Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest installment in Intelligent System’s long-running and highly-acclaimed tactical RPG series. It’s a series I hold dear, despite some of the questionable content (no Fates, I do not want to marry my siblings), and I’ve been super excited to try out the new combat features, and see what the school life is like.
I started my Fire Emblem journey age thirteen with The Sacred Stones on the GameBoy Advance. This was right around the time I had worn myself out on turn-based JRPG combat and grinding, but I still enjoyed the aesthetic and the over-the-top anime storylines that those games offered. Games with a tactical or strategy focus hadn’t really been on my radar, but The Sacred Stones offered me something unexpectedly motivating; I could romantically pair off my troops. Higher support levels between troops offer strategic benefits in battle, sure, but when combined with the permanent unit death, my teenage self suddenly had a huge reason to think carefully about battle tactics. This wasn’t just about getting through a level now; it was about ensuring Forde and Vanessa survived the war and lived happily ever after.
Three Houses takes that desire to develop relationships between characters and turns it into a much larger web of interactions and possibilities, each with its own additional strategic benefit. On top of that, the game provides you with a lot more flexibility and depth when it comes to training up your units.
This time around you’ll play as Byleth, a young mercenary-turned-professor working for the Church of Seiros, a religious superpower and war academy located at the crossroads of Fodlan’s three rival nations. Byleth has been living under a rock for the last two decades or so at the guidance of their father, who purposely raised them with no knowledge of the church’s teachings or of the politics of the land. Luckily Byleth can swing a sword so well that they don’t need to know any of that stuff, and the church academy hires them as a new teacher. The academy itself has three houses representing each of the three nations: the Golden Deer, Black Eagles, and Blue Lions. When Byleth joins the academy, he or she will be asked which house to teach, which will, in turn, decide the story route you take (I picked Golden Deer). Don’t worry though; you’ll get some time to learn about each of the students before needing to make that choice.
Gameplay is set to a calendar schedule mirroring our own year. Each new month starts with a cutscene introducing new lore of the land, narrated over the top of cartoonish medieval-style drawings to set the scene. At crucial stages, such as the opening or at a decisive battle, we’re also treated with a full CGI cut scene. The opening 3D animated cutscene in particular features a green-haired woman fighting a large man named Nemesis (probably evil). It’s a small detail, but as she ran through the muddied battlefield, I was impressed by how stained her pure white dress became with each step. The level of detail crafted into these key cutscenes is beautiful, and while I know some people will find the framerate a little frustrating, I’m just going to sit over here hoping for a new Fire Emblem anime series in this style.
At the beginning of each month, Byleth and their class will be assigned a mission, usually in the form of a real battle. During the lead up to the mission you’ll get 3-4 weeks of teaching, and 3-4 days of “free time”. Teaching your students week to week is a multi-layered process, which revolves around your teaching level and something called “motivation”. You need to use free time wisely to ensure your students are as motivated as they can be so that they can learn as much as possible the following week. During the week itself, you can do three key things; Personally tutor several students in any combination of subjects at the beginning of the week. Assign students with a learning goal, dictating what they will work on in their own study time. You can assign two students to a group project to work on in addition to their regular studies. All of this can be adjusted week-to-week as you complete goals, allowing you to change plans as you learn more about each character. You can also tell the game to do any of this automatically, which can offer a nice break from time to time. I don’t recommend going into the game with the intention to do this every week though or you’ll be missing out on creating interesting units with a range of skills you aren’t always able to combine in a Fire Emblem game.
For me, the level of depth teaching gave to combat, and training was easily the highlight of the game. For example, I started teaching most of my ranged units healing spells as well, so they could offer extra support. Spells are permanently learnt and equipped too, meaning they don’t require a spellbook, so having the odd spell mastered can be a huge benefit for any unit.
After a week of teaching, you’ll be given a day of free time where you can pick one activity to focus on: Exploring the Monastery, running a seminar, resting, or taking your students out for a real battle. Did I mention yet that there’s a lot to do? And I haven’t even listed all the things you can do while exploring on your day off. While exploring the Monastery on your days off, you can do anything from fishing to entering a fighting tournament, to completing quests for your students. When the trailers first came out, I was a little suspicious about how much you would be able to do in the monastery, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The days exploring the Monastery are a way to relax and build relationships most of all, but also offer several ways to increase your teaching level and the motivation of your students.
One of my favourite ways to engage with other characters is by inviting them to join you for tea! In this minigame you choose a type of tea for your partner, hopefully choosing one they like, and then play through a series of conversation prompts to try and keep the character engaged. If they like the topics you choose, their interest in you and their motivation will grow, and at the end, you get a score for how well the tea date went. It’s super cute, but the hook for me was figuring out what everyone’s favourite tea was and ensuring I had enough on hand to try.
