Last week I shared the rules for what I call the Ladies Only challenge, a challenge run of the Crimson Flower route in Fire Emblem: Three Houses where I only use the women in the game. In the time between writing that article and writing this one, I managed to complete the White Clouds portion of the game, AKA part one of two. If you’re not familiar with the structure of Three Houses, part one is the preparatory portion of the game where the emphasis is on recruiting and building your team for the trials to come in part two. While you still have the same tools in part two to help upgrade the units currently in your team, recruiting new units is no longer a possibility. This means that I’ve now completed the recruiting phase of my challenge run – all the women in my party now are the only units I will have for the rest of the game. And with classic mode enabled, the death of one of them means the permanent loss of a party member.
Three Houses differs from other Fire Emblem games in the recruitment category in a couple of key ways. In a typical FE game you start with a relatively small party of characters to work with, learning their unique skills one or two class types at a time and slowly recruiting a larger force along the way. It often takes multiple chapters to build up a true party of characters to choose from, and even late into the game you are still recruiting the occasional new party member to pad out your ranks. In Three Houses, by chapter one you have nine characters under your control, and by chapter two you can deploy all nine of those characters at once on the battlefield. Instead of a steady drip-feed of characters, you get a large number at once and then very slowly add to them (or not, if you choose not to recruit anybody).
The challenge run returns the game’s recruitment to something more similar to classic Fire Emblem. I started with five characters: Byleth (who I’ve called Branwen), Edelgard, Petra, Bernadetta, and Dorothea. Slowly over the course of many chapters I managed to recruit most of the game’s women to the Black Eagles, but I never got more than two new characters during any one chapter. And honestly it took way more chapters than I expected to recruit everybody. Not only do characters have different recruitment needs but some have higher expectations than others. While I was able to recruit Annette from the Blue Lions pretty early on, Ingrid was the last character to join my party and she didn’t do so until chapter ten – White Clouds was nearly over at that point!
I consider this a positive aspect of the challenge, though. Early on you have to overcome the unique challenges of fighting with a team that is too small against much larger forces that are relatively equal in character level. When a character joins the party they tend to come in at the recommended level for the chapter, but to be competitive my small team needed to be higher than the chapter’s level; this meant that each new character was on the weaker side and needed to be babied a bit. That meant implementing new strategies to prioritize experience points for my new characters when they joined. But as they got stronger and stronger, I could start utilizing them in the same way I did my other units and it was deeply satisfying to watch them grow after joining at a weaker level.
The drip-feed of characters meant that I always had something to be working on throughout the White Clouds portion of the game. My typical cycle during a month was to explore the monastery and see who I could recruit, focusing on building my professor level through fishing and tournament wins as well as strategically building supports in the dining hall. At the end of the month just before the mission, I would do auxiliary battles to get my new recruit(s) even with the rest of the party, prioritizing experience points for one or two characters and using the auxiliary battles as a sort of on-the-job training. By the time the mission started, everyone in the party was on equal footing and I could play the mission normally. This was a satisfying loop and it always gave me something to look forward to. Who would I be able to recruit this month? Which characters still need to build support levels? These kinds of questions always had me excited for my next play session.
Supports are a bit of a weakness of the ladies only challenge run. Unfortunately many of the cross-house supports are between students of the opposite gender. There are some supports between women from different houses, but the most common trend is that those supports only go to B level – from a story perspective this means the characters will not have endings together, and from a mechanical perspective this means they won’t get the best bonuses from linked attacks or adjutants. Even women within the same house tend to have lower supports together; since Hilda can’t be recruited from the Golden Deer during a Crimson Flower run, none of the women in that house can form an A level relationship with each other (Lysithea has one with Edelgard, but Leonie and Marianne are up a creek).
Hilda isn’t the only woman you miss out on during the run. For story purposes in Crimson Flower, it is (ironically) the run where you actually can recruit the least amount of women out of the four different paths in the game. Hilda from the Golden Deer will not join, Catherine from the Knights of Seiros will not join, and while Flayn will join your class after chapter six as per usual, she leaves after a certain point during the late-game of White Clouds. This means I am missing three of the game’s sixteen possible ladies. But Crimson Flower is the path I still needed to finish in order to have completely finished Three Houses, and really what’s a ladies only challenge if Edelgard isn’t the commander of the team?
Edelgard has proven to be a very necessary piece of what makes this challenge work. One of the concerns I mentioned about the ladies only challenge in my first article is class balance – a large portion of the women in this game are naturally inclined to be spellcasters and will resist a path which leads them to a physically-capable class. At one point before the end of White Clouds I had seven bishops; that’s half of the characters in my party! Another five used the bow as one of their weapons (though thankfully only two of them were dedicated archers). This makes Edelgard the primary powerhouse of this run, but she serves the role well. Short of demonic beasts and boss enemies, I’ve found few opponents who could survive a single swing of Edelgard’s axe. Finding someone who can survive two is nearly impossible.
