Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Rating: T for Teen
I spent too much time thinking of what teacher pun to open this review with, but I failed…
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the newest installment of the long-established series and also the newest title to revitalize the Pokemon GO team mentality. You control a young mercenary who is selected as the new teacher for the prestigious Officers’ Academy of Garreg Mach. You must choose one class to supervise (sorry, no Revelations mode this time) and help your students grow and learn in a high-tense clash between three superpowers. Yay!
Violence in gameplay is not graphic or bloody. A giant monster can slam their large claw on top of one of your allies, but they only display a short “hurt” animation. When any unit is defeated, each one has a death scream, as the character model flies through the air and falls to the ground. Cutscenes depict additional acts of violence and blood: a woman stabbing a man repeatedly with a knife and other characters getting stabbed in the back.
Some female characters wear low-cut outfits that reveal deep cleavage; characters’ breasts are sometimes seen jiggling and/or depicted from close-up angles in animated cutscenes. Two female characters, Dorothea and Manuela, describe having rendezvous with men on multiple occasions throughout the school year. Whether the encounters were actually sexual or merely dates is open to interpretation, though both characters admit that they are searching for potential partners.
Several religions exist in the game’s world. The school has a central monotheistic religion where its archbishop is the ruling head. Said ruler is willing to use violence to retaliate against defamation of the religion, though faith is not mandatory to follow. Strong allegories to the Roman Catholic Church are made to describe this religion. Claude, head of the Golden Deer house, is an agnostic, but wishes to understand every religion’s true intentions so that they are upheld properly. Edelgard, head of the Black Eagles house, belongs to a country that rejects the religion. Petra, a fellow Black Eagle student, and Dedue, a Blue Lion student, belong to foreign countries that have their own religions that are possibly polytheistic or a different monotheistic religion. It’s hard to ignore the negative connotations against religious systems; though, it’s more against how the leaders of these systems act that rouses suspicion.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses hype has continued to be high since its release in late July. With its revamped social aspect gameplay, Three Houses creates a new flavor of Fire Emblem that makes it the most approachable title of the series for today’s players. However, completing Three Houses is a daunting task due to the four different storylines. Yes, there are actual unique storylines tied to each house class you can choose to watch over (one of them has two storyline routes).
The biggest pull in the game is the ability to walk around Garreg Mach Monastery and interact with students and faculty. Though you can only choose one class to supervise, you can recruit other students as you progress through the game and improve your weapon/magic skills…or you can just spend time with them until they join you. All of this can be done through activities like gardening, fishing, dining, and, yes, studying.
Of course, the actual battle gameplay has received some changes as well. The new soldier system allows you to assign a Battalion to your units which gives you special attacks that have different effects, like attacking multiple enemies or buffing your own allies. There are also Combat Arts which use up weapon durability to hit enemies harder.
The question is, what makes this game so unique? Fellow writer and JRPG maniac, Derek, has joined me in this endeavor to cover as much detail as possible, since Three Houses is the most free-form title in the series. We will both detail our experience with Fire Emblem and our own play styles throughout the game.
What is your experience with the Fire Emblem series?
Sam: I only knew the Fire Emblem titles on Gameboy Advance, but played them to death in junior high and high school. Blazing Sword (Japanese subtitle for the first GBA title) had a simple, but strongly-written plot that was as fun as its gameplay. The colorful sprites and outlandish attack animations made every battle thrilling, while retaining my mental focus to strategize during each chapter. I played Awakening (first 3DS title) when I was well into college. The new approach felt fresh and fun, but the gameplay was lacking in that tension I felt with the GBA games. I played through the Golden Deer route with Claude and his Alliance “buddies” in Three Houses.
Derek: Like Sam, I jumped into Fire Emblem right when it first landed in America, with Blazing Sword. It never quite lived up to the Final Fantasy Tactics successor that I wanted it to be, but it came very close. I’m a mathematician, so I love the combat system, and my general disdain for sidequesting meant that I loved the story-battle-repeat formula (more on that later). I played every release as it came out, up through Radiant Dawn, and then, took a long break from video games altogether. I played Fates and Awakening last year; then, played the Black Eagles path on Three Houses, which inspired me to go back and complete the series by finishing Shadow Dragon and Echoes of Valentia. Now, I’ve just completed the Blue Lions path in Three Houses—it turns out that I really like Fire Emblem.
What drew you to the class you chose?
Sam: I was immediately drawn to the Golden Deer house, also known as the Hirsch (German for “dear”) class in the Japanese dialogue. Listening to Claude’s English voice actor, I really enjoyed the portrayal of his character. I’m also interested in stories where everyone has an equal and active role to contribute. You know, just to remind myself how actual republican systems work. In all seriousness, I had a feeling that the Golden Deer students would offer the most interesting developments of the characters and background of the world. They definitely delivered.
Derek: I have two daughters, ages 5 and 1. The five-year-old has started playing simple Nintendo games like Kirby Star Allies and Yoshi’s Crafted World, and she really likes to watch me play. So, I’ve made it a point to play games with female characters or make all-female squads to show her “girl power” in video games. Each house has three males and three females apart from the leader, so I chose Black Eagles to add an extra female (and female leadership), and I made Byleth female. I also thought Edelgard had the most interesting art design of the three leaders.
