Lest I bury the lede here, let me start off by saying that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is another undeniable must-own for the Nintendo Switch. Developed jointly by Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo Games, it is a dramatic tour de force that puts a high fantasy anime epic in the palms of your hands.
But before you experience all of Three Houses‘ love, loss, betrayal, and betrothal, here are 10 things you should know.
Minor spoilers to follow.
What is Fire Emblem: Three Houses?
Three Houses is the latest entry in the long-running Fire Emblem tactical RPG series, a franchise that debuted in Japan all the way back in 1990 (on the Famicom) before eventually landing stateside (on the Game Boy Advance) in 2003. Though typified by its blend of classic medieval fantasy elements like swords, sorcery, and dragons as well as equally well-worn JRPG tropes like amnesiac protagonists and ancient prophecies, Fire Emblem is also known for its grand, sweeping narratives and its often-unyielding combat.
As the title implies, Fire Emblem: Three Houses allows your player character, the young mercenary Byleth (who can be male or female), to take direct control of training the officers from one of three rival nations. This is accomplished through an interesting mix of social simulation and turn-based battles.
With hundreds of hours of potential gameplay, you’ll make friends, thwart enemies, and ultimately shape the socio-political future of the continent of Fódlan.
What’s up with all the Hogwarts comparisons?
In a fairly Potter-esque twist, the three student houses of the Garreg Mach Monastery, the game’s central hub and the training academy of the powerful Church of Seiros, are divided as much by culture and temperament as they are by government and geography.
The Black Eagles represent the southern Adrestian Empire. A hereditary monarchy, the Adrestians are formal and remain fairly militaristic even in this time of relative peace. The Black Eagles favor axes and black magic in combat, and the house is headed up by the dignified but ambitious Edelgard von Hresvelg, daughter of Emperor Ionius IX and heir to his throne.
The pious and knightly Blue Lions represent the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, located in the northern reaches of Fódlan. Disciplined and chivalrous, the Lions are proficient with spears, and the house is lead by crown prince Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd.
Lastly, the Golden Deer house is comprised of students from the Leicester Alliance, a mix of nobles and commoners hailing from eastern Fódlan. Unlike the Adrestian Empire and the Holy Kingdom, Leicester is an autonomous republic with no particular disdain or reverence for the Church of Seiros. Following the lead of the genial future head of the Alliance, Claude von Riegan, Golden Deer is proudly a place for misfits.
There is, of course, no shortage of hormones, teen angst, and inter/intra-house drama, and no matter which path you pick, you’re sure to find favorite students among all these outsized personalities.
So it’s a teaching simulator?
Only sometimes. While you’ll definitely spend plenty of time on the fields of battle actively honing your house’s skills in magic and martial combat, you’ll alternately find opportunities at Garreg Mach Monastery, both in and out of the classroom, to help shape your young officers’ minds.
The game is broken down into a series of seasons, and at the beginning of each, you’ll receive a stipend for purchasing items and armaments as well a briefing by the Church’s big cheese, Archbishop Rhea, regarding your major seasonal task. In preparation for this training exercise, grand battle, or… school-wide dance contest, you’ll spend each week focusing on specific students and activities.
Weeks generally begin with direct instruction. Each student has one or two Goals, skills related to their current or potential future character class—a Mage, for example, would have Goals related to the Reason and Faith spellcasting skills—but Byleth can Tutor them in these or even unrelated skill proficiencies. One student may be Tutored for each available Activity Point, with additional Points being made available as the game progresses. Similarly, a student’s willingness to learn in these training sessions is expressed by a four-sectioned Motivation bar. The higher the Motivation, the more eager he or she is to learn.
After all the Activity Points have been spent, general weekly training commences. This is accompanied by some fairly generic lecture animation sprinkled with interactive dialog. Perhaps a student has a personal or philosophical question, or maybe our Mage has decided she would instead like to develop her Sword proficiency and become a Myrmidon. Either way, Byleth’s advice is typically taken to heart, which helps you fine-tune your fighting force going forward.
