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Shez and Byleth leap at each other in the cover art for Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes

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Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes fails to reinvigorate the Musou genre

How much longer will “fine” be enough?

Image: Omega Force/Nintendo

It was a cold and misty night in November of 2001 when I leapt up from my desk chair, grabbed my keys, and drove across Terre Haute, Indiana to get to the mall. Dynasty Warriors 3 had come out and completely blindsided me, a thing that was a little more plausible in the pre-eternal media-blitz game-marketing world of the early aughts. I had to go get it, rush home, and slam that baby into my PS2. I was just that excited.

As I’ve played through Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, I keep reflecting back on how much those early Musou (“Warriors”) games gripped me. I’ve enjoyed my time with Three Hopes, don’t get me wrong — but it’s hard not to notice that the sense of wonder I felt playing DW3 two decades ago was missing as I worked through this latest title. In my last review of a Musou game for Polygon, I said that I don’t really know how to talk to people about Musou games anymore, and I think that position holds true now.

Three Hopes is a perfectly serviceable game. The gameplay is fine. The story is fine. The graphics are fine. The music is fine. The controls are fine. Everything’s … well, fine. What I’m left asking myself after two decades of high-impact mook murder as a rotating series of one-person armies, though, is: “Is ‘fine’ enough anymore?”

Since Fire Emblem: Awakening, there’s been what I’d call a steady Persona-fication of Fire Emblem games, with a greater emphasis on support conversations and the social connections between characters. Three Houses was really the culmination of that, with the dating sim-esque social downtime in the central hub of Garreg Mach between combat maps. Three Hopes takes that same slice-of-life structure and applies it to the core framework found in the first Fire Emblem Warriors game. The player alternates between wandering the “camp” social space to interact with vendors, character-building activities, and party members, and choosing combat missions from a world map for the more traditional Musou murder sprees.

Edelgard leads Empire forces in Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes Image: Omega Force/Nintendo

In that sense, players who really enjoyed the social aspects of Three Houses will probably find Three Hopes a more engaging time than the original Fire Emblem Warriors. In general, Nintendo IP-branded Musou games have successfully adapted the core conceits of the original IP to the “1 vs. 1,000” genre, and Three Hopes is no different. Skill ranks, weapon forging, support conversations, even class skills and class-change trees — pretty much everything other than actual grid-based tactical combat makes a reappearance here (except fishing, alas; there’ll be no “Women want me and fish fear me” meme t-shirts for main character Shez).

Said main character is also one of the big differences between Three Hopes and Three Houses, though, and unlike silent Byleth, Shez is a refreshingly fun and practical personality who frequently speaks their mind and interacts fully with the rest of the cast. Frankly, I find Shez considerably more engaging than Byleth was in Three Houses, because Shez feels like a character with an actual developed personality, rather than a sword-wielding, green-haired deus ex machina with no teaching credentials.

Three Hopes follows Shez and, as the demo makes clear, diverges pretty sharply from the events of Three Houses in short order. While the 2019 game places players in the “academy phase” for the first half of a playthrough, Three Hopes offers the choice of house (Black Eagles, Blue Lions, or Golden Deer) right up front. After a very brief tutorial and two-chapter prologue, there’s a time-skip directly to the “everyone’s an adult with much more complicated outfits” portion of the show. While I’m avoiding spoilery specifics, fans of Three Houses shouldn’t expect to just be playing the Musou-ified version of that game’s story, though there are parallels and similarities. In my playthrough for this review, I joined the Golden Deer, and the Leicester Alliance route has only the most trace similarities to its Three Houses counterpart.

A character casts an offensive spell in Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes Image: Omega Force/Nintendo

This is probably for the best, because each route through this game is long. The Golden Deer route alone took over 50 hours to complete in my first playthrough, and that’s just one option out of the three. There is plenty of murder to be had here, though not all of it is particularly satisfying in a narrative sense. Most chapters involve anywhere from 2-5 mostly plot-less maps against faceless goons with smaller stakes and a recurring set of overall goals (“kill [x] enemies before time runs out,” “escort [x unit] to [y location] safely,” “capture all the strongholds,” and so on). You only need to clear as many objectives as it takes to clear a path on the map to the chapter’s single defining battle. Unfortunately, almost all of said battles were just relentlessly dull. They felt more like busywork than meaningful core gameplay.

