When I shared my first impressions of Fire Emblem Warriors I had played only through the first four or five chapters. I can retroactively refer to this portion of the game as the “Awakening arc,” because the way Warriors is constructed seems to be built around series of chapters which are focused on the events of a specific game – or at least the characters from that game. Having now played through the Fates arc I’ve experienced another meaningful portion of the game, one that adds enough new mechanics and pushes the existing mechanics enough that it is worth examining. Let’s start with what’s new, explore how previously discussed gameplay elements become more significant, and finally touch on areas of the game where flaws are beginning to come through.
One gameplay element that was new to Fire Emblem Fates and so was introduced in the Fates arc of Warriors is the dragon vein. If you haven’t played Fates or Warriors, these are areas of concentrated magical power that can be activated to trigger changes in the environment. Unlike in Fates where this power is limited to members of the royal families, in Warriors any character can find and activate dragon veins. They have three main effects on the battlefield: building passes over gaps, clearing fog, and cooling lava. Dragon veins are tied to forts, so generally the way they are implemented is that you have to capture a fort and then activate the dragon vein in order to open up passage to a new area, or to make that passage safer.
These create some interesting tactical decisions, usually split between safety and expediency. Lava for example can be crossed by any character, but units on the ground will take damage over time. Waiting to clear the lava with a dragon vein is safest, but if an important time-sensitive objective is on the other side, you may still want to take the risk. Some dragon veins are optional, like ones for building passes, but going out of your way to activate them may create valuable shortcuts for your ground-based units that save them from lengthy trips through territory that has already been covered. Managing the dragon veins on the field adds one more layer of complexity to each mission, which in my view adds to the “tactical” feel of the game compared to some other musuo titles I have played.
Another new mechanic I have encountered at this point is the presence of ballista. Ballista are attached to specific forts on some maps and they fire long ranged attacks into specific areas, making those zones more dangerous as targets take damage over time. Whoever controls the fort controls the ballista, making these key targets you want to eliminate when prioritizing which forts to take. They don’t add as much to the experience as the dragon veins but they do increase the danger of the maps on which they are present, serving as an effective tool for adding to the challenge of the game over time.
In addition to the new mechanics present, gameplay elements I already discussed or glossed over in my first impressions have become more significant in the Fates arc of the game. Take the weapon triangle, for example. As the maps grow larger and more complicated and new enemy types appear, and as you as the player gain control over more units, making sure you have a balance of characters who cover a number of weapons is valuable. While you certainly can win a battle with a disadvantageous weapon, what it costs you is a precious resource: time. Dealing less damage overall and losing the ability to break the weak points gauge means that disadvantageous combat takes a lot longer and pulls your units away from capturing new forts or dealing with new threats. It’s important to manage your units such that they can attack locations where they have the greatest advantage.
There’s a more subtle mechanic than the weapon triangle that is similarly important, too: defense and resistance. Just like Fire Emblem proper your characters all have a set of stats that defines their mechanical potential. A high defense character takes less damage from physical attacks while a high resistance character takes less damage from magical attacks. This difference can be huge, a lesson I learned the hard way fighting Prince Leo of Nohr. I originally tried to fight Leo as Elise, a new character I had just picked up and who I wanted to practice with and level up. But Elise had a very hard time damaging Leo. I was blown away by how poorly she was performing against him compared to when I had been using her against regular enemies. Finally, her health got so low I had to switch to Cordelia. The difference was night and day – while it had taken a number of blows just for Elise to chip Leo down by about 25%, Cordelia blew through the rest of his health bar in just a handful of hits. His low defense meant that I needed to be facing him with a character who did physical damage.
Thinking about who to send where because of both the weapon triangle and the stats of the characters leads naturally into the next topic: character selection and management. As the game goes on you collect a growing pool of characters, and the number of characters you are managing on the map grows as well. During some of my largest battles so far I had not only four playable characters to juggle, but also two characters from my main party who I couldn’t control but were still present on the battlefield. That meant in total that there were six units that I was commanding at any one time, keeping track of when they defeated targets or reached specific locations so I could give them new orders or switch to them in order to take on a tough foe. I don’t mind having a lot of units to command in order to cover the map – what I do mind is the overall lack of unique units offered by the game.
There are only six weapon types in the game, only five of which are readily available during the portion of the game I have played up to this point. Only three actually exist within the bounds of the weapon triangle. This means that axes, swords, and lances are going to be the most important weapons in your possession in terms of giving you strategic advantages. Unfortunately, for both swords and lances, the amount of overlap in the fighting styles of the characters who use these weapons is massive. All the sword-wielders available at the point of the game I have reached are lords: quick strong characters fighting on foot. All the lance-wielders are pegasus knights. Only axes actually have a unique fighting style for each character wielding the weapon so far. Bow users and magic users aren’t any better. While I have roughly a dozen units in my party at this point, realistically I only have six or so truly unique playstyles to choose from.
This is not only frustrating in the sense of making the game repetitive and uninteresting, but it also leads to frustrations when making decisions about how to spend your resources. You’ve got a finite set of weapons for each weapon type, and since they are obtained randomly chances are good that you’ve only got one or two truly good ones at any given time. The characters also all use the same resources to upgrade their crests, which unlock new combos, increase their stats, and protect them from damage. Realistically you want to be able to focus on a few key units, but because the parties are split across different paths you do to a certain degree have to keep at least two characters per weapon built up. Because special units like Chrom, Hinoka, and Camilla have special weapons that are stronger than most of the tools you’ll get by default, it’s easy to just focus on those characters and ignore potentially more interesting options who overlap the same weapon.
As I shared in my first impressions, I am primarily playing Warriors to give me perspective on Three Hopes. I want to be able to evaluate the newest FE Warriors from an educated lens. And honestly, a lot of what I have experienced recently has left me a bit worried. The stuff that makes FE Warriors tick most – making tactical decisions about managing your units on the battlefield based on the weapon triangle and dragon veins – all focuses on elements that theoretically should not be in Three Hopes based on the gameplay elements not existing in Three Houses. But I can definitely see Three Hopes duplicating the issue of having only a few key playstyles in service of including a bunch of characters who are essentially pallet swaps. Throw in that some key members of the Three Houses cast would have privileged access to special weapons similar to the lords in the first FE Warriors, and I can imagine a scenario where Three Hopes keeps my least favorite aspects of this game while tossing the stuff that works.
It’s not that Fire Emblem Warriors is bad, per se. There are things this game does that are interesting, and I am enjoying playing it in short bursts. But the Fates arc of the game has clearly cemented which aspects of Warriors work for me and which ones do not. I know what Koei Tecmo is capable of when they are firing on all cylinders, but this game is an important reminder that they can also get by just fine by phoning it in and emphasizing nostalgia over a rich gameplay experience or compelling narrative. And while there’s no harm in hoping for the best, I think it’s ultimately good that I am grounding my expectations by understanding that there are two very different paths Three Hopes could take.