Fire Emblem Three Houses is massive and ambitious, seamlessly joining fresh gameplay elements inspired by other genres with the beloved, traditional Fire Emblem square tactics formula in a manner that feels natural and immersive. In the following review I will avoid talking about the story because no one likes spoilers this soon after release and each House has a different cast and plot-line. All of them are excellent and will command your attention for dozens of hours!
Three Houses puts the player in charge of one of three Houses of academy students, each respectively representing the three major nations surrounding the Officer’s Academy, a school run within a monastery by the Church for the purpose of encouraging peace between countries. Each of the upcoming rulers of those nations is the head of their respective House: the Blue Lions, the Golden Deer, and the Black Eagles. Will you stand with fierce, chivalrous Dimitri, charming, cavalier Claude, or confident, stubborn Edelgard? It is entirely up to you to get to know the students and decide which House you will lead into the future as their Professor, battle comrade, and dear companion.
Emphasis on the Characters
Longtime Fire Emblem fans will immediately notice the most dramatic change Three Houses introduces: an ability to free roam inside the grounds of a vast, beautiful monastery. Each week of the addictive gameplay loop you’ll be able to choose an activity to spend your time on. If you choose Explore rather than Battle, Seminar, or Rest, you’ll be able to wander around the monastery taking part in RPG-style activities, completing a variety of quests, and getting to know the impressively large cast of fully voice acted characters.
Every character has been skillfully brought to life by a high quality voice acting cast, including minor and nameless NPCs. I was surprised by the number of nameless non player characters whom have fully voiced conversations available. The English dub cast is fantastic and you’ll likely recognize many of the voices from their roles in other games and anime. Thanks to this spectacular performance, your students will endear themselves to you right away with their unique quirks.
Marriage support relationships between units have been removed for all but the player character and their chosen love interest, so in turn child units have also been cut from this iteration of Fire Emblem. Some players may like this as they felt past games put too much focus on “breeding the best units” while others who really enjoyed the matchmaking aspect may be saddened by the loss of S-supports.
Regardless, this change has allowed the writers to focus their energy on crafting complex characterization and longer support interactions, both handled with empathetic, thoughtful writing. I cannot understate how superb the character writing is in Three Houses – getting to know the cast is a complete delight! I chose Blue Lions and can’t wait to get started on a second play through to learn all about the other two Houses.
Early in the game your opportunity to battle is a little limited with the game instead encouraging you to get to know the students and learn about the non-battle gameplay activities, such as attending lunch in the dining hall, hosting tea parties to increase support affinity, or learning skill proficiency from other Professors. Almost all of the activities you can engage in will indirectly affect your units (the students) in battle.
You can fish from the pond and use what you catch to cook meals with your favorite characters that grant battle buffs to the entire class. If you plant seeds in the greenhouse you can later harvest items great for cooking, tea, or that can be given as gifts to characters. You’ll find lost items on the monastery grounds and if you return them to their owner, that character’s motivation and support level will increase. Motivation represents the willingness of students to accept your personal instruction to increase specific skill proficiency levels, such as Swordplay, Heavy Armor, Riding, etc.
Quality of Life Changes and New Mechanics
The teaching process allows the player to efficiently tailor their team of units to their exact preferences. Once a week you’ll be able to personally instruct your students to focus on specific skill goals that they will increase outside of combat. This makes it much easier to help a unit learn new combat Classes.
After a student has obtained access to a Class by passing a certification exam, they can swap to unlocked Classes outside of battle stages at will without use of items as was required in the past. So, if you have an archer you really want to put on a horse, you can instruct them to study Riding and after a few in-game weeks of working toward this goal they will have a high enough Riding level from passive study to become a Cavalier or Bow Knight.
In battle stages, the most interesting mechanics veterans will notice have been added are Battalions and Gambits. Battalions add an extra level of depth and complexity to your battle strategy. Battalions are assigned to units, have a leveling system of their own, and are affected by the officer’s Authority stat. Visually, Battalions appear as around 6-12 soldiers that can be seen on the field grid if you zoom in and in battle animations fighting alongside their officer. The din of Battalions clashing in the background is a great addition to the battlefield aesthetic.
