A Completely Biased Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: Tactical role-playing
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo
Release date: 26-Jul-2019
I admit it took me a while to decide what game I would choose for my first review. Then I felt silly, because of all the games I have played in the past year there is only one that I have spent, literally, hundreds of hours on. This game is as good a place to start as any, if anything I will struggle to have much negative to say. And so, on to the actual content.
Like many people with a Nintendo Switch last Summer, one of the games I most looked forward to was a new installation of one of Nintendo’s older franchises. The game was, of course, Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
I am, and have always been, a sucker for RPGs. An even bigger sucker for JRPGs. And oh boy do I love a classic turn-based JRPG with an epic story. And lately these qualities have become a synonym for ‘Fire Emblem’. Especially after this installation.
The story is one of my favourites that has come from the world of mainstream JRPGs in some time. It achieved what Octopath Traveller got praise for, but didn’t actually grasp in a meaningful way in my eyes.
A branching, but cohesive, story. One that only fully comes together when all paths are viewed as one. But that’s also the kicker. You can only view one of the four main paths in a single playthrough. This forced replay is usually a feature that annoys me in games, but it was achieved masterfully here. Each new save file was exciting to begin, because I had questions that I wanted to answer from the previous path
Three Houses is set on the continent of Fódlan. This continent is split into three nations with a history of war, but are currently at peace. In the middle of these three nations, behaving as an odd sort of buffer zone, is the Garreg Mach Monastery where the majority of the game takes place. Think a couple of hundred years ago when the Catholic Church was a stronger political power and told countries nearby what to do.
Plot - Epic in length and detail
***Some minor spoilers***
The three surrounding continents send students, largely of noble blood, to the Monastery’s Officers Academy to learn how to fight and be effective leaders. All students from the same nation are placed in the same house. This is where the lead character comes in. An ex-mercenary, now-teacher, you choose one of the three houses to teach. It is in these lessons that you can boost characters’ stats and abilities in order to advance or change their class.
Each of the three houses are led by one student, acting as a prefect of sorts. If you’ve seen posters it’s likely these guys' faces you’ve seen plastered over everything. I enjoyed how distinctly each of the choices were presented, it made it easy to instantly see how your story was going to be told.
You have the classic hero/knight types in Blue Lions (I have dubbed Gryffindors), led by Prince Dimitri. This story would follow along what most would consider the typical Fire Emblem path.
Then you have the house with a magical affinity, Black Eagles (I have dubbed Slytherins). They are led by their future empress Edelgard. This story actually branches again later on, giving you an alternative path choice of allying with the Monastery.
And finally you have Golden Deer, ranged weaponry specialists. This sounds lame, but I found out quickly that the high level archer class is broken and absolutely dominates most fields. (While dubbed Hufflepuff on attitudes of the entire class, I would like to say two of the smartest characters are in this house. Respectable Ravenclaw/Hufflepuff mashup here.) This house is led by Claude, the heir to the nation’s leading noble family.
But as time went by in-game it became more obvious that what I actually chose was not a class to teach, but to ally with one of the three countries (or the church) who were on the precipice of war once again.
Throughout each game I got the ‘same’ storyline from the different point of view of whoever I chose to ally with. This experience was coloured by the knowledge, influence, and personality of the students in my house, and my coworkers in the monastery. The spin this puts on the story in each playthrough (and I have played all four paths) makes it equally worth the time and effort. Questions I had playing one route, were answered in the next.
All’s (un)fair in Love and War
I can’t bring up any Fire Emblem game without commenting on the franchises’ signature gameplay. They didn’t mix things up too much with this, but I am firmly of the belief that this was the right choice.
Fire Emblem is known for its gridded overworld battle maps that operate similarly to a chessboard. Each of the characters on your team have different distances they can move, and terrains they can successfully move over, based on their class. If a character is a magic-user, an archer, or if they have a particularly unusual weapon, they can attack from different angles and distances. But so can your enemies.
This layout and how to move on it still sings to the boardgame-obsessed child in me all these years later. Cavaliers, Pegasus Knights, and classes that would stereotypically wear light armour can move further than a mercenary. Wyvern Riders can fly over water, rocks, and crevasses. Armoured Knights, Armoured Lords and other heavy hitters with high defense can’t move as far as quickly, lag behind, and make me want to kill them. But I won’t. Because of my least favourite feature when playing Fire Emblem games in Classic mode…
This game has you raise students in a classroom, teach them, love them… and then they die any time. And they don’t come back. I lost Bernadetta and cried. I lost Dorothea and bawled. I lost Lorenz and… Alright I didn’t care that Lorenz died. And I may have been using him as a meat shield for Lysithea. But I did feel very guilty about it.
