FIRE EMBLEM: THREE HOUSES
By Mark "Demius" Bronneberg on August 13, 2020
Fire Emblem is a strategic RPG in the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and one of the best representatives of this genre. After having played each Fire Emblem game released in the West and even some of the translated Japan-only games multiple times (yes even the mobile-only gacha game FE Heroes), as well as being a regular visitor to the Serenes Forest website to look up growth rates, it should come as no surprise that Three Houses was my most anticipated game for the Nintendo Switch once it was announced. The fact that they seem to have interwoven something like Hogwarts (for the 'uncultured readers': this is the wizard's academy in Harry Potter) into the game only raised my anticipation. I'm writing this review just a little over a year after the game's release, because I thought it was about time to look back and see what's what. Also, there might be a few (light) spoilers ahead, but nothing too major!
As in every Fire Emblem game, the story is where the fun is. If you like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and the musical Cats you will be in for one hell of a treat (yes there are cats, you can feed them and pet them). Before the game starts, you can select your gender and you start off as a mercenary who is on a mission with your father (spoiler alert: if they ever make a movie out of this game Sean Bean should play the father). On one evening, while enjoying a nice pint in some local tavern with Sean Bean, three kids approach you and ask you for your help. Apparently, they are followed by some bandits and ask you to help get rid of them. Bandits in Fire Emblem games are always axe wielding maniacs that prey on the rich and the nobility. Soon you discover that these little brats are royalty, each representing the next heir to one of the three kingdoms which make up the world in Three Houses. After the first mission you travel to Hogwarts (a Monastery), and are given the sorting hat where you have to pick between Edelgard, heir to the Andrestian empire (house Slytherin); Claude of the Golden Deer (house Ravenclaw); Dimitri of the blue lions (house Gryffindor). Of course, we did not forget about Hufflepuff since they represent the 'church of Seiros', more about this later.
After you choose a house you will become their teacher/ representative and are in charge of educating your students. No, not in math or whatever, but in horseback riding, sword-, lance- or axe fighting and, of course, using magic. What is important to know is that you can play trough this game 4 times and each time you have the chance to work towards a different path and ending. Each of the three houses are one path and the fourth 'special path' being the one where you side with the church (this is an option in Edelgard's route). The beginning of the story is really 'happy, happy, joy, joy.' Felix will challenge you to a duel wherever he sees you. Dorothea will complain about men, but still wants to find a rich spouse. And Ferdinand von Aegir will want to sip tea whenever he has the chance. This first section evolves around you becoming a teacher at the academy. After each mission (hunt some bandits, investigate a rumor etcetera) you will return to the Monastery where you can socialize with the students from your own house and even recruit students from other houses if they like you. For the best story experience, I advise you to not recruit anyone during your first playthrough. The reason for this is because after the first part all hell breaks loose and there will be a five-year time skip.
This time skip is when the real fun starts. Everyone of your students will have aged beautifully and given some new armor and once the band gets back together the entire world has gone full 'Game of Thrones' on each other. This time skip is so well done it took my breath away the first time. Having to fight against my former fellow students since I failed to recruit them during the first part or because they choose to remain at the other houses is heartbreaking. During battle there are little skits that will break your heart even more. Going up against your fellow students during the second part is heartbreaking and the story really gets lifted to unknown heights when this happens. Just know before you start that Fire Emblem is a lot like the Persona series in building up relationships between all the characters between missions. This never feels like a chore because the support conversation between all possible units are amazing and fully voice acted. Bernadetta is a timid girl that's always in her room and Raphael likes to work out and eat food whenever possible (I pity the shirt he wears.). Raising support levels also has a strategic purpose since it will give units a boost to their stats whenever they are close to each other in battle.
Fire Emblem is a strategic RPG where you start with a certain number of units on a grid-like map. During your turn you can move units a certain number of steps on the grid, after which the enemy gets a turn to move their units. Strategy revolves around the 'rock paper scissors' like battle system (swords beat axes, axes beat lances and lances beat swords). Fire Emblem has always been known for its difficulty. The first time when I played a Fire Emblem game I was amazed at the ruthlessness of this game, if one of your units dies, he or she is gone permanently. So, the next map or mission your favorite and über powerful flying unit is gone, because you were dumb enough to let her go near some archers. Luckily the more modern Fire Emblem games have added a casual mode, in this mode perma death is off. My recommendation, however, would be to not touch casual mode.
