Three routes, three leaders, Three Hopes
When the opening bars of the Fire Emblem theme – this time portrayed as a powerful, heavenly hymn –– greet a brilliant golden sunrise over the sprawling Garreg Mach Monastery, it’s not just the faint nostalgia stirring our nerdy souls upon witnessing Fire Emblem: Three Hopes’s title screen. The original Fire Emblem: Three Houses still holds an iron-grip on the strategy series’ public mindshare with its riveting ensemble of ambitious war heroes, sobering politics, and tragic poignancy; in many ways, we’ve yet to graduate from our unforgettable time at a military academy famed for cheery gatekeepers and lore-divulging tea parties, and so we’re given one more opportunity – or three, I should say – to have a new dawn rise over the mythical realm of Fódlan.
Hence the minor misconception that Fire Emblem: Three Hopes is a direct sequel to the 2019 Switch entry. It’s easy to elaborate on all the whys and hows that would defeat the entire purpose of Three Houses – wherein Fódlan’s three territories lived and died by their ideals in what was easily Fire Emblem’s most grounded narrative this side of Path of Radiance – but having swiftly tossed aside any semblance of a functioning life in favor of sinking a hundred hours into Three Hopes, I concede there is legitimate cause for confusion, not the least in how this “what-if” spin-off translates Three Houses’s DNA into Koei-Tecmo’s Warriors genre. The result: meticulous time management and camaraderie-building forged amidst endless combo strings and enemy mobs, all juggled in three separate campaigns.
Not a flawless fusion, mind, but for the uninitiated, let’s summarize the premise: framed within a Warriors hack-and-slash spin-off rather than a full-fledged strategy venture, Three Hopes takes place in an alternate reality of sorts where the fateful school year at Garreg Mach never happened and our stone-faced avatar in Byleth, the “Ashen Demon,” remained a roving mercenary. This time, we follow another hired sword in Shez, and through chance encounters with inner gods and the Ashen Demon themself does our mauve-haired hero finds a member of one of three factions: the Adrestian Empire (Scarlet Blaze), the Faerghus Kingdom (Azure Gleam), and the Leicester Aliance (Golden Wildfire). Each route features its own unique cast comprised of idealistic aristocrats, misfit commoners, and upstanding knights, all striving ever forward in their respective goals to abolish the nobility and Crest system, unearth life-ruining conspiracies, and erase the boundaries imposed by prejudice.
All familiar tales for those who played Three Houses, yet this time framed within Warriors’ punchy crowd control rather than mind-bending anime chess. Anyone who’s played the original Fire Emblem Warriors – or really, any Warriors game –– will recognize the same gameplay goals in capturing bases and, albeit with Fire Emblem twists. For instance, the Weapon Triangle – the rock-paper-scissors system that Three Houses previously abandoned – is wisely retained here, and you’ll want to plan carefully on who you bring into battle lest you want your pegasus riders riddled with arrows. Furthermore, if you’d like to heap on the pressure, hardened Fire Emblem/Warriors players can once more choose “Classic” mode to couple the ever-looming threat of permadeath with on-the-fly decision making. (And yes, “Casual” mode is still an option to disable permadeath.) .
With how much the students of Garreg Mach imprinted themselves onto our hearts in Three Houses, Koei-Tecmo graciously retained every one of our favorite munchkins. Every character functions according to a class system, and while the tradeoff deprives them of unique movesets, we’re left to experiment however we see fit. Sure, Lysithea’s high aptitude for magic renders her a deadly mage, but with some creativity, pairing her with a magic sword can produce an even deadlier Mortal Savant. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the novelty of shoving an axe in a little girl’s hands and having her rain death from above via a trusty wyvern steed.)
Much ado has been made over the game’s low FPS rate; alas, I confess I have little eye for graphical performance and the like, and have no opinion beyond “Well, at least there’s none of the low-res skyboxes that plagued Three Houses.”. However, I’d argue the combo system still pulls its weight: many of the attack strings are prime for juggling with all the lightning-quick Brawler punches and dazzling Dark Mage spells, and with how Three Hopes continually rewards expert play with breakable guard gauges and ability meters, the routine payoff of Strong Attacks in horse-trampling and mobile magic pillars concludes each crowd-clearing conquest with an endorphin-surging coda. And’s to say nothing of the cast’s unique abilities: no matter which class you choose for the bespectacled Ignatz, all his attacks splatter the battlegrounds with elemental paint, transforming the battlefields into veritable games of Splatoon.
