Despite the niche that turn-based strategy games usually fall into, the Fire Emblem franchise has become increasingly popular in recent years. While Roy and Marth’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Melee certainly helped, it only brought the series to light. It wasn’t until Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS where the series really started gaining momentum in the west. After releasing Shadows of Valencia, the revered franchise returns with its newest installment on the Nintendo Switch with Fire Emblem: Three Houses. While taking a departure with its unique setting, the experience will be familiar to both hardcore fans and newcomers alike.
Players assume the role of Byleth (though players can change his/her name). A young protégé to veteran knight Jeralt, who used to serve the Knights of Seiros. After saving three students from bandits, Byleth is taken to the Garreg Mach Monastery. This facility, basically a “Fire Emblem Academy”, is for training students and protecting the empire. Each of the students are from a different nobility background, and are the respective heir to their continent. Thanks to Byleth’s efforts, they become a professor to train students to become stronger warriors. The story involves a wide variety of characters, including a mysterious green-haired girl named Sothis, who inhabits Byleth’s mind. In addition to Sothis, there are a few other shady characters with ulterior motives.
As the name suggests, there are three different houses that players can choose from. Each has eight students, all with unique weapons, abilities and personalities. The Black Eagles, led by Edelgard, include mostly nobles, often having an aristocratic demeanor. The Golden Deer, led by Claude, are commoners who are more casual and brash. Finally, the Blue Lions, led by Dimitri, hosts a mish-mash of the two groups. What makes this game wonderful is that there is no wrong choice in choosing a house. Every student can become a great unit in their own right. Since each one of them has a well-defined personality, it encourages multiple playthroughs just to experience the game from different perspectives. My advice for choosing a house is simple: just go with your gut, you’ll have fun regardless.
Choosing a house is the most pivotal choice to make in the game, especially early on. That being said, it isn’t the only decision you’ll be making. One of the duties required is exploring the monastery to partake in activities like fishing or gardening. While those have their benefits, the biggest draw is conversing with all the unique characters. Not only is every character fully-voiced, but the more time spent with them, the more their personality is revealed. As someone who chose the Blue Lions house, I was taken aback by the character Sylain. He’s a womanizer who wants nothing more than to flirt with every girl he sees. Despite this, more interactions with him unveil a more compassionate side that cares deeply about his colleagues. Thanks to the great script and authentic performances, what’s usually a menial task in other games is rather enjoyable here.
While the main plot often revolves around fantastical elements like legendary weapons or warring alliances, it especially shines with the character interactions. Returning from the previous games are the support conversations. Those can trigger if students perform actions relatively close to one another. It incentivizes players to have those units together not just for the sake of extra strength in combat, but to see how their bond develops throughout the story.
I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the option to suitor a character in hopes of marrying them. This doesn’t just apply to students and other instructors either. For the first time, the avatar can pursue same-sex relationships. Female Byleth can not only start a relationship with the guys, but the girls as well. This is great representation for the LGBTQ community. Be that as it may, some may be disappointed that male Byleth only has one same-sex relationship in Three Houses. To make matters worse, it’s one that is rather one dimensional without spoiling much. Either way, it’s still progress.
It really helps to strengthen bonds with everyone. Byleth can bestow gifts that some patrons would like more than others, or find lost items around the area. There are also several activities that while depleting the activity meter, are the most useful when it comes to nurturing bonds. This can be actions like preparing a feast, participating in choir practice, enrolling students into fighting tournaments or even having a nice tea talk in the garden. This will ensure students will grow fond of their instructor. While players are restricted to only using characters from their house at first, later on they can even recruit specific students from other houses as well.
Obviously, this is a school first and foremost, and a professor must teach his students. Each week the professor can prepare a curriculum for his students to follow. Each students have their own set of goals to follow, focusing on specific combat attributes like axes, swords and so forth. The more a student was pleased during the exploration phase (finding lost items, gifts etc.), the more motivated they will become. Motivation is represented by a bar that signifies the amount of times they can be instructed to earn experience in a specific field. While the maximum number is four, if a student excels in a lesson and earns a perfect rating, they can to earn an extra lesson.
This is what makes Three House truly genius. The classroom setting is the perfect method of upgrading units. It doesn’t only add to the credence of the protagonist character being an actual professor, but seeing the students learn new abilities instead of using a traditional menu makes the experience all the more personal. Even something as basic as someone getting a “perfect” in an instruction session and being praised for their good work can easily put a huge grin on one’s face.
