Grab your pencils, backpacks, and great axes because we’re going back to school in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Released in July 2019 for Nintendo Switch, the newest entry in the long-running series elects to study what worked from previous efforts and declare a new direction for the franchise.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses offers a new story with branching paths, a reworked combat system, and a unit management system where you play as a school professor. Does it flunk or pass with flying colors?
The story of Three Houses, as the name implies, follows three different paths through the game depending on which house you ally yourself with. The story begins after running into the heads of the three houses and saving them from bandits. They invite the player, named Byleth by default, to Garreg Mach Monastery.
The monastery acts as both the headquarters for the Church of Seiros and an academy for young officers. Surprisingly, the school employs Byleth as a new professor despite lacking any resumé to speak of. From there the player chooses which house to teach and command in battle.
The Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer comprise the three houses of Fódlan, each led by charismatic young nobles soon to inherit the thrones of their kingdoms.
I sided with the chivalrous Prince Dimitri, a knight in training with piercing blue eyes and a dark past. Knockoff Griffith leads the Blue Lions, an eclectic group of seven kids from his home of Faerghus.
Each of the students of the three houses show different personalities and backstories. Choosing one house over the other can completely change how you play and what characters you interact with, giving the game a ton of replay value.
Once the player decides which house to join, you begin the day-to-day activities of being a combination teacher/strategist. The game runs on a calendar system. During the week, students study and train to become better soldiers. On the weekend, the player can choose between exploring the school, attending a guest lecture, or going to battle.
Byleth can explore the monastery freely, completing quests for students and faculty as well as taking advantage of the school’s amenities. Having lunch with a student or finding their lost glove grows their bond with Byleth and raises their motivation to learn.
While the student sections provide fun on their own, the draw of the game lies in how your school activities affect combat. For example, singing in the choir or studying an ancient holy text with Mercedes gives her motivation to learn. Byleth can then use that motivation to teach Mercedes and upgrade her skills, unlocking new spells and abilities. Once the students’ skills reach a high enough letter grade, they can take tests to upgrade their class.
Spending time with students makes them improve faster as units. Naturally, the students you like talking to more will gain experience and become integral to your success in combat. Therein lies the basic gameplay loop.
You spend time with students to make them stronger which grows your bond. Soon you end up learning their backstories, what they like and dislike and help them grow as individuals and as soldiers. Eventually, you’ve fallen in love with each and every one of them. It takes one dying horribly to remember tea parties aren’t the bulk of the game’s content.
This experimental school system works so well because it’s built on the rock-solid foundation of the tactical turn-based RPG combat Fire Emblem pioneered. For those unfamiliar, units have limited actions per turn. This means strategy and forethought reign supreme, and mistakes prove costly. Misjudge an enemy’s attack range and swift death awaits.
In the “Classic” setting, death is permanent, as in other Fire Emblem games. I recommend even new players try the game in this setting. Having your unit’s lives in your hand causes you to slow down and think through every turn, giving real weight to decisions. Of course, if a unit does die you can rewind time with a Divine Pulse, but that mechanic is optional.
The Arts of War
Unlike other games in the series, Three Houses does away with the rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle of old in favor of new skills called Combat Arts. While swords no longer naturally counter axes, the “Axebreaker” combat art fills in the job nicely.
Additionally, units can now command their own battalions and order them to perform special moves. These abilities spice up the combat and add extra decision-making to attacking.
I’d like to mention a small mechanic that gave me hope in a sea of despair. I attempted a story mission during which I realized some of my units were severely underleveled. After a long drawn out battle, everything fell apart. Game Over. I dreaded the thought of a Groundhog Day-style nightmare wherein young students not yet ready for the horror of war die over and over, accomplishing nothing.
But, from the darkness, I saw a light. “Restart battle and retain Exp. gained”? Blessed by this divine vision, I nearly shed a tear. With the help of properly-leveled units, I actually had fun with the mission the second time around.
I’m sure this sort of feature existed in other games before, but it felt great to have that battle actually matter in some way. Surely a welcome surprise in an otherwise punishing game.
Through a combination of story, simulation mechanics, and tactics gameplay, Fire Emblem: Three Houses made me care about a fantasy class of high school kids more than I’d care to admit. Every aspect of the game builds a feeling of progression and growth, and the loop of combat and management becomes addicting.
Thankfully, even if you finish and want more, with major branching paths this game just begs for multiple playthroughs. Overall, Fire Emblem: Three Houses earns an A+.