Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review
This House Shall Not Fall
It’s been twelve years since the Fire Emblem series was last on consoles, but it was worth the wait. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a magnificent entry into the longstanding series, with a new emphasis on the social aspects of the game’s Support system. Tweaks and improvements to the longstanding tactical-focused battle system bring a breath of fresh air to the game, and providing players multiple choices and different story paths allows for a high degree of replayability. Three Houses is an exemplary game and the highest achievement yet of the series.
Set in a time of relative peace in the land of Fódlan, the story revolves around three nations — an empire, a kingdom, and a noble alliance — as well as their interactions with each other and the church that effectively acts as an overseer for them all. The story is dived into two parts. The first covers approximately one year of events based around each house’s schooling at the Officer’s Academy, where the main character Byleth is a teacher. After this, events happen that lead to a time-skip as the selected route plays out to its conclusion. Not long after the game kicks off, players will be asked to choose one of the titular three houses: Golden Deer, Blue Lions, or Black Eagles. This selection doesn’t change much at the start, but it is very important for determining the direction of the second half of the game. The game’s story varies quite heavily based on this house choice, and to see the full picture of the continent of Fódlan, multiple playthroughs are required. Within each playthrough is a strong cast of characters, backed up by a quality localization and fantastic voice work. Characters really feel alive and their interactions come across as genuine. It’s easy to find a character to relate to, or one that feels like a best friend, or even dedicated rival. There’s plenty of lore to dive into, not only in static books inside the game, but gleaned from conversations both casual and purposeful. Even simply reading the calendar can give players insights into secrets both amusing and shocking. It all comes together to form a very strong narrative that does a great job complementing the rest of the game.
Each week is divided into weekdays, which are devoted fully to teaching, and weekend free time that Byleth can use as he or she sees fit. On weekends, Byleth has several options, the most prominent choice being Explore, which allows them to walk around the monastery that acts as a hub. While strolling, players can chat with students and fellow faculty to raise their support rank, indulge in hobbies like fishing and gardening, and spend a limited number of actions on improving themselves or their students and the bonds they share. These include cooking and eating food, having tea, being instructed in specific weaponry, and more. This allows the player to learn more about their students, in the form of both deep support conversations as well as returning lost items to them and giving them small gifts. Byleth can also attend seminars, which will preclude them from exploring the monastery but give all attendees, the player included, a hefty boost in key categories along with additional motivation. Pooped out from everything else going on? Choosing Rest allows everyone in the chosen house to regain a chunk of their motivation and recharges a certain weapon Byleth wields as part of the game’s story.
During the week, Byleth must earn their keep, teaching their class in a variety of subjects based around weapons, magic, and other abilities. Students must be motivated to be engaged in teaching, and motivation can be raised in a variety of ways. Each month also has a minimum of one mandatory battle; optional battles, including story-driven paralogues, take up the fourth and final option of weekend activities. All of the interactions possible give a depth to the game not seen in former Fire Emblem titles; giving players the time to invest in getting to know them and train them personally makes it matter all the more whether a character lives or dies. There’s not really any single activity that isn’t fun, though fishing can get a tad repetitive when grinding for professor level experience.
The large majority of the story and non-combat gameplay is very well crafted, with the exception of the late-game. Students can be poached from other houses if Byleth meets their requirements; typically this includes certain levels of skills and stats, but increasing Byleth’s support rank with them will significantly lower the requirements. Alternatively, with a high enough support rank, students may simply ask to join. Outside of combat is where the game truly shines, which feels like an odd thing to say about a Fire Emblem game given the series’ sharp past focus on its traditional tactical combat.
However, if the player fails to acquire many of the students from the other houses, by the end of the game there will be very little left to accomplish with their free time. A second minor point of frustration is that, depending on the route chosen, players will find their storyline has gaps and unanswered questions; while these may be filled in by taking a different route choice, the fact that each story is not fully self-contained is a little disappointing. These issues don’t detract from how engaging the gameplay loop is: spending each week slowly watching students grow and blossom as the story moves forward both on a large and small scale is incredibly satisfying. Seeing students celebrate when they pass a test brings forth a sense of satisfaction and pride.
Combat has a highly appreciable mixture of traditional Fire Emblem gameplay as well as numerous twists that make the system feel fresh and interesting without diminishing the established traditions. When the game begins, players may choose either Normal or Hard in terms of challenge, while selecting Classic or Casual determines if units are forever lost if defeated or simply run off the battlefield, ready to fight another day. Returning from the recent Fire Emblem Echoes, time can also be rewound if a critical mistake is made. This means no matter what skill level the player brings to the game, there’s still a way for each person to play.
Gone is the weapon triangle of numerous past titles; it is replaced by skills in a number of categories. Which weapons each character trains in will dictate what classes they can test for and use. Each house has its own default strength. A number of archers are enrolled in the Golden Deer, with melee users heavily featuring in the Black Eagles, and plenty of mages are included in the Blue Lions. However, characters can, with enough training, transform into any class. At level 5, characters can test for a Beginner job; level 10 nets them Intermediate jobs; level 20 potentially unlocks Advanced jobs; at level 30, characters may begin to test for Master jobs. Undertaking a test, whether it is passed or not, uses up one of the relevant Seals, which are often rewards from combat or quests and can also be purchased from shops.
