The Fire Emblem franchise has made significant strides in the past decade. After Fire Emblem Awakening on the Nintendo 3DS, the series’ popularity rose in the West and followed up with a three-installment sequel, a mobile game, a Dynasty Warriors-esque spin-off, and over half a dozen characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. At last, Fire Emblem is returning to consoles with the Nintendo Switch title Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and it delivers a grander experience than ever.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on a continent where three rival nations have become allies. In the center lies an academy for warriors, and you play as one of the school’s professors. As in recent Fire Emblem games, you control an avatar, but you can only choose your name and gender. Moreover, your character plays a more passive role in the story as a silent protagonist.
Thankfully, the supporting cast more than makes up for it. Akin to Harry Potter, the academy is split into three houses: the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer. After the prologue, you must choose which of the three houses you’d like to teach. It was a hard decision for me, as I was already impressed with the house leaders – Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude – remarkable main characters who dynamically propel the plot. The remaining seven members of each class are also endearing characters whom you spend the rest of the game with. I may be biased, as I picked the Black Eagles for my first playthrough and fell in love with my class, but it’s gratifying to get to uncover each student’s backstories. Each character has a distinct personality, from an anxiety-ridden girl who refuses to leave her room to a boy who would rather sleep than fight. I was able to figure out their likes and fears by conversing with them, which helped with answering their questions, giving them gifts, and engaging in tea parties (yes, tea parties).
Your chosen house determines your story arc. The first half of the game is common to all routes, but after a certain point, the stories diverge. It’s similar to the three paths in Fire Emblem Fates, but you can play through every option in this game without purchasing another copy. I found it worthwhile to start a new game even after finishing an approximately 50-hour playthrough. Depending on your route and playstyle, it could easily take upwards of 80-90 hours per path, which makes this one of the meatiest Fire Emblem games to date. The route-specific stories are captivating enough that I wanted to see all of them, but it’s a drag to replay through the same common path each time, even on New Game Plus. Having a smaller group of core units helps you grow fonder of them. Although you can recruit students from other houses, without a rigid plan, you likely won’t be playing a “perfect” game recruiting every unit. Your avatar can get married in the game, but it doesn’t play a big part in the story, and there are no children units.
Every chapter is divided into two parts: the turn-based strategy battles that the series is known for, and a new calendar-based school simulator. Although the tactics warfare remains true to the franchise’s roots, it’s the fresh school segments that kept me hooked. Similar to Persona 5, you follow a weekly schedule. You instruct your students in class and special events like birthdays, a fishing competition, and a school dance liven up the semester. Instructing your house students is much easier than real-life teaching. You set your class’ individual goals, be it a weapon skill, magic, or proficiency in horse riding. Your characters’ stats grow as the week passes – a unique and efficient take on training and grinding.
Free time on weekends lets you decide how to best expand the curriculum. You can engage in extra battles for experience, rest your characters so they are more motivated to study, attend a seminar to grow your own stats, or explore the academy. By far, exploration is the most exciting addition, allowing you to run around, take on side quests, and just hang out with staff and students. It’s a medium-sized area encompassing an entire monastery and school facilities, though its limited real-estate may make this option more tiresome in the latter half of the game. Still, I appreciated the novelty of going around campus and living school life. There’s some strategy involved, as the game offers you limited activity points to spend on class-building exercises, like cooking for temporary stat bonuses, sharing meals to build support, and entering tournaments.
Seeing students progress drives home the teacher sim experience. The passive skills and combat abilities they learn translate into the battlefield, and witnessing them pass their certification exams to promote to an upgraded character class is rewarding for any instructor. More than anything, the slice of life school simulator offers a pleasant break between what would otherwise be constant battles, much like previous games. Of course, if you’d rather go straight from one mission to another, you can skip the professor segments, though you may miss out on stats.
The turn-based strategy warfare that defines the series is at full force here. There are little additions and removals here and there, but at its heart, top-down tactical gameplay consists of carefully moving your units around the battlefield and striking down the enemy team, while keeping your students safe. Before you strike, a forecast lets you know how strong your attack will be, how much damage you’ll take, and the likelihood that either side’s attack will successfully hit. As such, there’s a level of randomness with a risk that exponentially rises if you play the classic way with permadeath on. For those who are afraid to lose their students forever, there’s a casual mode where units come back after falling in battle. Missions may still be difficult for less experienced strategists, even at the normal difficulty. Luckily, a new optional Divine Pulse mechanic allow players to turn back the clock several turns to replay situations. The game casts a wide net that lets both new players and veterans enjoy the gameplay.
There are a few noteworthy alterations to battles. The biggest surprise is that the rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle is no longer present. There are still certain weapon advantages and weaknesses, such as hitting armored units, cavalry, and fliers more easily, but the sword/lance/axe priority triangle isn’t as relevant as it used to be, which was a bit disappointing. I liked the new combat abilities, though, which provide special buffs and effects to attacks. These skills, however, decrease the more you use your weapon, which leads to the next point: weapon durability is back. It’s admittedly frustrating trying to manage weapons with limited uses, especially with limited war funds, but I understand that it helps balance out the combat abilities. Interestingly, magic also has limited usage per battle, but it instantly restores its casts for the next one. I think a system like this could also work for weapons in the next game; I was less afraid about conserving magic and more focused on liberally using spells for the right situations.
The gambit system is also a big change that grants a battalion to each unit. You can only unleash these battalions a few times per battle, but they can stun or stagger enemies, as well as boost or heal your own units. They come into play against one of the most exciting additions – large-scale monsters with multiple life bars.
As the first console Fire Emblem title in a decade, Three Houses features an upgraded presentation over its predecessors. The anime cutscenes are well-done, and the battle sequences are exciting with improved graphics. That being said, there is occasional distracting slowdown, despite not looking like it pushes the Switch with basic visuals compared to other big current-gen titles. The school setting looks nice, though, and I’d love to see more 3D exploration in future games. Solid, full voice acting for every line, except for the avatar’s, helped immerse me into the world and enriched the characters. The epic combat music plays a big part, particularly the early and final battle themes.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses does a tremendous job presenting a more immersive experience in the series’ first console entry in a decade. The three paths all present unique and compelling perspectives into the rich cast, and the Persona-like school life segments are a breath of fresh air that give players a lot more to do besides constant battling. The strategy gameplay is more or less the same with a few alterations and additions, but it remains a shining example of the genre. Every element meshes together well to make Fire Emblem: Three Houses one of the best games in this long-running series.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!