Three houses, multiple routes and a grand adventure awaits. Can you lead the students into battle?
Fire Emblem is one of my favorite Nintendo franchises ever. While the strategy genre is filled with other classics, I have always appreciated the stories told in Fire Emblem's quite expansive universe. However, the 2016 3DS trio Fire Emblem Fates overcomplicated the storytelling and lost some of the series magic in the process. That’s likely why I was a bit skeptical when it came to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, due out on July 26 on Nintendo Switch. In trailers, I thought it looked fun while also seeming much bigger and grander than recent entries. As soon I started playing it, Fire Emblem: Three Houses soothed my concerns over the course of more than 20 hours with the final game.
Three Houses takes place in the continent of Fódlan. Three regions are in constant struggle with each other: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus and the Leicester Alliance. After many wars and conflicts, the Garreg Mach Monastery wants to bring young students of importance together and help to raise them in their image. The three houses, based on respective regions, are in friendly competition with each other and aim for the top spot in the Officer's Academy. The academy happens to be short a professor, and through a string of circumstances, the main character (default name Byleth) scores that job. Immediately, you choose the house that you want to lead and teach in your design.
For my first playthrough, I went for the Black Eagles from the Adrestian Empire. The first thing that struck a chord with me is how well the characters are written. Every personality oozes charm and are a joy from the moment they enter the screen. My personal favorite in the Black Eagles route is Bernadetta, a shy girl who knows how to use a bow and arrow. She prefers not to leave her room and is uncomfortable in direct conversation. There are underlying reasons why she acts that way, but figuring out the why is just part of the intrigue. The house leader, Edelgard, is a strong character as well. She can be blunt and rather direct, but immediately questions a decision after making her mind up. She is a conflicted soul who knows that she will be forced to carry a burden some day. The next kin of the Empire might not be an open person at first, but you learn quickly how she chose her path. It is stellar character building that was lacking a tiny bit with Fire Emblem Fates sometimes.
What helps to sell these conversations are the spoken dialogue. Shadows of Valentia experimented with voice acting in new key areas, but Three Houses has fully embraced the idea. Every word said by the characters, may they be important or nothing of value, is all available in American English and Japanese. It is a huge step in making the characters feel more alive, making them part of a bigger and breathing world. You can easily spend an hour talking to every NPC in monastery and find a surprising amount of care in every phrase said. Some characters annoyed me, but that came down to their personality and not because of poor characterization. To be completely fair towards the game, there are very few characters I actively dislike, but opinions might change as I try different routes.
While I dabbled a little bit with the other two houses, I’m currently unsure whether or not the playthroughs for each of the three houses will be significantly different. It absolutely looks that way as certain perspectives can completely change, and each route gives you a different set of students. In addition, and without giving anything away, important, potentially game-changing decisions are frequent. One of them drove me absolutely mad, because I simply didn't know what chain of events would unfold. Now I’m obviously hoping these choices will appear in my other playthroughs, but only time will tell. What I'm encouraged by is how much everything is intertwined, as everyone is linked together through current events and actions. An urgency is constantly present, which encouraged me to keep pushing harder. Even now, as I’m writing this, I am just stoked for what could potentially come up next.
When it comes to gameplay, this might be the most versatile the Fire Emblem games have felt in a while. The standard principles of moving your units across a grid-based board still apply, but under the hood a lot of things have changed. For starters, there is a separation between normal weaponry and magic. In fact, magic users don't have to purchase any of their books as the usage gets replenished after every match. Weapon durability returns in full force with Three Houses. That being said, even when weapons deplete, they can still be used with reduced statistics. Then, when you go to the marketplace, you can forge or repair your gear wherever you find that needed. While the game adds rules to have checks and balances, it doesn't punish you for overstaying your welcome. Three Houses lets you think more freely to an endlessly satisfying degree.
The battle options don't end there, however. Combat Arts, introduced as Weapon Arts in the Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, make an exciting return as well. Unlike in the previous game where these attacks would drain your HP, they now take up more of a weapon's durability. In addition, you no longer learn attacks from individual weapons, but rather from becoming proficient with a weapon type. The player is free to mix and match weapons and arts as long as they are in the same category, which makes for excellent experimentation. Another return from Echoes is Divine Pulse. If you made a mistake or did something you didn't like during battle, you can move back the hands of time for a limited amount of turns. There isn't necessarily a negative point to the option, but I found myself using it sparsely throughout my playtime so far. Even at that, it was to fix minor things like the placement of characters or moving someone quicker out of harm's way.
