Title: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Reviewed On: Switch
Every long-running franchise has at least a few games that shake up the existing formula and provide its audience with a new way to experience familiar content. Pokemon games have numerous spin-off titles to achieve this and Final Fantasy games are about as consistent as well-beaten eggs. Fire Emblem on the other hand, despite being nearly 30 years old, has been extremely consistent in terms of gameplay available and very few entries have any sort of major mechanical changes.
However, the latest entry, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, seems to have been largely developed by Koei Tecmo, who are responsible for one of two spinoff games in the entire franchise, as opposed to Intelligent Systems, who have done every other mainline game. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to bring the best out of an established formula, and there’s a strong argument for saying that’s what’s happened here because Fire Emblem: Three Houses is really, really good.
Three Houses takes place on a continent named Fódlan, which is divided into essentially three countries, each with a different political system. An Empire, a kingdom and an alliance, which is some sort of weird fusion of an oligarchy and monarchy. Either way, there is a neutrally aligned monastery in the dead center of the continent and in a show of some sort of strange trust between nations, all the royals, nobles and whatever-may-have-yous send their high school-aged children to a shared military military academy there.
The player takes the role of Byleth, a namable silent protagonist and new professor at the aforementioned monastery. After saving some of the students from a bandit attack, the archbishop seems to have noticed Byleth’s protagonist powers and offered them a job as a professor for one of the titular three houses. Also, some sort of small girl has taken up residence as your personal imaginary friend and has given you the power to rewrite time. Neat.
The first part of your new role as a professor is to select which one of the three houses you want to teach. Each house contains a selection of students that come from one of the three nations. In Fire Emblem games, the gameplay loop involves leading your allies through map after map of dangerous enemies with next to no breaks in between and, with only a couple of exceptions, a limited amount of experience to acquire.
You, as the professor, are given a mission to complete at the end of each month. These missions are your classic fire emblem maps and you’ll be clearing them with your students. Over the course of that month, you are given free time to prepare. This is where the game’s depth starts to show. You can explore the monastery and interact with students to fulfill side-quests or boost support rankings, you can attend seminars to boost yours and your allies weapon levels or partake in auxiliary battles if you need the extra experience. It’s enough time to establish a team, but not much else.
Combat in Fire Emblem Three Houses takes the form of a turn-based strategy RPG. You’ll have to guide yourself and your impromptu army made up of school children across the map, attacking foes left and right with the utmost of care. Weapons can break and you have a limited amount of coin at your disposal to buy new ones. Other limited items include important healing items, torches, and keys.
Three Houses keep the interesting skills introduced in Echoes and ties them to weapon uses as opposed to HP. These skills are tied to weapon rankings and have a wide array of effects from extra hit rates, crit rates, to more range or demolishing characters of a particular class type. Weapons are also not tied to classes, with certain classes having skills to bolster certain weapon types to encourage that usage, which doesn’t stop you from giving any mage a giant ax and letting them go to town. What does stop you from wielding the biggest and strongest axes however are weapon ranks. To use more powerful weapons you’ll need to boost your party member’s capabilities with that weapon, which can be done by having them use the weapon repeatedly, or by giving them instruction in class.
When a character’s level and weapon ranking are high enough, you can have them undertake a certification exam to unlock new classes to use. Mastering these classes is another way to learn particular skills. However, you can only have 3 equipped combat arts and 5 passive skills equipped at a time, so you’ll need to make plans ahead of time. They’re a lot of fun to use and are helpful to break up any sort of monotony. You can also recruit battalions, which give slight stat boosts and allow you to use gambits, special attacks with a variety of effects that can be used a limited number of times per battle.
There is another perk to having high weapon grades, which makes it easier for you to recruit more characters. You won’t be finding any wandering mercenaries here. Any additions you make to your squad will be done yourself by talking to other students and teachers at the monastery. By having a high enough ranking in particular categories, along with a few support levels, you’ll be able to add folks from the other houses to your house. It’s a good idea to use this to obtain characters you really want or ones that will fill holes in your team.
Supports are back too, and they’re the best we’ve seen. Due to the use of animation and models, they are more akin to social links seen in the Persona games and feel much more natural and fluid. The cast interactions are quite honestly the best I’ve seen in the franchise. In addition to being fully voiced, these supports benefit from being animated, characters get to move and react instead of just being static portraits. One very neat addition is how expressive Byleth can be is brought up in conversations, this characterization of an odd and quiet, yet very competent professor makes them feel more like a character despite having next to no lines. This isn’t even getting into paralogues which net you both extra fun cast interactions and special weapons with bonus effects.
The overall story also happens to be pretty damn good too, which is especially surprising considering how often it’s usually lacking in this franchise. The game operates in the reverse fashion to the infamous Fire Emblem Fates which released as two separate games that each told only part of the story, with a ‘true path’ being explicitly locked behind paid DLC.
Three Houses gives the player three different ways to start off your game, which each evolve into entirely different routes and every single one of them has enough substance to be a full game in its own right. And thanks to the auxiliary battles and exploration, they’re clocking in each at around 60 hours for a first run with alternate runs being a little shorter as you figure out the game’s inner workings. And unlike Fire Emblem Fates, each run is its own entire story, it’s more akin to three games for the price of one, with much more depth for each path than even a Shin Megami Tensei game usually has between routes. The Golden Deer path is a personal favorite of mine because it’s honestly the least Fire Emblem, a Fire Emblem game has ever been and it’s so much fun.
The wildest thing about Fire Emblem Three Houses is just how unlike it is compared to other games in the franchise. Hell, you can zoom in on a map and control any of your characters as if they’re Byleth wandering through the monastery. Thanks to the incredible music, battle transitions and how battalions show up, battles feel more hectic than they ever have before. There are even monster boss fights with multiple HP bars, which make for extremely threatening encounters. I have to nitpick if I want to criticize anything in this game, so let’s try that using bullet points….
- A couple of the characters who seem like they are supposed to be important to the plot ultimately don’t get enough screen time and could have really used some support conversations. I’m not going to name any names because those are spoilers.
- I think gender locking a couple of classes was a bit weird but didn’t impact me until my third play-through.
- I would have like a costume option to keep my cast’s default outfits on because some of them are really nice and I want my characters to look good whilst they beat the stuffing out of an opposing army.
That’s it really. I had to really think about those for a bit because I am simply having entirely too much fun with this game. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a fantastic game for both longtime fans of the Fire Emblem series and total newcomers to even the strategy RPG genre and it firmly sets itself as my favorite game in the series.
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