Introduction and Story
The Fire Emblem series, for me, has been one of those things that’s always been in my peripheral, but never really close enough to gain attention. I knew of a slew of characters from the Smash Brothers series, that it was a tactics style RPG, had knights, and horses, and magic…and that’s about it. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the first traditional Fire Emblem game on the Nintendo Switch, and the first game of the series I sought out.
After just finishing my first play through of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I really didn’t know how to review this game. I typically like to delve into each major mechanic and give insight into how it all ties together, but the idea of touching on everything is daunting for this game.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is massive. I was initially amazed at how little I actually did after playing for three and a half hours.
By nature, there’s three different story line routes for you to take, each with their own twists and turns; The Alliance with Claude, the Empire with Edelgarde, or the Kingdom with Dmitri. There is a mid-point of the game where decisions must be made that drastically impact the rest of the game and splitting off into different forks. For that main reason, you will absolutely need to (and want to) play through multiple times.
With the branching story, each path you take gives you a different experience. My first go around was with Edelgarde and the Empire. I felt that some of the story beats were visible from a mile away, but they were never unsatisfying, and the characters actions in-story always made sense.
There’s a rich history in the world of Fódlan where Three Houses takes place, and I felt the game does a great job in reinforcing that, and making the world feel lived in.
At the start of the game, you’ll be met with a few different difficulty options. First, you have the option of choosing hard or normal difficulty, which is self explanatory. Second, you must choose between classic and casual. Classic means that when one of your character perishes in battle, they are lost forever. Casual means that they more so retreat from battle when defeated, giving you access to them again the next mission.
I originally wanted to go for casual just so that playing the game felt less stressful, because I definitely wouldn’t be able to let one of my students die throughout the game, but I’m happy I didn’t. Going with classic made me rethink how I was going to utilize my team. If there is no risk of permanently losing a member of your team, all you have to do is throw characters at enemies without repercussion and overpower every battle. Part of the fun is treating the battlefield like a chessboard and trying to make smart decisions for that particular round of moves, and a few in the future.
I also went for normal difficulty, but I felt that it was a bit too easy. I never did any grinding and completed all of the story, auxiliary and paralogue battles that popped up. With just that situation, I was consistently over leveling missions I was participating in. It wasn’t until the final two battles that I felt the difficulty spiked.
Aside from difficulty, the gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is split into a few distinct sections; character development and the actual battles.
The overall template of Fire Emblem: Three Houses ends up feeling like the following; Begin month, instruct your students, build support and relationships between your students and other inhabitants of Garreg Mach, complete quest/auxiliary/paralogue battle, repeat the previous steps 2-3 times per month then complete the month with a story mission between weeks three and four.
You take on the mantle of professor after arriving at Garreg Mach Monastery, choose a class of students to oversee, build relationships with them through different actions that you take, then lead them on the battlefield.
With that in mind, don’t come into the game expecting endless battles and action. Battles become more fun because of the investment you put into your students, your team and goals in terms of selecting future character classes for them to excel at, and eventually become.
Speaking of battles, the real action in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, comes from the different battle types. If you’ve never played a tactics-RPG game, battle fields are broken down into a grid system similar to a chess or checker board. Each battle has rounds where your team, allied teams and enemy teams are able to move all of their units once. During these rounds is when you would attack, use items, heal team members and so on.
Story Battles: These battles, which usually occur once a month in-game, progress the story and usually offer the player the most unique setups. They feature more named characters, which are typically deadlier and require more thought on how to approach them, and more unique side objectives other than ‘rout the enemy’ or ‘defeat the enemy commander.’
Paralogue Battles: These battles hold the best content other than your basic story battles and are always character driven, with a particular conflict or goal in mind. One may require you to block four escape routes for thieves while another has draw bridges in the middle of the map that need to be re-taken. Many of them also reward you with one of the heroes relics and are always worth doing.
Auxiliary Battles: These battles also soak up a battle activity point and are a step up in difficulty from basic battles. Many of them include rare beasts and reward you with various meat or resources to continue upgrading or repairing your weapons.
Quest/Basic Battles: Throughout your time at Garreg Mach Monastery, you will get a number of quests that involve a battle, many times rewarding you with another gambit battalion. There’s nothing much else to say about them. They are usually uninteresting and just require you to defeat a number of non-threatening enemies.
The downside of this aspect of the game, is map variety. Too often is a story map revisited for a paralogue battle or vice versa. The auxiliary battles or basic battles also pull from the same pool of maps. There were multiple times that I played through the same map two or three times in a row just completing quests, paralogue’s or even story missions. It would have been nice to have a larger map selection pool so that battling becomes less dull outside of the over-arching narrative.
Garreg Mach Monastery acts as the central hub for most of Fire Emblem: Three Houses and feels like a character on its own. During the story, you’ll slowly unlock areas of the monastery to explore, and subsequently, give you more to do.
On top of leveling up your characters in battle, you’re really expected to invest equal time during the following activities to better improve overall.
