Fire Emblem Warriors Was Brilliant Actually: A Defence Of Musou

Fire Emblem Warriors Was Brilliant Actually: A Defence Of Musou

Every time Nintendo puts out news about Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, I brace myself for a wave of anti-musou sentiment on Twitter. Just search “Fire Emblem” and “musou,” and you’ll see Twitter grousing about how Three Houses’ sequel would be so much better if it wasn’t a musou. As someone who loved Fire Emblem Warriors, the 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’m referring to series like Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors. Koei more or less created the musou genre in 2000 with Dynasty Warriors 2, which utilised the PlayStation 2’s new horsepower to pit your hero and a handful of allies against hundreds, sometimes thousands of swarming foes as you struggled to capture bases across huge battlefields. The one-vs.-thousands dynamic made for a whole new style of game.

Warriors” games often get a bad reputation 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 reviews tend to compare these games to the typical gameplay 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 is expected to be more Persona 5. It’s a shame, because each of these games would benefit more from being analysed as “Warriors” games first, franchise spin-offs second.

Musou games are some of the most tactically engaging games that I have ever played. Where critics of the genre see a hack-and-slash, I see a real-time strategy game. Musou games aren’t power fantasies: They’re lessons in losing the battle in order to win the war. No game is more brutal to glory hounds than a well-balanced musou. In the end, defeating a powerful opponent doesn’t matter. Being able to fulfil your current mission’s key objectives is the actual endgame.

I kind of wish I didn't lose all my Switch save files. Oh well. (Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku)
I kind of wish I didn’t lose all my Switch save files. Oh well. (Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku)

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

I’d made a grave mistake. Insisting on finishing off the base capture let the new, dual-pronged invasion take root. By the time I ran off to deal with them, half of my map was the enemy’s tell-tale shade of red. I was quickly overwhelmed, and forced to restart the entire mission. This time, when the enemy reinforcements appeared, I abandoned my duel with the enemy general to immediately take care of the invaders. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Note, however, I wasn’t even rewarded for doing so. I survived the invasion, yes, but the game did not give me positive reinforcement for making the right decision. The forts I gave up on capturing ended up becoming better fortified by the enemy, and it would be another several minutes before I could again attempt to take them. Nevertheless, I did not regret my retreat. After all, I had the experience to know that I would have been overwhelmed if I hadn’t proactively dashed off to deal with the invaders.

Despite the appearance of reckless, all-out action, Warriors games encourage a very conservative playstyle. During that battle, even after the immediate danger passed, I consistently chose to protect my territory rather than expanding it at every opportunity. It takes maturity to recognise when something that looks enticing isn’t actually an opportunity. When I didn’t choose to be the thoughtful, strategic leader that my army needed, Fire Emblem Warriors punished me for it.

And this is a pattern across every good musou game I’ve ever played, such as the Fate/Extella games. Most of my time isn’t spent beating up hundreds of generic NPCs like you see in flashy trailers — instead I’m running past them to neutralise key defenders and opening gates. I pay far more attention to my map rather than the skirmishes through which I’m passing. Winning requires me to abandon personal glory in favour of whittling down the other army in a battle of attrition.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

All this in mind, Fire Emblem Warriors felt like a better war simulator than the turn-based Fire Emblem games that spawned it. The soldiers weren’t politely taking turns: They were grabbing forts left and right, with every man and woman for themselves. I paused very frequently 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 be giving up by continuing, or surrendering, my current endeavour? If you don’t ask these questions, then Fire Emblem Warriors’ most difficult levels will steamroll you.

In that sense, Persona 5 Strikers never felt like a traditional musou game to me. Rooms were puzzles to be solved, not dynamic strongholds to be maintained. Defeating non-general enemies felt more mandatory. I abandoned it after three chapters of unfulfilling gameplay. Though it had excellent production values, Strikers did not provide me with the same thrills of micromanaging an ever-changing battlefield.

Musou is a humbling genre where your hero’s superpowers, considerable though they may be, can’t compensate for poor tactics. In that sense, Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes is a game in the best format for a Three Houses sequel. Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude may be the holders of the Heroes’ Relics, but this is war, where a single person can’t brute-force their way to victory.

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