Welcome to Garreg Mach! Class is now in session.
The Fire Emblem franchise has come a long way over the past few generations. What was once a niche strategy-RPG has gone on to become one of Nintendo’s tentpole franchises. As the Switch continues to dominate in hardware sales, the biggest question is whether Fire Emblem: Three Houses is this summer’s Switch blockbuster?
Intelligent Systems has taken what makes Fire Emblem so special and improved almost every aspect, making it accessible for both ride-or-die fans and new adopters. This is the first title to make its way off Nintendo’s DS family of handhelds since 2007’s Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. The shift towards providing a console-like experience meant there was a lot of pressure to enhance the franchise. For the most part, the studio’s efforts paid off.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses largely centres around giving you the freedom of choice. Whether you’re invested in emotional, social-sim character interactions, strategic turn-based combat or both, you’re able to dedicate the bulk of your time on what is most meaningful to you. On top of that, Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces intriguing mythos and evolves the traditional combat system the franchise has had in place for many iterations.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses Info
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developers: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo
- Genre: Strategy RPG
- Modes: Single-player
- ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
Part 1: Stay in school, kids
Set in the land of Fódlan, a war between three nations has finally settled. You step into the shoes of a silent mercenary turned tutor for Garreg Mach, the home of the Church of Seiros and Officer’s Academy. As indicated from the name, your first big decision is to pick which of the three houses to choose from—the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, Leicester Alliance or the Adrestian Empire. It was no easy task to choose between the three. After sweating it out, I finally settled on siding with the Leicester Alliance, which waves the yellow Golden Deer banner. With Claude von Riegan, at my side, I began my first year of teaching at Garreg Mach.
As any great mentor, it is your job to help them fulfill their goals and nurture them before they hit the battlefield
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is split into two parts and the first is primarily centred around coaching the next generation of warriors. As a well-trained mercenary, you’ll begin to instruct a small ragtag group of students. Each Monday, you’ll have the opportunity to teach your students and enhance their combat skills. Trust me when I say that in the beginning, some of the students need all the help they can get (yes, I’m looking at you, Ignatz). Progressing through the game, you’ll improve your Professor level, gaining additional Activity Points to spend each week.
Every student has their own specialty in place when you begin. As any great mentor, it is your job to help them fulfill their goals and nurture them before they hit the battlefield. For instance, Lorenz sought to become proficient with the spear. As his tutor, I could attribute time to improve his stats in that class. However, I could also choose to disregard and train him in any other class in order to build the legion of soldiers I wanted. With enough training, your students can take a Certification and, if passed, they are given a newly named class—like the incredibly badass Wyvern Lord!
Every Sunday, you’re given a free day to openly explore the Garreg Mach grounds or take part in seminars to not only further improve your students’ stats but your own as well. You can also take part in optional side missions if you’re itching for more combat. There’s an overwhelming amount of activities to complete. Luckily, you’re able to dabble in a bit of everything. I typically found myself rotating between side missions, completing seminars and fishing when I wanted to unwind and provide stat-boosts for my students.
Exploring was the most satisfying option for me. I was able to freely interact with students from each house and the head of the Church of Seiros, Rhea. Garreg Mach is a sprawling hub with a staggering amount to do within the walls. Walking the grounds, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Harry Potter and Hogwarts. You’ll have sincere and deep conversations with your students and get to know their backstory—like why Ignatz is such a wiener.
Freedom is at the forefront. You can dedicate time to what speaks to you the most.
Instructing will take a toll on the motivation of your young scolars, so you must keep them happy and invested. To keep them motivated, it’s important to dine with them or invite them to a tea party. Building out these relationships will also give you perks in combat as well. You’re also given the option to recover lost items, and give gifts to those you want to become BFFs with (or more *wink, wink*). You can also onboard students from other houses. This is no easy task, but it’s possible to scoop up one or two additional students if your interests align.
Freedom is at the forefront of all of this, so you can dedicate time to what speaks to you the most. Instructing isn’t speaking to you? Select auto-instruct each week! Want to focus on combat? Dive into the side missions that take place outside of the school. The diverse sense of freedom is quite ambitious and the payoff is quite the accomplishment.
Hitting the battlefield
Not all is bright and sunny. There is a dark and foreboding threat looming over Garreg Mach. At the end of each month, you’ll be set loose on a mission with your students to uncover and put an end to the threat. Intelligent Systems has moved away from the weapon triangle, i.e. rock, paper, scissors, and introduced a more diverse combat system. If you’re looking for a tactics-like experience, look no further.
