Last time I talked about how I’m a casual fan of strategy games but personally prefer action-based gameplay, and how action-based elements can keep players like me engaged while focusing on the strategy. On the flip side of the coin, what’s there for me to not like about an over-the-top action game with a little bit of strategy on the side like Dynasty Warriors? Hacking and slashing your way through hordes of enemies has always been the core of these games' appeal, but sprinkled in are various tasks and mechanics to test your the tactician in you. Where are your enemies advancing? Should you fall back to defend your allies, or push forward to beat the clock? They’ve always been on the very light side of strategy, but the elements have always been there since Dynasty Warriors 2; observing the battlefield, acknowledging the enemy force’s capabilities, weighing your risks, and acting in response. It’s one of the reasons I accept the series’ repetitiveness. I don’t see this series as just being about hacking and slashing through hordes of enemies all the same, I see it as a challenge to find the most efficient way to hack and slash through each new horde of enemies.
Now we have a fully fledged strategy RPG crossing over with this series in Fire Emblem Warriors, so hey, what’s the harm in adding some more tactics into the recipe? Not only do more tactical elements pay homage to the crossover’s other half, but they enhance the strategy to your hacking-and-slashing, proposing twists to the formula that I believe will enhance the Warriors formula.
We’ve seen character switching and commanding in several previous Warriors games, from Hyrule Warriors Legends to Samurai Warriors 4, and even earlier than those. I’m honestly surprised the feature hasn’t been used in more mainline Warriors games, and in Fire Emblem, it easily fits like a glove. Delegating other playable characters to protect or attack specific targets adds more depth to how you manage the battlefield, and acts as a huge convenience. Enemies on the other side of the map and barely any mooks in between you and a target? Switch to the closer character and get right back to the action. Being able to use multiple characters and their own distinct movesets is an especially huge boon in a series as repetitive as Warriors. I’m personally fine with using the same 7 combo strings through the whole battle, but why wouldn’t I (or anyone else) appreciate the opportunity to swap on the fly like this?
Yet Fire Emblem Warriors adds a twist to this mechanic with some particular design choices; the inclusions of the classic Weapon Triangle (swords are strong vs. axes, etc.), unit type weaknesses (flying units hate bows, etc.), distinctions between physical and magical attacks/defenses, and the assignment of these to allies and enemies alike. Dynasty Warriors 8 did something similar where all weapons had one of three Affinities with a Weapon Triangle-esque mechanic tied to them. In that game, you controlled one character who could switch between two weapons at will. But in FEW, every character only has access to a single weapon type. Thus, every unit has a fixed advantage or weakness against specific units and weapons as soon as they are deployed to battle. To keep your allies alive and to maximize control of the battlefield, it becomes important to delegate their targets based on more than just power levels and distances. Can your axe-user hold out against the sword-wielding enemy officer while you take care of a bigger threat yourself? Will your pegasus knight remain safe if she fights just a couple map squares away from that group of archers? Is it okay to keep Marth separated from the rest of your characters, lest he be swarmed by reinforcements with lances?
The recently detailed Pair Up mechanics (thanks for all your reporting on the game, Mike!) throw even more wrinkles into the system. This new system will let you trade coverage across the map for extra strength to mow down enemy forces, while retaining your ability to swap characters at will. A less overt benefit is the fact that the rear guard character in a Pair Up is removed from the map until swapped back in or split up again. That removes the chance for them to be attacked, so it can also be used to defend them when they’re low on health or surrounded by enemies who can exploit their weaknesses. It’s another interesting choice to juggle. Should you multitask more, or reinforce each other to guarantee success in fewer objectives?
This choice does come with the cost of an opportunity that I’ve heard complaints about from many Fire Emblem fans. Many FE classes are loved for their versatile weapon proficiencies, such as Frederick the Great Knight being able to use swords, axes, and lances. This could have been done the same way DW8 did it. It was a good design choice in DW8, where you controlled one character. But for a game with character switching and ordering during battle, I defend the decision to limit characters to a single weapon each. If certain characters have more weapons than others, they suddenly become extremely versatile in the weapon triangle, giving them much more tactical value than others. This is also true to an extent in Fire Emblem, but with the caveats of your units being more vulnerable and only being able to switch weapons once before nearby enemies get a turn to exploit your altered triangle disadvantages. Hence, the feature still has tactical risks to consider. Neither of which applies within Warriors, where you control 4 stronger characters instead of a dozen weaker ones, and turns don’t exist to stop you from immediately switching weapons again. If weapon switching existed in FEW, the tactical risks and challenges could become trivialized by allowing you to delegate a single character to more tasks than others. Switching between characters would be less encouraged. The restriction of each character to a single weapon reinforces the risks and situational vulnerabilities of each warrior, which I think is much more to the game’s benefit… especially since we’ll already have up to four playable characters per battle. The more the merrier and all, but four movesets is already plenty for a Warriors game, isn’t it?
Those mechanics are still pretty normal for the Warriors series, though. What’s less normal is the inclusion of something Fire Emblem has made its name with; permadeath, or at least perma-too-wounded-to-fight-again. Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, the details are vague enough that it’s uncertain exactly what this means (Is this for Story Mode, or a substantial side feature like Hyrule Warriors’ Adventure Mode?), but the Japanese website has long confirmed its inclusion. Even without specific details, this feature makes it clear that the survival of your allies on the battle will matter in the longer scheme of things. Not necessarily for your entire save data (The average Fire Emblem playthrough is much, much shorter than a Warriors save file’s longevity), but at least for future fights. Now you have more to think about than just whether or not you’ll win the battle; you also need to consider whether or not your characters will survive to see the rest of the campaign. Your strategies may shift drastically depending on the status of an ally. Is pushing your hero's health to the limit worth risking their lives, especially with the uncertainty of enemy reinforcements or strategies that could put them into a new crisis?
There’s still a lot more to see from Fire Emblem Warriors before we know how many of these features will play out in practice. Perhaps the Weapon Triangle and unit type weaknesses will be less powerful than I expect them to be. Perhaps keeping allies alive will be much easier than I expect it to be. Perhaps the tactical elements will still be about as underplayed as any non-Empires Warriors game. If a time traveller told me that those three statements would become true come this game's release, I’d still be excited for this game. I never played Warriors games specifically for strategy in the first place. I always saw it as just a nice extra layer of depth. But all of these little things are definitely going to add up into a Warriors game that feels very different and more Fire Emblem-like, while remaining true to the Warriors’ foundation. This game could become an excellent gateway for Fire Emblem fans to get lost within the expansive Warriors series. It already stands out from the average Warriors formula in many ways that urge the player to think harder about their objectives and the ways to approach them. For Warriors games, strategy may be just a nice extra layer, but adding a few more centimeters of thickness to that layer sounds like the icing on the cake for an excellent gameplay style.