Wednesday, 2 October 2019

On Three Houses (2): Serious gameplay

Maddening accomplished, with NG of course. It took me about 100 hours, and the file shows 85 hours. That means I spent 15 hours retrying the courses. I took a very conservative approach both on the battlefield and in the academy exhausting all resources every step. I know I can go a lot faster but I didn't want to because I do not want to take the risk of retrying the whole game when I get stuck.

This, is my thought about the game from the perspective of maddening playthrough, the true difficulty for Fire Emblem fans.

- Story and plots - 

I chose Golden Deer this time as my final route for the game. It really is a "true end" to me -- not only that the story is complete, informative and less painful, the final fight is also a grand one -- that is the only final stage where you do not fight layer by layer but as a whole. You are also pressurized by the frontline enemies at turn one. The collaboration among the distant artillery units are terrifying. The boss is tiny yet hard to deal with. Not to mention the opera styled BGM -- everything is perfectly set to be the final fight.

After playing all four routes the overall plot is pretty clear. Crimson flower route need some further refine on its own, which will probably happen in update 3. The other routes are pretty complete.

Some may look for further information about the distant past...I hoped for the same but you know, these kind of supplement information is never enough. Perhaps they will publish a fanbook in the future?

- Team and formation - 

Due to limited resources I only recruited Doro, Sylvain, Mercedes and Ingrid this run. Doro became my dancer, Sylvain is a free recruit as well as a powerful axe wyvern (although everyone went to shoot arrows anyway), and Ingrid should be a dexterous falcon knight...except that her strength growth is horribly low in my run that she never became more than a chipping unit. Mercedes for her fortify, of course.

With the 4 recruits that completes my team of 12+1 for the final fight, where I usually drop Leonie because her dexterity never get to the point where she can steadily kill. For most battles in front where you can only use 10 units, the 3 lowest leveled units will follow the healers as adjuncts and absorb exp points from them.

I tried to exhaust the healing capabilities a bit. Marianne, Lys, Doro, Mercedes and even Lorenz and Byleth are overleveled due to constant healing. That also left the rest of the units enough opponents to kill. At the end, the mages are around level 60+, Lorenz and Byleth are around level 55, and the physical units are about the recommended level (42-44).

- Tactics - 

Everyone use bows and curved shots. Fliers may use close range weapons but really they just utilize curved bows and the canto ability to hit back and forth. In maddening you cannot really afford to go deep into the danger radius because everything doubles you, even with weapon breaker disadvantage.

But what hurts the most (other than Lys bomber) is the two 5-range units: Ignatz and Lorenz. Ignatz's hit+20 inherited skill allow us to build him in a super offensive way so that he can crit at will while still having a reliable accuracy even against assassins. Lorenz meanwhile, can fire up to 40-50 spells 5 grids away. This is perfect when you want to take down a particular unit in the opponent formation that will trigger the rest. 5 range attack also penetrates most walls so that allows you to do lots of unintended attacks.

In the Shamblala map, my team got stuck in the left-bottom corner when the 3 or 4 titans were trying to go through the gates. I stopped them by placing Raphael (but he still get critted twice for 15x2 at a crit rate of 15%) and ingrid up front, but these two are not good enough to handle 400 HP+ titans. What I did is to use curved shots to break a barrier on the titans, then Ignatz-Doro combo will produce 200+ damage on their own, every turn.

I did the same for Lorenz and even Marianne (as a holy knight), but Marianne is more like a magical tank - she easily take doubles with the white magic that heals upon damaging the opponent.

Lys and Byleth, can of course kill enemies at will, but I tend not to use them unless it's necessary. I enjoyed defeating the opponent without using these two too much. Although I defeated almost every non-generic characters by Lys (except for Nemesis), including Death Knights of course.

- Difficulty -

Maddening is for those who carve for a challenge -- the sentence accurately described the difficulty of maddening. It is challenging. It requires you to think and execute carefully every step, as well as hoping for reasonable luck in order to proceed.

Regardless of your endgame plans, the gameplay is similar for everyone at least in the first 6 chapters where you only have 1 battle points and very limited activity points. These chapters are really tricky and every reinforcement will catch you off guard.