However, there is a feature I really love that was introduced in recent entries to the franchise.
In Casual mode your teammates retreat instead of experiencing a permanent slaughter. So if you’re faint of heart, and not masochistic, I would advise playing in this mode. While the difficulty level in Classic mode isn’t very high either, the almost guaranteed loss of key members of your team ramps this up very quickly and a ‘casual’ playthrough becomes a stressful one.
I would also like to say that the battle scenes you enter after selecting your action from the overworld map have become much slicker and… cooler since Fire Emblem: Warriors. That the graphics have also improved in the two years between them goes without saying.
The Switch isn’t the most powerful of machines, so I am forgiving in that there are some older games for PC (and PS4) that still outclass the graphics of this game. But it is an incredibly valiant effort, and the designers behind this game could probably fit a blue whale into a Volkswagen.
It’s a time management game too?
Three houses asks a lot of the player. Every month my class was assigned a mission by the creepy pope lady that runs the monastery. Before I did this I had to actually teach my class, get to know them better, manage their stamina or they won’t be able to learn anything (lazy kids), grow items in the greenhouse for meals or presents, train everyone, take extra classes, do side missions to level up and earn money, and all this before I got to the ‘Big Mission™’ at the end of the month.
It was a little overwhelming to begin with, other Fire Emblem games had not been built in the same way and the only game I had personally come across that required so much out-of-battle prep… wasn’t a fighting game at all but an actual management game. It was an interesting mechanic to work with/against, that is not incorporated into the genre very often.
“Boo, you whore”
I love, love, love, that Three Houses blends so many genres. And one of the most surprising of these for me, based on the franchise image, was the dating simulation aspect.
I feel like the game incentivises it, in fact. The better you get to know your teammates, and the more support scenes you view, the better the characters perform in battle. And it just so happens that you get to know these characters through giving them gifts and inviting them to tea and dinner on your days off. This also increases their energy levels so they can actually learn in class.
The Support cutscenes never felt like ‘gatcha’ collecting which was a big plus for me. Each scene shows how the characters interact with each other, with you, and more about their personality. Some characters ended up being surprise favourites for me based on these scenes alone.
The good news is you can see every single one of these Support scenes whether you are male or female, except the final S ranked scene. This is exclusive to the character you choose to ‘woo’ at the end game.
I admit I cried foul in the beginning playing this game. ‘A teacher-student relationship is wrong!’ I said, ‘The imbalance of power on and off the battlefield blah blah blah’... But then a few students pointedly present confusion that you appear to be the same age as they are, and question why you are teaching them. This, and the handy dandy time skip mid-game to after their graduation, helped to alleviate some of this for me.
There are twenty three collective bachelors and bachelorettes to choose from if you play as a female, and nineteen if you play as a male. I feel as if I should give Three Houses some props for same-sex inclusive dating. Some. I at least appreciate they made this leap, which is not what Japanese-made games were known for.
There is a decent same-sex dating pool if you have chosen a female protagonist, around five bachelorettes or so. There are four for men. And of those four, two are platonic relationships as they are old and married, so you know. Choices.
I did not manage to encompass even a third of the content of this game, and this review is so long already. If you have stuck with me until now, congratulations. I promise/hope that my second review will be a shorter game. Three Houses has combined multiple genres that typically would not be found together, in one of the more successful ways I have seen in a game that isn’t open-world. The characters are well-designed with developed personalities, and the banter between each is entertaining.
The battle system isn’t reinventing the Fire Emblem wheel, but sometimes the wheel is just fine. It would still be entertaining and fresh to a newbie to the genre, and a great standalone game that does not require playing previous entries in the franchise. The graphics I found to be as good as you can get on Switch, and up there with Breath of the Wild.
Overall, I sank roughly 80 hours into my first playthrough… Around 60 each in the next two… and probably 40 hours in the last. That is around 240 hours of gameplay. My personal growth has never gotten beyond the starving student brain of scrambling for the best value of everything you can buy. This high level of content (this is excluding the DLC!) is something I can truly appreciate in this world of microtransactions and pay-to-play games.
The only negative thing I could say about this game would be after you complete your first route. The beginning of each route is largely the same pre-timeskip. While there are some differences in cutscenes, the overall events don’t truly begin to branch out until the last two chapters of the first half. For someone that might not be interested in exploring the character development and stats of the new House, the first few hours of their second, third, and fourth route could be a little grating.
Play this game if:
You value story depth and character development
You enjoy tactical turn-based combat
You like, or are open to, the JRPG art style
You want your heart to be ripped to pieces playing in Classic mode
First image is available here
Second and final images are available here
Third image is available here
Fourth and fifth images are available on the presskit here
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