You may be wondering why I have seven bishops on the team and why I didn’t separate them between warlock and bishop – this is because I have a very specific class path that I use for my magicians in order to get specific skills I consider to be valuable. There are essentially only two class paths for magical characters in the game: a black magic path and a white magic path. There is a dark magic path also but female characters do not have access to it (incidentally, this also makes dark seals worthless). On the black magic path, mages learn Fiendish Blow (magic +6 when initiating combat) and warlocks learn Bowbreaker (hit/avoid +30 vs. bows). On the white magic path, priests learn Miracle (luck% chance to survive a lethal blow with 1 HP) and bishops learn Renewal (heal 30% HP at the start of the turn). I prefer my magicians to all know Fiendish Blow for maximum attack power and Renewal for increased survivability. So for all of my spellcasters I started them on reason to get them to the mage class, and then did a hard switch over to faith in order to work towards bishop when they unlocked the advanced classes.
As it turned out, there are other mechanical advantages to having a party half composed of bishops. One of the mechanisms in Three Houses is called the adjutant system, and this is sort of a nerfed version of the pair-up systems from Awakening and Fates. Adjutants travel alongside units on the battlefield and give small bonuses based on their class. Most classes randomly perform an extra attack, but a select few randomly defend against an attack. An even more select few (priest and bishop only) randomly provide healing to the unit. Having six bishops in the party means that my three adjutants are pretty much always adjutant healers, so I can attach them to my physical units who don’t have Renewal or a goddess ring/prayer ring to provide them some start-of-turn healing (albeit with less reliability). And while six of my party members are technically bishops, quite a few of those actually prioritize offense over healing. Lysithea may not be using Physic on anybody but the bad guys better watch out when a Miasma or Luna spell comes flying their way.
This run has been my first time playing on Hard mode, and what I’ve found is that Hard seemed to increase the early game and end game difficulty but still didn’t provide quite as much challenge in the middle. This I think is pretty consistent with my previous experiences with Three Houses – the earliest fights in each of the game’s two parts take place before you’ve really had the opportunity to dig in and prepare your characters, but once you get going it’s easy to become overleveled. Then there’s a difficulty spike for the ending chapters where suddenly being overleveled seems like a requirement in order to survive the fights.
This has been consistent with my experience during the ladies only challenge. During the first couple of chapters I had to play very carefully, managing my unit positioning with utmost precision and coming up with wild strategies on the fly to save a unit from certain destruction when even my best-laid plans went awry. Once I got the ball rolling sheer momentum carried me through the middle chapters without a struggle and soon I was back to not even paying attention to which units I was having charge right into the depths of enemy territory. But the final chapter of White Clouds really forced me to slow back down and plan out my moves, and I was using Divine Pulse quite a bit to reset after completely underestimating what my enemies would be capable of. At one point I had only three units charge into an ambush where they were facing seven tough soldiers in addition to a sort of “miniboss” unit, and only sheer luck gave me the time I needed to divert units from other parts of the map to the area where my surrounded crew was struggling for dear life.
I’ll probably talk more about my impressions of the Crimson Flower story arch in a different article, but I’ll say this here: it has become very obvious that Edelgard’s path is essentially the game’s canon story. Or rather…maybe not necessarily the canon one, but the one that the developers cared the most about and sunk the most effort in to. I haven’t played any of part two yet but just the ending of part one was vastly different from the game’s other three paths. Whereas Verdant Winds, Azure Moon, and Silver Snow all reuse the same plot devices for the first sixteen or seventeen chapters of the game, Crimson Flower has already deviated by chapter twelve and by the look of things will continue to progress differently than the other stories. On the one hand, that makes me very excited that I’m getting to experience something that feels fresh – it will be really easy to stay excited about finishing the challenge run so I can finally say that I’ve fully completed Three Houses. On the other hand, it’s frustrating that this one path is clearly the main path of the game and the other three are essentially just different reskins of the same package.
This challenge run has done so much for my enthusiasm about Fire Emblem Three Houses, and I’m deeply enjoying how it has forced me to play more strategically and also created a more satisfying game loop – at least during part one. I imagine that in part two, the story will be what’s working to keep me going way more than anything that is related to the challenge. But even if that turns out to be the case then the challenge has done its job – as the most repetitive part of the game, White Clouds is where I really needed the extra push to keep me focused. If nothing else, the ladies only challenge gave me that push, and that went a long way towards rekindling my excitement for this game.