I have been a big fan of the Fire Emblem series since it first came to the west. Like what I assume are millions of people, I first became aware of the series with the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Brothers Melee. I couldn’t find a copy of Fire Emblem for GBA when it was released, but I did with its follow up, The Sacred Stones, and then went back to play the earlier game. I’ve played every subsequent game. I miss the stylings and tone of the first few of the series’ games I played, but Nintendo and Intelligent Systems know where their bread is buttered. Fire Emblem Awakening saved the series and as far as I can tell, Fire Emblem Three Houses is a true breakthrough.
Three Houses is an interesting game. It brings together different thematic emphases from earlier games. Like its immediate predecessor Fates, there is a lot of focus on big, story defining choices. Like in Fates, a choice early in the game sends the player down a different path and the story plays out differently. Here, the choice is between rival states that all send their best and brightest to the same school for education and military training. Depending on who the protagonist aligns themselves with, the story takes different routes. Like Awakening, the game also plays with time. In Three Houses this comes in by the way of a time jump during the game, and seeing how things change from one time period to another. That it manages to synthesize these into one game, along with plenty of new considerations, is impressive.
The big new thing added to this game is a time management school sim element. It has shades of the Persona series and Harry Potter books. Spending time at Garreg Monastery creates an in-game world for the player to pursue the sorts of team and character building stuff that usually makes up a big part of Fire Emblem games. At the Monastery, the player can pursue support conversations or various gift giving activities to raise support levels. Then there are the educational parts of the Monastery, which is like the time management parts of Persona, where the player has to choose from stat building, time using activities that are then used to open up character classes or to help raise similar stats of your students. There are also shops and a few mini-games scattered around.
I am mixed on Garreg Monastery. I understand how it works to create immersion for people. You directly control the protagonist as they run around doing all this between battles stuff. In older games that stuff was all cutscenes and menus. The games focused almost completely on the battles and presented everything else as simply as possible. Three Houses tries to make it more of a game. If that is what the player is looking for, I guess it is a big plus. I want to get to the battles, to the maps and spend most of my time there. I like the support conversations, I liked doing other skits and interactions with the characters, I generally enjoy the stories of these games as fantasy fluff. Running around the Monastery always felt to me like it was keeping me from the parts of the game I really wanted to spend my time with. That changed when I realized that all the shopping stuff could be done in menu before the battle, just like in earlier games. You don’t have to engage much with the time consuming aspects of Garreg Monastery if you don’t want to. And I didn’t.
The school aspects work as character building stuff. It is more control than the series usually gives the player, but also not an especially robust development toolset. Characters are pretty well set in their roles. You can nudge them to a related class or one of two or three different advanced classes, but unless you start the game with a strong idea that you want to turn a character away from their original role and work very hard from start to force them into a new role, that change will never happen.
I have only cleared one and a half of the game’s four paths, so I can’t speak to all of the story developments and map designs, but on the path I did take was pretty solid. The maps are not the most complex, and there aren’t a ton of different win scenarios. The objectives are mostly rout the enemy or defeat the boss. There is at least one map where you are tasked with protecting civilians, but I do not remember any survive or escape maps. That said, the combat is good. The maps are generally well designed, with obvious paths to assaults along with more difficult, possibly more rewarding terrain. You can find choke points to set up armored units and open fields for hit and run tactics with mounted units. In all, it is some satisfying tactical combat. The new skill system is the best version of that in the series. They are not overpowering, but they are effective in the right situations and eat up weapon durability to keep the player from being too reliant on them. I am less sure about the battalions, but they don’t end up making that much of a difference in the game, so they didn’t really bother me. The game is just some good Fire Emblem.
The hook that I think made Three Houses a breakthrough for the series is how it has players choose a faction, but allows the player to recruit just about anyone else if they so desire. Each group feels unique, but it also allows the player to fit the group to their liking. People love that “Harry Potter choose your house” shit, and Three Houses effectively co-opts that. Especially because the story turns whatever group you chose into the good guys.
I’ll write more about the story after I beat another run or two of this game. I played through with the Black Eagles, I want to see how the others stack up and how their stories play out before I comment much more on that. Fortunately, the game is enjoyable enough to make me want to clear it multiple times to see all that it has to offer. It just might take me awhile to do so.