Speculating About Fire Emblem: Three Houses
While the latest Nintendo Direct was filled with announcements of interest to RPGamers, a certain five-minute video particularly caught the eye of a couple of staff members. Cassandra and Joshua have spent the past few days dissecting and speculating on the meaning of this brief glimpse into the next Fire Emblem.
Joshua Carpenter: So, after exhaustively examining the state of the franchise last year and prognosticating on Fire Emblem’s debut on Nintendo Switch, Nintendo has finally dropped some substantive tidbits on Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It’s only a five-minute video to draw some conclusions and base some rampant speculation upon, but when has that ever stopped anyone on the internet? We might as well jump in, right?
Cassandra Ramos: Well, of course! There are all sorts of tantalizing scenes and pieces of information to ruminate over. There’s a lot we don’t know yet, and no doubt we’ll be wrong more times than not, but it’s always fun to speculate. That, as well as hope-slash-worry about what Three Houses has in store.
Joshua: I think it speaks to how much I love the Tellius entries in the Fire Emblem series that the thing that jumped out the most to me in the five-minutes of footage was that the newest avatar is the child of a mercenary leader. It’s bringing up all sorts of strong, nostalgic feelings for Ike and the gang. Combine that with the setup of a continent split between rival powers, Three Houses at least has the potential for incorporating some morally grey political undertones to its overarching plot. I’ve obviously fallen completely into the hype phase for this game.
Cassandra: Tellius was the very first thing that came to my mind as well, even as far back as the reveal trailer during the E3 2018 Nintendo Direct. After all, the battle maps show polygonal characters and backgrounds. The units outlined in colored circles particularly reminded me of Path of Radiance. That initial trailer filled me with such hope that perhaps the Switch game will have the best of all Fire Emblem worlds, or at least the best of the last console games and the 3DS games.
This most recent trailer reminded me to keep my expectations tempered, as Three Houses seems to be going down some paths the series hasn’t taken before. There’s also one feature I was really hoping wouldn’t return, but is. I’m still excited, but cautiously so.
Joshua: I am pretty excited for Fire Emblem to be back on a television-compatible console, perhaps even reaching levels of irrational exuberance. It’s superficial, but I’m excited about having 3D character models on maps and the graphics look impressive. The battle scenes seem to mirror the experience from Fire Emblem Warriors, which is probably why Koei Tecmo is credited as a co-developer. Using the Warriors engine, I’m expecting some flashy battles to punctuate the encounters. Honestly, it makes perfect sense not to reinvent the wheel and repurpose K-T’s work into the next mainline Fire Emblem game.
That’s not to say that I don’t have some trepidation about some aspects of Three Houses. While I’m hopeful that there will be a more political and morally grey storyline about the inevitable conflict between the three countries, the “which house will you choose” line has me a bit nervous. That makes it sound like there are branching storylines and Intelligent Systems did such a poor job with those in Fates that I can’t help but be concerned. Granted, there’s no indication of repeating Fates’ worst sins — like locking the antagonist’s motivations behind DLC — but I’m still a bit anxious about that parallel.
Cassandra: I want to say that there’s no need to worry about the story after Shadows of Valentia. Sure, Intelligent Systems had Gaiden to base the story off of, but it was bare bones, as stories from the NES/Famicom era tend to be. Fire Emblem plots can be wildly inconsistent, though. One thing I do want to note is how much this trailer has already revealed about the game’s setting. Fódlan actually has a name. I find it nuts that the continent that Fates takes place on is still unnamed! The setting of those games was severely undeveloped, despite there being three of them and a bunch of DLC.
I am cautiously hopeful that Intelligent Systems will handle a possible branching storyline better this time, but we’ll just have to wait and see. I am also hoping the characters will be well-written, as that can also be inconsistent. One thing I am disappointed to see is the confirmation that Byleth from the initial trailer is indeed a My Unit/Avatar. I’m tired of JRPG main protagonists that have these general, uninspired personalities with little to no character development. I do understand why they’re like this; so that players can project themselves upon these characters. Fire Emblem’s Avatars are sort of a step above a silent protagonist. I usually dislike playing as myself or projecting myself into a game and would rather watch a predefined character’s story. I may be in a minority, though.
