First unveiled in a jam-packed January Nintendo Direct earlier this year, Fire Emblem Warriors is one of two Fire Emblems currently scheduled to hit Nintendo’s Switch. And while the still-untitled mainline adventure announced alongside it will likely continue with the grid-based strategy-RPG gameplay the series is known for, Warriors is a different beast. Koei-Tecmo’s long-running Warriors (also known as Musou) series has been blended with everything from Gundam and One Piece to The Legend of Zelda, and now it’s ready to bring its blend of speedy, tactical hack-and-slash action to Fire Emblem. We were able to go hands-on with a demo build of Fire Emblem Warriors in a back alley of New Donk City at this year’s E3, and came away dizzily excited; what we played was polished, chaotic fun and Fire Emblem fan-service in equal measure — a wonderful mix.

New Characters and Familiar Heroes

Our tour of Fire Emblem Warriors started off in the boots and bracers of Rowan, who — along with his sister Lianna — is one of the two new headlining characters created for the game. As in Hyrule Warriors and other Musou titles, we immediately found ourselves both overwhelmed by hordes of identical-looking soldiers on all sides, and also armed with superhuman powers to take them out. Hacking and slashing with a combination of the ‘Y’ (weak attack), ‘X’ (strong attack), and ‘A’ (special attack) buttons, we had no trouble keeping scores of foes aloft in the air for multiple hits, and the balletic, combo-heavy aerial rave action was a blast.

In addition to close-quarters combat, however, Warriors games involve quite a bit of map-management, and this Fire Emblem variant is no exception. The individual beat-‘em-up battles you’ll fight are part of a larger campaign concurrently unfolding all over the map, and success in a given mission involves not only cutting down the enemies you can see, but also taking territory, repelling reinforcements, and making sure you don’t leave any allies in the lurch. 

Along with Rowan we also had Chrom, Marth, and a female Corrin on our side at various points throughout the battle, and a quick flick of the D-Pad up or down let us cycle between characters on the fly. That quickly came in handy, and especially when things began heating up on certain parts of the map. Our mission was to defeat three outpost captains so that we could lure out their commanders — who ended up being fan-favourites Ryoma and Xander — and rather than being a linear hunt, that meant simultaneous attacks on several fronts. Sometimes swapping to a character near an unfolding situation would let us take care of it, and sometimes we just had to hustle over with the warrior we were already controlling, but either way the demo kept us engaged with the full extent of the map throughout.

The Flow of Combat in Fire Emblem Warriors

We played on a Pro Controller and the basics felt great, although the overlay system which uses ‘ZR’ plus the face buttons for various advanced techniques often left us searching for the cheat-sheet; it’s easy to see it becoming natural with time, but it didn’t click for us before our demo was up. Movement was smooth and responsive, however, and the generous combo timing seemed to make button mashing, sincere strategy, and something in-between all viable options for success.

Each character kept the same basic inputs, but there was a good deal of variety in their attacks and styles. Marth and Chrom played like the sword-slingers you might expect, with big sweeping moves of the blade covering crowd control and jump-slashes delivering powerful blows, while Corrin fought with both her sword and her shapeshifting dragon powers, making for quite a different feel. The continual ebb and flow between regular and special attacks (which charge up as you deal damage), combined with swapping back and forth between different characters and parts of the battlefield, gave Warriors a feeling of frenetic energy that never let up as we played. It was a bit confusing at times, with new missions and side quests popping up as we went, but even if we weren’t always 100% clear on what we were doing it was still undeniably joyous, and commendably cathartic. 

In addition to embodying that satisfying sense of style with its gameplay, Fire Emblem Warriors is a treat to look at as well. The character models are subtly cell-shaded with soft lines and a liquid sheen that gives a wonderful 3D-watercolour look, and while there’s a notable amount of pop-in — enemies sometimes seemed to appear right at our feet — everything looks great in motion. Particularly impressive are the character cut-ins for special attacks; calling up the critical hits in the 3DS Fire Emblems, they zoom in on your character’s face in a manga-like frame before zooming back out to show the full extent of your destructive power from multiple angles, swooping in, around, and under the action as it unfolds. Warriors also keeps the three-tiered representation of the characters introduced in Awakening, with gorgeous (HD!) 2D portraits in menus, cute pixel art as icons on the map, and 3D models in-game — complete with feet this time!

A Fire Emblem Fan-Service Fest

It also feels safe to say from the section we saw that we expect this to be a fan-service fest — in the best sense — much as Hyrule Warriors was. An all-star lineup of heroes brought together from different games and universes, a two-stage final fight against Ryoma and Xander, and lots of lovely nods to series style and lore made even the introductory stage we played feel like a real celebration. The unmistakable Fire Emblem level-up jingle, for instance, brought a smile every time it popped up — as did the decidedly un-Fire Emblem (i.e. generous) stat boosts that accompanied the achievement. There’s also echoes of the relationship systems found in Awakening and Fates (and to a lesser extent, Echoes); by getting within range of another hero on the battlefield and hitting ‘ZR’ and ‘B’, you can pair up your units for Dual Strike attacks and defense boosts, among other advantages.

Some things translate better than others, however, and one thing that sadly stood out is just how bland the swaths of cookie-cutter Fire Emblem footsoldiers we fought were, both in comparison to their commanders Ryoma, Xander, and Corrin and to the more imaginative enemies used as grunts in Hyrule Warriors. At its best, Fire Emblem character design is top of its class, but at its worst it can tend towards generic Euro-fantasy fare, and that’s what we spent most of our time knocking around in the demo. Still, the muted design does match their primary gameplay use as combo fodder, and we can certainly forgive pedestrian-looking evil underlings if that’s what lets us throw fifty of them at a time up in the air as dragon-Corrin.

Though we only got to spend a brief time with Fire Emblem Warriors, we already can’t wait to dive back in with Corrin and friends for the Fall 2017 release — the breezy chaos of Musou action and Fire Emblem’s legendary characters feel like a wonderful fit. At the moment, our biggest hope is that it will also come with the co-op that made Hyrule Warriors such a wonderful two-player adventure. The Nintendo representative we spoke with said they don’t have anything to announce in terms of number of players supported at the current time, but here’s hoping; being able to fight with your friends — and not just for them — would make this brilliant battle even better.