Friday, 30 August 2019

Thoughts on Fire Emblem Three Houses (1): core mechanics

I decided to use this picture so as not to post any endgame spoilers. But it seems like this picture is also kind of a spoiler...

Three Houses for FEH fans, of course. Clearly FEH gives great attention as well as financial support to the development of the game. Before even going into the game you can tell that the game is a sincere one. I had no choice but to start playing since July 26 and as a result I almost abandoned FEH, stopped daily bonus streak in neopets...but that's totally worth it. I am satisfied with the game, the first mainline FE franchise I played since the three GBA-era games.

I finished 3 of the 4 routes and that takes me 145 hours -- 60 for the first route, 30 for the second route (that branched from the first halfway through), and 55 for the third route (via new game+). The first route is done in normal casual and that is really, really easy in FE standard. The third route done in hard classic is more of the expected normal difficulty, and is very fun to play.

Fire Emblem has evolved from a pure RPG-battle game into a game with huge amount of character interaction in various forms -- support system, academy, gifts and tea party and so on. The ~20 main quests should take a good FE player no more than 15 hours of gameplay, but the extra auxillary battles and the school exploration time takes a large portion of gameplay as well. If you skip everything and purely focus on numeric battles one can possibly finish the game in 25 hours, but that would be a huge waste because everything is well-designed to enrich the world of Three Houses.

And because of the vast amount of material that I can talk about the game I want to be kind of selective: I want to compare what I used to (old FE, FEH) and Three Houses since this is not covered in mainstream reviews (which is for everyone). Somewhere in the future I may also write something general about the game: plots, arts, characters and so on.

But before discussing any game mechanism, I want to stress that the importance of a certain mechanism is not absolute -- it depends on the difficulty of the game. The easier the game is, the larger flexibility players are given to not optimize things. In higher difficulties some mechanism may become crucial or even become the meta because if you do not do a certain action the rest of the game would be much more difficult. One example is having the glass cannon Lysithea in the game -- her unique set of black magic plus monster-effective white magic is such a nuke weapon in the game.

Similar argument simply applies to FEH as well. In arena we care about merges because it's the one or two points difference that determines the winner. I do not believe that -- I always believe that wise movements are more important except that characters with higher stats actually yield a higher score. Another example is the Legendary Hero Battles: in lower difficulty you can bring in your favourite team but for abyssal difficulty you have to either bring a well discussed meta team, an extremely specifically designed team on walkthrough, or something really spectacular to pass the stage. The over-inflated stats and skills leave basically no space for someone to experiment with.

The term flexibility sometimes does not only apply to strategical flexibility, but also flexibility in terms of space. The maps in three houses are in general very big comparing to the past. Not only that allows greater leniency for players to give commands, but that also lowers the difficulty quite a lot. (Think about the 2x3 hidden rooms in the final fights in blazing blade!) That accounts partially to why three houses is easy in FE standard.

But enough talking. Let's start with mechanism that are changed in three houses.

- Weapon triangle and class system -

The removal of the triangle is certainly a big change -- it lowers the complexity of matchup consideration so that the game is more accessible to new gamers. And of course, it allows characters to yield their favourite weapons, which is cool after all.

But for hardcore FE players, decision making became straightforward and less interesting because of the changes. The most significant change is that, the choice of weapon is now heavily dependent on the choice of the moving type.

Unlike 2-steps class system in the past, there are now 5 steps: "class-less" (commoner and noble), beginner (lv 5), intermediate (lv 10), advanced (lv 20) and master (lv 30). Since master classes the highest stat growth bonuses we shall assume characters are trained for at least one master class.

But that's where the problem is: the choice of weapon is then heavily relying on the moving type.

With the removal of the weapon triangle the melee weapons became more or less the same. We train a particular kind of melee weapon just because it suits the career path that we planned.

Just think about how we characterize the three weapons:

Sword: high crit, speed, pegasus or mortal servant
Lance: balanced, knight and fliers
Axe: high atk, armored or wyvern

But...without the triangle but with the master class restrictions, specializing in the right weapon seemed to be more important than what they are actually good at, because that is not going to make a great difference.

The only consideration is crit rate because the crit rate for swordmasters and snipers are terribly high so I have a tendency to push everyone to use sword, and those who are not compatible with sword will go into the lance path -- fliers or knights. And for axe? We don't need warriors and war masters thank you. There are a few characters that go well with armored knights, but they ended up using lances anyway because they received knight training anyway...

On the melee side weapons can be freely used given the proficiency rank, but this is another story on the magic side. There are only a few classes who can use magic even if units already learned such magic -- this is so weird. Are there anything stopping them from casting magic while wearing as a non-magician?