I started to get frustrated on the second encounter with death knight. I used to finish the stage nice and slow but we have a 25 turn restriction this time. That forces you do be aggressive against opponents that are far stronger than you. Mages on avo floor is really a pain when your entire team missed hitting them. But this stage is also the time when Ignatz started to shine. His 4-range shots accurately clears the DK room and prevents the bloodleash.

After that everything changed because I know have 2 battle points. I started taking bandits after bandits, and finally I can clear the main quests in an easier way.

But not the reunion at dawn.

I didn't train Byleth seriously before time-skip, so that stage took me forever even with enough speed...It's Claude's gambit saved me, but I would be more pleased if he didn't take me out to do the battle with just 2 units.

In general, the exp mod forces you to really focus on units that barely forms a team. Further exp penalty causes most physical units to be of level similar to the recommened one, and at that level, fighting is really challenging due to hit rate and speed. It's more painful in the beginning because opponents having no specific classes means they are better than you all-roundedly. Later in the game the enemies are diversified meaning that you can kill them with proper tactics.

The two extra skills - pass and poison strike are good additionals to the difficulty. They require some extra thoughts to deal with in a reasonable way. Pass forces you to create compact formation retaining a correct distance from the opponent. It is less of a threat late in the game because you can utilize gambits and fliers to avoid having a solid frontline, so being able to pass do not create any harm. Poison strike on the other hand is still a threat late in the game, because that means you cannot tank infinitely many units by a single armor unit anymore. You will need to be careful when placing your tank by such.

- Mechanics in higher difficulty -

Looking back on what I said after playing normal and hard, it's time to review whether these comments hold anymore in maddening.

1) Weapon triangle: weapon breaker skills is essentially a weak weapon triangle, so weak to the point that does not affect your choice of weapons. Think about how you deal with those endgame physical units:

Sword - thieves and assassins. Due to their pass skills, you are forced to hold your line and kill them using multiple units. Lance units with swordbreaker may increase the accuracy a bit, but at close range mage and archers would work better.

Lance - well, where are all the cavalry units?

Axe - those are simply free kills. With enough dexterity most units are capable of dealing with them.

With everyone using their bows more than any other close range weapons, the discrepancies among the three weapons are weaker than ever.

2) Class meta: The class meta shifted further to distant attackers since you get doubled for every close combat, and dexterous units does not create enough damage (like my poor Ingrid). Ineffective classes remains ineffective, except for mage knights equipped with extra range tools. But for the rest like war master and dark mages...we just can't afford to choose those.

3) Maddening+: so...what should we expect in the fourth difficulty? There is no further news about this difficulty yet. Something looks like that appears in the fourth DLC but it's a side quest. Stat boosts on the enemy as well as the exp penalty is already harsh enough so that it's hard to expect further modification on this part.

Instead, changes should be made on the finest details -- so that players would optimizes themselves to the finest as well. These may include:
- a different AI that takes a mixed strategy between being stationary and aggressive, cares more on formation and harder to be baited
- restriction to physic and fortify uses
- reduce level cap to 50

After playing all 4 routes, I believe 50 is sufficient for everyone. We can modify the exp curve - lift the penalty below the recommended level and increase the penalty above the recommended level. By removing the unpenalized exp gain from dance and healing, the game become less grindy -- we can do less auxiliary battles and fish less (although Flayn would be sad), but you can utilize a team up to a certain level in the main quest without much effort. And that "certain level" is the intended strength of the team in which the developer wants you to clear the stage with.

But well, I am not going to do the highest difficulty if it ever comes out, with New Game. And not even New Game+, because it has taken too much time from me. I would rather play harvest moon in October. If I come back for Three Houses again, it is probably for Sauna, new stories and new characters...

- Elements missed -

I may not write anything further about the game (because it would have to be something related to the plots, but I am not ready to sort out the whole story. So I would like to conclude my review with a list of traditional FE elements that is missed in three houses:

- weapon triangle, of course.
- fixed but more diversified grow path
- advanced class with less movement restriction
- more talk options and ability to talk/recruit enemies
- villages and villagers
- pair up and rescue options
- ...

I know some of them does not fir into this game, but still I am hoping for something similar in the next franchise.

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