Fire Emblem has been through quite a rollercoaster journey on its path to success. After an initial debut on the Famicom in 1990 with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, the series remained a niche exclusive of the Land of the Rising Sun for thirteen years until it made its way westward, spurred on by the appearance of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee. From there, it saw a fleeting rise in worldwide popularity, but declining sales by the time of the Wii’s Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn led to Nintendo being just on the verge of cancelling the series outright.

Believing it to be their last crack at the series, the developers put their all into producing the seminal Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS, which turned out to be one of the best-selling titles for the platform and a much needed shot in the arm for the storied SRPG series. Since then, we’ve received sequels, remakes, and spin-offs galore, all of which have been pivotal in keeping the ball rolling, yet it feels almost like all of it has been leading up to the entry which has now arrived for the Switch. Of course, we’re referring to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the first home console release for the series in over ten years.

We’ll get one thing out of the way upfront: Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an absolutely wonderful strategy RPG experience. This is Fire Emblem dialled up to eleven, perfectly balanced between the lessons learned from past titles while also experimenting with bold new ideas the series has never attempted before. Perhaps with the one exception of graphical performance, it seems that no area of this strategy epic was given the short end of the stick in development; it’s an impressively smooth experience that flows seamlessly from one element to the next, all in service of the overarching, thoughtful gameplay that’s made the series such a hit over the years. We’ll have to see how Three Houses factors into the ongoing debate of which game is the best in the series, but it’s pretty safe to say that this release deserves a spot in that conversation.

The story opens with your character – a mostly silent, blue-haired mercenary – saving a group of three school students from a nefarious band of bandits, and after a warm interaction in which your father recognizes some of the soldiers they were travelling with, everyone romps back to the Garegg Mach Monastery, which houses the far-reaching Church of Seiros and the Officers’ Academy that it runs.

Although the land of Fódlan is currently enjoying a rare time of peace between its three main nations, the school is always training and instructing the next generation of dignitaries, warriors, and nobles. Due to your father’s long history with the Archbishop of the church, your character is soon appointed as a professor and you’re given the choice to be the head of one of the titular three houses. Though the plot initially focuses on the simple and heartwarming school drama in which the day-to-day struggles of your students take centre stage, there’s an underlying conflict brewing behind the scenes regarding the church, your character’s origins, and the world outside the walls of the monastery – which inevitably bubbles up into something considerably more pressing.

What struck us about the storytelling as the hours slipped by is just how effectively the pacing is handled when juggling what can initially feel like two separate stories. School life, which takes up much of the first few dozen hours, is unsurprisingly characterized by being a mostly light-hearted and low-stakes window into the intermingling lives of a vibrant student body. This is contrasted, then, against the bigger, heavier conflicts happening in the world around the monastery, which frequently bubble over and in some way necessitate the involvement of the house that’s been developing under your tutelage.

There were plenty of well-founded concerns after Fire Emblem: Three Houses was first revealed that the focus on school life in this release would lead to a certain flippancy in narration, which many saw as an understandable step down from the many epic and emotional tales of past entries. Suffice to say, this two-toned approach to storytelling is inevitably united in an enormously satisfying way, but even in the early portions, you’re always kept keenly aware of what’s happening around you even as you’re focusing on helping a student navigate a tough relationship or find a lost item.

What makes the story so compelling is unsurprisingly the strongly written cast of characters, each of which fills out their own niche and has deep, often complicated backstories to make them more three dimensional. One character, for example, is an overwhelmingly paranoid introvert who usually overreacts to every comment from her peers – positive or negative – and frequently finds excuses to lock herself in her room. Though her reactions to her classmates’ invitations to things are often played for humour, getting to know her a little more through support conversations reveals that her insecurities and anxiety stem from a sad history with parental abuse.

Another student is known as the overly flirty, boy-crazy diva, but getting to know her reveals that her ‘shallowness’ is a result of her being a commoner in a school of nobles, desperate to find a husband that will take care of her before it’s too late. Not all characters have such melancholy backstories, but we were rather taken aback at how every character has an extensive history and well thought out reasons for their various quirks and interests. Everyone will, of course, have their favourite characters, but our hats are off to the developers for crafting such a broad, varied and compelling cast. Even given the high bar set by previous Fire Emblem titles, we were impressed by the depth of the characterisation here, and that connection to your team goes a long way into making each skirmish in each battle feel that much more important. It’s not just a cavalry unit you’re sending to fight that ruffian, but a student with a name who you’ve spent a lot of time getting to know both in and out of the classroom, and whose growth has been guided by your knowledge.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses progresses over a period of several years, which are usually broken up into small chapters that take a month each. Usually, there’s a climactic battle or event taking place at the end of the month, and the weeks preceding it are spent preparing your character and team for the coming event. To be fair, the only days of the months that really concern you as the player are the weekends, in which you’re given free time on one day and must give a lecture on the other. The other days are still important, as birthdays and other emergent events can sometimes occur, but the bulk of your time is going to be spent on best managing what you do with those critical two days of each week. The free days allow you to do one of four primary activities – Rest, Seminar, Battle, or Explore – with that last option no doubt proving to be the strongest draw for those of you that are curious about the ‘new’ things being done with this latest release.

