So I’ve put over 70 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses – probably the most time I’ve dedicated to a single game since Assassin’s Creed Odyssey last year. I’ve still not completed my first route (Blue Lions represent!) but I’m closing in on the end. I don’t know when I’ll get to the second and third playthroughs for the other houses, but I legitimately want to see everything from the other perspectives. That’s how engrossed I am at the story level.
The mechanical level has also hooked me, obviously. Three Houses is the best Fire Emblem has ever been on the tactical battle level. Critical battle information has been streamlined and made much easier to access. Leveling up your characters outside battle is also more engaging and you have a lot more options at your fingertips to create bonds between your characters. And the characters are all stellar. I love the Blue Lion house and their interactions both on and off the battlefield. The recruitment system has also allowed me to nab the characters I like from other houses as well.
I’m starting off glowing about the game, but there are a few low points which I’ll also get to. As a heads up, this review won’t contain any major main story spoilers, but might contain minor support conversation spoilers.
This is Annette. She is very sweet, and also apparently psychotic.
Okay, let me be up front. Fire Emblem is about the characters to me. And I’m not the only one. People get attached to their favorites and love bonding them with others and seeing their support conversations, and training them up and having them kick ass. One of my favorites – Annette – became my favorite because of how she turns from a studious bookworm into a psychotic killer on the battlefield. She just looks absolutely insane (and loving it!) every time she crits an enemy with her magic. And with my current build of her, she’s hitting crits every other fight she’s in.
I could talk forever about my Blue Lion students – like Ashe, my baby-faced innocent boy who believes that everyone has good in them but transforms into Hawkeye in battle and can put an arrow in any enemy’s eye from two thousand paces. Or Felix, the swordsman who tries to play it cool but looks goofy as hell every time he casts magic. And yes, he wanted to study the blade but as a professor I forced him to learn magic so I could watch his goofy ass flail his arms around.
But there’s more to Fire Emblem: Three Houses than that. So let’s talk a little bit about the game mechanics behind the characters.
The game’s setup is fairly straightforward. You are a young mercenary chosen to be a professor at the beginning of the game. You’re teaching at what amounts to a battle school for the world’s ruling church (the Church of Seiros). Out of the eponymous three houses, you choose what house you want to teach for the school year. Then you + the 8 students of your chosen house become your main party for the game.
This works in favor of the game’s storytelling because you have a core group from the get-go. In other Fire Emblems, you slowly acquire team members over the course of the game. So you might get attached to characters you meet in chapter 4, but when you get somebody in chapter 20 you’ll probably be less enthused to put them in your party and learn about them since you’ve recruited so many already.
The game is divided into two sections: life at the monastery and tactical battles. Each month you have free days to choose how to spend your time. You can explore the monastery, which allows you to have meals with your students, garden, fish, buy supplies, and lots of other options. Interacting with your students (and other house students and teachers as well) will raise your support level with them. You interact through said meals, or giving them gifts, or finding lost items spread throughout the school.
It’s important to raise your support with students because it not only benefits you in battle, but it allows you to recruit the other students/teachers to your house. The more a student likes you, the more likely they are to jump ship and transfer to your class. While it’s possible to recruit nearly every student in the game on one playthrough, it’s not necessary and really should be approached more like filling out your team and picking up characters you like. You can only field 11 or 12 people in most battles, so a few extra recruits are good to balance everything.
I purposefully recruited four students (Dorothea, Petra, Bernadetta, and Hilda) and accidentally recruited three more (Caspar, Ignatz, Lysithea) before the recruitment window closed. I also got all the teachers on my side as well, but it’s very easy to snag them. The point is, if you want to recruit a specific person or two, don’t panic about it because it’s fairly easy to do in the time you have. And even with all the students and teachers I recruited, only three really get to see battle regularly (Hilda, Petra, and Dorothea became part of my A-Team) as I’ve mostly stuck with my original Blue Lion crew.
It’s nice that it’s there as an additional aspect to the game, and it doesn’t completely handicap you if you don’t take advantage of it and try to min/max your team. Three Houses also drops the focus on romantic relationships that the previous two entries (Awakening and Fates) brought to the forefront of the support conversations and the game is better for it. I much prefer the naturally evolving supports than having to pair specific people up just to make sure they get married and have a kid. (The child mechanic is completely absent from Three Houses – again, for the game’s benefit.)
This is the A-Team, ready to fight.
In addition to exploring the monastery, each week you teach classes to your students. You choose which one or two specialties they’ll focus on (whether it’s swords, black magic, riding horses, etc.) and at the end of the week they’ll get a boost in that stat. You also get one-on-one time with students to give them extra experience in different specialties as long as the student is sufficiently motivated. This motivation comes from gifts, sharing meals, raising support levels, and doing good in battle. Keeping your students in good spirits is essential to raising their stats to the next level, which adds a fun dynamic to your “professor” gameplay.