What’s the make-up of your class and how do they interact with each other?
Sam: I chose male Byleth, which broke the equal number of 4 to 4 males to females in the group. I have to say, the Golden Deer students grew on me immediately. The banter they engage in story-related cutscenes is charming and sharp. You can feel the pins and needles on their professional relationships since everyone has such unique circumstances and ideals. As I developed the Golden Deer students’ support ranks with each other and advanced the story, I got a real sense of each character’s development as individuals, which was unexpected, but I liked it! It’s very rare for modern JRPG characters to grow up on their own.
Without spoiling too much of the support conversations, the male Golden Deer students represented great struggles with masculine roles. Raphael, the Golden Deer’s resident “beef boy”, is a hilarious foil character who strives to embody the ideals of a knight. Ignatz’s insecurities clash with his desires to display his internal struggle for independence. Claude’s conversations reveal the harrowing goals he strives for due to his upbringing. Lorenz, whom I found the most interesting, drastically holds onto his ideal of the noblesse oblige while learning to broaden his worldview to become a greater leader. The female students echo similar developments as their male students with their own unique background, but I especially wanted to point out the male students because the localized writing for this game felt more organic than any other Fire Emblem game.
I also want to note that the unit makeup of the Golden Deer house was the most unique experience I’ve had since they have more ranged units than melee units. It required more tact and care since ranged units tend to lack defense. It was great to think tactically after how easy Awakening was. However, it was difficult to master passive skills since I struggled until halfway into the story deciding which classes to make the students into.
Derek: Counting Byleth, my group was 5 to 8 males to females, and I thought all of the female characters were done very well. Players of any house will see that there is kind of a running gag with Bernadetta’s introverted tendencies, but I thought the game did an excellent job handling her tormented past delicately, but with well-toned, self-aware humor towards the latter half of the game. Really, the writing for the entire cast of the game, both in localization and in voice acting, is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. The three men in the group were a little less interesting, but Linhardt’s story ending in my run made me go “D’awww,” and one of his lines mid-game literally made me stop while I got all my laughter out. I can’t say too much about how my characters interacted with each other without spoiling much, other than to say you’ll see the best interactions in the support conversations, and that pretty much all of the intra-house support conversations (Black Eagles with other Black Eagles) were worth spending the time to achieve.
What were the best parts of Three Houses for you?
Sam: I love the expansion into the social aspect of the game. In previous titles, support conversations had to develop only during battles, which wasn’t great. Three Houses adds a lot of much needed content to make the support rank system fun. It was satisfying to be able to interact with characters after each battle and learning, through dialogue, the relationships between the three countries and how your perception of other characters change. I also love the localized writing in this game. Compared to the 3DS titles, the writing is organic and engaging. I learned to appreciate some characters through my interaction with them as opposed to the surface value C-B-A development I got from previous games. Also, tea time is the best minigame ever. My eyes have been opened up to the majesty of a perfectly executed tea party. You will be a believer, too.
Derek: Like I said earlier, what I loved about Fire Emblem was the lack of anything to do besides fight and battle. In those old games, if you wanted to shop, you had to do it mid-battle! I “speedrun” most JRPGs and spend very little time sidequesting. And, I almost never replay games. Yet, Three Houses convinced me to do those things. I actually spent a lot of time tweaking my troops and bumping up their support levels for those side conversations (which were almost always great). And, while I did do a “speedrun” in 32 hours, I immediately did a replay with Blue Lions, and, this time, made sure to recruit everyone and do as many new support conversations as possible—completely unlike me! I didn’t think I would enjoy role-playing my day job (I’m a professor) this much.
What were the worst parts for you?
Sam: I have two highly opinionated thoughts to address, but I think they’re warranted due to their execution in this game. My first point will seem contradictory to my praises about the writing, but I have issues with the localization. If the game is played with the English voices, it’s perfectly fine. However, with Japanese voices, the dissociation with the subtitles is glaringly apparent and it bothers me. Since the English localization took liberties with dialogue to fit with their script, I think adding a more directly translated subtitle track that’s suited for the original voice audio should be included. Keeping in the audio track does not mean it’s a free pass on quality.
I also have issues with the game’s main story. Because of the three paths you can choose, some elements are left unexplained, making the plot feel incomplete. There are characters whose motivations change depending on the path you take with little explanation. This makes the latter half of the game feel rushed, considering how much time players can spend with all of these characters.
My next point is more of a gripe, but the gameplay isn’t as interesting as it used to be back on the Gameboy Advance. The over-simplified weapon complexity, reliance on squad gambits, and boss enemies that are essentially health sponges make battles uninteresting. I understand the idea that the classic gameplay may be outdated, but it was effective and kept me constantly aware of enemy inventory, placement, and, most of all, the significance of sharing experience among your own units. I think the decision of adding near-universal class change, with the inclusion of skills and class mastery, on top of being able to repeat battles for grinding, reduces gameplay complexity and the tension of losing your units. If the writing for the support ranks was not as strong as it is in this game, I would have been hard-pressed to finish the game.