Combat invokes methodical and strategic planning. You must be deliberate when moving your units across the map. One false move along the grid could result in a perilous battle you may not survive. Weapons will also degrade over time, which makes the new Combat Arts a risk/reward system. Using these powerful attacks will degrade your weapons faster. In addition, you’ll have access Battallions which serve under each student. Battlalions level up on the battlefield, and much like repairing your weapons, replinishing Batallions is critical inbetween battles.
The permadeath system that Fire Emblem is known for returns once again. If you choose to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses the traditional way, once one of your students is defeated, they are gone for good. Alternatively, you can make use of the new Divine Pulse mechanic that rewinds time to a specific move so you can make appropriate adjustments. So the next time someone I won’t name, *cough* Ignatz *cough*, gets cut down, you can go back and refine your strategy.
Part 2: Fódlan under seige
There is a lot of meat on Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ bone. Honestly, by the climax of part one, I would have been satisfied to see the credits roll. However, the game continues into part two with a five-year gap, and truth be told, it could have been its own game as well. A war between the three houses has broken out and the game goes from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones with political intrigue and house banners being waved at every turn. The Leicester Alliance is now in direct opposition with the Adrestian Empire, which seeks to take control of Fódlan.
The latter half fell apart in many ways for me. There was something special about walking the halls, interacting with all the houses and teaching my up-and-coming students. Although still centralized in Garreg Mach, the grounds are emptier and the interactions with your house aren’t as impactful. There’s a greater sense of urgency within part two that contrasts with those moments of small talk. With tensions between the three houses boiling over, there’s a disconnect when chatting up Raphael about his love for food.
Although I am lukewarm on the second portion, seeing how my students have evolved into capable soldiers was pretty incredible. Characters I didn’t care for turned into some of my most cherished allies. Even the trepidatious Ignatz, who put me through hell during those early hours, became a capable bowman and superior member of my team! My feeling towards Claude changed many times during my playthrough as well. There were moments when he would undermind my character, but he evolved and grew on me. Over time, he became one of my favourite characters of the bunch.
It’s worth pointing out that siding with the Leicester Alliance means that the story played out a specific way. Choosing a different house will slightly alter the story, especially in the second half of the game. The changes are by no means drastic, though you will get the chance to develop relationships with a new line of students. Sinking time into playing each house may not feel as rewarding as one may prefer, but the experience is there for completionists. Harder difficulties and New Game+ will truly put your prowess to the test.
Fire Emblem for a new generation
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has improved the visuals and sound design in many ways. Throughout the game, fully animated cutscenes are present and are pure eye candy. However, they are few and far between. Unlike Awakening and Fates, where characters were reverted to sprites during combat, Three Houses transitions the fully realized character models fairly well into the gameplay but they aren’t revolutionary to the genre.
Playing between docked and handheld, I preferred the experience of playing on a big screen but found no steep decline when I took the Switch out of its dock. Over the course of my playtime, I never experienced dropped frames or performance errors. Although, during a few handheld sessions, the fan within the Switch was put to the test.
Throughout the game, animated cutscenes are present and are pure eye candy.
Where the visuals falter is during dialogue scenes. Fire Emblem: Three Houses incorporates panning backgrounds that create a depth of field. Often you can see where those backgrounds are stitched together and they don’t always line up, leaving a bit of an eyesore on screen.
The OST from Takeru Kanazaki is pretty stellar. The Garreg Mach theme is an incredible standout. You can even select your favourite tracks within the combat segments. Cutscenes and dialogue options include dubbed English or Japanese voice acting. The dialogue is expertly written and is the beating heart driving every emotion throughout the narrative.
Accessing online features, you’ll be able to see key choices other players have made throughout the narrative. You’ll also uncover Lost Spirits during combat, which shows a grid space where a high percentage of players have died. Players that are brave enough to land there are granted bonuses. These are nice additions but aren’t mandatory to enjoy the game.
Three cheers for Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem: Three Houses succeeds in becoming a true console experience. It’s been far too long since we’ve been able to play the franchise on a big screen. The improved combat mechanics are welcoming additions that I hope become mainstays for the franchise.
Many newcomers will be looking at Fire Emblem: Three Houses as their gateway into the franchise. Thankfully, you don’t need to have been exposed to the series before diving in. Everything is given context, and there is an ample amount of exposition found through dialogue. Three Houses is a blank slate and is inviting in many ways.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is indeed overflowing with content that you can sift through. Factoring in all the different avenues, you can spend the bulk of your time developing relationships, creating spreadsheets full of stat analysis or engaging in battles. Very little is forced on you outside of the narrative missions. Although there are personal drawbacks in the later portion, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a contender for standout game of the summer.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Pros:
- Choice and freedom on activities.
- Engaging characters.
- Refined combat mechanics.
- Accessible gameplay and story for new players.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Cons:
- Second half loses momentum.
- Visuals leave more to be desired.