These stats you teach your students each week are important for them to be able to promote to new classes. If you want a student to be an archer, for example, they need to have good bow skills. The advanced classes require proficiencies in multiple topics, so having your students excel in battle is directly related to how much you teach them.
The best part about this is you can mold students however you want. Every student has topics they prefer to study, of course, but if you put enough time and effort into other subjects they’ll be able to branch out into any class you want them in. My Sylvain bounced between an expert lance-wielder and a devastating mage for most of the game before I unlocked the master class of Dark Knight, which allows him to be a horse-riding, lance-wielding, magic-using Jack-of-all-trades who basically can be anywhere on the battlefield at a moment’s notice. But that meant he was only a B or B+ rank in four different skills, while some of my more specialized students were already at an A+ rank in their favored ability at the same time.
All this adds a lot of depth to how you raise your students in the first half of the game. You can be as hands-on or hands-off as you want. If you don’t love to customize like I do, the characters will ask to study specific specialties and the game will funnel you automatically in a direction that’s good for the character. You won’t ever feel left behind or like you’ve made a mistake in leveling.
The battles themselves are tactical RPG goodness. They play out on a grid and there are different terrain effects to watch out for as you move about the map. Three Houses has the added bonus where it will draw lines to characters the enemy will likely attack when your move. This allows you to plan your advance and know which squares will put your healer in danger, for example, and where you can place your tank to maximize their aggro draw.
Three Houses also adds a new mechanic called the Divine Pulse, which allows you to rewind time in battle. If you’re playing on Classic if a character dies, they’re dead. You don’t get them back, so one mistake could ruin a whole battle. In previous Fire Emblems, a death like that would make you have to start the whole map over. With the Divine Pulse, though, you can rewind time to any point in the battle and make a smarter move. Your Pulse charges are limited so the threat of consequences still lingers over you, but you can earn more as the game progresses as well. Overall, this smooths out the flow of the game and basically makes every previous Fire Emblem a lot harder to play now. It’s such a needed mechanic for a 70-hour story based SRPG with permadeath.
Some of the support conversations are pretty hilarious.
But on that note, one of the more down things about the game is that it doesn’t present much of a challenge. I’m playing on Hard Classic, and even then only on a few maps have I really felt challenged and had to use a Divine Pulse more than once. Lunatic mode is coming as free DLC, but I am afraid that might be to big a jump and end up on the other end of the spectrum and being too frustratingly difficult. As an avid XCOM fan, I’m not averse to difficult tactics games. And maybe it seems easy because I’m so familiar with these types of games. But after a certain point, my characters became too amazing and even the most threatening enemies are…not, really.
The game is also divided into a clear first and second half by a major story event. And while the monastery/professor portions of the game are great and fun for the first half when you’re training your students, they feel unnecessary in the second half. At the point I’m at, my students have all hit top marks in the abilities I want them in, they’re promoted to their best class type, and the support conversations I want to see are mostly maxed out. So individually teaching each student and handing out reading assignments for the week feels less impactful and just adds time to a game that is already long.
The more frustrating part is that the story really kicks into gear in the second half. While the first half is generally similar between all three houses story-wise, the second half is when the narrative really branches for everyone. It would’ve made more sense if the back half focused more on story battles and dropped the majority of the monastery activities, especially since recruiting other characters also ends with the first half.
My willingness to keep moving on is slowing down as the months go by in the second half. The pacing is sorely off: instead of ramping up towards a finale, I’m moving along at the same week-by-week pace. It feels even slower because I want to know where the story goes, not run around a monastery looking for some lost perfume.
Give Annette the right gift or she will MURDER YOU IN YOUR SLEEP. Maybe.
But the small bumps of design here and there don’t detract from the overall addictive experience that has made Fire Emblem: Three Houses the most played game on my Switch. It is a lot of content, although since the game comes with New Game+ I’m guessing a second and third playthrough to see the other house stories won’t take nearly as long as the first one. I’m fairly glad I had an open summer for gaming because I’m not sure I could have dedicated enough time otherwise to get the full Fire Emblem experience.
With a few tweaks here and there on the Three Houses formula, the next Fire Emblem could be a perfect game. Make the late-game out-of-combat stuff a little more engaging or switch it up a bit. Have a few more specialized late-game classes that make the final forms of your students a little more unique. Bump on the difficulty a tad. Shake it all up and you’ll have the perfect Fire Emblem.
But as it stands, Three Houses is pretty darn close to perfect.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a PLAY, whether you’re a long-time fan of the series or a first-timer, in my opinion it’s the best entry in the Fire Emblem franchise.