Games Review: Fire Emblem Warriors (Switch, 2017): A great idea in theory

Fire Emblem Warriors attempts to mash up the long-running series of turn-based tactical RPGs with Koei Tecmo’s equally venerable Dynasty Warriors. On paper, this seems like a novel idea — these are two properties that seem like they’d be a good fit. In practice, Fire Emblem Warriors is the video game equivalent of swigging orange juice after brushing your teeth. It just doesn’t work and, really, you should have known better.

In the last decade, the Fire Emblem series has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in the West. Where the franchise had been a solid earner in its native Japan, beginning with 1990’s Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, for whatever reason it had never clicked with Western audiences. Then Fire Emblem: Awakening launched in 2012 and suddenly, we couldn’t get enough of its mix of turn-based strategy and RPG mechanics.

It makes sense that Nintendo would want to capitalise on this ongoing wave of brand awareness by tying it into another property. This is Nintendo’s second jam session with Koei Tecmo, the first being 2014’s Hyrule Warriors. It functions in the much the vein as Hyrule Warriors, which means it shares a number of the same problems — while sundering entire armies with a series of devastating, button-mashy blows does have a certain appeal, there’s still an abundance of problems, from wildly uneven pacing through to entire systems lumped in together that don’t seem to gel well.

Fire Emblem Warriors is set in an entirely new kingdom called Aytolis and its central story is that of Rowan and Lianna, royal siblings called to arms against a rising tide of monsters and mages laying siege to their homeland. Called in to help the brother/sister team are a veritable who’s who of fan favourite Fire Emblem characters, including Marth and Lucina, Chrom, Xander, Corrin, Robin and many others.

I’ll hand it to the devs, their set up isn’t a bad one. The game goes to great pains to set the stakes quite high from the jump but it can neither maintain that level of intensity nor ever surpass it. Instead, it seems content to let the drama evaporate as it becomes clearer and clearer the story was never much more than an excuse to introduce as many series characters as possible. You would think that this would be, in itself, pretty easy but Fire Emblem Warriors ties itself in hilarious, contrived knots trying to justify why any of these people would be in the same place, much less interested in duking it out. Those who’ve come to love Fire Emblem‘s layered and grimly-toned approach to story-telling may find the more optimistic and upbeat nature of Fire Emblem Warriors‘ narrative a bit much.

The game is at its best when the developers are allowed to play to their strengths. The moments where the game feels the most like Dynasty Warriors are by far its best and most interesting. Its satisfying to send whole platoons of enemy foot soldiers flailing into the air with a power move, its fun carving a path through an overwhelming number of enemy forces, but the weaknesses that have become so obvious in the Warriors series are still plainly visible here. There’s no real difference between each character, only their animations and specials create the perception of variety. Sadly, spectacle can only take you so far.

When the game pulls away from the Dynasty Warriors mould and tries to bring some of Fire Emblem‘s traditional strategy elements into the mix, then the whole apparatus starts feeling rather rickety. In the midst of a battle, you’ll have to jump between any of up to four characters placed around the map and give orders to any supporting units that might be running about. To give these orders, you pull up a map and tell supports who want them attacking or defending. The idea is that you would use this system to make short work of numerous objectives but in practice its so ineffective as to be almost completely useless. “Fight those guys,” I would repeatedly tell my supports, a command they would interpret as “stand there and do literally nothing.” You’ll have a far easier time of it if you simply jump to the nearest character and deal with the problem directly.

This issue with moving units around the battlefield isn’t helped by some odd map and UI design. Each map is a tangled warren of lines, dotted with minuscule icons to represent allies and enemies alike, which makes playing the game in handheld mode a real headache. Equally bewildering is the reductive treatment Fire Emblem‘s RPG roots have received via a system that levels you up based on gear and loot hoovered up mid-fight. I seemed to level up constantly and often quite abruptly, each time gaining a stat increase so small I wondered why they even bothered showing me at all.

Like I said, the game is at its best when it just lets itself be Dynasty Warriors and stops trying to be Fire Emblem too. In trying to combine the most distinctive elements of these two properties into a single experience, Fire Emblem Warriors only demonstrates how fundamentally incompatible they really are.

Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: Fire Emblem characters; Owning 50 dudes in a single hit is fun
Lowlights: Average story; Nothing quite fits together the way it seems like it would on paper
Developer: Team Ninja, Omega Force
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Available: Now