Now that the versatile Switch is Nintendo's main system, Fire Emblem has released on a home console for the first time in over a decade.
Fire Emblem is perhaps one of Nintendo's most underrated franchises. Despite having over 13 main entries since 1990, the series never quite got the recognition it deserved until Fire Emblem: Awakening in 2012. Met with impressively high sales and positive critical reaction, it single-handedly revived the struggling franchise and directly paved the way for 2 follow-ups in the form of Fire Emblem Fates and a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden named Fire Emblem Echoes. While Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn't the greatest installment in the franchise, it is easily the best since Awakening and by far the most ambitious Fire Emblem game to date.
Taking place on the continent of Fodlan, you play as a mercenary who accepts a position at a church-sponsored academy known as the Garreg Mach Monastery. From there, you pick one of the school's 3 houses which represent each of Fodlan's major factions. You'll then teach your students, lead them into battle against the church's enemies, and uncover secrets about yourself and your connection to the church. Then, something big happens halfway through the story that results in a 5 year time jump and an all-out war breaking out on the continent with you and your house deciding who will rule all of Fodlan.
Despite a rather elaborate setup and an interesting premise, the first half can be best described as merely serviceable as each house is essentially the same with what almost feels like a standard issue Fire Emblem story. You have a mysterious evil faction that is messing around with demons and it's all stuff that we've seen before in about every other Fire Emblem game. When part 2 rolls around, and plot turns into a kind of watered down version of Game of Thrones where people are betrayed, kingdoms battle one another, and the fate of the world is decided. This story functions almost as a deconstruction of the entire franchise and this is where it gets brilliant.
As I mentioned, the first half starts with a set of antagonists and supporting heroes which almost feel generic within the franchise. The villains seem like stereotypical 2 dimensional bad guys who are probably serving some kind of evil entity from another realm while the good guys are the world's only hope for salvation. It all seems like standard issue Fire Emblem stuff but suddenly, the story throws a pair of mind-blowing twists at you regarding these characters that recontextualizes everything as it reveals everyone's true nature.
Unlike previous Fire Emblem games, it turns out that the antagonists aren't actually the typical fodder that you'd expect nor are the heroes completely incorruptible. When it comes right down to it, they're all just human beings who have been shaped by their own experiences with motivations that are driven by relatable and genuine human emotions. None of the main characters are indisputably correct but no one is clearly evil either. The villains don't think of themselves as bad guys and unlike in previous entries, you're going to have a hard time calling any of these characters truly evil.
To add drama, there isn't an all-encompassing demonic bad guy that you can unite all of the factions against and you're not going to be able to save everyone. In many of the battles, your main opponents are former students, teachers, and knights from Garreg Mach that you got to know rather well in the first half. Unlike in Fire Emblem Fates, you will be forced to kill them and there is often no way to get around this. As a result, you will ultimately have to live with the consequences of your actions which will leave you wondering if there was a better way. To further drive this home, each death is treated with the same gravitas as the death of one your units with the same cries of despair and a final few lines of dialog to tug on your heart strings. When you add all of these elements together, the plot feels less like a traditional fantasy story and more like an epic tragedy and that's what makes Three Houses stand out in the franchise.
All of this has more of an impact because the characters are very well written. They're not exactly on par with the more interesting characters from The Banner Saga but you'll be invested in them nonetheless as they have intriguing back-stories, appealing personalities, colorful designs, and enthusiastic voice acting. Even the less likable characters have an additional layer of depth to them that explains their abrasive personalities and you grow to care for them all the same. In addition, the support system allows for colorful banter between characters that gives you additional insight into them and the combinations provide endless amusement.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses' gameplay has its flaws but it's otherwise solid. As in previous games, combat involves taking command of a group of units in turn-based battles on a grid map. Objectives vary from wiping out all enemies to simply moving a few characters out of the area. Your units have strengths and weaknesses that must be balanced in order to secure victory. As you fight more battles, your characters will level up and gain new abilities as well as get closer to their companions that they fight beside. Different weapons have advantages over others and you have to figure out where to attack and when so you don't lead your army into a slaughter.
This time around, combat contains 3 major innovations. The first is the ability to turn back time which gives you an opportunity to correct a mistake thus potentially prevent a beloved character's death. Some may argue that this mechanic dumbs the combat down and while somewhat true, it does make the gameplay more accessible and fun to play. It also helps cut down on the frustration factor when you play it in Classic Mode as you won't have to restart missions whenever your favorite character dies; I know you do it, too.
The second innovation involves fighting demonic beasts. Unlike regular enemies, these guys are weak to certain weapons which may give you an advantage as you can stun them. You'll need to do this because these creatures have multiple health bars and attacks that pack a wallop. The final innovation is arguably the least interesting as Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces a mechanic that allows you to command battalions to attack your enemies which lets you get an attack in without the risk of damage as well as a chance to stun your enemy. While this is interesting, you probably won't use it often as it's not as rewarding as its epic animation implies.
The one area where Fire Emblem: Three Houses falters is in the actual teaching mechanics and your free time in Garreg Mach. The teaching mostly amounts to upping the weapon classes of your students and giving them more abilities. It's something that isn't terribly interesting and you'll find yourself wondering why they even bothered including the mechanic at all. In addition, the free time that you spend around Garreg Mach is full of tedious busy work and activities like fishing, gardening, tournaments, and eating with your students. It's stuff that we've seen before and done far better in other games so you'll eventually find yourself skipping most of it.
It must be said that the first half of the campaign is a bit unengaging. It's not outright bad but it lacks the initial hook that sucks you into the world and keeps you coming back for more in the same way that previous Fire Emblem games did. It doesn't help that a good chunk of the beginning revolves around a lot of busy work and it may be asking a bit much of some players to stick around for the more interesting stuff. Once you find yourself getting into the groove, you'll definitely find it to be a difficult game to put down.
Finally, a single playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses will take you anywhere from 35 to 45 hours which is more than satisfactory. Additionally, the branching storylines provide a huge amount of replay value. In total, you could easily spend well over 100 hours experiencing the various paths. The first half is sadly the same in terms of plot but you'll experience it from another point of view with different supporting characters which keeps things feeling somewhat fresh. Thankfully, the second half is always unique to the faction that you chose thus giving you new battles, storylines, and perspectives on the war. It might drag in certain areas but Fire Emblem: Three Houses more than justifies itself with the amount of gameplay time that is available to enjoy.
With an epic story, lasting consequences for decisions, and combat that's more enjoyable than ever, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is sure to satisfy. Ultimately, it isn't without faults yet it's still a top-notch entry in the series and one of 2019's best games.
- + Story acts as a deconstruction of the entire Fire Emblem franchise
- + Lasting consequences for your choices
- + Classic yet innovative combat
- - Teaching mechanics don't amount to much
- - The first half drags on