Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review
I am still amazed when I consider the impact that the Fire Emblem series has made in Western civilisation. During the Game Boy Advance era, we were treated to a war series created by Intelligent Systems that had long been established in Japan called Advance Wars. Based on the success of that series as well as the popularity of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee, the decision was made to see how Fire Emblem would do in the West. Little did we know that we would be treated to amazing game after game for the following sixteen years. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest in the series, and is honestly my favourite one so far.
Personally, I could never get into the Advance Wars series of games, as I was usually terrible with strategy, and could never master the mechanics of the units. My first Fire Emblem, Radiant Dawn, immediately appealed to the schema in my brain. The idea of a weapon triangle that followed the basic pattern of rock, paper and scissors was easily accessible and the settings and characters drew me in instantly.
Since then, I went through a phase of playing many open-world games, and the Fire Emblem series fell by the wayside. Once Three Houses was announced for Switch, I ploughed through all of the 3DS titles in order to get myself back into grips with the series I once loved.
Three Houses tells the story of three student houses in the Garreg Mach Monastery Officer’s Academy. The academy is in neutral territory that is not governed by any of the houses and serves as a central point for each faction to learn the arts and skills necessary to become an officer. Each of the houses is led by an important figure from their respective territories. Edelgard, the heir of the Aldestrian Empire, leads the Black Eagles. Dimitri, the Prince of Faerghus is house leader of the Blue Lions. Finally, the Golden Deer student house follows the future head of the Leicester Alliance, Claude.
Roughly an hour into the story, the main protagonist (whose default name is Byleth, and will be referred to as such from here on out) becomes a professor at the Officer’s Academy and chooses a house of which they will nurture and educate throughout the game. Each of the houses hosts their own stories, missions and characters, and each play through can take anywhere between 60-100 hours depending on your settings and style of play. The three different paths that can be taken feel different enough to remain interesting, and it is interesting to see the perspectives of the different houses as each story progresses.
The journey taken contains a myriad of twists and turns. There were quite a few moments where I thought I knew where the story would go, only for it to go a complete 180 on me. The tale woven between the three houses shows a journey of kinship, betrayal, hidden motives, surprising discoveries and more. To go further into depth in the story would only spoil key moments with these characters that I have quickly come to adore and attach myself too, but be assured that the storytelling found in Three Houses is just as good as any previous game in the series.
The combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses is some of the best in the series. The difficulty of the game can still be tweaked to suit your own play styles. I chose to have permadeath on during my time with the Golden Deer, and permadeath off with the Black Eagles to see how my experiences would differ. Obviously, when playing with the Golden Deer, every decision I made was in order to keep my troops alive, so I played with a more defensive style than what I had with the Black Eagles, where I took on most maps with front-on assaults. The Phoenix Mode that was present in Fire Emblem Fates is not included which is a bummer for newcomers, though turning the Permadeath off made the game easy enough to handle. There is also the presence of a “rewind” function that is in place as well, but to speak more of that would spoil parts of the story.
Units can no longer pair up with other units, but if they perform a special move known as a Combat Arts while adjacent to another unit, it can trigger what is known as a Gambit. This boosts the attack and defence of the initiator of combat and performs an even more spectacular move. Units continue to improve their relationships by sticking together during battles as well, and the buffs that units provide each other grow with their relationships.
The weapon mechanics remain mostly the same as previous Fire Emblem titles. The triangle weapon system is still in place. It is made a bit more difficult for beginners as it’s no longer colour coded, but a handy pop-up info box informs you of the potential outcome of an initiated battle.
Once these battles are initiated, the influence from Tecmo Koei and Fire Emblem Warriors becomes much more apparent. A unit selects an opposing unit to attack, and the action immediately pans down to the involved units. The battles here are still automatic like any other Fire Emblem game, but the animations, battlegrounds and characters all look just as good, if not better than in Fire Emblem Warriors. You can always turn off the combat animations, which alone would save at least ten hours of time to complete one of the story modes, but when they look this good, it is difficult to recommend.
Between battles, Byleth spends their time in the Monastery doing a variety of different activities. They can participate in minor, non-story related battles, explore the Monastery, build relationships with other characters and more. Exploring the Monastery became one of my favourite things to do in the game, as you directly control Byleth around an expansive building, talking to units and engaging in a variety of mini activities.