Derek: This game is a stellar achievement on so many levels, but it has two strikes against it. The most glaring strike is how much story isn’t covered in each path. It felt like the Black Eagles path had some huge plot holes—not contradictions, just things that weren’t explained—that were then rectified in the Blue Lions path, and the Blue Lions path even told me things about the Black Eagle path that I had no idea were part of the story when I had already finished the game once. I love the idea of multiple perspectives and having to fight former allies and all that, but I also want a self-contained story each time I play through the game.
The smaller complaint is that it’s too easy. More options are better than too few, but with the addition of Divine Pulse, something I’m glad that’s there, I would have preferred to have Hard be “Normal,” “Normal” be “Easy,” and to ship with a third, harder difficulty rather having to wait for an update.
So the battles are the same old thing, then?
Sam: There are enough new mechanics added so first-time players feel at ease with the classic gameplay. Divine Pulse, which allows you to “rewind” unit actions, makes keeping all of your units alive less of a chore. The weapon triangle, which dictated a slight advantage (or disadvantage) depending on the weapon a unit attacks with, has been removed to focus more on mastering unit classes, weapons, and leadership. Mastering unit classes grants stat bonuses or unique attacks to your units, weapon mastery gives you Combat Arts which can help your units to deal more damage, and leadership mastery allows units to control stronger Battalions, which give you Gambits, skills that either deal great damage, cause negative status effects, or heal/buff your allies. The Gambits are practically essential when fighting giant enemies for the first time. Due to their high HP and attack, Gambits are easy poking attacks since they prevent enemies from retaliating. They can also be staggered by breaking their natural barriers, which will require multiple attacks on that area on the body.
Derek: Yes and no. Most of the basic principles are still there, but there is new stuff under the hood, which you can take or leave, because the game is so easy. You could probably go the whole game without ever assigning Battalion and using Gambits, or ever using Combat Arts. Combat Arts, special moves that use up extra weapon durability, are a fantastic idea, and a natural evolution of a Fire Emblem mechanic that’s been there the whole time. On the other hand, Battalions are kind of confusing, and excessive on top of Combat Arts. The two “non-attack” Gambits, Stride (which is awesome) and Healing, could easily have been magic-based Combat Arts if they had instead kept spell durability in the game (I don’t mind that it’s gone, but it’s not clear to me why it is).
The other new item that you probably won’t avoid using is Divine Pulse, a mechanism that lets you rewind time to undo mistakes (and save fallen characters, even in Classic mode). This was actually first introduced in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, but it’s done much, much better in this game. It has limited uses, so the game doesn’t completely lose its edge. I vastly prefer this to all the restarts I had to do in old Fire Emblem games, and it never felt “cheap.” It’s also worked into the story in a very nice way.
In general, combat has the same principle as the game has throughout: you can dig as deep as you want into customization and new content, or you can put nearly everything on autopilot and just watch the story unfold. More options are always better than fewer!
Sam: Oh, boy. As much as I like some of the other girls, Dorothea steals the show. Her confidence is what makes her so charismatic. Her openness about her looks and her searching for a marriage candidate displays a maturity not usually shown in young characters. Her courage to challenge other characters on their conduct makes for fascinating conversation. Her compassion is the drawing force in her support conversations with most of the other characters. Special shoutouts go to Marianne and Hilda for best developing characters by the end of the game.
I couldn’t get all the male students in my first playthrough, but Lorenz is by far the most compelling character. His dogma of noblesse oblige blinds him from other options that he can explore as a future co-leader of his nation. He does not view commoners as helpless, but understands that everyone has a specific role to play. Aside from social standing, he is open-minded in people’s capabilities and openly recognizes their strengths. As the game progresses, he learns to be more compassionate with the other students who have lower-class backgrounds. His support conversations with Leonie, a fellow Golden Deer student, and Dorothea reveal his magnanimity and progressivity. Also, he rocks purple with no fear!
Derek: Dorothea is easily the best girl in the whole game. She is a self-made woman, willing to go toe-to-toe with nobility at the academy, but also willing to be vulnerable and speak of her fears, hopes, and dreams in certain support conversations. She’s realistic about the nature of war and her conversations in the back half of the game reveal a lot of growth as a character. She’s witty, and the voice acting is done very well.
While I enjoyed Linhardt’s comic relief, I wasn’t overly fond of any of the men in the Black Eagle House. Now that I’ve done the Blue Lions path, I really enjoyed Dmitri and Dedue’s relationship and all that it entailed. Dedue is probably my favorite male character; his stoic nature is played well for humor or for gravitas in his various support conversations, as needed.
Despite the shortcomings we both found in the game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is still a great title and a welcome change to the established structure. If Intelligent Systems refines the rough edges around the combat, the next FE title will be the perfect balance. For now, we’ll have to wait for next year’s campaign DLC to see if there’s anything that the developers want to try out.
The Bottom Line
Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes a significant number of changes that breathe much-needed new life into the established series that can be refined to make better future titles.