Koei Tecmo's Warriors franchise – also known by its Japanese title of "Musou" – has fans the world over, but we'd be willing to bet that quite a few of the people who picked up the superb Hyrule Warriors on Wii U and 3DS had never played any of the previous entries. Combing the hack-and-slash gameplay of the series with the lore of Zelda was, in retrospect, a masterstroke; it unlocked a whole new generation of potential Musou fans and perhaps even awakened a few lapsed Zelda followers, too. Nintendo has allied itself with Koei Tecmo (as well as development teams Omega Force and Team Ninja) for another collaboration, this time featuring Intelligent Systems' beloved Fire Emblem franchise.
Like some kind of mathematical equation, adding Musou to an existing property has exactly the kind of results you'd predict. The turn-based approach Fire Emblem is famous for is gone in Fire Emblem Warriors, and in its place you'll find hordes of enemies to cut your way through (in real time, naturally), screen-filling special moves and a surprisingly deep character development system which not only allows for levelling-up, but permits you to augment each protagonist's abilities on a more granular level, such as selecting and improving their weaponry. None of this will be news to seasoned Musou players, but there are some elements here which are unique to this particular instalment.
While the turn-based tactics of the Fire Emblem series may be gone, there's still a strategic element to proceedings – even more so than is usual in a Warriors game. As ever, controlling bases, defending allies and opening up routes through the battlefield are key concerns, but in Fire Emblem Warriors things are given more depth by the fact that you can issue orders from the pause screen and instruct units to attack certain enemies, heal themselves or proceed to points on the map. It's also possible to switch between units at the push of a button, which gives a much grander feel to the conflict. Instead of being a single super-soldier dealing out death (a tonal hallmark of the Musou series), you're part of a larger army; indeed, if you fail to switch to other units in some missions then failure is a very real possibility, as it's often the case that to reach a particular objective in the fastest time you have to shift control to another character.
The story, for what it's worth, is largely hokum; its main objective is to give the developers an excuse to have these almost entirely unconnected characters all on the same battlefield. As a result we have eyebrow-raising scenarios where allies viciously attack allies simply to prove their trustworthiness, and one particularly confusing mission where it's genuinely hard to remember who is fighting who, or to what end. Despite the often preposterous nature of the plot, it culminates nicely with a largely unexpected twist that leaves you rooting for our heroes – something that doesn't always happen for the majority of the quest as it's difficult to feel anything but indifference for enemies who become allies at the drop of a hat.
Speaking of characters, Fire Emblem Warriors has a few. The vast majority are plucked from Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates, a fact which may annoy some seasoned fans of the series. There are some protagonists from earlier entries – as well as all-new faces, such as lead characters Rowan and Lianna – but this is clearly a package aimed at modern followers of the franchise, and thanks to the focus on switching between units during battle, you'll get more of a chance to familiarise yourself with each one than you perhaps did in Hyrule Warriors.
Another aspect of Fire Emblem that the game borrows is the famous weapon triangle. Certain weapon types have the advantage over others, creating a triangle which means no single weapon is dominant. When fighting against certain types you may find that your character is weaker and therefore takes longer to dispatch them – something which gives you even more impetus to switch to another character, especially during some of the more tense moments when you need to kill certain enemies and move onto the next objective quickly.
In terms of combat, Fire Emblem Warriors will offer few surprises – but that's not to say it isn't ridiculously entertaining all the same. Standard and strong attacks can be chained together to form many different combos – all unique to each character – and by building up your "Warrior" gauge you can unleash a powerful special attack by pushing the A button. After filling your "Awakening" gauge, a stab of the R shoulder button means you'll benefit from a short period where you'll always have the advantage, irrespective of the weapon triangle. You can roll out of trouble using B – handy for outflanking stubborn enemies – and the L shoulder button allows you to lock onto a target and circle them. The camera can be controlled using the right-hand analogue stick, and you can snap it behind your character instantly by pressing the ZL button. ZR opens up a sub-menu from which you can use items to heal both yourself and your allies, but its most important use calls to mind another Fire Emblem staple: bonds between allies.
Simply fighting in close proximity to another friendly character is usually enough to enhance the bond between them, but using ZR you can choose to join forces with them. During this time they are effectively removed from the battlefield, but you can call them in for special attacks and they lend their power to yours when you unleash a special with the A button. You'll also find that some characters automatically step in to defend you at certain points, and it's possible to call them in using ZR + Y for an assist attack. You can toggle between the two characters at any point – ideal for when you're at a disadvantage against a certain enemy and need another weapon type – or decouple entirely so they return to the skirmish, which comes in handy when the tide begins to turn and you need to get more bodies on the battlefield.