Professor Level: The professor level allows you to do more actions during the explore phase of the monastery, and gives you more battle points for when you decide to battle instead. You increase this by participating in extracurricular activities that I’ll talk a bit about below, building relationships and completing quests.
Training Grounds: Houses a tournament every month featuring a different weapon type. You choose a character to enter into the tournament. Winning nets you gold, an item and experience towards increasing your professor level.
Dining Hall: Various options available to sit down with other characters and build your relationship with them. A sound strategy would be to eat meals multiple times on the same day to increase the motivation of your students, so when you go to instruct them, they gain greater experience towards the selected skills.
Fishing Pond: Exactly what it sounds like. You use your bait to catch fish to use for meals at the dining hall. Each successful catch nets you a small amount of professor level experience.
Greenhouse/Harvesting: You have the option to plant seeds and cultivate them. Doing this will yield more seeds, items and again, professor level experience.
While overall I like the idea of the monastery, it’s design really leaves something on the table. I really don’t care much about having the best graphics, but environments look very blocky and outdated next to the detailed and interesting character models. Everything has a jagged edge, sort of like it was out of the N64/PS1 era, except with better textures.It’s a strange contrast that’s very noticeable.
One thing I was not expecting, I guess being a newcomer to the series, was how large the character roster is. At first, I was worried about this because how is it possible to get really in depth with everyone and have it not feel superficial? There are always some characters that are developed more than others, and some that are forgotten. This really isn’t the case with Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
I really am blown away with how much personality each character is packed with. The house I chose for my first go around was the Black Eagle House. By the end of the game, following these same characters for nearly 50 hours, I could correctly answer any question they had, have perfect ‘tea times’ every instance, answer their queries correctly in the church and more. I felt that the amplified feeling of knowing they can die in battle also helped me get more attached to them. I never left a character to die, it just didn’t feel like an option.
Aside from each character having distinct personalities, the voice acting is also superb. I usually read quickly and scroll past text but here, I waited and watched every conversation because of how much I enjoyed the voice acting.
Support Conversations: The more two characters get to know each other, the better their relationship gets. When that happens, support conversations unlock between those two characters, and they are lengthy. I started getting in the habit of waiting until I was eating breakfast to start activating these support conversations because they took so long to go through. At times, I would sit for 30-45 minutes strictly just listening to characters build relationships with one another. It sounds boring on the outside, but it really was a nice change of pace sitting back and enjoying these conversations.
The main growth of a character besides straight leveling up and support levels, are leveling skills and becoming classes that excel at those skills. This is mostly all done during the classroom sessions that you will be setting up for your team. Classes are all visible from the outset, so you can, and should to a degree, plan ahead for certain characters and see what you’d like to be.
If you really want a Dark Knight on your team, you really need to select an appropriate character, then focus on Reason, Riding and Lance skills. The same goes for any of the other few dozen classes that are obtainable. It’s really an open book, and although certain characters clearly excel at certain skills, you’re never truly bound to those skills. Get creative, and work on what fits your style as a player.
Cutscenes: I really enjoyed all of the cutscenes I’ve seen in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. They stand apart from the rest of the game, enacting a more anime style than what is presented elsewhere. Many of them included some unsettling images that reminded me of the feeling I have watching titans contort in Attack on Titan, or even some of the imagery from Berserk.
There are some unintentional comedic elements as well. One cutscene in particular shows three armies rushing towards each other for this grand battle. When it’s over, you head to the battle screen and everyone is standing around waiting for their individual orders.
Online Recon: Another addition to Garreg Mach is online recon. When unlocked, an NPC as well as four other characters from other players appear. They each sell you one item at a small discount from just purchasing it in store, and you have the option of doing a mini-game with them. The mini-game scatters them across around half the monastery, and you have to find all four of them within 90 seconds. Rewards for completion include basic food items and one time, a battalion. It’s just strange and super laggy whenever you get near that section of the monastery.
Pacing: The pacing of the main story can feel awkward with the system they have built. They really want to do one main mission every month, with you as the professor, teaching, battling, exploring and everything else during the same month. This is fine for the first half of the game where you are teaching students, and as a class, are being assigned one major mission per month, but the same is not the case for the latter half of the game. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I felt the system faltered a bit later on and pacing seemed either too rushed, or too slow at times.
I’m happy that I took the plunge into the Fire Emblem series. Outside of enjoying the board game/tactics play style, I’m a veteran RPG player, so those long conversations or bonding moments between characters are very welcome and I got just as much enjoyment out of character development as I did actually battling.
The downside, is that map variation was rather boring outside of unique ones used for story or paralogue missions. Graphics are also blocky and seem out of place for this generation of consoles (characters models were a different art style and looked fantastic).
There are three distinct paths for you to choose in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. While the first half of the game may largely be the same for all three choices, the second half is drastically different and you’ll want to check out the other paths.
As long as you aren’t expecting a visual spectacle or non-stop action, you’ll find the same enjoyment that I did with Fire Emblem. Now, onto the second playthrough…