Any given week could have one or more mandatory activities, like a school event or emergency battle, as well as optional tasks. During student and faculty birthdays, for example, Byleth can give flowers or have tea with the birthday boy or girl, further strengthening their bond and supplementing the next week’s Motivation.
Each week ends with a free day. This time can be used to explore the monastery—gardening, fishing, dining with students, collecting provisions, completing special quests, or simply plying characters with gifts—participating in optional battles, exploring specialty seminars lead by savvy students and teachers, or even just resting.
That doesn’t sound like much fighting.
Trust me; you’ll have opportunities to slake your thirst for combat at every turn.
Between competing houses, marauding pirates, the Church of Seiros’ splintered offshoot the Western Church, demonic beasts, and the mysterious Flame Emperor, there is no shortage of foes.
While the schooling aspect of Three Houses may be new, the combat should be very intuitive to anyone who’s ever played a turn-based strategy title. Move your units around the gridded map, attack enemies within range, use Vulneraries (potions) or healer units to keep your warriors in top form, rinse, and repeat.
Fire Emblem‘s classic Weapons Triangle is downplayed in this title; however, weapon durability still plays a major role. This means it pays to have a couple of different weapons on hand for each officer, and it’s never a bad idea to hit up the local blacksmith to have favored arms repaired.
If you are an old-school FE player, you can choose the game’s Classic mode, which features permanent death for units who fall in battle. Or if, like me, you just get way too attached to your characters for such foolishness, you can instead play in Casual mode—wherein they just retreat from the fight when defeated. You can also employ the Divine Pulse ability to back yourself out of particularly messy missteps by turning back time and reassessing your previous foolhardy tactics.
Do I need to know anything about the world of Fire Emblem before I start Three Houses?
No, you don’t.
I mean, don’t get me wrong; there is a ton of backstory, complete with religious doctrine, political upheaval, and shrouded mythology, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses meters it out slowly and deliberately. If you’re really into the lore, you can go down a number of rabbit holes, complete with library reading and extensive character exposition alike, but if you’re more concerned with the now, much of that is optional or can be sped through with some rapid button presses.
Still, if you’d like a bit of a primer, the big plot points (without being too spoiler-y) are as follows.
- The Church of Seiros is the primary power player in the land of Fódlan—so much so that its Garreg Mach Monastery in the continent’s center trains the young leaders of its three main political factions.
- Many of these officers in training possess Crests, magical, hereditary sigils that allow them to use powerful weapons known as Hero’s Relics.
- A thousand years ago, the War of Heroes raged between the founder of the Church, Seiros, and the opposing forces of Nemesis.
- Nemesis was defeated and, for a time, Great Emperor Wilhelm Paul Hresvelg, crowned by Saint Seiros herself, held sway throughout the expansive Adrestian Empire.
- Eventually, alliances shifted and animosity grew. With the continent split between those loyal to the Empire (Adrestian Empire), loyal to the Church (Holy Kingdom), and those who splintered off in favor of relative neutrality (Leicester Alliance), the Church of Seiros itself stepped in to keep the peace.
- Because of this, many still resent the Church and its hold on Fódlan.
- Though raised outside of the direct influence of both the Church and the Empire by his father Jeralt, Byleth is drawn back into their political machinations, seemingly by fate.
- Also, Byleth has a magical green-haired girl, Sothis, who sometimes talks to them in their dreams. (Yeah, it’s that kind of a game.)
How does it control?
While gridded, turn-based combat doesn’t exactly require the fine-tuning of an FPS, Fire Emblem: Three Houses does afford an exquisite level of control on the battlefield. Characters are moved (and terrain scouted) using either the left analog stick or the corresponding directional buttons. The right stick is reserved for on-the-fly camera adjustment, and, when combined with the + and – zoom controls, really lets you stay on top of things.
The free-roaming controls as you explore the Monastery are a little less polished but still perfectly adequate. There’s some occasional clipping going through doorways while quickly entering or leaving smaller rooms, but otherwise, the game does a great job of keeping the environments seamless by cordoning off access until it’s needed. That way, rather than hitting you with regular load screens, you instead just wait a beat for a portcullis to open before you proceed.