The fact that every false move can make you loose a unit permanently gives the Fire Emblem games a certain anxiety that gets you really invested in your units, growing a bond and rage quitting when someone dies, just to come back later to reload a save file to try a different approach or strategy. Since some of these missions can take quite a lot of time it can be quite annoying when you loose one of your favorite units late in a mission. Thankfully the protagonist Byleth gains a special ability which gives him or her the ability to turn back the hands of time. This is limited to a certain amount of uses per mission (linked to your professor level). Once you run out of 'time travel juice' its all game over for the unit that died. This is a quality of life hack I would like to see added to all future Fire Emblem games. There are three overall difficulty settings (normal, hard and maddening) and playing trough maddening without time skip would be even more evil than forcing someone to complete Superman 64.
Like any RPG your units can level up, but unlike previous Fire Emblem games, your units are not fixed to a certain class (classes determine which skills you can learn and weapons you can easily use or get bonusses for). Each unit can become virtually any class (some special units have certain unique classes like the protagonist and the three heirs). For example, say you want to let Raphael use a bow and ride a horse, right? Well, it's possible, even though you will most likely have PETA on your case for having the horse carry this big lug of muscles. This switching of classes opens up much more possibilities as far as team building and using just your favorite units goes. Just remember that the growth rates to each character are different. Being in a certain class changes your growth rate but each unit has his or her own native growth rates. Each unit has strength, magic, dexterity, speed, luck, defence, resistance and charisma and once you level up each of these stats has a certain amount of % chance to go 1 level up. In the example of Raphael, he is all muscles and no brains, his strength and defence gains are one of the highest in the game, but his magic is non existant. Turning him into a mage would be quite impossible, but maybe a nice challenge for the masochist playtrough on maddening.
Gameplay is really fun if you like strategic elements and character building. Like I explained earlier, you can customize each character individually. Since you play as a teacher you can even hold classes in which you train certain units in certain areas, unlocking special bonus skills in the process. Also raising your own professor level so you can do more stuff during one day of training. Controlling the units in battle has never been so easy, if you played strategic RPGs in the past you will feel right at home. If you did not, no worries all is explained really well, without having to endure hours of tutorials. The game even has some online elements, these are optional and not needed but provide some welcome extra's. During a mission there will be little lights on certain places on the grid. These represent places where other players have made mistakes and lost units. If you move to these places you will receive a nice item or bonus experience for your trouble.
The graphics of this game are good, nothing too fancy or special. The game uses a cell shaded look and the anime style of the game is really well done. In battle everything is rendered in 3D and battles run smoothly. The only slowdown I had is while playing docked and exploring the monastery, never during battles. The sounds are impressive to say the least. Every character of Fire Emblem is nearly fully voiced. This really helps you to get involved and have an immersive experience. The soundtrack is one of the best ever in a Fire Emblem game and it all adds up to a great atmosphere. Certain textures while exploring the monastery are bad and during the story skits and support conversations the background can be really plain, while the characters are super cute. This contrast is a little big at times.
What is important to know is this is not a game to play casually for a few hours. Each playthrough (if you want to see most of what the game has to offer) provides around 50-60 hours of playtime. Seeing every route (4 total) and completing the DLC (which adds another house: The Ashen Wolves) will add another 20 hours to a total of 200+ hours of gameplay. The first half of each route can get a bit repetitive, but once the time skip happens each route will be different. The great thing about this, is that you will not experience the full story if you only play one route, experiencing different routes will elaborate on different parts of the story. You won't have a full view until you have completed different routes and have seen more the story has to offer. I can't elaborate more on this, since it will be spoiler heavy.
If you are hungry for blind revenge and just want to see the world burn: choose Dimitri; if you want to destroy everything church or religion related: pick Edelgard; if you like humor scheming and strategy: pick Claude. But best would be to pick your favorite to start with and come back for multiple playthroughs. There is a new game plus mode in which you can spend a certain currency into buying perks you unlocked the previous playthrough. This really speeds up gameplay and exploration and helps kill the repetitiveness of multiple playtroughs. The DLC is a welcome addition but not needed to enjoy the game. Even though it 'reveals a fourth hidden house beneath the monastery', it is a standalone story. It is a separate game with new missions in which you can use all three house-heirs together. After you complete the story-DLC you unlock the new characters and underground area for future or current playthroughs of the main story.
Any fan of strategic- or RPG games should really check out Three Houses. If you played previous Fire Emblem games and liked them, this game is a no-brainer. The game offers an insane amount of value for your buck. Currently my game sits at over 200 hours of gameplay, I have completed three of the four main routes as well as the DLC. This game is original in so many ways: it adds more in-depth team building than previous games, it has more emotion and world building and provides a serious challenge without getting too punishing (thank you time skip).