Last week I wrote about the halfway point of my Fire Emblem Three Houses Ladies Only Challenge (try saying that three times fast), sharing how the recruitment drive reinvigorated the rather repetitive White Clouds portion of the game. In the time since that post was written, I’ve taken on part two of the game. There are four different part two paths in Three Houses, and the one I chose for the Ladies Only challenge was Crimson Flower. This path follows Edelgard and the Black Eagles, and since that’s about all I can say without a spoiler tag, be aware that this post will have some significant spoilers for Three Houses. I’ll slap a screenshot after this paragraph and if you continue reading after the screenshot, you’ll be in spoiler territory.
Still here? Cool. If you missed my article describing the rules of the Ladies Only challenge, the concept in a nutshell is that I can only use the game’s female characters. My mode settings were hard and classic, with a personally-imposed rule that if I lost someone in classic mode and didn’t have any divine pulse charges to undo it (or it happened right at the end of a battle when divine pulse didn’t kick in), I would continue on without that character for the rest of the game. While I played in new game+ in order to make recruiting easier and as a side effect carried over my statue bonuses, I didn’t spend renown on anything else during my run and did my best to ignore pre-acquired battalions as well as not buying items before they would have actually appeared in shops. The idea was to give myself a more challenging experience using a limited pool of characters, forcing myself to actually play Fire Emblem as if it was a strategy game rather than just charging recklessly into every match.
During the White Clouds portion of the game, that added challenge didn’t really come into effect all that much. It was tougher in the very beginning due to having a limited pool of characters and being at a level disadvantage imposed by hard mode, but once that limited pool of characters all started to become overleveled, it was pretty easy to stay ahead of the game. White Clouds was focused on getting my professor level up and getting girls from the other houses to come and hang out with me, which definitely made the game more lively in the beginning but didn’t necessarily involve increased difficulty for me. At least, that was the case until chapter twelve, where the whole game made a pretty dramatic turn from everything I’d come to expect from Three Houses.
Verdant Winds, Azure Moon, and Silver Snow all have an incredibly similar structure. Up until around chapter seventeen they all stay on essentially the same path, and even when they deviate it really just arranges very similar battles in a slightly different order. They all last essentially the same amount of time, too – Silver Snow is slightly shorter at 21 chapters, but Azure Moon and Verdant Winds are both 22 chapters. Crimson Flower doesn’t start the same way as any of those paths, doesn’t put the very few chapters that are repeats in the same order, and is much shorter at only 18 chapters total. And even starting at chapter 12 before the time skip, Crimson Flower does a lot more to bring difficulty to the game.
Part of this is due to the structure of the chapters as far as allowing you to engage with the game’s various mechanisms for strengthening your party. Normally chapter 12 goes like any other chapter, giving you a month of instruction time and multiple weekends of exploration or seminars to build up to the final confrontation. Because Edelgard doesn’t yet have control of the monastery in chapter 12 of this path, you don’t have access to any of those resources – however powerful you were at chapter 11 is how powerful you will stay for the final battle of White Clouds. This makes that match a lot more challenging, particularly if you weren’t highly overleveled for chapter 11. It doesn’t help that Rhea has multiple powerful units in her service.
Let’s compare for a moment the enemies you have to face in each run. For the other three runs when Edelgard is your opposition and not your ally, you have five commanders to deal with: Randolph, Ladislava, Hubert, the Death Knight, and Edelgard. Neither Randolph nor Ladislava is particularly dangerous and while Hubert is a powerful magician, once you get into melee range he isn’t too much of a threat. On the other hand, when you side with Edelgard against Rhea your opposition includes Seteth, Flayn, Alois, Gilbert, Catherine, Cyril, and Rhea. Not only do you have more unique units to fight, but many of these unique units have more special equipment than the ones on Edelgard’s side. Catherine’s Thunderbrand is particularly dangerous, and combined with her high speed it isn’t unusual for her to get four attacks against any of your characters. That means that you have to position yourself carefully at the edge of her range so that you can charge and defeat her with ranged attacks in one fell swoop.
Now no matter what path you choose, chapter 13 doesn’t allow you to make any preparations before the battle. But as we saw already, in the Crimson Flower run chapter 12 also doesn’t allow you preparations, which means that whatever your party is like at the end of chapter 11 is how they’re going to be stuck (except for incremental levels gained during campaign battles) until chapter 14. This is a much harder difficulty curve to deal with because you don’t have the ability to compensate by overleveling – by the time chapter 13 rolled around, half of my party was lower than the enemy’s levels and I needed to play in a significantly more careful way.
