In many ways, Fire Emblem: Three Houses reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They aren't similar in terms of gameplay or story. Breath of the Wild was a departure from the series norm. The world was vast, far more than that of any Zelda game before it. Breath of the Wild features fresh ideas that are likely to influence the series in the same way that Ocarina of Time did in the 90s. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is equally ambitious and feels just as massive as Breath of the Wild. It doesn't let its lofty ambitions diminish the quality of gameplay, either. Indeed, after the slightly disappointing entry that was Fire Emblem: Fates and a remake, Fire Emblem is certainly back, and it couldn't be any better.
Developed by Intelligent Systems along with Koei Tecmo, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest entry in the esteemed strategy series. In Three Houses, players take the role of an avatar named Byleth. It is Byleth's job to lead one of three houses at the Officer's Academy in Garreg Mach Monastery. Players teach their students and participate in battles while unfurling a grand plot that threatens the peace of Fodlan.
Teaching Students in Fire Emblem: Three Houses
First and foremost, you are a professor of the Officer's Academy. Your main job is to teach your chosen house and allow students to realize their full potential. The gameplay of previous Fire Emblem games was largely consolidated to just battles. Three Houses is a departure from the series norm, as you will explore the monastery, socially interact with students, and raise their skills for a large chunk of the gameplay. In other words, if you expect to go from one battle to the next in quick succession, you won't find it here.
Garreg Mach is a sizable monastery, and Byleth is able to fully explore the entire complex. It's a fortress bustling with life, with NPCs and students alike wondering around. The developers did a wonderful job creating the monastery. The atmosphere is similar to that of Hogwarts. There's an air of mystery about it, but with incredible, alluring appeal. And like Hogwarts, Garreg Mach contains noticeable areas like the dining hall and training ground, each with their own personality and appeal. The monastery as a whole was one of my favorite aspects of Three Houses, and it never got old for me.
Around the monastery, you can talk to students from the different houses, as well as faculty and other NPCs. Again, the monastery feels alive. There are plenty of activities around the campus, all with their own benefits. For example, fishing, done through a minigame, gives players fish to cook. You can create meals for your students with fish and vegetables, increasing your bond and motivating them. Choir practice increases your faith experience, a type of magic. Everything serves a purpose. From the start, your professor level limits you, dictating how many actions you can do while exploring the monastery. As time goes on, you increase in professor level and can truly enjoy all that the monastery has to offer.
Gameplay splits up into months. It's up to players to decide how they wish to spend their time. Every month has several weekends allowing players to explore, partake in battles, rest, or attend seminars to boost their skills. During the week, you as the professor raise the skills of your students and manage their education. Players set goals for their units in areas of combat. For example, I made it so my house leader, Dimitri, would level-up in lances and leadership.
Each student has an individualized education, and it can be quite daunting at first. Every student has motivation, which you must manage in order to properly raise them. With no motivation, they receive less experience in their fields of interest, so strategy permeates throughout your entire gameplay experience. There is an option to automatically instruct students every week, which didn't seem viable in any way. Although, this option might seem appealing to some. The task of going through several students' skills and allocating points to their respective field of learning can grain on you a playthrough running dozens of hours long.
Like in prior games, units can become different classes. Once a unit reaches the required skill level for a certain weapon, for example, they can take a certification exam and reclass. The class variety in Three Houses is robust. There are multiple classes for all weapon and magic types. Progression never felt slow, and no moment felt wasted. Units continuously gain new skills and ways to excel on the battlefield. The teaching system as a whole has a considerable learning curve. Once you get the hang of it, you understand the amazing freedom and customization Three Houses offers.
Combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses
With such an emphasis on teaching units and exploring the academy, one might think that combat takes a backseat. This is not the case. In fact, the combat in Three Houses is one of, if not the best in the series. Many principles of Fire Emblem's strategic combat remain the same, but there are some new inclusions and improvements across the board. Of these, my favorite has to be Battalions.
Students each have their own Battalion, containing a group of NPC allies to fight for you. The group of NPCs surrounding your unit is cosmetic, but when the camera zooms in during the attack, you get a sense of scale to the conflict that previous Fire Emblem games lack. Battalions also level up and provide stat boosts, and each comes with a unique ability called gambits. Using a battalion's gambit ability means no harm comes to your unit, but also might stun enemies or just heavily damage them. There's a wide variety of Battalions to choose from, so you can tailor your party as you see fit.
Another new inclusion to Three Houses is beasts. These giant, monstrous foes take up several spaces on the battlefield and are especially tanky. Beasts have several health bars as well as powerful abilities, so taking several on at once (at least early on) is a fool's errand. Players can break down a beast's shield to stun it or use a gambit to taunt it. These monsters shred through less bulky units like mages and healers and actually cause quite a ruckus in the battlefield. They add another layer to the high-stakes combat. Under normal circumstances, beasts are something to fear. In hindsight, they were actually really fun to take down.