One of the biggest features of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and to be frank the least ‘Fire Emblem-y’ element, is the monastery that so much of the plot revolves around. If you opt to “Explore” on your free days, you can roam freely around the expansive grounds of the campus and do things like fishing, dining with students and faculty, gardening, and picking up a few simple sidequests. Now, on the surface, these things may seem like they only amount to senseless busywork to pad out the experience by a significant degree, but what’s effective about this freeform experience is how everything you do dovetails neatly back into the core gameplay of turn-based battles.

For example, eating with students will raise the support level between everyone participating and raise their “Motivation”, too, which will affect how attentive they are in class and, in turn, the kind of stat gains they can experience. Another example can be seen in how doing favours and quests for people will grant you “Renown”, which can later be spent on passive buffs that will increase the experience gained by all units. No effort you make here in the monastery is wasted, and it’s also effective in how it contextualizes the various relationships and characterizes the cast in a more passive way. Being able to greet a student on the way to the chapel, for instance, helps to make the monastery and its occupants feel that much more real, especially given that most characters always have something unique or new to say.

These monastery segments are also where the many comparisons to the Persona series are most aptly drawn, particularly in how emphasis is placed on time management. Your character has a “Professor Level” that increases every time you do another activity, and when it goes up, you’re given access to more Activity Points among other bonuses. Activity Points govern everything you do in the monastery, and you only have a handful of them to begin with, so you must be choosy with how you spend them.

You could, for instance, spend them all doing “Faculty Training” with various other professors, which would help boost your main character’s stats, but at the cost of your students not seeing much growth. Or, you could spend them getting tea or lunch with certain characters, but wall yourself off from being able to participate in choir practice with them. This idea of ‘give and take’ pervades everything you do in the monastery and beyond; no choice you make is ever truly wasted, but you simply won’t be able to do everything at once. Indeed, this can introduce a modicum of anxiety over maximizing efficiency and doing things the ‘right way’, but we rather appreciated how – similar to the decisions you make when ordering units on a battlefield – it forces you to prioritize what’s important and what can be allowed to slide.

Usually, the day after your free day is when instructing will take place, and this is where you can exert control over the current growth your students are going through. Everyone has varying levels of proficiency in different weapon types, and though usage on the battlefield will shore these up, significant jumps can be achieved in the classroom. Your Professor Level will dictate how many students you can work with for that day, and it then becomes a matter of selecting which student you want to tutor and which skill you want to work with for that session.

Each session is dependent on the student’s Motivation, and full motivation usually means you can get about five ‘lessons’ in before they’re too tired to continue. Each lesson will add a randomized amount to the chosen stat, depending on how well the student did, and if things went exceptionally poor or well, you can even critique or praise the student to add a little more to their motivation. On top of this, once lessons are done for the day, you’ll often be greeted by a couple of students who come to you after class in need of some further counselling. Perhaps one of them is struggling to deal with a difficult friendship or doesn’t know how to handle the high expectations placed on them from their family or peers. You’re then given a few choices for how you can respond to the student, and depending on how salient your advice was, your support level with the student will increase a certain amount along with your professor level.

This instruction element goes a long way towards reinforcing the student/teacher relationship between your class and your character, rather than you feeling like just another student at the monastery. The students often treat your character with a sense of reverence and trust, clearly deferring to the authority and experience that the years have brought you. These instruction days are great on their own as a story beat, but we also appreciate how much influence they allow you over each character’s stats. This is easily the most you’ve ever been able to control character growth in a Fire Emblem game, and it’s no stretch to say that you can make any given character into any role, no matter how outlandish. Every character starts with certain weapon skills higher than others, but if you’d rather train a magic-focused character into an axe-wielding brigand, you can certainly do so with the right time and dedication. It’s rare that a game finds such a neat way to marry its story with specific gameplay elements in such a logical way, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses manages to pull it off by couching the bulk of its character progression in a classroom setting like this.

Proficiency in weapon skills extends far beyond merely being able to wield better weapons in that class, as those skills also play in heavily to the overarching class system. Every character can be every class, but in order to reclass them, the character must first pass an ‘exam’ to become certified in the new class. The prerequisites to pass are based on having a minimum proficiency in certain weapon skills, but notably, you don’t have to completely fulfil prerequisites to have the character take the exam. For example, the Brigand class requires that a unit have at least an ‘A’ Rank in their axe skill, but we managed to promote a character who hadn’t yet hit that.