The job system, particularly the Master tier, can be a little unbalanced. The deeper into each job tier a player goes, the more likely they will need multiple skills at high level. On the surface, this seems like a natural progression, but characters that have gone through classes that do not require riding (notably axe wielders, bow users, and magic users) may suddenly find themselves eligible for master-level jobs but with no proficiency in mounts or flying, forcing them to stay at a lower tier of jobs or cram a large amount of studying on a single subject each week. To make matters worse, are gender-locked, further reducing some of the options. Proper planning can avoid this, but this thoughtless choice in the game design stands out particularly boldly considering how well put together the rest of the game is.
Each weapon-based skill levels up through study at the monastery or by experience on the battlefield. Many classes can use multiple types of weapons; a Solider can wield swords, lances, and axes but will only gain experience in the specific weapon they use during combat. Continuing to level the same weapon will unlock a new skill to use; these skills use up additional points of durability from the weapon but can change the damage amount, critical chance, and/or range of the attack, quickly turning the tide of battle. Characters can only equip a small number of proficiency and weapon skills, so players will need to choose how to specialize each character in their house. As parties are limited in size (sometimes as few as eight characters) this means which characters are taken to battle matter, a nice change of pace from Fire Emblem Fates, where sixteen party members regularly took the field.
Once on the battlefield, tactics become key in a fast-paced combat system where as much polish has been applied as the non-combat sections. It’s incredibly easy to say “just one more turn” as an hour quickly passes by facing down foes. The game continues the series’ traditional grid-based layout, with units having a maximum movement range as well as an attack range based on their equipped weapon. Each side takes their turns in order, with each unit able to both move and fight in a single turn. Damage is affected by a number of factors, but the game is great at providing the necessary information so players can easily make informed decisions. There is some element of luck, and there’s a great feeling when a more risky move pays off, but there’s always a feeling that Three Houses is rewarding strategic thinking and smart decisions, and it makes for a thoroughly satisfying combat experience.
One welcome addition is the game’s indication of which characters enemies are set to attack in their turn. This lets players more easily avoid leaving vulnerable characters in unwise places, as well as providing ready opportunities to bait enemies into positions where they can be easily taken care of in the next turn. Another addition comes in the form of Battalions, effectively regular soldiers that can be assigned to each character and level up on their own. These provide attribute bonuses and open up additional tactical options, such as disabling enemy movement for a turn or reducing the accuracy of their attacks. The higher the leadership value a character has, the better battalion they can lead, which can provide critical stat boosts as the game progresses through more and more challenging maps. This all works together to create an engaging, albeit challenging combat system; careful thinking is rewarded as well as perseverance and there’s nothing more satisfying than triumphing in a difficult battle. With the ability to reverse time, the battle system also provides great flexibility for those who may not be as proficient with tactical titles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a delight to play, with all of its elements managing to strike that fine balance of ensuring that it’s friendly ensuring to those just getting into the genre but has more than enough for experts to sink deeply into.
The visuals of Fire Emblem: Three Houses are superb. There are so many little details around every corner, from the sprawling map of the monastery with different areas to explore, to battle maps with different terrain, even down to menus that are both appealing and informative. The students all have their own designs which match with their personalities, and each matures and changes after the time skip. Combat feels lifelike and active due to the addition of battalions, which fight alongside a character and make it look and feel like a truly filled out conflict, and the critical animations are varied and interesting. Whether in handheld mode or on the big screen, Three Houses looks great. It’s easy to fall into the game world and become entranced seeking out the many visual details that give clues to the secrets behind the game’s many mysteries.
The music is also magnificent. Not only is the music fitting during play, but it’s easy to remember fondly recall tunes even when the game is put away. Combat music gets the heart pumping, while sedate tracks during teatime or classroom learning are suitably mellow. Most importantly, the music provides enough variety that players shouldn’t get bored in the approximately 50 hours it will take to tear through a single playthrough. Each of the students and teachers are also fully voiced, while even guards and temporary units have small voice snippets, and the performances are all delightful. It’s hard not to love Raphael and his boisterous personality or feel a small amount of pity for Manuela’s unending search for the perfect man.
While Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn’t a perfect game, it comes incredibly close to it. It quickly became my favourite Fire Emblem entry and is quite possibly my favourite TRPG of all time. After finishing the game, all I wanted to do was dive back in and take a different route. Coming from someone who doesn’t replay games, that by itself is a truly telling statement of how excellent the game is. With lovable characters, a deep combat system with great improvements, an interesting story and a beautiful presentation, there’s very little not to adore about this Switch title.
Beautiful looking and sounding
Smart improvements and tweaks to battle system
Some story gaps, depending on the route chosen and students recruited
Imbalance in master class job tier