. The rock-paper-scissors gameplay of old goes out the window in favor of skills and positioning. Furthermore, weapons have durability and break down after repeated use. This makes inventory management more essential than previous titles and requires you to strategically equip your units. Spells for magic users, on the other hand, have durability but refresh after a battle ends. While the weapon triangle holds a special place in my heart, I didn't miss it. In fact, I hope that future Fire Emblem games continue this trend.
As fun as Three Houses' combat is, it just feels too easy. For most Fire Emblem games, I opt for normal difficulty with permanent death on for my units. This time around, I did my first playthrough on Hard. I would consider myself a veteran of the franchise, but not a particularly great player. Even still, the hardest difficulty felt too easy.
The main reason gameplay feels too easy and inconsequential is because of the Divine Pulse ability. This is similar to Mila's Turnwheel from Echoes. Divine Pulse reverses time and allows you to redo actions up to the beginning of the level. As you play, you gain more uses for the Divine Pulse, so by the end, I could retry as many as 13 times. This ability is a nice safety net, but I didn't even have to use it very often. The beginning of Three Houses has a bit of a learning curve in combat. Once you acclimate yourself, mid-game becomes a breeze. The last few chapters bring a bit more challenge, but overall, Three Houses is quite easy.
The Story and Characters of Fire Emblem: Three Houses
The plot revolves around the three houses of the Officer's Academy. Those are the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, and Golden Deer. The students of each house hail from one of three countries in Fodlan. Whichever house you pick contains different story and characters. In some ways, you get multiple games in one. The story for each house doesn't really deviate from one another until about the midway point. Then, there's a 5-year time skip. The students you taught are now older and grizzled, and Fodlan is at war.
The students are what drive the story of Fire Emblem. Characters aren't one dimensional. In previous titles like Awakening and Fates, units often get by sporting a single trope. Characters in Three Houses are intricate, featuring delicate backstories that only unveil themselves as the bonds between your units grow. Dimitri, the lead character for the Blue Lions house, has an incredible arc, with character development unlike any other Fire Emblem character. Although Three Houses is a video game, I truly felt a strong bond with my students. Even the womanizer Sylvain transcended the typical flirtatious caviler trope. As I learned his back story, I discovered a plausible reason for his actions. My connection to the students felt so strong that I found it difficult to continue with a new house after my first run.
As a whole, the story of Three Houses is compelling and remains so through this long journey. I would go as far as to consider it the most fleshed-out story in a Fire Emblem game, with the caveat that you won't get the full picture by playing just one house. My initial playthrough was with the Blue Lions. Following the 5-year time skip, the plot felt like a traditional Fire Emblem story. However, I know from sources around the web that the paths can wildly differ depending on what you choose. Many questions still need answers, and I can't wait to discover the full picture on subsequent playthroughs.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review | Final Thoughts
Although the multifaceted gameplay is the highlight of Three Houses, the stellar art design also bears mentioning. Most Fire Emblem games include a new art style, and Three Houses is no different. Each wholly unique character portrait sports a wonderful design. In-game character models have a cell-shaded, anime look to them. When the camera zooms in to characters during combat, you can see the entire battlefield before you in a dazzling display. The massive scale of battle comes across quite well in Three Houses.
Unfortunately, many textures are rough. I've seen people compare it to a late PS3 title in terms of graphical fidelity, and it sometimes feels that way. Still, in docked mode, the game looks sufficient enough, and the art style makes up for lacking textures. The Switch's hardware sometimes struggles to run the experience. My system is noisy while playing Three Houses. Certain magical attacks that use fire or other flashy effects cause the frame rate to dip significantly for a second or two, as well. Some other instances while exploring the monastery cause performance issues. It's not the most optimized game ever, but it should not get in the way of enjoying the overall experience.
Performance issues aside, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the best game in the series. This is coming from someone who played Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn and considered them the pinnacle of the series at the time. The academy features a beautiful and atmospheric design. There is a strong sense of progression as your students continuously improve throughout your playthrough. And best of all, the combat is the best it's ever been, even if the game errs on the side of too easy. There's no better time to jump into the Fire Emblem series. After all, who wouldn't want to start with the best in the series?
TechRaptor reviewed Fire Emblem: Three Houses on Nintendo Switch using a copy purchased by the reviewer.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses excels in almost every aspect. The combat feels fresh and extremely fun. Meanwhile, the story will keep you engaged all the way to the end of its duration. It's just so close to total perfection, were it not for the lacking difficulty and the average performance on the Switch.(Review Policy)
- Incredibly Fun Combat
- Immense Sense of Progression
- Monastery Exploration
- Engaging Characters and Story
- Lack of Difficulty
- Performance Issues