Fire Emblem is a series that dates back all the way to 1990 on Famicom, with Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, bit of a mouthful for a game title I know. It’s important to recognise where it all started especially when the first in the series has been credited with popularising the tactical RPG genre, something that I’m oh so happy about. Now, nearly an impressive 30 years later, the latest instalment has released on Nintendo Switch, Three Houses. Will my first venture into the main series be one to remember or prove to be a fruitless experience?
Play as a mercenary turned professor, drastic career change I know, named Byleth or whatever name you wish to choose as you set out to make a difference in the lives of the many students who attend the Officer’s Academy at Garreg Mach Monastery. These students come from many walks of life and hail from different regions of Fodlan, the continent in which the game is set.
Fodlan is comprised of three core regions, The Kingdom of Faerghus, The Adrestian Empire and The Leicester Alliance. Between all three regions, sits Garreg Mach Monastery, inhabited by not only the students who attend but the Church of Seiros led by the archbishop Lady Rhea. Each region is represented in the academy as a house, think Harry Potter. The Blue Lions led by Prince Dimitri who is next in line to lead Faerghus. Then there are the Black Eagles with Edelgard at the helm, she is princess and future emperor of the Empire, see the trend so far? Finally, the Golden Deers representing the Leicester Alliance sees Claude as their leader, who is heir to House Riegan, the leading house of the Alliance, how convenient.
These three regions, houses and characters are at the very center of the story, the glue if you will that bring everything else together, some characters will be more prominent depending on the paths you take. The first key choice is which of the three houses will you be responsible for and teach, there are no wrong choices, unless you don’t choose Black Eagles, of course I’m joking.
When you make the option, I don’t think there’s perhaps enough emphasis on just how important the decision is, because you will be playing three very different stories or at least perspectives based on this choice made in the first few hours. Each path is accompanied by underlying themes which do wonders to promote replayability and draw you in to try multiple playthroughs. No matter the path however you will encounter the same high-quality storytelling and doesn’t leave you short-changed or penalised at all from a plot and story perspective, because of which road you decided to travel down.
What will differ however are the core group of characters you will interact with on a routine basis. The three houses of the officer’s academy all have a roster of eight students that are varied in name, look, personality, interests, backstories, classes and more. I truly feel it’s the characters that make this such an interesting, rewarding experience, whether it’s the promiscuous Dorothea, the ever-hungry Raphael or the introverted, anxiety-riddled Bernadetta. I thoroughly enjoyed every interaction be it the short and sweet one-line responses, the multiple sentence conversations or the exchanges featuring dialogue choices, they all add something to the world and character building.
Fortunately, if you draw a liking to some of the students from the other houses you do have the opportunity to recruit them, through one of two ways. Support conversations, or having a high enough skill level in the skills whichever student is interested in. So fear not, you won’t miss out on your first playthrough as long as you put in the work.
Taking it back a step to the story, it meets close to the middle when it comes to delivering out of left-field twists and easy to predict moments. What stands as a testament to the story development however is that even those predictable scenes and events have a weight to them and still managed to draw out the emotions from within me, deep I know. In all seriousness though I was brought to both absolute laughter and solemn tears, with much thanks to the endearing cast.
At the heart of Fire Emblem lies the tactical, grid-based level design and turn-based combat. This is what the series is truly known for, as well as fantasy settings and anime of course. I’ve never really clicked with tactical RPG’s in the past, the only outliers being South Park: The Fractured But Whole and now Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The latter of which, does a great job in making you aware of the very real threat of perma-death, if a character dies, that’s it, they are gone unless you play through the casual difficulty. This feature or curse some may see it as, ensures you think about every move with meticulous care because of not only the risk but the huge investment for the characters.
With all the stakes, navigating the field is the ultimate game of chess, knowing which units to move, where to move them and when to do so is king. Deciding to take the opportunity to obliterate an enemy could also spell doom if you leave your character in the open without a defence, got to think smart or go home. The freedom I find is the hook, because you are basically the master of your own destiny. One feature that downplays the threat of perma-in-the-ground is Divine Pulse that allows you to rewind time however many steps you see fit to a moment in time most opportune for you to have a bit of a do-over. What it does so well is cater to those looking for a more relaxed experience whilst also offering a harsh time to those who seek it.
