Risk, reward, and mission design in Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Juggling knives — In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go after the boss —  I’ve had little choice. My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept. Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.

It’s time to improvise.

I really like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ mission design.  The game’s rules are fairly basic: most battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a few examples:

  • Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
  • Optional bosses with rare drops.
  • A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
  • A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.

This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.

Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward decision in Three Houses works better to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although with greater variety (granted, Three Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation). Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than sticks.

My Games of 2014

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Welcome back to another Game of the Year list. This year, I’ve tweaked the format again — many of the games I played in 2014 were released in previous years. Sometimes, I played the old game “as is”; sometimes, I played a new port or an expanded version of the old game. So I’ve broken this post down into two parts. First, I review the accomplishments of 2014. And second, I take a look back at the notable games I played, whether or not they were originally released that year.

Continue reading “My Games of 2014”

Observations on Xenonauts

Xenonauts is a generally inspired homage to the Gollop Brothers’ X-COM, let down by repetitive ground combat. After six or seven hours back in September, I loaded up Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Within… and since then, I’ve haven’t looked back.

Comparing Xenonauts and Enemy Within made me appreciate what Firaxis did right. Because soldiers in Firaxis XCOM can move quite far and still shoot, and because cover, flanking, and line of sight are so important, Firaxis ground combat is extremely fluid. In the very first Enemy Within battle I played after Xenonauts — “just for comparison, then I can write this article” — my soldiers started on one side of a convenience store. First the aliens came from the east, along the street. Then they emerged from the north, through the store, onto my flank! My squad ran, and climbed, and hid on the roof — all but the poor Support trooper who couldn’t make it in time. The aliens emerged from the store. And my survivors took revenge:

XCOM Firing from roof Continue reading “Observations on Xenonauts”