Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
I want to start by saying I haven’t seen all that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has to offer, and I’d wager that most other players haven’t yet either. The very first thing that sticks out about Three Houses is that it’s an absolutely massive game.
On the surface it has three different main story arcs, each taking anywhere from 20-60 hours to complete depending on how deep you dive into sidequests, and that alone will give you more than enough gameplay to keep you occupied, however you then have to factor in secrets routes which add on yet more time, all the different free time activities, the challenge of recruiting characters, support conversations, fishing, cooking, tea-time minigames, online scavenger hunts, plain old fetch quests, side battles, rare battles, quest battles, and the near endless depth of character customization.
You can easily find yourself pumping hundreds of hours into this game while still only seeing a fraction of its content, and that is honestly one of its greatest strengths.
You probably have a certain expectation of Three Houses if you have played a Fire Emblem game before. You want gigantic military battles, the threat of permadeath, and maybe a dating mini-game or two. Trust me, Three Houses has plenty of that. It’s that dating mini-game portion, however, that has grown, blossomed, and evolved out of control into something much more complicated.
Your School Schedule
In Three Houses you take the role of a professor at a monastery that grooms young nobles and soldiers for a lifetime of servitude to the holy church, and it’s this plot conceit that ties the entire game together. Instead of a few cut scenes between every battle, as was the case in past Fire Emblem games, your time between battles is filled with a full-blown social simulator that takes more than a few cues from the Persona series.
As the professor of one of the aforementioned three houses, you will be put in control of your students’ day to day life. During the week, your student will study in the subjects you choose which will raise their skill levels and grant them new abilities. On Monday, you get the chance to change your lesson plans and provide one-on-one instruction to help your characters grow the way you want them to. On Saturdays, your characters will work odd jobs to earn money and increase their bonds with each other. On Sundays, you have free time that you can spend in training battles, at a lecture, wandering around campus, or just resting in bed. Then, at the end of the month, there is always some sort of major story battle that will test your skills.
You might think that this is a simple matter of choosing activities to maximize your stats, but the gameplay loop isn’t nearly that simple. Push your students too hard and their motivation will drop, making them unable to receive one-on-one instruction. Spend some free time with them and their motivation will go up, but then you aren’t spending that time battling to level them up or gain more resources.
Furthermore, your house comes with a starting roster of characters but to get more you’ll have to socially interact with characters from other houses and neutral mercenaries. Doing that requires you to spend money on gifts and spend time on doing sidequests, but the time you spend doing these sidequests is once again not spent on your core army. Not to mention certain battles and events are only available for a limited time, so choosing one activity might lock you out of another. You can focus on raising your professor level to get more time to do more things but then you aren’t focusing on anyone but yourself!
…. And when am I going to find time to get a date in the middle of all this!
There is essentially a whole Persona-like game on top of the Fire Emblem formula and they work remarkably great together. Everything you do increases your units stats and skills or grants you items and gold in some way. However, every activity also acts as a gatekeeper to other activities. The trick is to manage multiple goals at once.
If you don’t want to miss the paralogue that increases the shop’s inventory, maybe you take that character into battle with you as an assistant. If you need to increase your character’s motivation while simultaneously raising their support ranks, maybe you invite them all out to eat. There’s no perfect schedule. There are just tons of tiny choices that flesh out your personal playstyle.
There is also added time pressure of an eventual “time-skip” that pushes the plot five years into the future, and makes a lot of your activities unavailable. Characters will be lost, items will fade into the ether, battles will become unavailable and the story will change forever. Of course, anything beyond this will push us into spoiler territory, but the constant threat of losing everything you have access to makes managing your schedule all the more important and all the more engrossing.
Going to War
We’ve come all this way without even talking about the battle system, which is usually the focus of any Fire Emblem game. For the most part, you’ll recognize it as the same fire emblem battle system you’ve come to know and love. You got your standard sword, axe, lance, bow, mounted knights, flying knights, magic, and healer spread. Weapons have weapon durability again, just like any other Fire Emblem game. You’ll move around the map, staying just out of your enemies attack ranges, setting up onslaughts of two to three units each that maximize damage and minimize the chances of your units meeting an untimely permadeath.
There are a few additions that really feel like they have brought Fire Emblem to the modern age. For example, weapon skills from Shadows of Valentia make a return, but they don’t use up MP or HP or anything like that. Instead they use up your weapon durability. So you are always choosing between using up one weapon charge on a normal attack or 3-5 weapon charges on attacks that do more damage, debuff the enemy, or alter the map and unit positioning in some way.
While battalions are framed as a unit of troops that follow your character around, they kind of work like equipment. Assigning a battalion grants you a few small increases in stats and a few charges of “gambits” which can attack, heal, and buff/debuff small areas on the field. Fire Emblem doesn’t generally have area of effect attacks so these give battles a nice bit of extra depth.
Going to Class
Then there’s the new class system. Traditionally, Fire Emblem characters are stuck in their class with a few small exceptions. You’d get to class up and maybe make a choice or two, but that’s about it.