Gambits are special attacks your units can use that direct their assigned Battalion to do something specific. A soldier based battalion might be able to group charge an enemy, causing them to be stunned. Battalions of magic users can attack with magic as one or heal allies in a large area. Battalions will lose motivation if their officer takes too much damage and will eventually disband, but can be restored later.
Another new mechanic Fire Emblem fans may or may not agree with is the Divine Pulse mechanic. In Three Houses you have the ability to rewind time during battle stages. You start with three charges of this ability and can gain more later. Divine Pulse makes Classic mode much more bearable for players who tend to restart any time they lose a unit. Of course, you do not have to use the mechanic at all. You can play as if Divine Pulse does not exist if you prefer, but its presence creates a nice middle ground for different types of players. Casual mode still exists and a Lunatic difficulty will be added via DLC post launch, according to Nintendo.
The weapon weakness triangle has been removed, but this makes little difference due to characters being able to use most weapons with every class regardless. Smaller combat changes include the addition of the Gauntlet weapon type, great for melee classes who like to hit first, fast and hard. When initiating an attack, gauntlet users will always attack twice, or even four times if they are quick enough. Bow users are much stronger than in past installments, a details that makes sense considering the Golden Deer House mainly consists of archers.
Magic using classes no longer use purchasable Tomes and instead learn specific spells as they level up their skill proficiency. These spells have a number of charges that can be used during battle stages and refresh uses for each new battle. Not needing to manage tomes in additional to weapons in the inventory is pretty nice! The trade off for this ease of use is that Mages are locked into certain kinds of magic associated with each character, limiting customization options. For instance, in my choice of the Blue Lion House, Annette learns Wind magic while Mercedes will learn Fire spells.
Visuals and Animation
Battlefields and combat animations in Three Houses have received appropriated upgrades for the first Switch Fire Emblem game. Battle stages are minutely detailed and allow the player to freely move the camera even when zoomed in close enough to view each unit’s armor clasps. The environmental touches are astounding, complimented by sweeping, atmospheric orchestral tracks!
During combat animations, the game accurately displays where the units are positioned on the terrain. It’s especially evident in areas where the terrain changes from one type to another, such as on riverbanks or on the beach. Your characters will even fight knee-deep in water if they are on a grid square in the shallows.
Veteran Fire Emblem players may notice that Three Houses combat animations are shorter than in the past, which is a welcome tweak as many used to turn off combat animations to make the game go faster. You can hold down A to double the speed if desired. I never turn my combat animations off because I love to watch my units in action! They look fluid and graceful, or appropriately relentless, always ending with a flourish unique to each character or Class. I’ve become quite fond of taking aesthetically pleasing battle screen shots because of how gorgeous the animations are.
Last but not least, monsters are back in a big way and this time they actually look and feel appropriately threatening. You’ll battle humongous beasts and demonic creatures that each take up four grid squares or more a piece and you will need to carefully plan assaults and positioning with multiple units to get past their barriers, multiple health bars, and lethal, area of affect attacks.
Fire Emblem Three Houses has confidently established a new baseline of excellence for the Fire Emblem series. I am almost worried for Intelligent Systems because every Fire Emblem henceforth will need to meet this standard of quality if not surpass it! The intense focus on character personalities and each of their stories is something I hope stays for good.
My only complaints are the lack of customization options for the player character (name and gender only) and the poor quality environmental backdrops behind the characters during support conversations, but these are so minor that they do not merit taking a full point off the game’s score. (I was even able to mostly ignore the female player character’s pandering stockings and mid drift window.)
Three Houses is a near perfect Fire Emblem experience, earning a 9.5/10 in my book. I look forward to seeing what the developers come up with in the future for branching story options and immersive, free roaming central locations for the player to explore! Three Houses is a spectacular introduction to the Fire Emblem series for new players and is positively overflowing with polished content Fire Emblem fans are sure to appreciate for years to come.
Thanks for reading!
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