A Japanese classic that didn’t make itself absolutely known in the west until the release of Fire Emblem Awakening, the Fire Emblem series has strayed away from its return to home consoles since 2007’s Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. Fans of the latest portable additions to the series and even fans of the games of old have had high expectations for the series’ return to consoles, but there was a worry that the game could fall flat.
It’s safe to say that isn’t the case. With Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the player assumes the role of a Professor at the Officer’s Academy in Garreg Mach Monastery, under the watch of the benevolent Church of Seiros. As the name suggests, the player almost immediately elects one of Three Houses at the academy to teach and train to become the knights and warriors of the future.
Criticism before release was that the game was essentially Hogwarts but with war, and the result would be a glorified school simulator. However, Intelligent Systems do an excellent job at indeed simulating an engaging dynamic between you and your students, as well as an intriguing teaching environment, whilst reminding you constantly that the stakes are far higher than that of an ordinary school.
Fire Emblem’s latest entries have been known for their decision to allow you to court your fellow comrades in battle, so there was justified concern that this entry would allow you, as a professor, to date your students (who may or may not be underage depending). As a compromise, Three Houses doesn’t allow you to date any of your students until a certain pivotal story moment that makes the dating aspect of the game thankfully less creepy and uncomfortable.
Alongside this, unlike the previous modern portable entries, the students and professors alike that you meet at your time at the Officer’s Academy have much more in-depth personalities that are fascinating to discover. The Support system rewards you for letting your units battle together by allowing you to witness their relationship develop through conversations between them outside of battle. The characters are well-written and have stories that are significant and weighty; whilst avoiding spoilers, topics such as abuse, hefty expectations, and attempts to escape their damning fate envelop and plague your students and professors. Another fun novelty is that the game is fully voice acted, incredibly so, which undoubtedly gives every character a bit more humanity when you’re learning about them.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses keeps taking leaves out of its predecessors’ books, maintaining the “permadeath” of previous entries, where each battle and strategic move could cost one of your students their lives. Once they’re dead, they’re dead.
The game is punishing, although on its standard difficulty I found little trouble ensuring my students got out of every battle with their lives. However, if this is your first Fire Emblem game, there are several ways that Three Houses ensures new players do not have to pay too severely for the slightest of mistakes.
Divine Pulse, inspired by Mila’s Turnwheel implemented in the latest 3DS entry, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, allows players to rewind time if they lose a unit or end up in a sticky situation to rethink their plans. With a limited use, Divine Pulse is a comfortable mechanic for new and old players to use or ignore as often or as little as they want. Casual mode (which you elect when you begin playing) also removes the penalties of permadeath, meaning when you lose a unit in battle you’ll find them ready and able in your next conquest.
The game doesn’t necessarily do anything innovative or new with its combat gameplay, as the game’s strategic combat was pretty infallible. However, due to the game taking place at a school, the player is able to train their units to become any class they desire, permitting that the unit doesn’t have any clear weakness in what you want them to become better at, and even then, that’s not necessarily a restriction.
Where the game really shines is how attached you become to the world it’s created. Not only do the conversations between you and your students teach you (pardon the pun) more about the unique individuals, but the game’s “Schedule” and inspiration by games such as Persona escalates the game to an entirely new level.
The player has to plan each month accordingly, deciding who to lecture and what to lecture them in over the week, and then deciding whether to Explore, host a Seminar, or take their students out for Battles. There’s an option to Rest, but it’s hard to commit to allowing your students a break rather than helping them grow or learning more about them. Out of the activities you can do every Sunday, Explore is by far the most unique. The player can explore the Garreg Mach Monastery in all its glory – one of the few times we’ve been able to do anything in a Fire Emblem game that wasn’t a more complicated game of chess – where you can talk to students, give them gifts, any lost items you’ve found whilst exploring, garden, fish, eat, and many more!
Although you’re restricted by your Professor level on how much you can do whilst enjoying your time in the Monastery, it’s very rare that you’ll find yourself with nothing to do. The game offers thousands of opportunities for you to better your students and also get to know them.
The hardest choice will be what House you select at the beginning of the game, as Three Houses unfortunately gives you very little time to get to know the students from each House before it forces you to make a decision. However, the fact that each House provides you with a different story with varied battles and units compared to the others means that the game offers a lot of replayability.
Having only finished one of the House’s routes and being halfway through another, it’s hard to truly comment on the story, but it has yet to disappoint. Golden Deer’s house leader, Claude, has vastly different goals and ambitions to that of the Black Eagle’s leader, Edelgard, and the same can be said for the Blue Lions’ Dimitri, and this definitely reflects through the story and gameplay once you’ve made your choice.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is executed so immaculately, that it’s hard not to say something cheesy like once you pick it up you’ll find it difficult to put down. For people that adored the series, no matter for how long, this game doesn’t disappoint and arguably does everything better than some of the previous entries, and for newcomers to the series, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a fantastic way to get started. Just a warning, don’t try to argue with someone else playing that the House you picked is better than theirs; it won’t get you anywhere.