I first discovered Fire Emblem challenge runs as a teenager courtesy of the forums on GameFAQs. Players discussed suggestions for how to add more challenge to the game in a different way than just flat increasing the difficulty level – or challenges that would make the game even tougher if you were playing at the highest difficulty already. During that time I had a lot more free time to burn and replayed games much more frequently than I do today, so the discovery of multiple ways to experience some of my favorite games differently was very exciting for me.
I primarily did challenge runs of two different FE games: Path of Radiance and Sacred Stones. Path of Radiance was my favorite Fire Emblem at the time, and Sacred Stones had the advantage of being portable so I could run it when traveling. For Path of Radiance I did what the forum poster had called a “harem” run, which was restricting yourself to using only Ike and any of the game’s female characters. I also did a run using only the official Greil Mercenaries, so anyone who was recruited after a certain chapter was not eligible to be used. In Sacred Stones I did a lords and pupils run beating the game with only Eirika, Ephraim, Ross, Amelia, and Ewan, and I believe I did an all-women run of that game as well.
As I wrapped up my first challege run of Fire Emblem Three Houses (though I didn’t exactly do it with the intent of it being a challenge), I started thinking about how I would keep myself engaged during the final ending of the game. With the end of Three Houses finally in sight, I wanted to find a way to power through and enjoy the Crimson Flower path. It helped somewhat that this was the path I was the most excited about, the one that I suspected would be the most unique of the four, but I really wanted something to be excited about from a mechanical perspective as well. And that’s when my mind recalled the challenges I did all those years ago, and the Ladies Only challenge was born.
SO WHY LADIES ONLY?
One may be curious why there’s such a focus on doing challenge runs where only the female characters are used? Wouldn’t it be just as challenging to do a male-only run? I think in Three Houses the answer to that question would be “yes,” but there are some added practical considerations there. In Three Houses, most of the main story missions require you to use the game’s house leader. This means Claude in the Golden Deer, Dimitri in the Blue Lions, and Edelgard in the Black Eagles (depending on the story path you choose). So doing a challenge where the house leader is the opposite gender of the characters you plan to choose immediately presents the problem of always having someone on your team who doesn’t fit the bill.
The second practical consideration comes in the form of recruitment. In Three Houses you begin the game with nine characters: the protagonist (who can be male or female) and then a party of eight students that in most cases is divided evenly between male and female (the Blue Lions have more men). You can easily recruit members of the Church of Seiros/Knights of Seiros just based on your experience level – which members of the group will join you depends on which path you’re playing, and once again the Blue Lions have a larger selection of men in this category. No matter which route you pick, you’ll be locked out of recruiting the rival house leaders and their right-hands. The Black Eagles have additional restrictions based on your route choice.
Third, class restrictions come into play. In Three Houses you can train any character as any class you want as long as the class isn’t restricted for their gender. Men cannot be pegasus knights, falcon knights, or gremories, and women cannot be brawlers, grapplers, war masters, dark mages, or dark bishops. But even though characters can technically be whatever class you want them to be, the character’s innate growth rates have a bigger impact on their stats than their class growth rates. In other words, characters will still grow a lot like the class they are “supposed” to be regardless of what you train them as. Since more than half of the game’s women are inclined towards magic and archery, this means that in general you’ll have a frailer group of characters to work with (don’t you just love when implicit bias impacts game design?).
So ultimately, I chose ladies only because I knew already that I would be choosing a path where Edelgard is the house leader, which meant I’d have a required female character in almost every main story mission. I knew at the beginning of the game I’d only have five playable characters until I managed to recruit, and even after recruiting I could only get my party up to fourteen characters total. And when it comes to the story, I love the idea of an army of badass ladies smashing the theocracy.
WHAT OTHER RULES ARE YOU USING FOR THE CHALLENGE?
Great question, me! When it comes to difficulty settings, Fire Emblem Three Houses comes very easily to me on normal-casual. During most of my playthroughs of the game up to this point, I really haven’t had to pay attention to details like what class characters are or what weapons the enemy has – I could basically play most maps on auto-battle , running as far forward as possible each turn with every single character. So to force me to play strategically and to add some real teeth to the challenge, I’m playing on hard-classic: the battle difficulty is higher than the normal level, and if characters die they stay dead.
Now most folks when they play on classic just reset when they lose a character, but in my perspective, at that point I may as well be playing on casual. So one of my rules is no resetting – if someone dies, I will legitimately attempt to finish the challenge without them. This adds to the challenge because remember, there are only fourteen total characters possible in this run. Since most maps use a party of ten, that’s not a lot of backup, and the largest maps in the game actually can handle fifteen (twelve playable and three adjutants). That means even without deaths I’m not operating at full capacity, so every life is even more valuable. All that said, I am allowing divine pulse. That allows me to undo mistakes in order to try to save the lives of characters who fell, which does ultimately reduce the likelihood of anyone actually dying for good. But divine pulse won’t save anybody who fell right at the end of the map, so there is still some inherent risk involved.