The final big inclusion is the Gambit option. While shopping for weapons and items, you can head over to the Battalion Guild and hire some men to back your unit up in battle. The amount of battalion options I got through in part one of the adventure is staggering, and a solid chunk came with a unique ability that was helpful amidst all the chaos. A bunch of mages can restore the health of multiple units, attack with a vicious stampede or lower certain statistics. By having more units around you, the effectiveness of a Gambit is significantly increased. In addition, it is incredibly helpful to destroy beasts as you can stun them for a limited time. The beasts have multiple health bars, vicious attacks, and specific weak spots. Multiple well-timed Gambits can be enough to shut the evil wolves and birds for good. With all of these possibilities, plus a number of smaller changes, you can find your way to play.
That way to play extends to the Garreg Mach Monastery, where you freely roam around as a professor. The monastery runs on a calendar, which you only have slight control over. Sunday's are the point that you get the freedom to do whatever you desire. Obviously, you can choose the option Explore and experience the church's grounds for yourself. The space is massive with a variety of facilities and characters to meet up with. The students of all three houses congregate at specific locations on the map, which grants you various opportunities to interact with them. You can build up relationships with different characters, even if they’re not in your house, and maybe even convince them that they should join your side. This is a long process, forcing the professor to learn a variety of weapon skills. You can learn by going to various colleagues and asking them for advice. Another way you can build up bonds with characters is to grant them gifts, have a meal with them, or give them items back that they lost.
The number of Garreg Mach Monastery facilities you can use depends on your Activity Meter. If you want to have a bite to eat with them or raise your weapon skills, the meter will be depleted by one. In the beginning of the adventure, this can cause some heartbreak as you only focus on certain things. It ensures that you won't see everything blossom in a first run of the game, and teach you what the characters actually appreciate. As your time on the compound carries on, more options are made available. You can let students enter weapon-specific tournaments, join you for a tea party, or force them to sing in a choir. The activities can raise morale, specialities, or their admiration for you as a teacher. Because yes, the success of your teachings all comes down to a simple experience bar.
Finally, if you decide to explore, you can take on various side quests. Some are simple fetch quests, granting you rewards for your efforts. It makes for a good chance to explore the grounds. Later on, however, some of the focus shifts on additional battles that you can partake in. Next to netting some sweet rewards, it is a great way to give your team practise. Quest battles as well as Paralogues populate the Battle Menu, where you have a limited amount of battles you can try every day. Paralogues deepen the information you have on characters and make you see new sides previously unseen. You will explore all over Fódlan, starting with baby steps in the surrounding area. A random selection of battles change every day too, so if you have a lust to duke it out, you shouldn't hold back from doing so.
Special training chances pop up every Sunday that are called Seminar, where you and a few students get instructed by one of your colleagues to deal with weapons better. The units present will also get morale raised. Every Monday, you take control of the classroom and try to help your students with learning new skills. The students have specific goals that they want to shoot for, but you are free to award points to any weapon proficiency statistic that you like. For my initial run, I focused on their wishes and that got me quite far. At the end of part one, most of my students achieved an A in one way or another. The speed of the process depends on their motivation. To keep awarding a student points, you need to keep battling or doing fun activities with them. The process raises a bar that allows you to spend points on said student. These will also automatically fill up if they are the MVP in a battle or immediately after a Support Conversation. Getting a head start on a character’s development can require some foresight. Additionally, the weapon proficiency needs to be kept up if you want to enable new classes for your entire squad.
As far as the look of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is concerned, I really like how the world and character models are put together. Everything has a uniqueness that simply doesn't compare to some more recent entries. That being said, the hallmarks of a Koei Tecmo game are present as you freely walk around. The NPCs take liberties of where they can walk and characters clipped through environments a few times. While the battle animations are stylish, there is some weird lighting going on now and again. That being said, nothing of this took away from the grander experience. On the music side, I'm a tiny bit more concerned. For a while I kept hearing the same songs showing their head, and was wondering how much music there really is in the game. It has to be said that the tunes are really great and keep up with the same quality as before; there just hasn’t been a wide variety at this point.
So far, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has been very much a winner. It is a fast and deep experience that I could go into even deeper detail about. For the time being, however, I want to focus on the things that matter and where this game really excels. The title cooks up a stellar battle system that offers checks and balances, forcing you to think before you act. The characters have been all very unique and each brings a distinct flavor to the overall world. This goes hand in hand with raising your squad, building up a relationship with the individual characters, and teaching them the weapons you prefer. Despite the whole of part one taking upwards of 24 hours, my spirits are still insanely high and I want to keep playing without stopping. I will have more to say in the near future, and I look very much forward to that day.