Much like Three Houses, activity management is key. While Three Hopes still adheres to individual chapters, auxiliary skirmishes “advance” your army towards the designated battleground. As victories reward us with gatherable materials and earned bonuses, all can be taken back to your traversable base to level up facilities such as armories, tactical supports, and cafeterias. With all the back-and-forths in training and running around (not to mention the pressure of scheduling your limited activity points), there is a reasonable concern whether it’s all too much busywork – for those who already felt Three Houses overwhelmed with its all-encompassing monastery, chances are you’ll find yourself burned out here too. Throw in the game’s expectation of clearing three separate thirty-to-forty hour long campaigns, and it’s not long before they all start bleeding together: reused/abridged maps and objectives all. (Really, one can only hear the enemy’s dying gasp of “A taste more bitter than blackest coffee” so many times before throwing your Joy-Cons at the wall.)
But Three Houses captivated the fanbase for a reason – every last drop of that title’s addictive gameplay loop is channeled into Three Hopes, right down to players micromanaging every last support bond and class level as we scavenge for whatever lore-filled notes litter the campgrounds. In particular, expeditions – Three Hopes’ version of tea time – prove themselves an unexpectedly hardy trial: what guise themselves as affectionate outings turn out to be nefarious guessing games, as we’re left helpless in divulging our date’s conversational cues. (Attentive players will notice it’s almost never the most assuring answer that’s “correct”; rather, try appealing to each character’s insecurities.)
When expanding upon the most engaging Nintendo setting this past half-decade, it’s a recipe for success. As opposed to Byleth’s silent role as both mentor and savior, Shez’s chattier position as comrade offers a more interpersonal avatar – a straightforward challenger of their respective leaders’ ideals and decisions rather than soaking up their monologues like a mindless sponge. Such is but one of the many discrepancies for this new Fódlan, one which some characters endure better than others: Felix’s new role as Duke Fraldarius discards the reclusive persona of his youth, yet Marianne and Bernadetta no longer bloom into confidence. Dimitri no longer falls into madness, but the unflappable Claude quakes under the pressure of leadership – a sobering contrast to the confident, “clean” idealist we dutifully followed in Three Houses.
In particular, I cannot praise the support conversations enough. From the infectious silliness of Annette’s songs to the beating heart we knew pulsed underneath Hubert’s cold, crusty exterior all along, we’re not just reintroduced to old friends during these endearing heart-to-hearts – we get the chance to pick at the brains left unnurtured by “the Professor” we controlled in Three Houses. It’s not enough that they enact familiar scenarios of personality clashes and newfound rivalries; yes, we feel vindicated that resident recluses Bernadetta and Marianne finally forge Fódlan’s sweetest friendship, but it’s how this cast triumphs over their lingering insecurities - finally giving voice to the vices they’d long since thought would forever haunt their lives - that keeps us engaged with their development and perhaps even inspires players to do the same. We could sit here and write volumes on how Constance’s split personality betrays her confidence and airs her self-doubt into the world, or Petra’s heartbreaking balancing act in weighing her precarious duality as both queen of Brigid and captive vassal to the empire that murdered her father, but the point is: it’s the most gracious sort of fanservice, faithfully adherent to the original material and all helped along by immaculate voicework that forever etches these soldiers into our hearts.
With how many players and factions operated off-screen in Three Houses, Three Hopes even takes the time to fill in the original lore’s shortcomings. For instance, remember Sylvain’s estranged older brother in Miklan? Rather than serving as a one-and-done commentary on the Crest system’s inherent inequality, his elevated role here doesn’t just raise serious questions on morality among the cast –– we’re left to watch as poor Sylvain is forced to swallow his childhood trauma for the sake of Faerghus. Meanwhile, how about footnotes in Myson and Duke Aegir? Or even the territory of Sreng? Of course they’ve long since slipped your mind – if they even registered at all –– but Three Hopes will make you remember.
Now, whether Three Hopes succeeds across the board is another matter, but rather than picking apart every last quibble, let’s focus on the most egregious: – for as much as Three Hopes builds compelling momentum across its three campaigns, all stumble right at the finish line with abrupt, open-ended endings that don’t quite satisfy. While not enough to ruin the ride, it almost comes across as the game getting cold feet at full commitment to each route’s themes; as if, perhaps, that it baselessly fears superseding its progenitor. Without getting into spoiler-territory, this is likely due to circumstances surrounding the unsatisfactory mystery box of a certain new character, which makes one wonder if the scriptwriters had all their priorities in order. (There’s also the whole matter of Those Who Slither in the Dark being the sort of shallow, binary good and evil that has no place meddling in Fódlan’s morally-gray battlefields, but, well, can’t win them all.)
Make no mistake: Fire Emblem: Three Hopes is a flawed game. And yet, I don’t find myself frustrated by its shortcomings; true, it’ll breed contempt in those who prioritize performance above all else, and there exist one or two storytelling choices that’ll irk Three Houses faithful, but I’d never dream of begrudging its existence. Indeed, Three Hopes is an odd little paradox of sorts: as much as it overstays its welcome, we’re never ready to say goodbye again, and in that the game succeeds in its role as a spin-off. When recognized within the lens of being nothing more than an excuse to hang out with Fire Emblem’s best cast, I’m not one to turn down such goodwill.