Granted, most of the main characters in Fire Emblem are on the boring side. Ike is a major exception, as I like his blunt, down to earth nature, his snark, and how he grows into being a leader. I also like Chrom to a lesser extent, but his sarcasm and dorky adorableness mostly come out in supports, DLC, and non-main story chapters. Robin and Corrin aren’t nearly as interesting as these two, I find. I mean, maybe Byleth will have more of a personality than either of these two, but I’m not holding my breath. The presence of an Avatar also has me worried that supports will go back up to S rank again…
Joshua: I’m not a big fan of the bland, self-insert leads in RPGs either. They can be tolerable if surrounded by an interesting secondary cast, but it can leave a huge void in the middle of the narrative if the character with the greatest amount of screentime is completely forgettable. It’s a shame because Ike is one of my favorite characters and I quite enjoyed Alm and Celica in Shadows of Valentia so I think a strong lead can work well without getting in the way of all the other characters. However, I think I’m more worried about the Persona-fication of Fire Emblem.
I groaned a bit when they revealed that Three Houses is set in a school and it seems like a lot of the characters will be students. Ever since Persona hit it big at the end of the PlayStation 2 lifecycle, numerous JRPGs have followed the equation of school + social links = profit. I’m probably overreacting; Fire Emblem is a proven franchise and I don’t don’t have any proof that this is a case of chasing a fad. The Intelligent System writers have generally done a good job balancing a serious main plot with more lighthearted support conversations. I’m still haunted by the memory of when one of my other favorite franchises decided to set a sequel in a military school. Valkyria Chronicles 2 really ended up suffering from radical tonal shifts thanks to the setting. It was set amidst a civil war so there would be dark events in the main story — entire villages being wiped out — and that would be immediately followed by dumb high school hijinks. I’m sure it won’t be that bad in Three Houses, but I can’t help but be nervous after witnessing it going so wrong in another franchise I adore.
Cassandra: Well, this is a military academy not a high school, but it sounds like Valkyria Chronicles 2 also went in that direction, so perhaps that isn’t a comfort. I find the decision to have the most of the characters be attending an academy to be an interesting one, especially since Byleth isn’t a student, but a teacher. Granted, they seem to be roughly the same age as the leaders of the titular houses, so it’s not like we’re playing as someone who is significantly older than past protagonists (probably for the best should marriage return). I have little idea as to how well or poorly this could go, as I have yet to play any games like Persona, so I’ll just hope for the best.
If we’ll be picking which of the three houses to teach (I’m totally picking Team Valor! I mean, the Black Eagles), I’m guessing the story will at least partially involve fighting against the other two. The narrator in this latest trailer implies that the three nations had been at war in the past, so I imagine there’s an evil person or persons wanting them to go to war again. They probably have some allegiance to an evil dragon, god, demon, or what have you, as well. I imagine there will be more to the plot than that, so the potential for political conflicts is intriguing.
This being Fire Emblem, dragons have to be involved. Every game in the series has dragons play a role, even if they are less important in some titles than in others. I would bet anything that Sothis, the mysterious girl the Avatar sees in their mind, is a manakete. At bare minimum, she can shapeshift into a dragon, even if she’s not explicitly called a manakete. I’ll even hypothesize further that she’s a divine dragon manakete, what with her green hair. Another prediction I’ll make is that this goddess the Church of Seiros worships is also a dragon.
Although the trailer doesn’t state it outright, I’m sure the “power hidden within” Byleth is the ability to turn back time. Near the end of the trailer, you see that male Byleth was hit with an axe, but then time rewinds itself and he instead knocks away the brigand. So yes, a Mila’s Turnwheel ability will come back, except it’s a person rather than an item. I’m quite glad, too, as I really liked the use of Mila’s Turnwheel in Fire Emblem Echoes.
Joshua: So long as children aren’t shoehorned into the plot in a clumsy manner like they were in Fates, I can deal with marriage returning. Also, they seem to be making it pretty clear that the Mila’s Turnwheel ability is making a return and I’m exceedingly pleased with that development. The older I get, the happier I am when games make playing them easier and that mechanic saved me from replaying a number of missions to save fallen comrades.
