Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 8/15/2019 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
The prospect of writing a review for Fire Emblem: Three Houses has been a bit intimidating for me this week. It’s one of those games that just got so much so right. No matter what I say about it, I know that I’ll forget to mention some amazing aspect, and since Fire Emblem is a series so near and dear to my heart – my all-time favorite Nintendo IP and quite possibly my favorite video game series – I really want to do it justice. Three Houses, especially, is an exceptional game. It might have surpassed Awakening for my title of “best Fire Emblem game.” It’s definitely the most approachable Fire Emblem game for newcomers.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has you assume the role of Byleth (or, as I named her in my playthrough, Atra), a mercenary-turned-teacher at the Officers’ Academy at the monastery of Garreg Mach. You are given the choice to lead one of the three houses of the Academy – Blue Lions, the house for students from the Kingdom; Golden Deer, the house for students from the Alliance; and Black Eagles, the house for students from the Empire. Each house is more inclined to one combat style or another, but it’s important to note that you have a LOT of leeway over how you guide each character’s development, and you can change classes at will provided that skill requirements are met. Black Eagle has more magically-inclined students, Blue Lions has more physically-inclined students, and Golden Deer has more archery-focused students. Each of the houses has units of all types, so go with whatever characters speak to you most. Each house is led by its respective country’s heir; Claude is the heir to the ruling house of the Alliance, Dimitri is the crown prince of the Kingdom, and Edelgard is next in line to the imperial throne. Obviously, Black Eagles is the only correct choice because Edelgard is bae (or, as the #SwitchCorps group DM on Twitter and I took to calling her, Baedelgard).
Three Houses made a lot of changes to the traditional Fire Emblem formula both in and out of battle. First and foremost, you’ll feel like you’re playing a Persona game if persona were an SRPG instead of a JRPG. Each chapter takes place during the course of a month, and in the month before that chapter’s story battle, you can spend time exploring campus and building your relationships with your students, you can host seminars that your students can attend to develop skills, you can engage in extra battles – paralogues and side quests and such, or you can just rest. At the start of each week, you set up your week’s lecture. You can set what skills each student focuses on developing and work one-on-one with certain students to develop their skills further provided that they have enough motivation.
The biggest change in combat come with how support levels work and to magic. Magic was the most surprising change for me, so I’ll start there. In previous Fire Emblem games, magic tomes have been items that equip and degrade just like weapons. After a certain amount of use, your tome breaks, and you have to buy another one. Magic is totally different in Three Houses. As you level up your two magic skills – Reason for black magic and Faith for white magic – you unlock new combat skills. Each spell has a certain number of charges to denote how many times that spell can be used in battle. When you deplete those charges, you can no longer use that spell just like in previous games, but rather than being a tome that breaks, your spells’ charges are all replenished at the start of the next battle. I was unsure about this change at first, but the farther I got into the game, the more I loved it. This absolutely should be how Fire Emblem does magic going forward.
The support levels aren’t as pronounced in Three Houses as they were in previous Fire Emblem games. You still get a slight combat boost to accuracy and evasion when adjacent to a unit with which you have good support, but more important than that are the effects to the battalions and gambits. Every unit can equip a battalion like an item, and the battalions give a stat boost and a bonus ability called a gambit depending on the battalion type and level. When you have multiple units adjacent to an enemy, they all join in on your gambit, strengthening your attack. Likewise, you can get a boost if you have allied units within attack range of an enemy unit that you’re attacking. The support effects may be less openly pronounced than in previous games, but I’d argue that they’re actually more important and a lot deeper than in previous games as far as strategy applications go.
The game’s story revolves around a mysterious threat to the monastery in the game’s first part, but I’m not going to mention anything about the game’s second part because it’s hard to say anything about it without going into straight spoilers, and this game is just too dang good to risk that. I will say, though, that there are four distinct paths you can choose in the game, but that’s as much as I’m going to say. The story is pretty standard Fire Emblem stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-told (as is usually the case with Fire Emblem) that I found myself unable to pull away from the game most of the time. The art style is absolutely gorgeous, the sound design is completely perfect, and the characters all feel real and distinct from one another. My only complaint with any of that is that some of the environmental textures – especially the floors in the monastery – are frankly garbage. They’re super low resolution and just look ugly compared to the otherwise gorgeous character models.
I’m sure there’s a lot that I should have said and didn’t, but really, I doubt any review could really do justice to this game. I am, admittedly, a bit biased because I love Fire Emblem SO much and am such a huge fan of the Switch, but this truly is a spectacular game and right up there with Awakening as a prime example of what a strategy RPG should be. If you have a Switch, you absolutely owe it to yourself to add this game to your collection. If you don’t have a Switch, this game alone is reason enough to buy one. I can’t heap enough praise onto Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It’s kind of a masterpiece, guys.