Fire Emblem Warriors Was Really Brilliant: A Musou Defense

Claude shooting enemies with a bow atop a wyvern.

Screenshot: nintendo

Whenever Nintendo releases news about Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, I’m bracing for a flurry of anti-musou sentiment on Twitter. Just search for “Fire Emblem” and “musou”, and you’ll see Twitter complaining about how Three Houses‘ the sequel would be so much better if it wasn’t a musou. Like someone who loved Fire Emblem Warriorsthe franchise’s previous foray into musou-style action, I’m here to tell you that three hopes could end up being as deep and tactically compelling as any turn-based game.

When I say “musou”, I am referring to series like Dynasty Warriors and samurai warriors. Koei more or less created the musou genre in 2000 with Dynasty Warriors 2, which used the new power of the PlayStation 2 to pit your hero and a handful of allies against hundreds, sometimes thousands of swarming enemies as you struggled to capture bases across massive battlefields. The one versus thousand dynamic created a whole new style of play.

Warriors“Games often get a bad rap in the West for being unambitious IP adaptations of popular anime franchises. Relatively recent ones include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, and Persona 5 Strikers. What I’ve noticed is that reviewers tend to compare these games to the gameplay typical of their source franchises, rather than that of the musou genre itself. Hyrule Warriors is held to the expectations of breath of the wild. Persona 5 Strikers should be more personas 5. It’s a shame, because each of these games would benefit more from being analyzed as “Warriors“Games first, franchise spin-offs second.

Musou games are some of the most tactically engaging games I have ever played. Where critics of the genre see a hack-and-slash, I see a real-time strategy game. Musou games are not power fantasies: they are lessons in losing the battle in order to win the war. No game is more brutal for glory hounds than a well-rounded musou. In the end, defeating a strong opponent doesn’t matter. Be able to fulfill your current missions key objectives is the actual endgame.

A screenshot of Lianna attacking Frederick's soldiers.

I would like somehow not to lose all my Switch save files. Too bad.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

Take for example one of the mid-game chapters in Fire Emblem Warriors. My characters were strong and we would gain a huge tactical advantage by taking over the fortresses in the lower right quadrant of the battlefield. But suddenly the map showed that we were being invaded from two directions at once. I paid no attention to the aggressive red arrows; a few more seconds of chipping away at an officer’s health, and I’d be able to conquer that desirable fortress.

I had made a serious mistake. Insisting on completing the capture of the base allowed the new two-pronged invasion to take hold. By the time I fled to deal with them, half of my map was the enemy’s telltale shade of red. I was quickly overwhelmed, and forced to start the whole mission over again. This time, when enemy reinforcements appeared, I abandoned my duel with the enemy general to immediately deal with the invaders. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Note, however, that I wasn’t even rewarded for it. I survived the invasion, yes, but the game didn’t give me positive reinforcement to make the right decision. The forts I gave up on capturing ended up being better fortified by the enemy, and it would take me a few more minutes before I could attempt to take them again. Nevertheless, I did not regret my retirement. After all, I had the experience of knowing that I would have been overwhelmed had I not proactively rushed in to deal with the invaders.

Despite the appearance of a reckless and total action, Warriors the games encourage a very conservative style of play. During this battle, even after the immediate danger had passed, I always chose to protect my territory rather than expand it at every opportunity. It takes maturity to recognize when something that looks attractive isn’t actually an opportunity. When I didn’t choose to be the thoughtful, strategic leader my army needed, Fire Emblem Warriors punished me for this.

And it’s a pattern through all the good musou games I’ve ever played, like the Destiny / Extella Games. Most of my time isn’t spent beating up hundreds of generic NPCs like you see in flashy trailers – instead, I run past them to neutralize key defenders and open doors. I pay much more attention to my map than to the skirmishes I go through. Winning requires me to give up my personal glory in favor of reducing the other army in a battle of attrition.

An image of an early Fire Emblem Warriors card.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

All this in mind, Fire Emblem Warriors felt like a better war simulator than turn based fire emblem games that spawned it. The soldiers did not take turns politely: they seized the forts left and right, each for himself. I took very frequent breaks to check the map and read the overall “flow” of the battle. Who had the upper hand? Could I reverse the dynamic anywhere? What tactical advantages would I give up by continuing or abandoning my current business? If you don’t ask these questions, then Fire Emblem Warriors‘ the most difficult levels will have you steamrolling.

In this direction, personas 5 Strikers Never felt like a traditional musou game. The chambers were puzzles to be solved, not dynamic fortresses to be maintained. Defeating non-general enemies felt more mandatory. I gave it up after three chapters of unsatisfactory gameplay. Although it has excellent production values, Strikers didn’t give me the same thrills of micromanaging an ever-changing battlefield.

Musou is a humiliating genre where your hero’s superpowers, no matter how considerable, can’t make up for poor tactics. In this direction, Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes is a game in the best format for a Three Houses after. Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude may be the holders of the heroes’ relics, but this is war, where one person cannot brute force their way to victory.