With such restriction naturally magicians really focus on magic and melee units should not bother about magic at all. Unfortunately master classes force you to do a mixed training. Just...why? Such requirement raises the difficulty of breeding a unit into master class and that seemed to contradict with the overall idea to make the game more accessible, or are they treat master classes as something not to be reached by new players? It's already hard enough to train a magical unit into holy/dark knight, but it's even harder to train a sword unit into mortal servant because their magic are of limited use even at the later stage. 8/8 fire plus 4/4 thoron means you can only train your reason rank 12 times before you have to go back to melee weapons.

I should also mention that the anima-holy-dark triangle is also gone. Given that dark and anima are merged into reason class anyway the removal is not very surprising. It's not even impactful because it is much less often that we have magical duels in three houses anyway. Just a small observation to put here.

- Non-infantry units -

There are three non-infantry movement types: armored, fliers and cavalries. There aren't many master classes available:

Cavalry: Bow/holy/dark knight, (great knight)
Armored: Great knight
Flier: Pegasus, Wyvern

Despite the the lack of magical classes for fliers, these master classes are quite strong and provides great tactical flexibility. Fliers (both pegasus and wyvern) are already the best classes around. The three ranged cavalry classes, in particular bow knights, are really good at producing damages without getting hit. Great knights meanwhile, well, are really strong in close combat.

In three houses we can no longer rescue other units but cavalry and flier units can now unmount to mock as infantry units, but that provides little or no tactical variety after all.

In practice we almost never unmount fliers because fliers receive no movement penalties, but at the same time they do not receive tile bonuses which is alright -- they can avoid lethal damages by canto skill anyway.

Calvary movement is seriously affected by desert and forest tiles. Most main battles happened in cities so that cavalries are not affected anyway. There are desert and forest based maps for auxiliary battles but since these are of lower difficulty it won't cause much problem especially with the help of divine pulses.

Perhaps the only reason for me to unmount is to cooperate with auto-battle, where cavalry and flier units often advance too far ahead and get defeated. By unmounting them we can make sure units are moving at a similar pace, so that they can fight effectively as a pack.

If they are to develop more on auto-battle strategies, they should really add another option where units advance and attack in a way they are still united. This is even less aggressive than 'focus' but still an attacking one.

- Divine Pulse and difficulty-

That's of course a quality of life improvement - it saves you from resetting the game that you already spent 45 minutes just ruined by an unexpected crit or AI movement beyond the static danger area. It allows players to experiment to slightly more aggressive tactics without having to push towards the limit bit by bit.

We all know from FEH that auto battle is unreliable at times, this is even more of a problem in three houses due to the difference in range of movement. Even with the 'focus' auto battle option, we often found our cavalry healer rushing onto the front line...and pathetically defeated. With divine pulse we can always go back and manually fix the decision made by these headless units then proceed to auto battle again. That compresses the time required for auxiliary battles to just a few minutes.

We have so many distinctive features for players to explore in the game, and spending time repeating the same fight is not the most interesting one -- going through battles at maximum speed really hurts your thumb (the second most tedious thing in the game, next to fishing). So allowing players to skip that part of the game is not bad after all. The game alone is already a 200+ hours masterpiece already -- we don't need something excessive to buff the time needed to clear the game further.

Some say that three houses is easier just because of divine pulse, but this is not entirely true. We can easily list a few difference between three houses and the old FE games showing that the game was made easier:

- extra auxiliary battles to grind the levels
- fewer opponent with a `commander' level stat, in particular those generic commander enemies
- fewer forced time constraints
- flexible mount/unmount option
- charges for physics and fortify resets every battle
- less compact maps
- ineffective level cap
- higher weapons easily accessible at unlimited quantity
- legendary weapons made in mass, and the crests...

Level cap is perhaps one of the biggest concern in the past. You have to breed your characters properly before level 40 (20+20) so that the stat growth will not go to waste.

In three houses the level cap is 99...which is totally out of my surprise. When I completed my first lap with Ed (which is the shortest route), I was expecting the level cap to be 40...but no. I was allowed to keep leveling. When I then proceed to Dimitri route I was expecting the level cap to be 50, but that's again not the case.

Level cap is playing a vital role in FE because it prevents overpowered units by pouring most resources onto one or a few units. It forces you to think about growth rate and skill combos, which is the deepest FE theory in some sense. Without the level cap one may just tank everything by creating an over-leveled unit, and this is not interesting.

But well, since we admitted that their normal is actually the `FE easy' and their hard is `FE hard', shall we expect a more cruel ruleset in Maddening(lunatic+)? There is no need to give distant counter to every unit and make disgusting skill combos like FEH legendary hero battles...just cap the level at 40 and I am sure players will be crying at later stages.


At the end I should again stress that comments on the mechanism might change vastly against different difficulties. I look forward to the updates for lunatic and maddening difficulties, so that I can complete Claude route as well, before Harvest Moon comes out...

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