“Better late than never” when it comes to Fire Emblem.
Nintendo’s tactical RPG series may have been introduced to North America as “the games starring that weird Super Smash Bros. anime character,” but it’s come a long way over the last decade in terms of its popularity, to the point where it beat Pokémon and Animal Crossing onto the Nintendo Switch. My introduction to the series was late by nearly every measure: 2016’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright was the first FE game I played (and I didn’t get to it until 2018), and despite picking Fire Emblem: Three Houses nearly six months ago, I didn’t actually stick the cartridge into my Switch until a week or so ago. I was a bit nervous about the Harry Potter-esque take on FE, and given that I a) have a fair amount of teaching experience, and b) would never think to turn that premise into a video game, I had my doubts about how engaging the story and characters would really be.
After 20+ hours with the game, I’m happy to report that my concerns were overblown. The crazy people at Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo have managed to make this unorthodox academic setup both accessible and engaging, weaving in enough combat options and character development to make this a game worthy of any RPG’s fan time.
Good games always start with a good foundation, and for me, that foundation is the characters you control and interact with over the course of the adventure. FE: TH has twenty-four students split between (you guessed it) three houses: The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer. That’s an awful lot of backstories to dream up and weave together, and when I started seeing the obvious tropes among my prospective students (the snotty nobles, the muscle-bound simpletons, the reserved magic-users, etc.), I wasn’t sure just how compelling my new brood of slayers would actually be. As the students begin interacting with the protagonist each other, however, they revealed a surprising amount of depth and development behind their motivations. A great example is Lorenz from the Golden Deer: He comes across initially as nothing but an upper-crust fop, but as we learn more about his desire for power and how highly he views the ideals of nobility (he views Claude as a fraudulent heir and thus less fit than he to lead the Alliance, he bends over backwards to do Hilda’s bidding so that she will talk him up to her superstar brother, he assists Mercedes without hesitation because helping commoners is a noble’s duty), he becomes a more three-dimensional character that the player can (occasionally) empathize with. Most other characters follow a similar pattern, allowing to peel back the layers to get a sense of their true (and complex) personality. (The same seems like it can be said of the professors, but I haven’t yet gotten to interact them in the same way.) While there are exceptions to this rule (Marianne is basically Fluttershy from My Little Pony, right down to her conversations with animals, and hasn’t really evolved to overcome their self-doubt in the same way as, say, Ignatz has), and some personality traits clash with their combat roles (if Hilda is so lazy and inattentive to her studies, how has she become one of my go-to melee brawlers?), but I’ve mostly found the students I’ve encountered to be really fascinating, and I can’t wait to see how they respond as the story progresses.
(However, there’s one thing that bothers me about the story, as it clashes with one of Fire Emblem’s most-beloved traditions: Shipping characters with the protagonist and each other. Romantic relationships between Fates characters was fine—the game took great pains to address the potential incest issue—but here, the potential for romantic student/professor relationships makes me more than a bit uncomfortable. This sort of behavior is a gross abuse of the power dynamic between students and teachers, and I don’t like the idea of making it a feature here.)
Speaking of the story: Things start off a bit forced, as your character stumbles across some students in distress and gets dragged to the Garreg Mach monastery, where you’re immediately appointed as a professor for…reasons? (Although in truth, my first academic appointment felt just about as random at the time). Once the stage is set, however, things flow a lot more naturally as you get swept up in the political intrigue of Fódlan, and have to turn your class into an elite fighting force to help keep the world from falling apart. The monastery, whose size felt a bit intimidating and unnecessary early on, eventually provides you with enough options for interacting with your students (sharing meals, participating in tournaments and choir practice, or just interacting with them around the facility), and the weekly lecture setup provides a nice framework to customize your team and develop their strengths and roles. The rest of the continent appears only in battle set pieces thus far (and frankly, the graphical power of the Switch offers little beyond an expansion from the cramped 3DS screens), but you at least gain a slowly-expanding sense of the lay of the land as the game goes along.
Speaking of battle, all the storyboarding in the world couldn’t save a game if the combat was awful, right? The tactical RPG foundation is still pretty solid, but the QoL improvements are more of a mixed bag. MP has been replaced with item-based counters this time around (you only have a certain number of Heal spells, for instance), which felt overly limiting and forces you to rely on items more than usual. The concept of weapon durability has also been added, which felt tacked-on and never served any purpose besides making me pay extra money to repair the occasional weakened weapon. On the flip side, the removal of the rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle added a bit more flexibility to each character class by making them viable in more combat situations, and the addition of battalions gave me even more options when deciding how to approach a situation. (Terrain actually seems to matter more now as well, doing everything from providing extra cover to limiting your mobility). My favorite option, however, is ‘Mission Assistance,’ which allows you to borrow a character from another house for each month’s battles. This option gives you a chance to improve your team composition (with Marianne as The Golden Deer’s lone healer, I constantly borrowed Moira Mercedes to run a double-support comp), try different classes before you change your own characters to them (when I pondered making Leonie a Pegasus Knight, I borrowed Ingrid for a match or two to see how well the class worked in battle), and gives you a chance to build up a support relationship with a character with the ultimate goal of getting them to defect to their house to yours (predictably, both Mercedes and Ingrid are now Golden Deer in my game). Characters can no longer fight together in battle as in Fates, but you can assign characters to Adjutant roles where they can support other characters with attacks, healing, and other bonuses (while also earning some experience points from victories). You can’t do as much during each turn as you can in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (you can move, perform some sort of attack/item action, and then in rare instances move again), but I like how the mechanics encourage you to think proactively and set things up for the next turn (should I hunker down in the forest and make the enemy come to me? Should I draw a few enemies out using my slayers so my backliners can feast on them next turn?). Victory conditions have been pretty straightforward so far (destroy everybody, destroy just the head bad guy, win within a certain number of turns, etc.), but they do enough to encourage lots of fun and mayhem in each fight.
Normally Fire Emblem is played as a Nuzlocke run with KO’d units permanently remove from play, but I prefer not to lose my favorite units to stupid mistakes, so I generally play in Casual mode. Normal difficulty makes things a bit too easy at times, but it’s good for players who are new to the series, and there are ‘Hard’ and “Maddening’ modes for those who need a steeper hill to climb. Even permadeath has been nerfed a bit, as Three Houses offers a ‘Divine Pulse’ option to let you rewind time a few times per battle to let you take a step back and reconsider sending your archer through a warp portal without realizing who’s waiting on the other side (my bad, Ignatz). This handy sliding-scale difficulty system is the sort of thing I wish they’d implement for Pokémon going forward…
The visuals and battle themes are mostly kind of meh, and while they set an appropriate mood, they quickly fade into the background after a match or two. The novelty of seeing your characters in glorious HD wears off faster than I expected, but it doesn’t hurt anything either. Fire Emblem, like Pokémon, isn’t something you play for the visuals or sounds (although Pokémon Sword/Shield upped the audio bar significantly), but for the team-building and combat operations, all of which are as good as ever.
In the end, the biggest compliment I can pay Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that it was really hard to step away from the game long enough to write this post. This would have easily made my “best games” list of 2019 had I gotten around to it sooner, and I would encourage other Switch owners not to wait around as long as I did. If you’re a fan of tactical RPGs (or even more-traditional RPGs), FE: TH more than justifies its price tag. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Blue Lions to smite…