However, the new class system is much more open. Level caps are gone so you don’t have to slog through certain levels playing with classes you don’t like. While certain characters have certain class restrictions or special classes available to only them, in general every character can become around four different beginner classes, 10-12 different mid-level classes, 10-12 different high level classes and about 7 master classes. Each of these classes have their own stat growths and abilities, some of which even warrant classing down to get abilities you missed. This is orders of magnitude more complex than previous Fire Emblems which gave you a choice of about two classes at max.
Speaking of being more complex, classes used to determine what weapons you could use, but not anymore. Anything you learn in a class sticks with you forever. If you, say, become a demon with bows as an archer and sniper and then change your class to a heavy knight, you’ll still be able to use the bows you loved so much in that clunky suit of armor. You’ll even be able to equip the special class abilities you learned as an archer, basically customizing your own heavy archer class that wouldn’t have ever been in another Fire Emblem title. It feels more like the deeper class customization of Fell Seal or Final Fantasy Tactics than past Fire Emblems and it’s a welcome addition.
Creating the Game You Want to Play
All of this might seem overwhelming, and it can be. I don’t even have all the time to describe all the other side content from tournaments to monster hunts to chorus recitals, fishing tournaments, and Amiibos. But in a brilliant move, Nintendo decided to let each player choose exactly how complex they want Three Houses to be.
Say you want to play Three Houses like a traditional Fire Emblem game, nothing but battles and cutscenes. You can do that. You can let the computer instruct your students for you. You can fast travel around in free time, never participate in side-quests, not even look at the social game aspect and just push from battle to battle and the game still works just fine that way.
On the flip side you can turn all animations off and set your units to auto-battle and focus on the social time management game and nothing else. You can be an obsessive completionist and spend hours wandering the monastery every Sunday, talking to everyone, finding every quest and making everyone love you in a search for hidden plots and routes. You can grind on battles infinitely to keep your army strong, or you can never look at an optional battle once. You can play in multiple levels of difficulty with and without permadeath turned on. It’s your game, you choose how to play it.
In fact, the very nature of Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a Switch game lends itself to being played multiple ways. On my couch in front of my TV, I’m more than willing to spend hours trying to recruit the exact characters I want, pouring over every item in my inventory, and customizing every single ability of every unit I have available to me. On a bus ride, I’ll probably just auto-battle my way through some levels to ensure I have enough gold when I get home. It’s a remarkably adaptable game, and since there’s just so much to do you never feel like you are missing out by playing it in a particular style. In fact, the very need to ally yourself with one of the three houses ensures that you’ll miss out on at least two thirds of the game’s content on your first playthrough anyway, so play it however you want and then come back for seconds, thirds, and even fourths if you stumbled upon a secret route.
Class Picture Day
So we know that Fire Emblem: Three Houses plays well. How does it look and sound?
Well the graphics are a mixed bag. While I like the character designs of each individual character and their portrait art is great, animations tend to be a little stiff and have nowhere near the pizazz of previous Fire Emblem game. No one is doing flips when they critically strike an opponent, they are just running in and swinging their sword in a slightly different fashion. Out of battle animations feel the same way. They have that slightly generic hand bobbing up and down look of early PS2 era RPGs. It’s also really easy to notice graphics errors, like the main character, Byleth’s, improperly looping run cycle, or the fact that certain characters will clip into the environment at times.
That being said, for every flaw you notice in the presentation there’s something new and cool that offsets it. The menus are stylish, not quite as stylish at Persona 5 but stylish nonetheless. You can zoom in to get a unit level view of each battlefield. There are tea party minigames where you can… ahem… look at characters you have affection for. Even the animated cutscenes are fantastic, and they have been animated and reanimated for both male and female protagonist characters AND for each different house and route you can take. It’s an amazing attention to detail.
Music and voice acting have similar attention to detail and even higher quality. The soundtrack fuses modern beats with huge orchestral productions. I can listen to the trap beats overlaid over violins of the monestary music for ages.
The voice acting is incredible. Not only do each of the actors do a fantastic job, but it’s astoundingly thorough. Everything is voice acted. EVERYTHING! That random NPC you talked to? Voice acted. Random support conversations? Voice acted. The shopkeepers? Voice acted. The random dogs and cats in the streets? Voice acted. It’s actually astounding how they managed to do such a thorough job on a game with so many routes and possibilities.
A School Year You’ll Always Remember
Finally, there is something about Three Houses’ story that surpasses many other Fire Emblem games. Fire Emblem: Fates was straight up anime bullshit, while Echoes tried to tread a more serious path but couldn’t quite get the tone right. Three Houses feels like it takes cues from some of the best Fire Emblems of the past, including fan-favorite and cult-classic Genealogy of the Holy Wars. The deep mysteries woven around the church and the houses are a joy to unravel. Beyond that, the character writing is simply splendid. I love watching every single support conversation because it just makes you get drawn closer in to these characters and their lives.
And it makes it hurt all the more when they have to die…
I can say with confidence that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is one of the best games I have played all year, and an easy contender for RPG/Strategy Game of the year so far. Aside from a few graphical glitches, there’s really little to hate about this production. Your first 40 hours will melt away, and you’ll keep playing for long after that. This is one of those games that will make you want to see every story route, every support conversation, uncover every secret, and maximize every stat. It’s quite honestly, one of the best Fire Emblems to date, and one of the best Strategy RPGs ever, period.
P.S. Golden Deer forever.