While I love all these possibilities, I am disappointed by how this series continues to suffer from completely two-dimensional characters, and occasionally inappropriate or tone-deaf dialogue. Again, it’s no Fates when it comes to inappropriateness (Camilla should probably be on some kind of list), but I had one character ripping into me across multiple conversation because I didn’t appreciate my Dad enough. It’s at times like these that I really noticed how limiting the dialogue ‘options’ were. Is asking for something a little more variant than and “Ok then” and a “That’s alright” too much? Meanwhile, other conversations and characters were really lovely and fleshed out. Watching Flayn, in particular, make friends with other students was a heartwarming highlight. Proceed cautiously though; those bonding sessions aren’t just there to build up your friendships and reputation as a teacher. You’ll also be questioning every one of those interactions when the real war starts up...
For those new to the franchise, Fire Emblem combat is turn-based strategy that takes place on a gridded battlefield. The player will control their students as individual units placed around the map and will be able to move them around the grid to fight the enemy. At the beginning of the game, you’ll have the choice between classic or casual modes; classic mode will mean that any time a unit of yours dies, that character dies permanently. This is an optional setting, so choose wisely.
Each time a unit of yours engages in a fight, you’ll also cut to an animated close-up scene of how it all plays out (this can be skipped or turned off). It’s a lot like a complicated JRPG version of chess, where you try to take out your enemies without putting your units in danger - something that’s especially important in classic mode. There are a number of fairly significant changes to the combat system this time around. The early game teaches you everything you need to know about the basics as well as the changes to the new system if you’re a returning player, so it’s really easy to jump into at a high level. Unfortunately, a lot of the detail is in the form of a manual you’ll need to read through in the system menu. This shouldn’t matter too much if you’re playing on casual mode though.
In Three Houses the old weapon triangle has been scrapped to make way for more interesting unit setups and strategies. This is where the decisions you make as a teacher really come into play. While you still benefit from a range of skills and weapon types within your team to overcome different enemies, it no longer feels as simplistic as “have x amount of axe wielders” etc. You can, for example, train an axe-wielder into a powerful unit to combat heavy armour, who is also adept at ranged attacks or healing spells.
What else is new? If you’ve ever played a Fire Emblem game, you’ll know the pain of making a poor tactical decision in the heat of combat. In an especially tricky map, where you’re trying to save or recruit a neutral character, classic mode can see you resetting the game to start over frequently. I enjoy learning from my mistakes in a strategy-focused game, but the effort involved in rectifying a mistake was a significant barrier. Three Houses introduces a new feature called Divine Pulse, which allows you to pause time mid-combat and rewind to a previous step and try again. I actually yelled out loud a bit when I found out about this feature; it’s been long needed. Divine Pulse has limited uses per battle. The cap does increase as you get further in the game so I never found myself needing more, and sometimes just used it to optimize my support relationships better.
We’re also introduced to two new key fighting features: Battalions and Combat arts. Battalions are effectively an equipment or weapon type in the form of military troops for hire. When your unit has a battalion equipped, you can choose to attack an enemy with a “gambit” ability instead of their regular attack. This will send their battalion into battle, instead of the character themselves. The attacks aren’t always as strong, but it does remove any risk of them getting directly injured during the attack. Gambits aren’t always attacks either; there are healing options or long-range options too. They also stack if your unit is placed near another friendly unit, which also has a battalion equipped. The best part is that any of your units can have a battalion equipped to them. If you find certain characters really benefit from leading a battalion, you can train up their “Authority” skill, allowing them to use higher quality battalions. Combat arts, on the other hand, are a special type of move your units will learn over time as they learn more. These can have a range of special effects, generally to do with increasing damage against certain types of enemies, and in some ways making it feel like a replacement to the weapon triangle. Using a combat art instead of a regular attack will do extra damage to the equipped weapon though, so they also need to be used carefully.
All of these stats, effects, and abilities have the potential to be a lot more complicated than I have delved into yet, but I think that’s what makes it all work so well. Three Houses allows the complexity to go only as far as you want it to. You can quite easily pick and choose which aspects you want to engage with, and which you want to let the game do for you. You can even make it automatically fight your battles for you if all you want to do is hold tea parties. So if you’re thinking of letting Three Houses be your introduction to the franchise, I say do it.
Three Houses has taken my deepest motivation to grow my military children into strong survivors and turned it into a massive standalone part of the game that ends up with huge benefits on the battlefield. In addition to this, the combat itself has been completely shaken up. Removing the weapon triangle was jarring at first, but it made the battlefield so much more dynamic. With previous games, it could be quite easy to fall back on relying on the weapon triangle for strategy, which could get a little stale. Every change Three Houses has made feels like it really wants you to stop considering your units as chess pieces, and consider them each as unique people (and unique chess pieces I suppose). Watching my students grow into powerful allies at the guidance of lots of small decisions I’ve made has been a pretty heartwarming experience. I’ve had a lot of fun playing through the Golden Deers arc so far, and I’ve already started playing through a second time with the Black Eagles. It’s safe to say that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has quickly become one of my favourite games.