Once again the content of the maps also made things a lot more difficult. In chapter 13 of the other three paths, you start out with only two characters but steadily get reinforcements throughout the match. Your units appear at different parts of the battlefield and are able to surround enemies and approach them carefully, using terrain to their advantage. In chapter 13 of Crimson Flower, you start with your full force but the enemy is the one who has reinforcements in play. Instead of fighting generic enemies, you face an army that has multiple unique commanders on the field. And instead of primarily assassins, the opposition is made up primarily of brawlers, giving them a guaranteed two hits if they initiate combat and therefore nearly-guaranteed kills on magicians or archers. And in the Ladies Only challenge, most of your units are naturally inclined to be magicians or archers.
Once you power through the back-to-back chapters without any instruction time or opportunities for auxiliary battles, you finally gain the ability to begin training your units at the monastery again. What I found when I finally got the opportunity to train was that fighting battles against enemies of the same level did very little to help my party gain levels. Even with the experience bonus from the saint statues, my party needed to be facing enemies of a higher level in order to gain experience at a meaningful rate. That meant adjusting my schedule to make sure that I was battling during weekends where a rare encounter was available. Of course, rare encounters are much higher in level than other auxiliary matches, so that meant fighting even more battles where my party was outclassed in order to gain enough levels just to keep up.
I really appreciate this design approach because hard mode isn’t just hard because they make enemies more powerful – they also scale the experience you gain so that you have to engage in more difficult battles in order to keep pace. Hard mode rewards you for seeking out harder battles and essentially requires you to do so in order to remain competitive during the main campaign. It’s a cool design touch that I found myself appreciating as I rearranged each month’s schedule to free me up during rare encounters.
Reinforcements seemed to play a bigger role in Crimson Flower, and I’m not sure if that was due to my choice in difficulty or if it is simply a difference between the runs. But I often found myself put into tight spots because my troops would suddenly be jumped by dangerous units mid-battle. During the final battle of my challenge run, I used divine pulse probably five times redoing on particular turn where my party was suddenly jumped by falcon knights from all sides. This attack put all of my resources to the test. First I tried simply repositioning to reset the RNG seed and get better odds, but it became clear that there were too many falcon knights for me to aim for just one extra miss. It didn’t help that I had three different characters who they could kill – on my second reset I saved one character but lost a different one instead, so it required me to try yet another strategy in order to get all three protected. It took just the right combination of spells, combat arts, and good RNG for me to make it out of the situation.
I learned to make use of the unique abilities that different characters learn and appreciate what specific people brought to the table. Bernadetta has a really useful bow combat art called Encloser that prevents the target from moving after they take damage, essentially giving me a buffer turn where I didn’t have to worry about dangerous enemies attacking my units. This could allow create situations where someone who only had a melee weapon (like Catherine) could be blocked into being peppered to death by ranged characters, powerless to attack my units. I’d also never taken advantage of Byleth’s combat art Windsweep, but it turns out that being able to do damage to a target with no chance of a counterattack is really useful against strong targets like demonic beasts so that more vulnerable characters can then finish them off. It was also particularly helpful against Rhea, whose weapon restored her health when she did combat damage.
Spell management became important too. Once higher classes are unlocked you never really have to worry about running out of basic spells like Wind or Heal, but the spells that have high attack power, long range, or a practical benefit like moving units are limited even as a powerful magician like a gremory. Knowing the right time to Meteor somebody or to Warp a character to the other side of the map is key to succeeding in difficult battles, but in normal mode I was able to use these spells frivolously just to gain some extra EXP on a map. Learning to wait until the opportune moment to use these spells was a positive experience, and it felt really good when I still had a Fortify on deck at the moment when I needed it most.
While I originally took on the Ladies Only challenge as a way to spice up a game I’d already played three different times, what I learned was that I had actually been missing out on some of the key mechanisms that make Three Houses more engaging. Playing in hard mode made combat arts and spells matter. I cared about fighting rare encounters to keep my party at the appropriate levels and to make sure I had the ore I needed to keep my best weapons usable during combat. Spending some of my exploration time to increase my professor levels brought the game to a healthier pace that made me more excited to pick it up again during my next play session. And engaging in battles where I actually needed to micromanage unit positioning, think about the moves I made, and use divine pulse to undo legitimate mistakes kept my mind engaged and made the campaign more interesting. I thought the challenge run would push me by forcing me to play the game in unusual ways – instead, it showed me that I’ve probably been approaching Three Houses the wrong way during most of my playthroughs.
As I finally put Three Houses down for awhile and prepare for my comprehensive review of the game, I feel that this most recent run will dramatically shape my final thoughts about the game. Before Ladies Only I felt burnt out and cynical about Three Houses in some ways – now my mind is engaged thinking about the sorts of opportunities I have missed by not challenging myself more in other playthroughs. I’m really glad I decided to take on this challenge to end my time with the game, because experiencing it in this way helped me to find the positives that I had been missing by not engaging all of the mechanisms offered by the game.