Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
It's been over a decade since Fire Emblem, Nintendo's long running strategy RPG franchise, had a home console release. Since Radiant Dawn on the Wii, fans have had to content themselves with a well received trilogy of games on the DS, all the while wondering whether Nintendo had relegated the series to the small screen forever. An announcement during a 2017 Nintendo Direct put fears to bed and after a few years of waiting, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has arrived.
To set the scene for those unfamiliar with Fire Emblem or strategy RPGs in general, the premise is simple. You are the commander of a small force of units on a grid based map, facing off against a similar band of enemy aggressors. You and the AI take turns moving your units and making them battle once they're in range. In Fire Emblem, your units are equipped with the likes of swords, axes, lances, bows and magic - each with skills and differing strengths and weaknesses to consider. Choose targets well, considering your capabilities, push forward and attack. Rout the enemy or finish your mission objectives and victory is yours.
Historically, the strategy RPG genre as a whole and Fire Emblem in particular has been notorious for punishing difficulty, reliance on prescient map knowledge to avoid traps and ambushes or simply luck and I'm happy to be able to say that Fire Emblem: Three Houses changes the franchise for the better by offering up a selection of difficulty options to mitigate those more frustrating elements of the series. For example, previous games in the series punished a unit's death by permanently removing the team mate from your roster. Where this was once a crippling blow to your overall campaign, now you can play in Casual mode and have downed comrades return for the next fight while purists suffer at the hand of the random number generator.
Another change to combat is the removal of a series staple - the weapon triangle. Where previously a rock, paper. scissors balance existed between axes, swords and lances, now the effectiveness of each is similar until the later stages of the game. Advancing a unit's skill in a given weapon discipline will unlock passive, equipable bonuses such as Swordbreaker, a skill that gives an accuracy and evasion bonus to lance users when fighting sword wielders. In essence, this unlocks the more familiar interplay between weapons that series veterans are likely to expect. In practice, it makes the earlier stages of the game more forgiving and allows a player to become accustomed to the general usability of unit types without being punished terribly for a less than optimal choice, at least on standard difficulty.
One last major addition to battles are battalions you can assign to each unit that enhance their stats and allow the use of Gambit attacks. Your characters each have an Authority statistic that allows them to equip different rank of battalion, each of which having a different function and their own experience gauge to fill. For example, a group of E rank Merchant Military units can be used to launch a poison based gambit over a large area while giving minor stat boosts, where a cohort of B rank Gloucester Knights give a far greater stat buff and can stampede a line of enemies ahead of them, damaging and debuffing them so they can't move on their next turn. It's a welcome nuance to the tactical choices on offer, one that can be used to great effect in crippling fast moving units and allowing softer allies like mages and archers to move forward without fear of being intercepted.
Another major change to Fire Emblem tradition is the inclusion of a hub area to explore. Introduced as the child of a stoic mercenary, your avatar in the world of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is quickly swept in some mysterious, otherworldly events and ends up being brought to a local monastery alongside three travelling nobles. Over the course of a few introductory missions, you'll be given the basics of combat and get thrust into the unexpected role of teacher before being let loose in the grounds of the monastery itself to chat with your prospective students and spend some time training, gardening, fishing, cooking or sharing a feast to foster some stronger links between yourself and your protégées.
Once you've become familiar with the expansive grounds of the monastery and spent your limited time within the walls as you see fit, you're welcome to move on to the next week of in game time. In another shift to the franchise's standards, the story progresses over the course of weeks, each starting with the chance to teach your students in class and ending with the choice to either explore the monastery, receive a seminar from one of the other teachers, battle or rest. A schedule of events lets you know if there's a unique battle available, or the likes of a fishing event at the hub and you're completely free to do as you will. That said, aiming to attend each unique event pays off and they're hard to miss, as the game's online connectivity dishes out percentages for each activity, revealing what the majority of players choose to do on a given day and helping to push the unsure toward stronger choices. Each month ends with a major story event and an unavoidable battle to win.
The benefits of getting to know your students and fellow teachers are huge, as the relationships you focus on build your Support level, allowing units placed closely on the battlefield to gain buffs from their strongest allies. More than that, the students outside your ranks can be tempted to your side with a combination of social effort and boosting your stats so that you appeal to them as a teacher. Time spent in the monastery most often builds these relationships, be it through finding lost items and returning them to their owners for a morale and relationship boost or gifting expensive items and flowers you've grown. Long times fans might find themselves put off at the prospect of these potentially lengthy exploration sections, wanting to get back to the action faster, and they're well served by the ability to skip conversations and entire sequences if the pull of tactical combat is so much greater than that of the story and characters. It might just take those players a little longer to build up those Support levels and they'll never get to know just how nuanced the characters are.
When it comes to story telling and pulling a player in with intrigue and mystery, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a high point for the series. Events escalate quickly from the start and your emotionally muted avatar, be they male or female, is squarely at the center of events. This world is full of ancient magic, mystery and sealed terrors on the cusp of release. A rival to the monastery is rising to challenge the status quo and it seems that there are forces from within your ranks that sympathize with them. The three nobles you traveled to the monastery with represent the titular three houses and it's not long before you're forced to choose who to teach. There are three, completely disparate stories to follow from here, each with smaller choices to make along the way. That initial decision dictates who you command and teach, but effort spent on raising Support levels and frequently assisting and conversing with those outside your sphere of influence will eventually bring them into it. Like so much of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it's your choices that will dictate the way forward, in every respect.
Both audio and graphics are wonderfully realized, with sharp, anime style visuals being punctuated by sweeping orchestral scores. Beautifully animated cut scenes are used to expand the most exciting moments in the story and fitting, well performed voice acting is laced throughout every scene. The presentation here is akin to a top tier anime show and fits the franchise perfectly. Character archetypes and tropes certainly abound on that basis, but there's more than enough to surprise and amuse on that basis, with some subtle subversion of expectation cropping up to remind you that appearance and first impressions aren't everything. And of course, if all you want is the honed tactical combat, the choice to skip all of these things is always there.
To say that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a huge game is an understatement - it is an epic. More than that, each of the three routes is lengthy too, with me having to pull myself away to write this review at the 45 hour mark of the Leicester Alliance storyline, simply because I could keep playing for another couple of months and not run out of content. As a strategy RPG fan who has played everything from Shining Force to Final Fantasy Tactics and right on through to Disgaea and the most recent entries into the genre such as Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark - Fire Emblem: Three Houses stands out of the crowd for being so utterly playable, welcoming and intriguing. In short, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the new pinnacle of the SRPG genre.