The new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character announcement did not exactly hit with a great bang. Byleth, the player avatar from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is arguably even the most predictable choice possible. However, in spite of hype-addicted fans not getting their fix and my own neutral feelings towards Byleth, I find their gameplay reveal to be an interesting look into the developers’ latest attempt at capturing Fire Emblem‘s tactical gameplay in Smash.
Fire Emblem is a turn-based, fantasy-themed strategy RPG series where you control different characters with unique strengths and weaknesses. It’s a game that discourages charging in headfirst and instead emphasizes positional advantages and careful advancements. Because the games are not as action-packed as Smash, it has required a greater degree of interpretation to translate the Fire Emblem representatives. Marth (and by extension Lucina) has the highest walking speed in the series, allowing him to swiftly move in and out of enemy range. Robin is one of the slowest characters in the game, but has a mix of long-range magic and close-range sword attacks to try and trap the opponent in a bad spot. As mentioned by Sakurai in the Byleth gameplay video above, most of the Fire Emblem characters in Smash have Counter attacks in order to replicate the retaliations that happen in the original game’s combat sequences.
Byleth comes equipped with a multitude of different weapons, each of which are tied to a particular general direction. Upward attacks are done with a chain-like sword, side attacks utilize a spear with long reach, downward attacks are performed with a slow but powerful axe, and neutral attacks use a bow and arrows for fighting from far away. This plays into the multitude of weapons in Fire Emblem: Three Houses and their properties, such as accuracy, effective range, etc.
In turn, what I think Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is trying to capture by linking specific weapons to specific directions is the spirit of the positional and preparatory thinking that goes into playing Fire Emblem. Byleth is likely encouraged to fight at different distances depending on what the opponent’s priorities are. This applies to some extent with every Smash character, but with Byleth especially, it looks like there is no cure-all attack that can be used by default to cover multiple situations, such as Link’s neutral air or Mr. Game & Watch’s Fire trampoline.
Sakurai points out some of the examples of the weapons’ limitations. The spear has tremendous reach but is weak up close and has problems with vertical movement. The axe is cumbersome, but has many ways to foil evasive measures and low attacks. The bow has a point at which it must fire, forcing The long-range weapon into being a commitment if you want some serious power. He doesn’t say much about what the sword can’t do, but I imagine it will primarily function as an anti-air.
There are plenty of characters who have multiple weapons that are meant to attack at different angles, but in many of those cases, those moves are usually exclusively special moves. Because the directional theme is tied to Bayleth’s normals and specials, it highlights a different kind of tactical thinking. If you want your sword attacks to be effective, you have to be at a distance where the lance is a poor choice, for example. And you can’t make up for it like Mario could with a quick jab vs. a slower fireball because all of Bayleth’s forward-reaching attacks are lance-based. In other words, Bayleth’s vertical spacing is substantially different from their horizontal spacing, and the player has to adjust accordingly.
The more I delve into how Bayleth is designed, the more impressed I am with the thought and concept behind the character. The game could’ve given them a weapon-switching mechanic, for example, but associating a weapon with a direction means that understanding the right spacing for Bayleth also means understanding the right stage positioning as well. It hints at the same feeling as putting the right unit in the right spot in Fire Emblem and allowing the enemy to fall on your blade.