Review: Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an excellent starting point for those who like me, dabbled in previous entries. As my colleague Steve put it, this is a potential gateway into the Fire Emblem franchise, and after 13 core entries, I found the game that brought me into the fold. With deep combat mechanics, an exciting class system, and a setting reminiscent of Harry Potter, I found myself often enough playing late into the night, always looking for a way to continue playing during the day. For the first time in forever, there’s finally a Fire Emblem game that caters to newcomers and veterans of the series thanks to the rich gameplay mechanics.

Set on the continent of Fódlan, Three Houses deals with the three boarding houses of the Officer’s Academy. Split up between the Blue Lions, Golden Deer, and Black Eagles, the game is set within the school. Seemingly at peace, the Adrestian Empire to the southwest, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus to the north, and the Leicester Alliance to the east send their brightest to attend the academy. At the start, you choose which house you wish to lead.

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Three Houses

As an example, the Adrestian Empire is adept at using magic over physical combat and is represented by the Adrestian Princess, Edelgard von Hraesvelgr (say that three times!). Next, the Blue Lions hail from the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus and is represented by Prince Dimitri Alexandre Bladud, and carry spears into battle. Lastly, the Golden Deer excel in archery and hail from the Leicester Alliance and are represented by Claude von Regan.

As a professor at Garreg Mach Monastery, your job as a professor is to lead one of the houses and teach them rules of combat. It’s here where relationships are forged, a place I wasn’t sure I’d want to be cooped up in but thankful I was after getting to know my students. Three Houses places an emphasis on building relationships and education. You’ll lecture students, engage in mock battles and more. Exploring the Monastery is satisfying in its own way as the area offers much to see and do, with more events gradually rolling out throughout the year.

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Not like Hogwarts

That’s only the first portion of the game, too. You’ll spend roughly one year at Garreg Mach teaching students. Training is extremely satisfying if you invest the time and this helps when leading students into battle, otherwise, you’re also able to automate their training as well. Story progression is done by month to month, culminating in a story mission that ends each month. Students each come with a motivation bar that drains when being instructed, you’ll need to interact with them to get them motivated again. The social aspects are some of my favourite moments when exploring the Monastery because the best results come from engaging your students.

Later during the second half of Three Houses, the academy shifts into a base of operations. There’s a lot of sadness after the first year teaching at Garreg Mach, former students are now enemies and you’ll talk about the dire situation. I didn’t expect to see such heartbreaking dialogue in the midst of reviewing this game, but the reality of war is that one moment you are friends with someone and the next you are standing over their body. War is never pretty and seeing how it’s handled here is impressive.

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Also, Fire Emblem: Three Houses feature a class-based system where characters unlock new sets of skills and abilities. After some research, I’ve learned the system features an overhauled approach to the classes. Previously, your characters initiated a class change by equipped items found throughout the world. Now in Three Houses, things are different for classes. Each unit begins as a commoner or noble and is considered the baseline for the system. As you accumulate levels, beginning at level 5 you’re able to certify your units by taking an exam and then if they succeed to gain access to that class. You’re able to switch between classes with no penalty, unlike older games in the series.

Class is in Session

Each class features their sets of skills and abilities, but weapon usage isn’t determined by class. Each unit possesses three types of abilities: Personal Abilities, Class Abilities, and Professor Abilities. Personal are inherent and cannot be replaced, Class Abilities are only available within a class and do not transfer.

In combat, the familiar rock, paper, scissors weapons triangle is no longer there. Previously, Swords were more effective against axes, but weaker to lances, axes were effective to lances but weak to swords. Things are different in Three Houses. Combat is now much more fluid than in previous games, as instead of pairing your weapon to the enemies, you only need to focus on the individual based on their skills. Also, by sticking close to other characters, a unison attack may open up, allowing for a powerful rebuttal attack.

If that isn’t enough for you, swords for hire known as Battalions assist in a pinch and pad out your team. Whether you want them to serve as your sword or your shield, these units are hired at the Battalion Guild and offer a variety of units to serve your needs. Some offer supportive skills (tied to three triangles on-screen during battle) and as units take damage so too does their endurance. These units also offer their own Gambits (extremely powerful attacks found with the game) and can only be used a limited amount of times within a battle.

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Missions play out on a variety of maps, each with their own objectives. Thankfully, there is enough variance in difficulty in the maps with late-game maps offering the most exciting experiences. In some instances, I found myself rewinding because I missed something in the map that would have allowed me the opportunity to end the battle quickly. Later stages include more flying types as well as heavily armoured enemies out for my head. Keeping units together is the key to success, and thankfully it’s a lesson learned early in the game.

Let them die

Fire Emblem is known for its permadeath mechanic. For years, I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about how permadeath is an exciting aspect of the series. For me, it’s the exact opposite, especially when meticulously building characters to my preference. Permadeath returns in Three Houses as Classic Mode here, but because of the protagonist’s Divine Pulse ability, there’s no real instance of death. Divine Pulse is introduced fairly early and allows you the ability to roll back turns in a battle. It’s a limited ability only usable on your turn but allows you to scroll through various moments until you end up in a place you want to be. This ability is available in both Classic Mode and Casual Mode.

A big issue I ran into during my review was the text size. Be it on the couch or in bed, the font itself is far too small and doesn’t translate to handheld mode. Three Houses was developed with a television in mind and it really dampens the experience when I’m squinting or reach for my glasses. I hope we see this addressed in an update, especially with at least one other playthrough planned with another house.

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In what is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating strategy games I’ve played in years, Fire Emblem: Three Houses delivers on every front. I’ve only completed one route but I’m eager to dive back in and continue playing. My favourite moments aren’t the ones created in the heat of battle but with my friends at lunch, learning about them and exploring the school. War is never easy, but the comradery you build between your students allows for some of the most intimate moments in the game. Three Houses fighting for the future of Fódlan, and it’s heartbreaking knowing some may not see what the future holds for their world. With each subsequent playthrough, I’m hoping to resolve the lingering storylines which left me plagued with questions. As it were, this is one Switch exclusive I can’t recommend enough and if you find yourself wondering what you should play next – it’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]