Fire Emblem: Three Houses impressions — The best of all worlds

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach — charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard, so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.

Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned, I push onto victory.

An early battle in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The togglable purple overlay marks squares that are in range of enemies. And by selecting an enemy, I can see (bottom left) their target.

Excellent tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great time with Three Houses’ turn-based battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.

Tense, intelligent turn-based combat Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn. This might include:

  • Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
  • Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
  • Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
  • Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.

And because this is an RPG, individual characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance. Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured knight. Attention to detail is important!

New features mitigate against frustration — There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different functions:

  • Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
  • Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
Talking to party members between battles in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Taking a leaf from Persona was inspiredThree Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona, this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each week. I like this for a couple of reasons:

  • First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
  • Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.

Hybrid vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into the series for me — I look forward to playing more.

What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

What I’ve been playing

A mission in Wargroove’s campaign

Hello! Since it’s been a while since I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest. Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the Switch games have been more varied.

Nintendo Switch

Wargroove was probably my standout game for the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be very interested in any DLC or sequels.

Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so stay tuned….

Steamworld Quest in action

Temporarily on the back burner is the Donkey Kong DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return after playing more Steamworld Quest.

I have mixed feelings about Bomber Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.

Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions — vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player extra options during a match.

PC

Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts of Iron IV: first the Man the Guns expansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In general, HOI4 becomes steadily better with each version — Man the Guns and its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most recent version of Stellaris, and while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the last three years.

Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:

  • I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
  • Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.

Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable, even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played for several expansions.

A few non-strategy games stare at me from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get into it. Next time…

Further reading

Write-up of Old World Blues

Jumping for joy: the delightful world of Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

I can pinpoint the moment when Mario Odyssey won my heart. In the first hour of the game, I came across a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex lying on a small hill in the Cascade Kingdom, a colourful island of waterfalls and soaring cliffs. By now, I’d encountered the island’s hostile creatures — spiky little swarming monsters; big, snarling Chain Chomps — and down the hill from the T-Rex, there were more Chain Chomps up ahead. The game’s “capture” mechanic had already been introduced — Mario can transform into other characters by throwing his hat at them. So I took control of the T-Rex.

Mario’s hat and moustache appeared on its face.

The T-rex roared.

This was going to be good.

A T-rex under Mario’s control

A vivid and varied cast. Each level of Mario Odyssey is full of weird and wonderful inhabitants such as the snoozing dinosaur; while some are hold-overs from previous Mario games, many are new. For example:

  • A stronghold modelled after Japanese castles is defended by jingasa-hatted warrior birds – you need to capture the birds, jab their sharp beaks into walls, and vault upwards to climb the walls.
  • The fastest way around a desert temple complex is to ride a galloping jaguar statue summoned from bus stops.
  • At one point you need to compete against rotund racers who bounce up and down along the course.

Little touches seal the deal. There are the local outfits Mario can acquire as he travels from level to level, ranging from samurai armour (pictured below) to a pin-striped suit:

One of the many costumes Mario can unlock

There’s the conceit behind the level maps — they’re not just a convenience for the player, they’re taken from in-universe tourist brochures. And there are the tourists themselves — check out the screenshot below, featuring a group of visitors to the desert level.

A group of tourists in Super Mario Odyssey’s post-game

A treat for all ages. While Mario Odyssey is mechanically satisfying, what kept me coming back was how much I enjoyed its world. I enjoyed exploring each level; I enjoyed dressing Mario up in new costumes; I enjoyed wandering around in the post-game, seeing what had changed. Here’s to Nintendo, and its sense of joy.

The joys of Picross

The perfect game to unwind. In the last few weeks, Picross S2, the latest in a long-running family of puzzle games, has become a regular part of my gaming. It is relaxing and at the same time, challenging enough to keep me entertained. Each puzzle is an iterative process, beginning with a few clues. The numbers on the sides tell me how many squares should be filled in each row or column. At the start, there’s enough information to identify the first few squares that I should (or shouldn’t) fill in:

Near the start of a Picross S2 puzzle.

After marking the relevant squares, I can use this new knowledge to identify the next set of squares, and repeat. This is the same puzzle, almost complete:

The same puzzle, nearly complete.

Manageable, and manageably bite-sized. Most of the puzzles I’ve played take around five minutes to solve. There are several ways to increase the challenge: turning hints off (as I did in the screenshots), trying different game modes, and playing larger, more complex puzzles. So far, I’ve been content to gradually work my way up — I prefer my puzzles on the soothing side!

And it is soothing. There is logic to this game, and routine, and the knowledge that those routines will ultimately solve the puzzle. I expect this to be my “quick break” game for some time to come.

Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played

Soaring over Lake Hylia in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.

Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.

Continue reading “Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played”

Nintendo Switch: all I wished for, and more

A much-anticipated treat. The Nintendo Switch is a technological marvel: docked and connected to a TV, it offers the power of a traditional console; unplugged, it offers the flexibility of a portable device. I’ve kept an eye on the Switch since before launch, and when I saw a good Boxing Day deal from Amazon Australia, I pounced. So far, I am delighted, both with the Switch and the two games I’ve bought: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Impressions below:

Sizing up the field in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Source: Author

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a colourful, charming tactical RPG. The game is an odd beast — developed by Ubisoft using the Mario IP — and at first glance, the influence of Firaxis’s XCOM is clear, as Mario peers from behind cover and runs up to take flanking shots. Two things distinguish Mario + Rabbids. First is the importance and ease of movement: characters can dash into enemies, extend their movement range by trampolining off allies, and traverse large distances by diving into pipes. Second is the sense of joy, as pronounced as in any Nintendo first-party game: the world is bright and vibrant, and the animations are delightful — right down to Mario’s exaggerated, panicky body language when an enemy flanks him. So far the game has been easy; I understand that it becomes much harder later on. I look forward to playing more!

The splendours of Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Source: Author

Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the majesty of exploration — and the danger. Unlike other open-world games I’ve played, which revolved around combat, Breath of the Wild is about exploration for its own sake. Combat, quests, and NPCs do exist, but so far, in limited quantities. Instead, my time has been mostly spent roaming the wilderness, solving the odd puzzle, and using my wits to survive. I’ve used my powers to cross a lethal, fast-flowing river; cooked up (literally – there is a crafting/cooking system) dishes to protect against the cold — and ran from monsters until I found a decent weapon. I’ve also marvelled at sunsets, climbed up trees to pluck apples, and stood at a campfire experimenting with recipes. As a child, I loved Zelda: Link to the Past; over 20 years later, Breath of the Wild has brought that magic back.

Some interesting releases set for 2018. I’m particularly interested in tactical RPGs, of which at least two are due out this year: Valkyria Chronicles 4 and an unnamed Fire Emblem game. I’ll also keep an eye on RPGs (including 16-bit JRPG homage Project Octopath Traveller and Shin Megami Tensei 5) and a turn-based strategy game (Wargroove). Between these and the games already out, I expect my Switch to get plenty of use this year.

Further reading

Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of Switch games (sort by release date to see upcoming releases)