Riding a wave of critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is shattering franchise sales records all over the world. Becoming the best-selling game in the series is an inevitability at this point. But does that make it the best?
It might be when it’s all said and done. However, I’m reluctant to give it the crown just yet. As much as I love it, here are some factors that could prevent it from being the undisputed best in the series.
The graphics are…inconsistent at best
From the polygonal messes on Wii and GameCube, to the incomprehensible absence of feet on the characters in Awakening, Fire Emblem has struggled with its visuals in the third dimension. One could reasonably argue that the best-looking games were from the GBA era, where pixel art and buttery-smooth animations still look great today. Heck, I’d argue that nothing in the franchise looks better than Lyn phasing out of existence before cutting down her foe from every angle. That was from 2003!
Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes some meaningful steps forward in its presentation. A much heavier emphasis on anime-style cutscenes, a cel-shaded art style, and voice acting throughout make it leagues above what Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn attempted in their time. But if you don’t have to look hard for muddy textures and simplistic geometry to damper what could be a gorgeous game with more polish.
Some aspects of the relationship management experience are frustrating
From teaching individuals specific skills in the classroom to engaging in a thought provoking conversation over a cup of tea, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is designed with engaging character interactions in mind. Taken as a whole, it does a tremendous job of making me connect with these characters on a much deeper level.
However, managing all of it can truly become a chore. Every time you load into the school, there are dozens of people to talk to. Most of the time, it’s nothing but small talk, but there are going to be instances where characters will ask questions that double as an opportunity to improve your relationship with them. Whether you want to boost their motivation or your likelihood of recruiting them, the likelihood of gritting your teeth as you grind through those conversations is almost an inevitability.
This is before we even factor in support conversations. Completing these dramatically helps your allies on the battlefield and provide some of the most unique story payoffs in the game. However, they usually crop up in bunches and grind the game to a halt as you spend the next 20 minutes watching cutscenes.
Even worse is the game’s lost and found system. Garreg Mach apparently has the most disorganized collection of people ever, as they’ve scattered hundreds of their personal belongings on the property. You’re given hints as to who you should return each item to, but the reality is that you’re going to mindlessly mash through every item on your list until someone calls dibs. Again, you want to do this because it improves motivation in your students while increasing your odds of recruiting students from other houses.
Between these tasks, it really bloats the experience in a way that some aren’t going to like. I’ve had entire train rides to work where all I did was talk to people and have them run through my inventory of lost items. This element of the game gets toned down over time, but it can be frustrating when all you want to do is fight.
The combat is a step backwards in some regards
As has been the trend since Fire Emblem: Awakening, mission types and in-level nuances continue to be toned down from the older entries of the series. Most missions just require you to route the enemy with little variance in how you do it. Elements such as fog of war and escort missions are a rarity these days. Visiting houses to save civilians or get key items is a mechanic phased out long ago. It can feel a bit one-note relative to those older games.
More frustrating to me is the absence of the attack triangle. In older games, an underlying system determined advantages based on weapon types. For example, swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. This made positioning extremely important, as even a great swordsman could be bested by a mediocre knight with a lance. Understanding that and maneuvering accordingly was a huge part of the thrill.
That system is removed entirely. I understand why it’s gone, as this game’s setup revolves around custom teams that are imbalanced from the start with regards to unit types. You also gain the ability to use any hero in any class. Nevertheless, there isn’t as much importance on positioning as long as you can dish out the damage required from turn-to-turn.
Same-sex relationship options are incredibly limited
Fire Emblem: Awakening introduced the concept of romance in a way that was…out there. As wild as the consequences of two people loving each other had on that game, it was incredibly rigid on who you could love. The game did not give you the ability to S-rank a relationship with someone of the same sex as your protagonist.
You get the option to do so in Three Houses, but with some heavy caveats. The number of same sex partners available to Byleth are extremely limited, especially as a male. Worst of all, some of male Byleth’s S-rank relationships don’t actually lead to the expected happily ever after, as they end up just being friends instead. It is to my understanding that this outcome doesn’t happen in other male/female or female/female S-rank relationships in the game, which feels gross.
There might be some real production issues that come with making every character combination work. There might be some cultural differences that have led to this outcome. However, I really hope we can see a more thoughtful step forward when it comes to same-sex inclusivity in future entries of the series if romance continues to play a part.
[Spoiler-ish. Proceed with caution!]
The back half of the game is…surprisingly, not that surprising
At a certain point in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a major plot twist occurs. After that, the real surprise is that you’re now playing a really traditional Fire Emblem game. The trappings of a school setting are gone, and now it boils down to a straightforward conflict between three territories. The only real nuance here is which side of the war you fall on, and which former students of Garreg Mach are now just enemies standing in your way.
Don’t get me wrong. Having to end the lives of former students makes those moments particularly harrowing. But the actual framework of the story that pits former friends against one another isn’t all that spectacular. At the very least, it’s not as compelling of a hook to me as the tale in Path of Radiance, which had a tale that was underpinned by a broader message of inclusivity. Three Houses starts out as Harry Potter, but ends as the final season of Game of Thrones.
Please don’t misconstrue this post as me hating Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Again, I think it’s fantastic overall while doing certain things better than any other game in the series. But is it a consensus #1 pick? I think there are enough holes in this game to prevent that. Where does Fire Emblem: Three Houses land in your personal rankings?
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