The tactical side of the game isn't just for show; poor planning can lead to units being killed, and in traditional Fire Emblem fashion there's a "Classic" mode in which fallen allies cannot be used in future battles, but the edge has been taken off this mode by the fact that you can revive them (at a cost) at the temple in-between missions. The "Casual" mode – where fallen characters simply retreat until the next battle and therefore need less mollycoddling – is a much gentler option, but even in this mode we found ourselves having to re-play certain missions after failing to meet our goals.
It's also worth mentioning that the battlegrounds in Fire Emblem Warriors borrow ideas from the main Fire Emblem series. Dragon Veins are present in some forts, and triggering these usually opens up shortcuts or removes obstacles, such as fog which covers the map or poisonous gas. You'll also find that certain routes are only accessible by flying units, making the need to switch between allies even more important. These shortcuts are ignored at your peril, as they often allow you to complete an objective or reach a certain point of the battlefield faster than on foot. In typical Warriors fashion, you'll spend most of your time in Fire Emblem Warriors fighting for control of forts dotted around each level. These are guarded by a powerful enemy who must be defeated to claim ownership; during some of the longer skirmishes you can expect these bastions to change hands many times over as each side fights to gain the upper hand.
Outside of the battlefield you're given the chance to evolve and grow your characters using some tried-and-tested Musou techniques. Using materials gained in combat you can create "badges" which increase your attack power, give you longer combos, boost your defense against certain weapons and even unlock new skills. If you have a Master Seal you can also change a character's class, which not only gives them a healthy stat boost but changes their outward appearance. Unique skills can be learned as well, usually when you've formed a strong bond between two characters – another incentive to get your units working closely on the battlefield. Weapons are also found on the battlefield and can be equipped in-between missions; it's possible to reforge certain weapons so they gain additional bonuses, such as increased item drops or extra damage. You'll spend a lot of time upgrading your warriors and unlocking new badges, but thankfully the developers have included an "optimise equipment" option which takes some of the effort out of that side of things. It's worth noting that amiibo functionality is included, too – you can scan up to five amiibo a day to earn materials and weapons.
The main story mode will keep you occupied for quite some time, but in addition to that there's the "History" mode, which allows you to replay famous battles from the Fire Emblem series. These are unlocked as you progress through the main narrative, and offer the chance to not only boost your experience, gain more items and earn more gold, but also sate your competitive side – your performance in each mission is ranked depending on how well you do. It's a neat little aside which expands the longevity of Fire Emblem Warriors, but it does feel a slightly tacked-on – especially when you consider that unrelated characters from other Fire Emblem games appear in each mission (Chrom is in the opening clash between Nohrian and Hoshidan forces, lifted from Fire Emblem Fates, for example).
Hyrule Warriors could hardly be described as ugly, but when placed alongside Fire Emblem Warriors the gulf in visual quality is remarkable – especially when you consider that the Switch is a totally mobile system. In its default "Quality" mode – which runs at 1080p / 30fps docked – the game ticks along nicely, with impressive visual effects and loads of enemies on-screen at any one time. However, the "Performance" mode drops the resolution down to 720p and boosts the framerate to 60fps (needless to say this only applies to docked mode); whether or not this is an acceptable trade-off for you is all down to personal taste, but the smoothness of the action really does make a difference, and we opted to play in Performance during the whole adventure. Co-op play is included, but in this mode things do take a noticeable hit, with irksome slowdown and jerkiness. On the audio side of things, Fire Emblem Warriors features copious amounts of voice acting and the option to toggle between English and Japanese speech. The music is typical of Musou crossovers; notable Fire Emblem tunes played on screeching guitars. It's not entirely unpleasant and certainly fits the action, but it lacks the subtlety associated with Fire Emblem's music.
Despite their enduring fame and commercial success the Musou games have, in the past, come dangerously close to self-parody, and it's easy to see why critics of the series consider them to be little more than repetitive button-bashers. Thankfully Fire Emblem Warriors is anything but a mindless brawler; it combines enjoyable combat with real-time tactics, faithfully paying tribute to the two franchises it fuses together. Musou fans will love the fantasy setting and blade-based action, while Fire Emblem followers will appreciate the strategic wrinkles that series adds to proceedings. While the story is largely forgettable there's plenty of fan-service for Fire Emblem lovers here; granted, the cast list focuses on the more recent outings on the 3DS, but we imagine that DLC will redress the balance moving forward. Despite the addition of deeper tactics we fear that Fire Emblem Warriors may still be too samey for those who have struggled with Koei Tecmo's franchise in the past, but everyone else should definitely give this a try; it may well be one of the best Musou outings yet seen.