I went back and forth a lot on whether or not I should use new game+ for this run. New game+ immediately makes the game easier by carrying over any saint statue progress you have, even if you don’t ever spend a point of renown during the rest of the run. However, my concern was that running the game normally would mean that recruiting all of the women to my team would be nearly impossible. Recruitment depends on your stats and weapon skills, but the early game is focused primarily on raising your professor levels rather than your skill levels. For me, I didn’t necessarily care about the recruiting part being hard – I just care about the battles being hard. So I decided to enable new game+ with a few conditions: I could only use the renown to give Byleth the skill levels necessary to recruit new team members. No buying professor levels, no buying supports, no buying mastery skills. I’m also as best as I can not using mastered battalions from other runs or buying any equipment from the store that I wouldn’t be eligible to purchase yet.
Other minor considerations. I’m not using any online functions. Playing with the online activated causes certain tiles to give your characters items and some to grant an experience boost. I rarely used the items in play during my other runs, but I certainly don’t want to be earning extra experience in a playthrough intended to be more challenging. Some paralogue chapters in the game will draw male allies into the battle and make them required units on my team. I considered ignoring those chapters but I don’t want to miss out on battles and useful weapons or items. So in any chapter where a male ally is required because of story purposes, I will keep him in the back and away from combat, not using him for any strategic advantage.
HOW’S THE CHALLENGE GOING SO FAR?
At the time of writing I’m at chapter four of the game. So far I have only recruited one character in addition to the five I started with, and that was Leonie. She’s a good addition, though – with the exception of Edelgard, the ladies of the Black Eagles are on the frailer side, so it’s good to have a tougher lady that I can bring to bear. This run is tough starting out because other than using renown to pump up Byleth’s faith for recruiting purposes, no one on the team starts out with healing abilities. I just got Dorothea’s faith high enough to learn Physic, so that’ll be a great advantage, but the first maps were tough having to use vulneraries all the time.
Hard mode turns up the challenge compared to normal, no question. But so far the adjustment has really been from “running headlong into every battle like a crazy person” to “playing Three Houses as if it is actually a Fire Emblem game.” Once I made that mental swap and started playing smartly by using strategies like bottlenecking bridges, hiding in forest terrain, and only moving units to the very edge of a danger area, things started playing in my favor a lot more. The other thing about hard mode is that unlike normal, levels are actually higher than advertised when dealing with enemies. A level with a recommended level of 6 that I played actually featured a full army of level 7 enemies, meaning that even though my party met the recommended level they still had a disadvantage in power. But just like in normal mode, so far it seems that if you do a practice battle against the hardest skirmish once a month your party will stay overleveled for the main campaign.
One thing I’ve learned during this run is that Three Houses is actually more enjoyable generally when you play it without some of the advantages of new game+. This is the first time since my very first playthrough that I’ve done things like go fishing or explore the monastery for professor experience boosts, and having that time to break up the cycle of instruction and battles actually makes instruction and battles more enjoyable when they do come up. While it is certainly faster to just pump a bunch of renown into your professor levels, I’ve learned that this takes something away from the game that really needs to be there. If I decide to revisit Three Houses when the story DLC drops next year, I’ll need to keep that in mind.
Finally, after doing an all-magic run with the Black Eagles, it is so nice to play with them using their natural gifts. Bernadetta surprised me in the magic run with how well-suited she was to gremory, but it is great having her picking off foes from afar with Curved Shot thanks to that fantastic personal skill. Petra’s speed shines as a myrmidon and watching her sword skill grow at lightning speed after watching her reason and faith slowly crawl towards higher levels in the last run is deeply satisfying. And Edelgard – goodness. That girl seems overpowered at this point in the game. She hits hard but is also relatively quick on her feet – I haven’t met an enemy yet that could take two hits from her. I’m also enjoying having characters from other houses in my party. This is actually the first time in four runs that I’ve recruited characters across houses, so I’m getting to see new supports between characters that previously never got to interact with one another.
Overall, I’m quite excited about the beginning of my Ladies Only challenge. If you’re inspired to take this on (or perhaps you want to do a Guy’s Night challenge with the Blue Lions), I’d love to hear about your progress or what rules you are using for yourself. For me, challenges add replayability to some of my favorite titles, and being able to finally experience the fourth and final path through Three Houses while also experiencing it in this unique way has me enjoying the game a lot more.