The combat also has me pretty excited. Fire Emblem has been restricted to portable hardware for a while now so it will be interesting to see how Intelligent Systems takes advantage of the greater power the Switch affords. After years of looking at 2D sprites on maps, the 3D models have a lot of definition. Nintendo was careful not to show too much of the battle system so it’s hard to speculate on whether the Pair Up mechanic returns and what that would mean for gameplay balance, nor do we get much of a hint at what sort of map design might be in store for players.
I’m also really excited to see new mechanics in Three Houses. I’m imagining that a lot of them are visually spiced up versions of what existed in the 3DS entries — that fighting coliseum sure looks like a Warriors version of what was in Fates — but there are other things that could be new and interesting. The trailer shows off a bit of Gambit Boost, which seems to involve the characters leading groups of troops to attack enemies — those masses of troops in the original trailer lead me to wonder if Fire Emblem was going down the Langrisser path of having units lead troops or having troops act as a proxy for health like Advance Wars — with the system being activated by somehow triggering with other units. I would guess that is a special move outgrowth of the support system, perhaps like the older entries where characters would get a bonus when they were in proximity to one another. I’m also intrigued by the tutoring mechanic. I hope it ends up being something similar to the old Bonus Experience from the Tellius games, letting players level up characters independently from the actions they perform in battle. It certainly seems like players can grant experience bonuses to characters they “train.”
Cassandra: I’m going to hazard a guess that Gambit Boosts will replace Pair Up, but admittedly this is me wanting something that could potentially be more interesting than the older mechanic. Having both Pair Up and the ability to command a battalion seems a bit much. The presence of these troops could tie into the named characters attending an officer’s academy. They aren’t just soldiers, but army officers leading troops. It also helps to make this a Fire Emblem with more believable battles. While it’s usually implied in previous games that the player is fighting with a large army, it doesn’t feel that way when you field twenty units at most.
It seems several of the characters, or at least the students, can choose to become one of a number of classes, maybe even all of them. A few characters shown in the trailer have the “Noble” class, which may be something like the trainee classes from Sacred Stones. They can also train in or be tutored towards specific skills. This could make the characters highly customizable, which would be very interesting. There’s a lot of ways this could go, so we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.
In the trailer, there’s a character with light blue hair named Caspar fighting with Iron Gauntlets. It seems to be a fist weapon, a first for the series. For the longest time, I wondered if Fire Emblem would get some kind of martial arts class, equipped with claws, gauntlets, or the like. This also makes me wonder what will become of the weapons triangle. There has been no official confirmation that the triangle won’t be in the game, but the trailers have yet to show characters attacking each other with advantageous weapons. Maybe we’ll get some kind of complex triangle like in Fates, or maybe Three Houses will take a page from Shadows of Valentia and not have a triangle.
Joshua: The thought of no weapons triangle hadn’t occurred to me. I assumed the absence in Shadows of Valentia was due to being faithful to the original, but now that you mention it, it’s odd that it hasn’t made some sort of appearance by now. Like you, I’m also excited about the possibilities of highly customizable characters. So long as it is balanced well, that should prove to be a lot of fun.
I still have some reservations about Three Houses. I’ll have to hope that Intelligent Systems’ take on the school setting is mostly successful like Trails of Cold Steel and not tonally off like Valkyria Chronicles 2. Nonetheless, Three Houses looks gorgeous and I’m just so excited for the series to be back on home consoles. I can’t wait for July to roll around so I can get my hands on it!
Cassandra: I’m sure as long as we’re not able to restart characters from level 1 ad infinitum like in Awakening, they won’t be completely broken.
Anyway, I’m also cautiously optimistic for Three Houses, and very eager to learn more. I hope that Intelligent Systems will take feedback from the prior games on 3DS and make this a truly great title. I’ll likely even get over my slight annoyance at the return of a My Unit/Avatar.
It already seems that one of my hopes for this game have come true: a lot of voice acted scenes. The voice examples shown are very quiet, likely to leave actor reveals a surprise. It has me eager to know who may be familiar in the cast, and perhaps who may be new to the scene. I can hardly wait for July!
On a final note, I really want to hear full version of that song that plays in the reveal trailer. Sure, Path of Radiance was the first game to have a vocal song, but it’s really the last two where they feature prominently. They are great songs in their own right.