As far as I’m concerned, the Switch has revolutionized the control interface for the Fire Emblem franchise. While playing, I’m continually reminded that I’m enjoying a historically portable property with all the bells and whistles of a full-blown console title.
How are the visuals?
From its earliest days, Fire Emblem has always strived for a fantasy anime aesthetic, but there’s long been a stark demarcation between the lush character portraits and the blocky in-game sprites.
At last, Three Houses succeeds in unifying Fire Emblem‘s visuals. Obviously, there’s a bit more fidelity to its handsomely animated cut scenes, but the overall visual style is consistent throughout. This means the lazy but clever Hilda in the pre-mission movies is instantly recognizable as the very same Hilda on the battlefield.
That goes a long way in helping the player build a rapport with their chosen house. If, for example, Dorothea falls during a skirmish, it is her and not merely some generic-looking Archer or Dancer that dies or retreats, which provides much more of an impact.
What about the voice acting?
Much has been said about the voice cast of Three Houses—most recently because of the questionable behavior of some and the wonderfully entertaining endeavors of others—but it really is a highlight of the game.
From the stilted, uptight delivery of Seteth to the gregarious goofiness of the muscle-bound Raphael, the voicework adds another enchanting element to each of the game’s varied characters. It’s yet another reason why you’ll likely find yourself quickly picking favorites to dote over and protect.
How big a deal is the romance element?
Romantic entanglement is as much a part of the modern Fire Emblem franchise as enigmatic warriors and convoluted lore. However, I was a little surprised to see it downplayed in Three Houses‘ lengthy first half. (With the obvious exception of the regular advances from your fellow instructor, the unapologetically amorous Manuela.)
I was also relieved, given that most of your potential suitors are, at the time, high-school age. The game takes great pains to remind you that Byleth is practically the same age, but as Byleth is also the professor instructing these teens, there’s an uncomfortable power dynamic at play.
After part two’s time jump, with the rest of the cast aged-up and presented more as equals, the ick level comes down a few notches. That said, there are still some issues with Three Houses‘ relationship elements; the chief among these concerns same-sex courtships.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, a staple of Fire Emblem is the Support Conversation. These are opportunities both on and off the field of battle to build and strengthen bonds between members of your fighting force.
It typically follows the traditional C to A ranking system, wherein interpersonal relationships are given a letter grade. Some character relationships, however, can level up to S-rank, resulting in romance and, ultimately, marriage.
It was widely reported before the game’s launch that Fire Emblem: Three Houses would include multiple options for same-sex relationships, implying some choices for both male-male and female-female pairings.
Unfortunately, while there are several choices for a female Byleth looking for a ladylove, a male Byleth only has one unambiguous potential male romantic partner, Black Eagle’s Lindhardt. (S-rankings with Knights of Seiros/academy instructors Alois and Gilbert are unexpectedly framed as platonic.)
This lead to some obvious frustration in LQBTQIA+ gaming circles. For more information on this, I’d highly recommend checking out the coverage at Kotaku and Paste as well as this thread from our very own Sean Z.
Who will enjoy Fire Emblem: Three Houses?
As I alluded to /checks the count/ a couple of thousand words ago, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is spectacular, but whether or not you love it as much as I do depends a lot on what you’re looking for in a gaming experience.
If you’ve enjoyed previous entries in the Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Advance Wars franchises, then this is the game for you. If you’re in the market for an extensive roleplaying experience that can also be enjoyed it bite-sized chunks, again, this title more than fits the bill.
If, however, ambitious world-building leaves you scratching your head or maintaining the balance of multiple character relationships makes you want to run to the hills, then perhaps Fire Emblem: Three Houses shouldn’t be at the top of your playlist.
For me, though, Three Houses brings in everything I’ve come to expect from Fire Emblem (one of my favorite series) along with some expanded social simulation elements (like from my other favorite series, Animal Crossing), and blends them into a perfectly portable tactical RPG that plays like its console big brothers. In short, even with four months left in 2019, it is surely my game of the year.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. Raphael is my homeboy. Golden Deer forever!