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Musou Tactics

After playing Fire Emblem Warriors, I thought I was super into Musou games. After moving on to the (earlier release) Hyrule Warriors, while I do still enjoy Musou it turns out that what I was super into was Fire Emblem Warriors. In particular, its tactical depth.

Cross-over Musou spin-off games (at least the ones I’ve tried - the above two and Dragon Quest Heroes) take on iconic aspects of their crossover franchise, and some work better than others. I think the key is how shallow or deep the mechanics are integrated with the core gameplay. For example, Dragon Quest Heroes retools the special attacks to be familiar spells like Zap that use MP and also provides monster medals for summoning friendly monsters. This was part of the normal combat gameplay, it clearly received a lot of attention, and it created some interesting possibilities. Meanwhile, other JRPG elements were integrated via town-like camp/airship segments between battles. These replaced the more direct upgrade menus found in other Musou titles, adding a bunch of NPCs in an explorable space and a lot of fiddly complexity in the equipment and crafting systems, more in line with mainline Dragon Quest. But this was a more shallow integration - in JRPGs, towns are important mechanisms for pacing (they might be several hours apart, as you use each as a safe place and base of operations while handling nearby dungeons or whatever) and worldbuilding (NPCs in towns can provide depth and detail as to the state of the world and how it’s changing). But in Dragon Quest Heroes it mostly just feels like a menu that’s harder to use shoved in between battles - you’re ejected to it after every battle, which is every twenty minutes or so, and it generally just contains the same uninteresting NPCs to talk to over and over. (Maybe it gets better later in the game; I didn’t finish DQH.)

Fire Emblem is a franchise of turn-based tactical RPGs, and while some of its iconic features were integrated shallowly and to poor effect (the Support conversation system ends up being pretty obnoxious) the more tactical elements like the weapon triangle (swords beat axes beat lances beat swords) and related rock-paper-scissors-like systems (flying units can cross gaps but are vulnerable to archers) turned out to be a shockingly good fit for Musou, to an extent I didn’t appreciate until playing Hyrule Warriors.

In most Musou games, you pick your character at the start of the mission and that’s who you play as for the whole mission. Any allies are completely controlled by the (not especially competent) AI. You generally need to run around the battlefield taking care of everything major yourself. This is why Tim Rogers called Musou games “Action-Flavored Strategic Job Responsibility Simulators.”

This setup also has a homogenizing effect on playable characters. They can have different movesets, different offense/defense trade-offs, and different range/damage trade-offs - but fundamentally they need to all have the same capabilities, because they all need to be able to handle every situation that can occur in every mission. Some characters might be slightly better suited to certain challenges, but you can just pick your favorite and stick with them and be just fine.

Hyrule Warriors changes this formula slightly. You can in many cases deploy two or three playable characters and switch between them freely, and you can also issue simple commands to allied characters to send them where you want them to go. (I’m not sure it’s the first to add these features, but it’s the earliest Musou game I’ve seen with them.) But the characters are still basically homogeneous in capability - anyone can handle anything. As a result, the only real reason to switch between characters is down to location. Maybe you sent Link to the west side of the map and Zelda to the east, and as threats arise on either side of the map you switch between - but you could just as well have sent Link east and Zelda west. Or if you have time, just stick with one and run back and forth.

In some senses, this is good - you can still just deploy and use your favorite characters, and you basically can’t have the frustrating situation where because you failed to predict the future, an urgent threat pops up on the other end of the map and you simply can’t get there in time. But Fire Emblem Warriors is - as far as I know - the first and only Musou game to see and use the true potential of this system - by differentiating the playable characters.

As in its source material, playable characters in Fire Emblem Warriors are mechanically defined by their relationship with multiple rock-paper-scissors systems. The most significant are the weapon type (sword/axe/lance in the weapon triangle, and bow/tome/dragonstone outside of it) and the movement type (infantry, cavalry, flying cavalry), though there are a few other interactions (some characters have anti-dragon weapons and some characters are dragons, for example, and some characters are better healers than others). The result is actual difference in capability meaning not every character can handle every challenge, which creates much more interesting scenarios. You may have to send Pegasus knight Caeda flying across a gap to lower a bridge that sword-wielding Marth can then run across to deal with the archers on the other side blocking Caeda’s progress, for example.

As a result, it’s now important to survey the map before each mission and put together a balanced party capable of handling the mission’s particular threats. No archers? Go nuts with the flying units! Going up against Falchion-wielders? Don’t send Tiki or Corrin against them! Lots of Pegasus knights? Send in the archers and axe-wielders! And so on. Your party composition is then tested in the mission itself, which will go much more smoothly if you’ve put the right character types in the right places.

By adding this tactical depth, Fire Emblem Warriors reveals Musou as what it’s actually been all along - a real-time tactical RPG. People complain that combat in Musou is easy, shallow, and uninteresting, but Musou has never been about individual combat encounters. You could put in a richer dueling system, but this would forgo the genre’s strengths and what separates it from linear beat-‘em-ups. In Musou, the challenge comes from managing the entire battlefield - understanding what’s going on, prioritizing threats and opportunities, and managing your resources to handle them. Adding depth to those tactical decisions is how you improve a Musou game.

(Though I didn’t try it, Fire Emblem Warriors can push things even further with its optional Tactician mode, where the controlled character can’t deal any damage but allies are significantly more effective at following orders. I like having the player-driven action in there too, but the fact that this is even possible as an experiment says a lot about the nature of the game.)

It’s been difficult to go back to Hyrule Warriors where there isn’t any such thing as a balanced party and it doesn’t matter who you use to deal with what. There hasn’t been a new Musou crossover since Fire Emblem Warriors, but the next one has been announced - Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers. The Persona games have always had fairly tactically-rich combat with an emphasis on exploiting elemental weaknesses - this could easily serve just as well as Fire Emblem Warriors’ weapon triangle, if Atlus and Omega Force decide to go that way. I really hope they do.