Fire Emblem is a series that has changed pretty significantly over the years. These days you can to some degree divide the fanbase into old generation versus new generation fans. Older fans probably came up on the GBA titles and maybe Path of Radiance, challenging and highly mechanical experiences where permadeath enhanced your appreciation for the characters and a unit’s class and weapon made a significant difference to their combat ability. Newer fans likely jumped in with Awakening or maybe even Three Houses, games with a greater emphasis on character development in terms of supports, relationships, and using class changes to build effective combinations of skills to customize a unit to your preferences. Your favorite Fire Emblem title likely depends a lot on your preferences regarding things like marriage mechanics, the presence of the weapon triangle, whether or not side missions and grinding are available, and options regarding permadeath and redoing turns.
My own thoughts on the series have always been a sort of wishful desire to mix and match my favorite elements across a variety of games into a single title. The presentation quality (visuals, music, writing) in Echoes, an overarching story at the level of Path of Radiance, weapon triangle mechanics and weapon selection from Fates, and the character building mechanics and quality of support conversations from Three Houses. But each new entry in my experience with Fire Emblem games or even with strategy RPGs broadly helps to sharpen my understanding of why I like what I like, and the same has been true for my time with fan game Fire Emblem: Vision Quest.
Vision Quest is aiming for a very specific FE experience and fortunately we have the creator’s description of their intent to help clarify that even further. Vision Quest is meant to be deadly, featuring plenty of tough enemies to overcome, but also to give you more powerful tools than normal to help you overcome those tough enemies. This means the addition of a significant number of new weapon types and particularly effective weapons that deal big damage against certain foes. There are also tons of characters – over 60 – so the game is built for you to be replacing fallen party members as you go rather than trying to reset to save your faves. Most of these elements are consistent with that older generation view of how Fire Emblem should be, though I will say there are some great touches to bring it forward that I really appreciate such as non-support convos between characters to promote character development even when you have limited support conversations. And I’ve already described how the overarching story is going in a direction that I would love to see in a mainline game in last week’s article.
As I’ve continued to play through Vision Quest (at this point I’m about 33% of the way through part two, I think), I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon regarding how I play the game and think about the game. Most of the time when I play Vision Quest I will only play through a single chapter. Occasionally I might do two, but often when that happens I am pushing myself to try to make more progress through the game. And as I play, or sometimes when I think about roughly how much of the game that I have left, I find myself thinking that Vision Quest is a very long game. Now it’s important I think to put this thought into context. I’ve played Vision Quest for about 20 hours, give or take a bit for the times I have had to reset to save characters. Still, I would say at MOST I have played this game for maybe 25 hours. One time. Compare this to Fire Emblem Three Houses, a game that takes 60 to 80 hours to complete depending on which path you choose and how much side content you do, which I have played to completion no less than seven different times. Three Houses is a long game, and at the very least from a totally objective standpoint it is a longer game than Vision Quest. Yet it is the latter where I find myself regularly stepping away and feeling exasperated by the length of the game.
What is it about Vision Quest that makes it feel so much longer for me? Why do I find this game draining instead of motivating, despite the fact that there are many aspects of it I have already described myself as enjoying? One thing I can point to is likely the length of each chapter. Vision Quest’s battles don’t start on a small scale and as you move through the game, they only get larger and larger. My current chapter allows you to deploy 16 units to the battlefield – that’s 4 more than you can ever use at once in Three Houses. The previous chapter only allowed 14 units but took place on a desert map that was absolutely crawling with enemy soldiers. The sand made it so most characters could only move one or two tiles at a time, and with two enemies on the board who could stop my characters in their tracks with status conditions, getting anywhere felt like a serious test of patience. When a single map in this game with 40-ish maps takes more than an hour of my time, it’s maybe easier to see why I don’t like doing two in a row.
Larger maps with more enemies isn’t the only thing that makes a chapter time-consuming. There’s also the process of resetting in order to reclaim characters I have lost. Vision Quest doesn’t particularly want me to do this, so ultimately that’s on me and not the game. But it still teaches me something about my relationship with the game: I am inherently disinterested in treating my units as disposable. I want to see them reach their full potential and I want to see their stories and supports through to the end of the game. I want my characters who seem weak at first to get their opportunity to become core members of my team. The experience I value and the one Vision Quest intends to offer are at odds with one another. For that reason, I engage with the game in a way that doesn’t gel with the design and it adds additional time to each chapter’s length.
There’s another big factor here and that is the simplicity of Vision Quest. The game essentially has two activities: read text and battle. It is a series of tactical combat scenarios broken up by short sequences of visual novel. This isn’t new to Vision Quest – every old Fire Emblem is this way, even as recently as Awakening – but the effect that this has for me as a player is that there aren’t a lot of activities to keep me engaged. Having streamlined mechanics isn’t inherently a bad thing – I loved Into the Breach, for example, where you really only choose maps to fight on and then fight on them. But Into the Breach supports that playstyle with bite-sized battles that are precisely trimmed to only the most exciting moments of combat. If you have a boring turn in Into the Breach, it’s because you earned it through clever placement and a well-executed plan. Into the Breach is only battles but they are five minute battles. Vision Quest is only battles and it takes more than an hour to play most of them.
Contrast this with Three Houses, a game that is full of what some people would call fluff with the time you spend instructing your students, exploring the monastery, doing side battles to grind, and totally irrelevant activities like fishing to level up your teaching skills. I find those things valuable for a number of reasons. Battles and tutoring converse with one another in a valuable back and forth – lessons unlock new skills to use in battle and battle gives the character experience points that open new class opportunities in tandem with well-planned lessons. I leave tutoring itching for battle – I leave battle itching to teach my students. I’ve already mentioned that most battles in Three Houses are smaller scale than the ones in Vision Quest, but in addition to chapter battles being smaller there are also much quicker side battles you can do during free time that give you a taste of the game’s core mechanic but in a more digestible way. When I’m exhausted of battles, eating a meal with the students or even going fishing gives me a break from fighting while still keeping me in the game.
Three Houses is also better aligned with what I know I am most interested in when it comes to Fire Emblem. I spoke earlier about my fundamental disagreement with Vision Quest regarding the disposability of my units. Three Houses takes the total opposite approach to this, where if you want to you can essentially play through the whole game with just the core group of students you choose at the beginning of the game. You hear their stories, invest in their skills and customize their classes to suit your playstyle based on their specializations, and there are in-game tools to support taking measures to try and rescue a character without costing you a significant investment of your time. Despite Three Houses literally being longer, the variety of activities available and better alignment between my desire and the game’s design keeps the game from feeling draining.
I want to be clear that Vision Quest isn’t a bad game, and none of this is to even say that I don’t like it. My previous writing on the game should make it clear that I’m impressed with what Vision Quest is bringing to the table. What I find fascinating about this experience is how subjective preferences can impact your interpretation of seemingly objective game elements, like the length of playtime, and how the experience of Vision Quest is making it clearer for me what I do and don’t enjoy in this type of game. I’ll continue to play Vision Quest and continue to do so at the pace that feels comfortable for me. And while it is unlikely to be my favorite FE game by any stretch of the imagination, playing a title that is explicitly challenging what I value has been an interesting way to better understand myself as a player of games.