I haven’t spoken much about the actual combat, largely because there’s very little to say about it. Everything from Fire Emblem Warriors returns: the weapon triangle, “critical rushes” after wearing down a general’s stun gauge, and so forth. The only addition that felt particularly fresh is the ability to equip combat arts (weapon skills and spells) and passive abilities learned from various classes. By and large, those didn’t feel terribly rewarding until I got to the end-stage “master” classes, which admittedly do grant characters some flashy abilities that have a more discernible impact on fights.

“Flashiness’’ has always been one of the strengths of a Warriors game, but the huge sweeping attack animations and locked level of camera zoom often make Three Hopes feel “big for big’s sake.” Watching a Wyvern Rider belly flop onto an entire fort full of goons can be fun, but when every fight against an important enemy becomes “wear down stun gauge, critical rush, repeat,” the bigness doesn’t feel useful and can even get in the way of keeping track of what’s happening.

Claude and Dimitri stand back to back in a battle in Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes Image: Omega Force/Nintendo

This is a problem exacerbated by one of the serious flaws that Three Hopes has inherited from Fire Emblem Warriors: the extremely limited number of move sets. There are four tiers of classes — Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, and Master — and as each class advances in rank, most move sets stay the same, adding one more attack to the combo string. The result is a narrow field of total move sets, even at the Master tier. Compared to the fun in older Musou games of finding out what the latest unlockable character’s ridiculous weapon (a flute! a rake!) can do, this lack of diversity feels kinda bland.

This monotony is ameliorated somewhat by each character having some kind of distinctive personal move or passive — Shez gets a high-speed dash, for example, while Hubert can slam a magical spike into a target, then detonate it later for big damage — but these feel more like novelties than character-defining gameplay kits. The total number of unique move sets has been diminishing in Musou games for years, so this isn’t necessarily a fault of Three Hopes alone. One of the great joys of earlier Musou games was experimenting with the nonsense and wild individual repertoires of characters with weapons like the aforementioned flute or rake. Seeing the potential for that joy get eroded over time has been a bummer for sure.

This isn’t helped by the unfortunate fact that, as much as I loved them in Three Houses, the major characters in this game have serious One Personality Trait Only Disorder. Anyone who played Golden Deer in Three Houses will know exactly what to expect from their returning crowd in Three Hopes: Raphael will constantly talk about food and muscles, Marianne will be a wince-inducing self-esteem disaster, and Lysithea will childishly insist that she isn’t a child.

A character performs a ground slam in Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes Image: Omega Force/Nintendo

Almost every interaction with these characters in support conversations, and sometimes even in big plot cutscenes, will hammer these one-element personalities home repeatedly. Sometimes it ends up being charming and fun (usually because of the presence of Shez and their no-nonsense, easy going personality). It can just as often be exhausting to hear Raphael interrupt another strategy meeting with an off-hand comment about meat, however.

Despite all that, I have had some genuinely incredible laugh-out-loud moments with these characters. As an example, the writers fully committed to Shamir as an unambiguous queer character, interestingly, and one of the ways they did so was a support conversation that made me laugh so hard I saw stars. While these conversation and story moments are enjoyable treats, there simply aren’t enough of them to make up for the much more frequent one-note scenes.

Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes is a perfectly reasonable game. There’s nothing about it that screams “new and exciting,” but there are also no flaws so glaring that I was tempted to put the controller down, throw up my hands, and walk away. The more investment any given player has in Three Houses in particular, the more likely it is that the good moments in Three Hopes will outweigh the bad, and the mysteries of the game’s slow-burn story will doubtless keep some people interested enough to power through some of the more boring, busywork-like combat maps.

However, I cannot help but think back to that giddy anticipation as I drove home with my copy of Dynasty Warriors 3 back in 2001. Asking myself if Three Hopes inspires the same feelings in me, I’d have to say no. It truly is fine, and all the proper elements are in place, but in many ways it’s also very expected and not particularly innovative. It makes me wonder, not for the first time, how much longer “it’s fine” will be enough in the world of Musou titles.

Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes will be released on June 24 on Nintendo Switch. The game was using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.