Characters can be equipped with a weapon, supporting equipment that can increase stats, classes, abilities and battalions. For the classic difficulty setting it really is important to make use of all these components to succeed. What’s impressive is how many combinations there are to experiment with when you consider every variable. Being able to watch the action from afar but also having the ability to zoom in close to see not only the unit but their surrounding battalion at the same time is a much-appreciated feature, letting me choose how I want to play whenever I want.
With all the different factors, I always look forward to the next battle and find them exhilarating which is not a word usually used to describe the gameplay of a tactical RPG. The amount of choice available mixed with the risk, twists and plot progression entices me to do as many missions as possible. Which is a great segway to mention that the main story missions are not the only ones to jump into.
Paralogue Missions are more character focused, narrative driven encounters that serve to progress a character’s arc whilst coinciding with the main story and offers more lofty rewards. Quest missions are extra’s you can pick up whilst in the monastery and then embark upon to earn some renown and basic weapons. What is renown you ask? Well, it’s basically XP that can be used to purchase perks from four statues, cool right? There is a surprising amount of systems that go in to building your team and enhancing them to be the best they can be, it’s satisfying to explore and really dig in to everything on offer.
Whilst at the monastery there are many ways in which to spend your time (activity points), go fishing, have a cup of tea with someone, practice some singing, train your skills through faculty training, gather students for a meal and cook with someone. There’s no shortage of options and puts the control in you to decide how you want to go about your days. You can only walk the Hogwarts-esque environment on a Sunday in-game, but not all Sundays will allow it dependent on if it’s the end of month etc.
The calendar serves to provide chapters in an easy to navigate way, one month, is one chapter and at the end of each month you have a main mission to embark upon to finish the current chapter. Before that final day you do everything you can to train your units, recruit others and really ready yourself for the upcoming fight. The beginning of each week is a lecture that you use, to have one to one’s with your pupils and train them up on different skills at your discretion, you can also get two of them to take part in a group task to better their bond with another and increase the relevant skill.
Professor level is important as the higher grade you are, the more activity points you can spend on each free day. Meaning you can do a lot more and improve yourself or your units at a more accelerated rate.
Visual fidelity has never been the Switch’s forte and with the right art style and design, it doesn’t have to be. Three Houses is gorgeous from the standpoint that the world looks so damn beautiful I just want to jump into the screen and live out my days at Garreg Mach. A bright colour palette matched with a level design that just oozes fantasy and wonder. Whether running around in-game, on the battlefield or watching the incredible anime inspired cutscenes I would consistently just marvel at the screen, smiling because of everything I was witnessing.
The students all have their unique looks that make them stand out from the crowd and coincide with their personalities and behaviours. My favourite design being Petra from the Black Eagles, foreign royalty which she displays prominently with her slightly altered regular attire, purple hair worn in a high ponytail featuring minor plaits and a simple yet elegant tattoo under her right eye, straight fire.
That brings me to the soundtrack, oh hell yes, the music featured is just so anime and hype and I love it so god damn much. Just everything about it eggs me on to keep moving forward and lose myself in the adventure, be it in battle or chilling with my home boys at the academy. If it isn’t the soundtrack it’s the excellent voice acting performances and if not that, it’s the subtle sound effects that just build the atmosphere and immersion.
Upon game completion it doesn’t have to end there, because of the numerous routes you can go down throughout, you’ll have a lot more to see that you wouldn’t have been able to on the first run. New game+ is available for those who want faster progression on their 2nd, 3rd etc playthrough, being able to purchase upgrades with renown that allows you to run through the rest of the game at a quicker pace.
OVERALL: 10/10 – PHENOMENAL
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a perfect example of complex storytelling, filled with content that can be witnessed through multiple playthroughs. Memorable characters are plentiful, leaving me with an affinity for each one that goes beyond just remembering a name or design, but knowing their likes, dislikes and how to turn them, to my house. It looks good and sounds oh so amazing that it was such a genuine pleasure to play, let alone complete. Not to mention it re-ignited my love for gaming which in turn persuaded me to begin writing reviews once more. My first mainline Fire Emblem journey was a success and I cannot wait to see what’s next.
Written by Rhys Baldwin.