Fire Emblem Three Houses is a tactical fantasy RPG that released July 2019 on Nintendo Switch. I spent five hours with the game and could see myself committing a hundred or so more.
Fire Emblem has been around for more than 30 years – check out a brief history of the franchise from Game Informer. The only other entries I have played in the series was the original North American title on Game Boy Advance and Awakening on the 3DS. Much like Monster Hunter World, it looks like the series has made an amazing jump from handheld to the big screen.
The game opens with some very anime-inspired cutscenes. You go from an ancient battle to a forlorn throne with a young woman on it. The woman appears to be a goddess, with the ability to manipulate time. After speaking with her, you wake up and have a conversation with your father before being interrupted by three students requesting sanctuary from a bandit attack.
The bandits are your first encounter, where the game walks you through the basic controls. Combat felt very similar to Awakening – standing next to allies gives you a boost to the relationship when you attack. When you use a sword to attack, your sword skill goes up. Attacking and defeating enemies gives you experience. Gain enough experience, and you level up and your stats go up. A tried, true and very fun loop.
After fighting off the bandits, the students’ knightly protectors show up, and insist that you and your father go back to their monastery. In light of your valor, you are offered a position as a professor. The three students you assisted each head a house of students, and you have to choose which house to align with. Each has a unique roster of students with different special abilities.
From my time with the game, it looked there were two core loops:
After the initial tutorial battle, it looks like combat is somewhat limited. You get assigned missions from the religious leader at the monastery (who has a mysterious connection with your father….hmmmmm). In five hours with the game, I was assigned two combat missions, and took on one optional combat encounter.
Each character has a handful of inventory spots that you can fill with weapons, healing potions, spells and loot. One of the staples of Fire Emblem is a rock-paper-scissors system with weapons: ax beats sword, lance beats ax and sword beats lance. You manage your units’ movement across the map, positioning them alongside allies and on advantageous terrain. Each weapon has durability, i.e. a number of uses before it breaks forever. Characters learn special abilities that are more powerful, but use more durability.
The three fights I did each took about 30-40 minutes. One of the unique traits of Fire Emblem is the risk/reward of using characters. When you start the game you have to choose whether you are going to play the game the right way (with permadeath), or the wimpy way, where characters come back after falling in battle.
Wandering Around the Monastery
Most of my time involved wandering around the monastery and interacting with students. Relationship-building was another core tenet of the series, as the characters bond with each other and you, they become more effective in battle together.
There are a number of activities in the monastery, unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore them. There is fishing, gardening, eating, cooking and church choir. The number of activities you are able to do is governed by your professor renown rating, which is raised by completing tasks for people around the facility. Basically, the more stuff you do around the monastery, the more stuff you can do.
The game is governed by a calendar, giving it an almost Persona-like feel. You teach all week, which makes students’ skills go up. Each student has goals they are working towards. If they aspire to a certain class, they will focus on skills required for that class. They will occasionally ask you questions about their goals, and you can provide some guidance that may send them on a different path. You can also see if the students have latent abilities tied to certain skills, which will give you some direction on what to emphasize.
There is also a system for maximizing each student’s learning potential. Each student has a motivation bar. The more motivated they are, the harder they will study and the bigger their gains will be. You can motivate students by sharing a meal with them, fulfilling quests or having other interactions. On face level, I would have thought this system sounded dumb, but I wound up liking it quite a bit.
If you had asked me if I wanted a school sim interjected into my tile-based tactical RPG, I probably would have passed. Or replayed Persona 4 Golden. It turns out it is a fun combo in Fire Emblem, and I can only imagine how devastating it will be to lose a student in the field after carefully grooming them for hours.
I’m not sure the story will ever take off for me – but that’s not why I came to Fire Emblem. The combat is deep and fun, and I really want to unlock some advanced classes. The monastery stuff was surprisingly fun, and a great way to help build skills outside of the battlefield. I’m not sure if the limitations on combat will ultimately hold this game back for me, but I am excited to find out for sure.