It’s often been said that video games are the finest form of escapism on the planet, and when it comes to Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series of games, that’s an idea which I wish desperately wish was true. Over dozens of hours during the last week, I’ve laughed at schoolyard antics and cried during tense battles that claimed the lives of those closest to me. I’ve pursued love and taught master classes on the art of war.
I’ve taken part in battles against mobs of bandits, turned back the armies of entire nations and slain monsters that were born from the vilest darkness in the land. There has been tragedy and sadness, triumph and torment in equal measures and the bonds forged within the crucible of battle feel as real as anything you could experience in real life. At first glance, Fire Emblem: Three Houses looks like a typical strategy game that takes plenty of inspiration from 2012’s magnificent Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Battle scenes look similar, character growth will be instantly familiar to anyone who spent many a night fine-tuning their roster within the franchise’s intricate system of soldier development and Fire Emblem’s trusty rock-paper-scissors mechanic for weapon damage is alive and well. Here is a system which clearly isn’t broken and whose greatest additions are enhancements to established ideas, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is more than the art of war put into practice on the battlefield.
This year’s incarnation has learnt several lessons from games such as the ambitious Fire Emblem: Fates and the delightful remake that was Shadows of Valentia, as the focus isn’t just on medieval warfare but on the moments between conflicts. The relationships that players develop and nurture, which all ties further into a tale of war, gods and betrayal.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses wastes no time in setting up its story either, as you quickly find yourself flung headfirst into the land of Fódlan. The land is at peace, albeit an uneasy one, and you soon find yourself mentoring a group of commoners and nobles alike from the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus and the Leicester Alliance.
On the holy and neutral ground of the Church of Seiros within the Garegg Mach monastery is where you make your home and become the professor who teaches the leaders of tomorrow, while also juggling your own social life, the mystery behind the mythical Crests that every nation seems hellbent on mastering and the fact that you happen to regularly see a mysterious girl by the name of Sothis within visions that only you are privy to.
It’s pure Fire Emblem at this point, dialled up to 11 but with an added emphasis on establishing your support network. And by the goddess, developer Intelligent Systems have knocked it out of the park with this chapter. War and academics make for a hell of a conflict cocktail, taking the lessons learned from previous games and breathing intimate new life into them.
Whereas previous Fire Emblem games had a touch of destined romance to them that allowed you to court any number of characters you encountered, Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes you work for your waifu. This isn’t just a case of propping your chosen love next to you so that you can max out their support stats and work your way towards an S-rating on the relationship scale, this is a dance and a tease as you build your rapport with them through trial and tribulation.
That same level of growth extends to your students, through the use of a school system where you don’t just teach your pupils but you spend time getting to know them better. You’re guiding their growth, turning their weaknesses into strength and taking the time to have a tea party with them. Whichever house you do choose within the early part of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Whether that be the Blue Lions, Black Eagles or Golden Deer), you’ll be met with a tight-knit group of students who each have personality to spare.
And then you’ll do it again so that you can experience the story from another perspective…and then a third time because dammit Fire Emblem: Three Houses I want to see daylight again. How you’ll build on those relationships is entirely up to you: Do you spend time getting to know your students and tutor them individually? Have a tea party? Complete errands, set them goals or invite them to lunch so that you can keep them motivated as you explore the vast Garreg Mach monastery?
The choice is yours, and yet it doesn’t have to be either.
Credit where credit is due, because Intelligent Systems have designed a major part of its gameplay to be entirely optional. While you’d be doing yourself a massive disservice by not focusing on your students especially when the overall narrative twists and winds through major revelations along the way, you’re also able to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a straight-up tactical RPG if interpersonal anime bride courting doesn’t strike your fancy.
A game of two halves coalescing to form one almighty whole, Fire Emblem: Three Houses uses its social RPG approach to bolster the strength of your characters between battles, but the fights themselves are as satisfying as ever. It’s as Fire Emblemy as can be, as this facet of the product still plays out like Chess with waifus.
You’ve got a set field of danger to traverse, your units each bring a little something special to the table and how you position them between moves is just as crucial as the attacks that you dish out. If you’ve picked up any Fire Emblem game in the last seven years, the system will be instantly familiar then. New to this year’s take on combat, is the ability to summon actual platoons of soldiers to aid you in battle. Called Gambits, this feature comes in a variety of flavours that can succeed in hampering an enemy march, pushing them back and setting them up for killing blows.
It’s not an infinite resource, however, and as you take damage in battle so too do your troops as you have to juggle that resource between practical use and a tactical buffer between attacks. Once again your relationships with and between your students make for a game all of its own, as building support allows you to create an army that can hit harder, move quicker and evade even the most devastating of blows when they function like a well-oiled machine.
It’s here where the RPG mechanics truly shine, as the familiar ding of a levelled up character doesn’t just give you a boost in overall stats, but also allows for new Combat Arts to be gained. Mighty blows which can be used to strike hard from a longer distance or slash away with almighty blows from a bladed weapon, these new skills are constantly being added to each character’s arsenal but the caveat here is that they chip away at the durability of your weapon far quicker than a regular thrust of the sword can.
They’re handy in a pinch, but not the be-all-end-all of combat as you also have to keep a close eye on your war chest between combat situations and ensure that your army is always prepared for the treacherous road ahead. That idea extends further into the development of your characters, as you decide which combat arts will work best in solo engagement, as a complementary addition to the adjutants of your soldiers and how they impact on your strategy when you’re facing tough knights and nightmarish monsters who have several health bars that you need to hack through before they’ll eventually fall.
Here’s where Intelligent Systems has benefited from some outside help, as Koei Tecmo expertise with the Warrior series of Musou games (And you really should give the superb Fire Emblem Warriors a go) has helped make this game truly feel as if every battle is taking place on a vast plain filled to the brim with sword-wielding knights and magic-casting sorcerers. More than just a mere coat of paint which succeeds in giving Fire Emblem: Three Houses a dynamic presentation that makes every character feel unique, every attack feels weighty and memorable.
You can even zoom into the field for full-on detail, and while I’ve never been a fan of 3D animation masquerading as traditional anime visuals, it’s hard to deny just how effectively stunning this visual overall really is. With battles utilising smaller groups (I rarely saw fights use more than 10-12 characters at any given time), Fire Emblem: Three Houses is still the kind of game that you have to play with the permadeath option on if you really want the full experience.
Nothing drives home the terror of war more than knowing that you’re just one small mistake away from seeing a favourite character die, and even with options that allow you to turn back the clock and a few other quality of life improvements added for good measure, knowing that your favourite student may not survive to see the end of the battle makes for a tense experience that no other game on the market today can equal.
If 2012’s Fire Emblem: Awakening was the series showing off the potential for greatness that it was capable of, then Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that potential fully realised. A grand saga of love, loss and war, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is monumental in ambition and easily capable of allowing you to write an epic story with your own actions.
Last Updated: July 25, 2019