I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses through a full seven times, and have an almost-completed eighth playthrough I may someday go back in and finish. I enjoyed each of those playthroughs to varying degrees but there is a particular one that sticks out in my memory as “the bad one.” In Three Houses on the Black Eagle route, right before the time skip the route splits two different ways: the Crimson Flower storyline or the Silver Snow storyline. During my first ever Black Eagles run I of course wanted to do the Crimson Flower path, but having played through the game two previous times, there were certain activities I had stopped participating in. Namely, talking to people around the monastery. As it turns out, talking to people at the monastery is exactly how you choose which route to take, and if you ignore it then you automatically get shoved along the Silver Snow path. Finishing that run was torture, and to this day I still have never done another Silver Snow run in my subsequent five playthroughs.
Fast forward to Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, another game where you choose your path early on by choosing one of three houses at Garreg Mach Monastery. I’ve managed to push myself onto a shitty path yet again, and this time it was during my very first run of the game. You see, Three Hopes has bad endings and good endings for each path through the game. The bad ending skips multiple chapters of content, leaves major plot threads unresolved, and generally just ends in a very abrupt and dissatisfying fashion. You get a warning at the beginning of the chapter that your decisions will make a huge difference on the rest of the game, but similar to the problem I encountered in Three Houses, I blundered right past the opportunity to make any kind of “decision” at all.
The rest of this article contains major story spoilers for Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes
Three Hopes tells the story of a young mercenary named Shez, a man or woman who faces off against the protagonist of the first game, Byleth, before the events which would have caused Byleth to meet the students of Garreg Mach. This makes Byleth a villain of sorts in the game as she (I fought fem-Byleth in my run) is hired again and again by your enemies to stand in your way. The first times you face her, Byleth is too powerful for any of your fighters to realistically deal with; avoiding her is not an option. But by around chapter 10 during my playthrough, Byleth was beginning to become an achievable opponent to fight. And as it turns out, fighting her is the crux of the decision that determines how your game plays out.
During chapter ten of the Golden Wildfire path, there is a portion of the main battle where Claude is fleeing to a specific point on the map and Byleth tries to intercept him. At that point a side mission becomes available: defeat Byleth. I always try to finish every side mission during a battle, particularly because failing them sometimes leads to consequences like enemy reinforcements flooding the battlefield, or losing out on a good item. Byleth is a sword wielder so I marched Leonie, my lance wielder, right over to her position and within a few swings, took Byleth down. She wasn’t hard to defeat at all; I had protected Claude, so I went along my merry way thinking nothing of the events that had just taken place.
Now I talked to a friend about this battle and he described to me that during his playthrough (granted, we are playing different paths) there were some warning signs that suggested fighting Byleth was a bad idea. The main character, Shez, expresses his doubts about the fight, and there is a clear tension between them and their strange godlike companion Arval as a result. I don’t know if I missed that dialogue because I was using Leonie instead of Shez or if it was because I defeated Byleth so quickly that the voice lines became irrelevant – whatever the circumstances, during my run there was no warning that suggested that not fighting Byleth was a viable option. It wasn’t clear that the important choice I was warned about at the beginning of the map was happening; this game-altering decision looked just like all of the other side missions on the map, and generally there isn’t any benefit to ignoring any of the side missions. I locked myself into the bad ending without ever even realizing that a decision had taken place.
At the end of the day it is ultimately my own fault that I missed the important decision and got the bad ending. However, I do think there are some additional steps that could have been taken to more clearly telegraph how the choice mechanic worked. I also think that some aspects of the game’s design are antithetical to the way it tries to tell stories mid-chapter. So let’s talk a bit about how the game mechanically handles other decisions that you make during combat, as well as the aspects of the battles that create an incentive to play aggressively and miss out on moments like the one I have described above.
Let’s start with the incentives. Every mission in Three Hopes is given a letter grade, with S at the top and maybe B at the bottom? The lowest I ever saw was B, at any rate. You are graded on three aspects of the battle, which then are collected into your overall grade. The aspects are time to completion, number of enemies defeated, and percent of damage taken. When you get an S rank for all three of these things and therefore get an S rank for the whole mission, you get a special reward in addition to the reward for clearing the mission for the first time. Replaying battles that last somewhere between 15-20 minutes is not a particularly fun exercise, so ideally you want to get an S rank the first time you complete a mission. Since finishing within a time limit is part of that as well as defeating as many enemies as possible, you are encouraged to play aggressively. Move fast and take out every opponent that you can see on the map to make sure you are meeting those two conditions.
Also important in understanding how I made this mistake is precedent. Games teach you how their mechanics work through example: you experience a gameplay element and through that experience come to understand how it works, preparing you to interact with it in the future. There had been plenty of side missions like the “defeat Byleth” mission on previous maps. Completing them doesn’t necessarily give you a special benefit, but ignoring them can absolutely yield penalties. I’d had previous battles where the failure to complete a side mission had resulted in a flood of new enemies, or had locked me out of a reward. So up until chapter ten, every battle that I had fought had reinforced the same lesson: if a side mission pops up, make an effort to complete it. No other side mission in the game up to that point had involved a punishment for doing it – there were only punishments for not doing it.
Finally, there was already a mechanism in the game for the choices you make on the battlefield: strategies. All of the major battles after chapter three feature the Strategy mechanic. Using resources earned during the smaller skirmishes leading up to the main battle, you choose bonuses you want to become available as the battle goes on. Often, one of these benefits is persuading an enemy general to join your side. Spend strategy points to recruit them and they join your army – ignore that option and defeating them leads to their death. Again, there was precedent for the idea that if recruiting Byleth was going to be possible, it would be presented to me in a specific way: through the strategy mechanic. This is how choices on the battlefield – from the choice to deploy archers or build a bridge to the choice to either save or kill a rival – were presented during every other chapter of the game.
I hope it is at least understandable, then, how I ended up in this situation. My strategies – the normal method for telegraphing important decisions to the player – did not include anything about recruiting or sparing Byleth. Nine previous chapters of gameplay had taught me that when a side mission pops up, I need to complete it or there could be meaningful consequences on the battlefield. And the reward mechanics of the game gave me incentive to quickly defeat Byleth and her forces, keeping my time low and my kill count high. All of these factors worked together so that even though I had been told “there’s a big decision here,” I didn’t recognize that decision for what it was because it was so inconsistent from how the rest of the game functions.
Getting a bad ending on my first playthrough certainly sucked, but my experience with Three Houses showed me that one bad run doesn’t have to define your experience with a game. I’m going to try to use the game’s new game+ features to quickly make it back to the choice and then experience the content I missed. And while my Golden Deer playthrough will have been a bit of a disaster, I now know what to look out for when I play through the Blue Lions and Black Eagles in order to make sure that those runs go more smoothly.
A bit baffling that with a game that is so action-focused there would be a choice to make mid-combat. Kinda reminds me of how several games in the 2010s would deliver important dialogue while an action scene was happening. At best I missed some details because, unlike a movie, I have to focus on what I’m doing so I can’t completely focus on what is being said. At worst, I completely missed everything because I couldn’t read the subtitles for dialogue I couldn’t hear through all the explosions, and gunfire. I’m glad we seem to have mostly moved on from that.
That said, I still think there ARE ways to have players make decisions while playing action based games. However, the game ought to be better about cluing players into them. As you noted, arbitrarily throwing all of the established patterns out the window doesn’t help any.
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