Fire Emblem has a difficulty problem – Reader’s Feature

Fire Emblem: Three Houses – not a difficult game (pic: Nintendo)

A reader explains his love for the Fire Emblem series, and most recent entry Three Houses, but argues that the games are just too easy.

Fire Emblem is that rare series that means many things to many people. It’s Nintendo’s biggest role-playing franchise and eschews the House of Miyamoto’s typical edict for intuitive action and platforming mechanics that are easy to understand but difficult to master, in favour of fairly hardcore strategy gameplay.

It was once a niche series that could only be played through imports or ROMs, until the seventh game of the series was released on the Game Boy Advance. Its anime aesthetic and romance mechanics have earned it a legion of fans who care more about ‘best boys’ and ‘best girls’ than stat growths. I’ve been with the series since that first GBA release in 2003 and, after seeing it become one of Nintendo’s core franchises after the success of Awakening on the 3DS and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate turn into ‘Fire Emblem Fighter’, I am now astonished to live in a world where it’s latest entry, Three Houses on the Switch, is a Game of the Year contender.

Intelligent Systems pack so much into these games and they should be lauded for their craftsmanship. This includes having to adjust the story for permadeaths if you choose to have them on, as well as offering so many opportunities for emergent gameplay by creating a big sandbox for the player where your choices matter and the RNG nature of unit stat growths and dodging allowing for so many unique meta-narratives to take place.

For example, in my Golden Deer route playthrough of Three Houses, Lysithea the mage got all the right RNG rolls when she levelled up and had luck on her side, allowing her to become an absolutely unstoppable killing machine who dodged everything, took down entire corners of the map by herself, and ended up being able to attack up to three spaces in front of her. She killed that annoying and imposing Death Knight three times and one-shotted everything. Claude also became the best archer I’ve ever had in a Fire Emblem game, and even though it’s well-known that lords are favoured in these games, he still basically cleared the entire map of the last chapter himself.

On the flip side, Mercedes and Flayn were utterly frail and useless, and Cyril never quite turned into the ‘starts off inexperienced but grows quickly into a savage’ character I’ve had in previous games, like Astra from Path Of Radiance on the GameCube or the famous Donnel from Awakening.

These are all relative accounts, however, because the truth is that Three Houses was easy. Really, really easy, which is a problem because most of the Fire Emblem games that have been released in the West have also been, in direct contradiction to the ‘punishing, hardcore strategy game’ reputation the series has earned, incredibly easy.

Once you’ve played a few of these games, you realise they all follow a specific formula. Even though Three Houses does away with the weapons triangle, there are still several rules that series veterans know to adhere to, such as building up your indirect combat units like archers and mages because you’ll need them when the game throws enemies at you like high-defence armoured knights and fliers that are a pain to deal with otherwise; levelling up your healers by making sure they heal every turn as much as possible; and that speed kills, so being able to attack twice is essential.

It’s one thing to get the basics down, but most of the modern Fire Emblem games are virtual cakewalks. Byleth and Claude never fell during my playthrough and I think I suffered only a handful of deaths in total, which I could instantly rewind with the admittedly optional Divine Pulse mechanic. This, by and large, reflects my experiences playing The Sacred Stones, Shadow Dragon, Path Of Radiance, Awakening, Fates: Birthright, and Echoes: Shadows Of Valentia as well.

In fact, only Radiant Dawn and Fates: Conquest could be considered hard, but those two were probably too hard. The first GBA entry was probably on the easier side as well, but I remember it being hard mostly because it was the first one I played and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I let tons of units die and everyone was under-levelled leading up to the final chapters. I only made it through because Hawkeye and Jaffar showed up as the late game Deus Ex Machina characters of that entry and I had Athos to beat the final boss.

Most modern Fire Emblem games have difficulty options and, starting with Awakening, permadeath can be turned off. Additional mechanics have only made things easier. In the 3DS entries you could pair up units to essentially guarantee a double attack every turn, and in Three Houses there’s the aforementioned Divine Pulse. None of these are necessarily bad by themselves, because giving players options is a good thing and fits with the emergent gameplay style of the series.

Many people consider permadeath ‘hard’, but to me it’s not really a difficulty issue. Permadeath is more like a punishment, like playing a platformer where you have to start a level over from the beginning when you die at the boss. You just have to quit and start over unless you really want to lose that unit.

The difficulty of Fire Emblem can only be affected by a few things and these are only apparent to the player when they crank it up past Normal. Enemies become more aggressive and resilient, targeting your brittle fliers, puny archers, and fragile magic users; when they’re not all going after your lords, aka the characters whose deaths result in a game over. They dodge everything and will punish you for any careless movement.

When they’re on Normal, they’re basically cannon fodder. One of the things I’ve done in almost every Fire Emblem game I’ve played on Normal is get to a point where a character is basically unstoppable and just trot them out to lure enemies into attacking range for my own units, even unequipping their weapon so they can’t attack back. I did this a lot with Ephraim in The Sacred Stones, Ike in Path Of Radiance, and, like, five characters in Awakening, Fates: Birthright, and Three Houses.

Map design and battle conditions play a big part in the difficulty as well. Having maps where your units are separated or limited or needing to escape or get to a point within a specific number of turns immediately makes things harder, but most of the time maps boil down to ‘kill everything in sight’ or ‘kill the glowing dude in the centre’.

Three Houses introduced beasts with multiple health bars and area of effect attacks and they proved to be more of a challenge, including an extremely weird difficulty spike of a side-mission involving multiple beasts on a map with fog of war that’s almost impossible if you plan on beating everything on the map, but you’re still going to be finding yourself one-shotting most enemies by the end of Part I.

Keeping your units together and concentrating on enemy unit deaths instead of aggregate damage are two other rules for success in Fire Emblem, and most of the modern games do nothing to make either of those two things harder on you.

You can certainly play at harder difficulty settings on your own, and the beauty of Fire Emblem is that you can introduce self-imposed restrictions to make it harder, like choosing fewer units or equipping weaker weapons, but these all seem artificial to me. The modern games (and I’m using that term because I’m not a hipster who’s played a patched ROM of the legendarily difficult Thracia 776. So I’m making that delineation on my own, based on the general belief amongst hardcore fans that the recent games are easier and are seriously lacking in scenario and map design) just don’t offer a properly balanced challenge.

Those are the main areas where a rise in difficulty would be more meaningful, especially if they were interwoven into the story. Enemy resilience shouldn’t be the only thing that affects the difficulty level. Fire Emblem games should have a base difficulty based on map design and battle conditions that all players get to experience, otherwise it begins to feel cheap and artificial, like you’re doing things based on masochism.

Other than continuing to believe that Pegasus units get good, that is.

By reader David from San Francisco

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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