During exploration, Byleth can do a variety of things such as fishing and gardening to gain additional food and supplies. There are also opportunities to take in lectures from the other professors on campus to help boost specific stats, as well as taking on a number of relationship-building activities. Byleth is able to cook or share a meal with another character, perform some choir practice with two other characters and more. The sheer amount of things to do in the Monastery is staggering, and Byleth can even find lost items laying about the place and return them to their rightful owners. All of this helps to gain a deeper understanding of each character in the game and improve the relationships between Byleth and other characters.
As the characters build relationships amongst themselves, it not only makes them more effective in combat when close to each other, it also reveals more about each officer’s unique personality and how they each deal with other unique personalities in the game. Bernadetta was a personal favourite of mine, as she spends most of her time hiding away from everyone, thinking that everyone sees her in a negative light. Each interaction she has involves her thinking the worst and having it turn out not to be true. A wide variety of different units treat Bernadetta in their own unique way but watching their patience and perseverance in seeing Bernadetta slowly come out of her shell with specific individuals was interesting to witness.
The way that Three Houses handles classes in the game differs from previous games but works really well within the context of the game. Instead of simply utilising a type of Seal to promote or change classes, the students all improve their specific skillsets until they are knowledgeable enough to take a test. As an example, most students start out as either a Commoner or a Noble. Through experience gained on the battlefield, mixed with lectures from Byleth and other professors around campus, the student is able to take a Certification test once they hit level five. Dorothea was one of the Commoners in my group, and once she hit level five she was able to sit a Certification test to show that she was capable of attaining the Fighter class.
For my Dorothea to be successful, she needed at least a D-rank in either Axes, Bows or Brawling, and I needed a Beginner Seal in my inventory for her to be able to take the test. Once all this was attained, it was a simple click of a button for her to sit the exam and become a Fighter within my ranks. It is a really intuitive system, and it gave me the chance to make sure that my units would be capable of handling a new class with a decent skillset from the outset. As level five certifications are classed as Beginner tests, there are more advanced options available to units the more they level up.
What I like most about this system is that the game does not force the students back to level 1 every time they perform a class change. Once they pass a test, they are free to swap between classes at any time. Each class can be mastered as well, which boosts up the stats in place of reaching level 20 repeatedly in previous games.
A good way to keep track of each character’s stats needed for attaining certain certifications is goal setting. Much like how in a school, a teacher may assign literacy or numeracy goals to their students to help them improve in their schoolwork, Byleth can set goals to each of her students to help them eventually reach a certain class. Occasionally, a character will approach Byleth during lecture times and ask them if they can change their goal to reach their own purpose, of which Byleth can confirm or deny.
Say Hilda wants to become a Sniper, she approaches Byleth and says that she’s sick of being close and personal with enemy units all the time, and would much prefer a hands-off approach. She will ask Byleth to set her goal to be a Sniper, which focusses mostly on the Bow skill. Once this is set, it is then easier to figure out Hilda’s focus will be in each lecture, and what group assignments that Hilda can do. While it is mostly in place to make it easier for the player to keep track of what they are building in each character, it suits the context of the school really well and gives it the feel of a bigger purpose.
There has been no update drop as of writing this review, so unfortunately at this point, the issues I mentioned in my preview of Three Houses remain true. The item management system still needs work, and the removal of the auto-equip function irked me more the further I made it into the game and had an extensive equipment list in my convoy. Veterans won’t have an issue with this, but it’s still a bummer that there’s no streamlined way to organise items in a set order or have them auto-equipped to your units.
There is just so much crammed into Fire Emblem: Three Houses that I couldn’t talk about absolutely everything in this review. Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo have come together to create an absolute masterpiece of a strategy game. RPG elements have been seamlessly integrated into the Fire Emblem series and all the additional activities that can be partaken in just add more to the characters in this world. The main draw for the Fire Emblem series, the combat, is the best it has ever been. It has its minor issues, but what game doesn’t? I can’t recommend Fire Emblem: Three Houses enough, it is one of those titles that we will still be discussing in a decade’s time.
+ Excellent combat presentation
+ RPG Elements integrated seamlessly
+ Character interactions are top-notch
- Inventory organisation is non-existent