“Reach for my hand/I’ll soar away/Into the dawn/No, I wish I could stay.”
We hope you enjoyed our speculation about what Three Houses has in store for Fire Emblem fans. Please leave your thoughts in the comments about what Intelligent Systems has in store for fans.
Joshua said, “the graphics look impressive.” You and I have different standards for impressive. The cut scenes have beautiful animation, but the in-game engine, particularly in combat, looks like GameCube graphics to me. The character models have jagged edges, for one thing. Stop the Nintendo Direct video of FE: TH at 3:37 and look at the character’s leg. See the female character’s arm at 3:51. Additionally, the background are generic and bland, lacking texture and fidelity. Of course, they have some time to work on this, but I am not so naive as to think they will make substantial graphical changes with only 4-5 months before release–especially considering the gold “print” is likely to be in May.
Having lodged all of those complaints, I cannot imagine a universe where I don’t buy this game on Day 1. I feel I must support tactical RPGs and the Fire Emblem franchise on a tv-compatible console.
Ack! You caught me being sloppy with my wording. Obviously, I don’t think it compares to something like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I was thinking about in comparison to recent Fire Emblem entries and Strategy RPGs more broadly.
Also, the game isn’t set in stone. While there are only a few months left to release, I’m sure this trailer wasn’t slapped together last week. The footage may be coming from a build that is months old. There’s still time to see improvement.
Thanks for replying, Josh. Your additional context is helpful to understand your assertions regarding the graphical enhancements. I am well below your level when it comes to being a Fire Emblem series fan. I have only played the Gamecube version (bought a system after its death pretty much to play it). So I don’t know characters and the history of the lore. I dig great tactical combat that doesn’t try to do too much. I will be looking forward to the game, and I certainly hope they put a coat of polish on it.
Came back here to reply that this game is amazing. I have reached the end of one of the four paths and can only think about playing the next play through. I stand by my comments about the graphics. They could be better. I also know that I don’t care on the whole.
Seconding what Josh said, it’s worth noting that they have an additional few months more than your estimate. When you cut video for something like a Direct, you’re doing it months beforehand; I’d guesstimate that the footage we saw was from December, possibly even earlier. That being said, I couldn’t personally guarantee your specific concerns will be solved prior to launch; polish is one of the last things to go into games and it takes significant effort. But here’s hoping.
Paws, I am willing to concede that the answer may lie somewhere between your estimate (December) and mine (the week before). I once was on a hiring committee that selected a former Nintendo employee who used to do all of the roadshows in the 16- and 64-bit era. I heard some great tales of slapdashery from him.
Incidentally, the interview question that sold me on him as a candidate was when I asked him to forecast the success of the Wii. He said, “It’s essentially two Gamecubes taped together, and the motion controls are somewhat of a gimmick to an older gamer like me, but I think people will eat it up because of its unique space in the market.”
First, I would like to thank Josh and Casandra for posting this. Your discussion captured many of the thoughts, both positive and negative, I had while watching last week’s Direct.
When the first trailer aired at E3 2018, I was sold. Combat looked great, character designs were impressive and early signs that exploration would be returning were most welcome. In several posts on RPGamer, I commented that a resemblance to the Tellius games was evident and something fans of the series should anxiously anticipate.
Skipping ahead to last week, I would be lying if I said that I came away from the Direct video with the same level of excitement. The game’s academic setting gave me pause. Not sure I ever wanted Fire Emblem games to develop a Persona x Trails of Cold Steel setting/feel. Additionally, I was really hoping that Three Houses would mark the return of a strong protagonist like Sigurd, Ike, Marth, or Lief as opposed to the tabula rasa avatar that we are once again left with.
It appears that character reclassing will continue in Three Houses. Again, my preference has always been for earlier games in the series where character classes were defined and immutable. I am familiar with the argument that character reclassing enhances the strategic element of gameplay, but I never put much stock in it.
While minor changes are sure to come prior to release, I think this trailer largely represents what the end product will look like. The English voice acting in the latest trailer struck me as late build and suggested that the game is closing in on completion. Time will tell ad I am trying to keep an open mind. Cassandra’s cautions optimism seems to be the right position to stake out at this point. Hopefully we will learn more in the near future.