I stepped into my one-hour preview of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses with the desire to look at the game as I’m sure many players out there are––as a potential gateway into the Fire Emblem franchise. The Fire Emblem series has been built over the course of 13 core-entries, which can be quite intimidating. Where does one begin? Is Fire Emblem: Three Houses accessible for new players?
The short answer is yes. Fire Emblem has been continuously filling a niche in the tactical turn-based market. The series has been known for its deep RPG elements layered over grid-based combat. Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does invite new players and returning ones in with its evolutionary take on Fire Emblem gameplay and narrative structures. The freedoms and choices you can make during the story can be as surface level or as deep as you want it to be. Whether you are a series veteran or coming to the game with fresh eyes, you have the choice of exploring the rich mechanics or breeze through the portions they may not feel as connected to.
Our Fire Emblem: Three Houses preview was split into two major portions. In one hour, including 15-minutes of hands-on gameplay, we explored the opening stage, as well as the second phase of the game.
Fire Emblem 101
The first phase of the game places you in an academy school. You’ll create your character, or rather, choose the gender of the protagonist. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, all major cutscenes are fully animated, so the level of customization available is pretty slim. At the start, you’re able to choose between playing as a male or female. Beyond that, the look of your character is set in stone. As indicated by the name, there are three houses you can join––the Adrestian Empire, Leicester Alliance, or the Kingdom of Faerghus. You’ll be in charge of teaching the next generation of warriors under the banner of the house, and begin building relationships within the student body. For reference, this phase was played as a member of the Adrestian Empire.
The academy portion of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is where I can see pens, paper, and spreadsheets break out. The first phase is built around one full calendar year. During the week, you will be apart of classroom lectures, training and moulding your students to become the fighters you desire. Each student has their own set of beginner traits, have their own goals set, and motivation levels. To be the best professor you can be, you must tend their goals, or slowly foster new ones by teaching them new skills.
Each week, you’ll be able to host tutor lessons, strengthening each character’s skills. One may perhaps be a capable bowman, so you may want to encourage them to continue learning ranged combat. On the other hand, you may want to instill the art of the mage into your student. At the end of each week, you can place a number of students to take “certifications” which will teach them new skills. Depending on their stats, this can be a longer process, but it is possible. On the other hand, if stat-management isn’t your cup of tea, you can let the game make those hard decisions. Selecting Auto-Tutor, those hard decisions are made by the game, but you’ll be left with whatever hand the game deals. This goes to the point of player freedom. You are able to choose what to dedicate the bulk of your time with.
On the Sunday of each week, you’re able to freely explore the academy, take part seminars to learn new skills for yourself, go out to battle and grind for experience, and take part in optional side quests. The map of the academy is quite large. It is segmented into various districts and levels––almost akin to Hogwarts Castle. Once you explore an area of the school, you can activate fast travel to return later down the line.
You can also build stronger relationships with your students and other members around the academy. Birthday notifications are shown each month. Depending on the student, you can simply ignore them or choose to give them a gift or host a tea party. When seeking out the completion of side quests, you can take a student along with you and form a better relationship. The option of sharing a meal between you and two other students will not only improve your bond but may also motivate them to learn new skills down the road. In addition, and this aspect really stuck out to me, was the ability to recruit members from other houses into your chosen house. This can be a lengthy process, but well worth the effort.
Every activity, every lesson, everything under the academy phase works under allocating points. Once you run out of points for the week, you move on to the next week and repeat the process until the calendar year runs its course.
This Means War
The second section of our preview placed us in phase two of the game. After a five-year time jump, war has broken out across the three factions. All your efforts within the academy have come to a head as you lead your students to battle. During this portion, we were playing under the banner of the Kingdom of Faerghus.
Many notable changes have been implemented in the combat. New gameplay mechanics and refined ones can be seen throughout. The most recognizable is the shift from Fire Emblem’s “weapon triangle”, which was essentially rock, paper, scissors. Now, the individual skills of each character are the deciding factor on efficiency when against other unit types. Due to how many offensive and defensive skills are at play, there is a lot more fluidity in combat as you’re not constantly double checking if the character is inefficient against a unit. Each of your characters is given a Gambit Skill. These can be used during combat to deliver extreme damage, but can only be used a limited amount of times during each battle.
The relationships you’ve worked hard on nurturing come into effect as two characters can deliver a powerful blow to an enemy in unison. During the combat portion, a new enemy type, the Demonic Beast, was on the field. Defeating a Demonic Beast was a battle of attrition as it had three full health bars to whittle down. Placing your high-powered forces against it could be the most logical move, but also the most perilous as its attacks were quite powerful.
Your party of newly trained warriors aren’t alone on the battlefield. Fire Emblem: Three Houses implements swords-for-hire known at Battalions. Not only do they help pad out the grid of the battlefield, making the scenes feel more congested, but they serve a greater purpose. Battalions fight alongside your characters. They can also strengthen your defence and offence. Their health is tied to yours and in the event that they die during combat, more can be purchased for a pretty penny.
Permadeath, which the series is unabashedly known for has also been given a new treatment. Hardcore Fire Emblem players can still enjoy the suffering loss when one of their cherished characters is defeated in combat. For players that keep themselves up at night over their fallen ally, the Divine Pulse mechanic can be used a certain number of times to rewind time and revive your character. This mechanic is entirely optional, so whether or not you live by the permadeath effects, the option is there for you.
Before my time was up, I was given roughly 10-15 minutes of hands-on time to play around with the combat. The demo was running in docked mode and had a very stunning and pristine polish to it. There was no stuttering or dropped frames, which wasn’t overly surprising, seeing as the game is set to release in a month’s time. Moving the Fire Emblem series from the 3DS to Switch has gone a long way in terms of scale and graphical fidelity.
Feeling a bit like a fish out of water, with no true attachment to the characters, I went head on pushing my forces into battle without hesitation. Most characters are able to move along the grid quite far. I noticed that even if their movements would not get me close to an enemy, the range of attacks or AOE on defensive spells were manageable. Switching between characters, scrolling through menus all felt snappy and not cumbersome. I walked away with only one loss from my party. I’m sure if I dedicated hours upon hours of training I would be crushed. But alas, I felt nothing for my fallen ally.
Overall, based on the preview, I think Fire Emblem: Three Houses provides a large amount of choice and options Fire Emblem fans will welcome with open arms. In addition, think the way the game is structured allows for you to jump into the Fire Emblem franchise without being overloaded with deep JRPG mechanics. You’re able to ease your way in and skip portions of the game that may not speak directly to your interests––at least from I experienced.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses releases on July 26th, and may just be this summer’s talk of the town.