it never sinks to the contemptible lows of Age of Calamity, there is a distinct choppiness to it all that can put a damper on your army-conquering heroics. Those prioritizing game performance above all else will certainly want to preview the demo, but from a graphical standpoint, I’d like to think Three Hopes looks more presentable than the muddy Three Houses.)
With an interactive world map featuring skirmishes, side-quests, and rewardable goodies, Three Hopes boasts an addictive gameplay loop via a veritable war economy of gold, weapons, and endearing camaraderie. As your units pair up and fight together, their relationships will bond and reward players with the series’ beloved Support Conversations – delightful chats full of saucy cheek, gripping exposition, and heartening chemistry. As the demo limits us to “C” level conversations, we’re only given enticing tastes of how these familiar characters are navigating within a new, yet familiar Fódlan, but the presence of an alluded “Horse Song” already has me hoping a certain support will deliver upon its promises.
Not that Three Hopes isn’t primed to successfully complement its predecessor, as much of what makes the separate narratives so interesting is our new proxy in Shez. Don’t let the generic design fool you: as opposed to the stone-silent Byleth, this former merc’s journey from Garreg Mach student to trusted general and confidant already maps out an intriguing character arc driven by motives and purpose (that being that finding a cause worth believing in is a more fulfilling goal than single-minded revenge). Far from being passive self-inserts devoid of personality, the fact that they’re equipped with voiced dialogue goes a long way in endearing Shez to us as a relatable protagonist. (Heck, even a similar courtesy is extended to what little see of Byleth, not the least in their enticing role as antagonist.)
In building off Three Houses’s foundation, it could even be argued that Three Hopes is well on its way to surpassing Three Houses’s storytelling, particularly in mending its faults. It’s no secret the original game suffered from a troubled development, and for as much as Three Houses dealt with the most grounded, human narrative in Fire Emblem to date, it was too overambitious with its four routes: not every campaign was of sufficient length, and plotlines are underdeveloped or even outright dropped depending on your chosen house. With a wealth of lore and fan feedback to build upon in addition to its new characters, Three Hopes expertly seasons its scenarios by pulling everything from passing references to undercooked characters. For instance, ever wanted to get a better look at the insurrectionist nobles that ruined Edelgard’s life? You’ll get that and the chance to pummel them.
While the battlegrounds have shifted in Three Hopes, all this and more promises not merely a worthy follow-up to Three Houses, but another content-filled war campaign courtesy of Koei-Tecmo/Omega Force. Having already sunk countless hours within the world of Fódlan, my hopes are secured threefold in that I’ll, once again, do the very same within the confines of an anime figure toy box. (Albeit not so much in which route I’ll pick up with once the game launches June 24th. It’s not like I can juggle both Scarlet Blaze or Azure Gleam upon release…right?)