Each chapter of the game presents itself as a full month of schooling, usually ending with a main mission. Instructing students occurs at the beginning of a week, lasting throughout. Getting to the weekend, that’s when it becomes time for things like key activities and exploration. In addition, characters can also attend a seminar by one of the other professors. This helps to regain extra experience and motivation to study harder. The only issue with seminar is that they feel too much like regular lessons, but tend to end much quicker. It doesn’t have as much of a reward compared to exploration and of course, battle.
Battling has always been the bread and butter of the Fire Emblem series. That makes it even more shocking to spend so much time talking about the other aspects of Three Houses first. The game is a traditional turn-based strategy RPG in which the goal varies from map to map. Common examples would be eliminating all enemies. Each class is nuanced in a way that makes them distinct. Archers, for example, can only attack their enemies from a space away or diagonally . Since they can’t do well in a head-to-head clash, placing them behind a lance wielding knight can provide suitable protection. Strategies like this make for a better plan of attack.
An element that is surprisingly missing in Three Houses is the weapon triangle. Similar to rock-paper-scissors, previous Fire Emblem games relied on a formula that each weapon is stronger or weaker to another. Swords are good against axes but bad against lances, for example. There are still some ground rules that haven’t changed. A Pegasus Knight’s worst nightmare is still an archer. Heavily armored units can still be dispatched easily with a magic spell as opposed to a sharpened weapon.
While this system is surprisingly absent here, the combat art system replaces some of its functionality. A sword user has the ability to learn a special attack that demolishes axe wielders. Combat arts are essentially stronger attacks that often inflict higher damage than regular ones. The only problem is that they cost more durability points to use. Each weapon in the game has its own durability stat, and if that number reaches zero, the weapon becomes unusable. While a blacksmith can repair it, it’s important to pay attention to how many points are left in battle. In addition, stronger weapons can cause more damage, but weaker ones can attack an enemy twice in a single turn. This of course depends on the foe. Surveying the area, toggling the opponent’s attack radius, and using the right unit for the job will help ensure victory.
There’s also some new features the developers brought to the combat. Characters can now have battalions join them in the fray. You can use battalions you enlist once or twice during a battle. They can either attack enemies or perform a utility action such as heal or move a unit extra spaces. Battalions can really assist during a pinch, especially since attacking with them doesn’t allow the opponent to retaliate. Adjutants are another addition to Three Houses. This is when units who aren’t able to join due a map’s limit can join forces with a different unit. This often provides bonuses such as healing each turn, blocking enemy attacks or adding an extra attack.
It wouldn’t be a Fire Emblem game without permadeath. Playing the game on Casual mode ensures that fallen units are only out for the remainder of the mission. In Classic mode, if someone dies, they are dead for good. This leads many to soft-resetting their games just to try again, avoiding the mistake that caused an untimely death. One of the mechanics of Three Houses is turning the clock back to any point in the battle manually. While it is a handy tool, players can only use this skill three times per mission. This keeps players form abusing the feature. It does make the experience easier, especially for veterans. Enemies are still relentless, so vigilance is necessary. In addition, having this feature means resetting the game repeatedly isn’t as necessary as it was back in the day. This makes the whole experience flow much better.
Online functionality is rather insubstantial. Connecting the game online will add “spirits of the fallen”, areas where players previously died. If a unit occupies that space, they can get either weapons or experience depending on the color. Characters can also visit another player’s game for a friendly hide and seek game. Sadly, the prizes for those events tend to be meager at best.
Probably the one area where Fire Emblem: Three Houses falters is the visuals department. While the character models look nice, their animation tend to repeat the same loops. In addition, environment details are simple and sparse without much detail. Even the usually eye-catching cutscenes the series is famous for are rather choppy. It makes for a sort of halfway point between fully drawn and completely CG. There are also several occasions of slowdown, especially during monastery exploration. Thankfully the game’s visuals don’t deter much from the overall enjoyment.
The soundtrack is standard Fire Emblem fare, in a good way, of course. There is even a vocal theme this time around which fits the mood. The variety of tracks between exploration or battles also do their job commendably. The real stars are the many actors who lend their voices to the cast. The game has voice acting for practically every situation. It’s rather impressive considering the outlandish amount of dialogue in the game.
Even with its minor shortcomings, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a terrific experience. The school setting adds a new layer to character upgrades and story nuance that feels naturally interwoven into the plot. While the narrative has similar beats, the wide cast of eccentric personalities more than makes up for it. The tactical battles of course are still as engaging as ever. If you have never ventured into turn-based strategy games, it doesn’t get any better than Fire Emblem: Three Houses.