There’s two sides to every story. The Fire Emblem: Fates series of games attempted to tell both in its conflict between two armies. Getting the opportunity to bond with each and see the events from different perspectives was an interesting twist to the formula, but you had to buy the Birthright and Conquest campaigns separately. After you’ve finished both? Surprise! You actually have to buy and play the DLC to see what really happened! Both games and the DLC were great, but it certainly felt like a cash grab.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses could have scored a victory by simply taking that multi-sided campaign and stuffing it into one package. Instead, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems went above and beyond with this gargantuan game.
The setup for this one is quite different from previous entries in the series. Most of the time, you’re managing a small ragtag group of heroes that must build an army to overcome an apocalyptic threat. This time, you’ve been entrusted to teach one of three groups of students at the Officers Academy.
At first, it can feel a bit overwhelming. You get the opportunity to chat with each student and read their bios, but it’s a big commitment to make upfront. Once you’ve chosen a house, you will get the opportunity to know them very well.
This group of students will be your team for the duration of the campaign. A few will come and go, but the nucleus of your team doesn’t change nearly as much as it did in previous entries. You will start with these students from scratch and mold them into fighting machines and respectable adults through your tutelage.
A lot of that growth will come from experience on the battlefield. As students smash their way through simulated and real-life battles, they earn XP, which will help them grow into fierce warriors. But the education and growth doesn’t stop there.
Off the battlefield, you’ll be just as busy, if not more so. Unlike past games, where you would manage your inventory and support conversations through menus, the entire school has been fleshed out as a hub world to explore and interact with between missions. This gives you the opportunity to engage with your students on an even deeper level, from teaching them specific subjects that will help them reach the master hero classes, answering their anonymously-submitted questions from the Advice Box, recruiting students from other houses to join your own, or even sharing a cup of tea with a student that you’d like to get to know a bit more personally. Heck, even just seeing the students from different classes mingle with each other and joining in on their conversations goes a long way towards giving you the feeling that these are students with a history with each other that started long before you got there. To top it off, there are hundreds of fully voice acted support conversations spanning every possible combination of students and teachers. Working through those alone allows you to get to know these characters on a deeply-personal level.
That’s just scratching the surface of what can be done outside of missions. Heck, the scale has almost tilts in such a way that you spend more time managing your students away from battle. In certain ways, it is a detriment to the experience. The activity of returning lost items to students and teachers becomes monotonous very quickly. It’s unfortunate, because the intent of the mechanic is in the right place. By knowing your peers better, you’re able to quickly give them the right items. Instead, it ends up being a a chore, as it’s faster to systematically mash through every item in your possession until one sticks.
Also, the game skews heavily towards the in-school stuff over the fighting for the first few hours of the game. It isn’t until the game opens up the ability to fight in side missions where things start to balance out. Even so, it’s still the most “talky” of any Fire Emblem to-date.
What you may lose in total volume of action, you get in return a game where everything you do on-and-off the battlefield is more emotionally-charged than ever. By giving you so many different ways to interact with these characters, you become deeply invested in them as people and as fighters. I care just as much about Bernadetta coming out of her emotional shell just as much as I care about her improving as an archer. Even though this isn’t my favourite cast of heroes in the series, the game does so much to make me care about them that I can’t help but be deeply invested in everything that transpires.
Less has changed with the mechanics of battle, and that’s largely a good thing. Fire Emblem is still best known for providing players with a premiere strategy experience, and Three Houses delivers in spades on that front. You’re still working your way through maps that will not only challenge you to beat them, but to do so while suffering as few casualties as possible and while developing your squad in the most optimal manner.
If someone should die, you don’t have to reset your game like in the olden days if you wanted to keep everyone alive. Right off the top, you get access to Casual mode. If you so choose, fallen heroes will simply sit out the rest of a mission. They’ll be available the next time around. Should that be a bit too generous for you, I really like the rewind mechanic that this game possesses. You can rewind to any point in the mission, but you only get a limited number of uses. This was great for me when a few gambles here and there didn’t pay off, allowing me to quickly try something else without having to restart the game. Of course, if you’re a purist, you can just ignore this feature and let the gods decide who lives and who dies.
One notable change is that the game doesn’t feature the franchise’s signature weapon triangle. Normally, certain weapons would counter others, such as swords beating axes, axes beating lances, and lances beating swords. That system has been removed, as characters in this game now have the ability to use and learn pretty much any weapon.
Within the context of tutoring students who are still learning, it makes a lot of sense. You get a lot of freedom for who should learn what. Some of the weapon-specific strengths return as abilities, such as gaining the ability for your axe attacks to do extra damage against lance-wielders. Your strategy does change, but it feels more about how you want to nurture your talent rather than finding the right moves to beat a level.
As of writing, I’ve finished a Black Eagles campaign and am in the midst of playing the Golden Deer campaign on stream. The moment I finished the former, I immediately started this gargantuan adventure again as the Blue Lions. Even though this is a 40+ hour game, the different houses give you new characters and different perspectives on the story. I can’t wait to finish it all and piece together the entire narrative, even if it’s probably going to take north of 100 hours to do so.
Yes, Fire Emblem: Three Houses improves on its predecessor simply by including the main storyline in one package. However, stopping there is selling this incredibly short. This massive game is the most emotionally-resonant Fire Emblem yet thanks to a new infrastructure carefully designed to make you care deeply about everyone around you, even when the swords are sheathed. In the heat of battle, you’re still in for one of the best turn-based strategy experiences around; now with even more ways of fine-tuning your squad to your exact specifications. This stellar outing not only represents one of the best entries in the series, but one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch. Even if you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before, there’s no time like the present to dive in with this one.
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