The catch, of course, is that passing isn’t 100% guaranteed if the skills aren’t up to snuff, so you’re rolling the dice a bit and risking failure. Exams can be taken as many times as needed, but each unit can only take one exam per day, and each exam will cost you a precious seal. You’re encouraged to take your time with promotions, however, because even though they bring with them new stat buffs and abilities, you can also earn rare and effective new abilities by maxing out a character’s mastery of their current class. Like in other areas of the game, this introduces more of that give and take principle. Do you move on to the next class at first opportunity, or do you master the one you’re in currently and reap the benefits?

Luckily, a character can reclass into any certified classes at any given time, so there’s no element of losing what you once had, but there is a certain amount of critical decision-making that will take place every time someone is eligible to switch. It’s nice that this system of class-changing is made a little more forgiving compared to past entries – especially in how it gives you access to all classes a character has assumed – and we particularly appreciated the flexibility that it offers in teambuilding. Nobody is pigeonholed or forced into a certain tree, and you can make tweaks as you go if you find that you use a character more for one purpose than another.

In the field of battle, events unfold largely the same as they have in past entries, which should come as a relief to many long-time fans. You command a group of usually around a dozen units across a grid-like map in turn-based battles, picking and choosing matchups as you see fit. When two units collide, the results are one part random and one part decided, based on the given stats of the characters entering the conflict. A helpful ‘forecast’ window will show you exactly the damage that will be given and received if you order a unit to attack an enemy, and you can even cycle between weapons and weapon arts to see how the numbers can be stacked in your favour.

Once you initiate the conflict, the randomness is introduced in the form of accuracy and critical chance, with there being chances of either unit’s attacks either missing completely or doing extra damage. Should you make a mistake – and you surely will at some point – you can then trigger a helpful “Divine Pulse” which allows you to rewind the clock and try again. You only get a few uses of this ability per battle, but it’s a lovely way of allowing one to try out bold manoeuvres or to undo a silly mistake without necessitating that you start over the whole battle. Fans of the series that enjoy the punishment brought on by permadeath and the like will no doubt cry foul at this, but it’s blessedly not a feature that you’re forced to use if you don’t want it.

Most notably, the rock-paper-scissors style weapon triangle the series has become known for has been completely tossed out, which may come as a disappointment to some. Not all are equal, however, as the developers have seen to it that certain matchups – such as archers doing extra damage to flying units – have still been kept in. Additionally, higher proficiencies in weapon types will allow a character to be more effective against some other types, such as how the “Axebreaker” skill will grant a high-level lance wielder extra stats when facing off against an axe unit. It is a little bit weird at first when one doesn’t have to worry as much about unit placement because of the weapon triangle removal, but we rather enjoyed in how it increased viability across the board. You can be riskier with your tactics and pull off matchups that were never possible before, and now a unit’s stats have more weight because they can’t just fall back on weapon type superiority anymore. We’d guess that this change to combat will prove to be a contentious issue among fans, but on the whole, Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t feel too drastically different from the titles that have preceded it.

One feature that’s seen a return in this release is the reintroduction of weapon durability, and this is tied in part to the new “Arts” system. As a unit climbs in proficiency with a given weapon type, they’ll unlock more new weapon arts that give them greater agency when using that weapon against an enemy. For example, the “Bane of Monsters” art for sword users will do enhanced damage in general, but do especially high damage to monster type units. The catch to using these arts, however, is that they take a much larger toll on your weapon’s durability. Using “Deadeye” on a bow user, for example, will give them both higher range and damage, but it will also knock a whole five points off the equipped bow’s durability.

Using arts too liberally can add up quick, and if you’re not careful, a unit can break their weapon mid-battle and find themselves at a significant disadvantage. What’s nice about the arts system is how it in some ways fills the void that the absent weapon triangle has left, in that one must be wary of certain attacks from some units, while also giving each character a greater range of options. You can only have three arts equipped to a character at a time, but you can use those three to set your characters up to be flexible and effective in a variety of situations.

New to Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the “Battalions” system, which takes things beyond the 1v1 battles of games past and introduces more largescale fights. Think of a battalion as a sort of special attack; they can only be triggered a couple of times per battle, but the effects are often game-changing. When you use a battalion, not only does your character deal a ton of damage while taking none, but there’s usually a secondary effect as a result of the attack, such as the enemy unit not being able to move the next turn.

Every battalion is comprised of different kind of soldiers that have different attack styles, and these can be levelled independently of the character they’re equipped on to increase their effectiveness. Every battalion will boost the stats of their character to a certain degree, but the tradeoff is that whether or not you use them in a turn, their ‘endurance’ will slowly go down. Not only will this gradually make your battalion attack weaker, but it will eventually result in the battalion leaving the unit and going back to the guild. Aside from the obvious joy of watching an army of men charge down a hill to waste an enemy unit, battalions are a welcome addition to the Fire Emblem formula in how they offer both passive and active benefits that can really change the tide of battle if you use them wisely. However, if you don’t want to bother with them, you can also largely ignore this element of the combat system and still have a completely fair and fun experience. It’s the best kind of addition to the formula in how it introduces new and interesting ideas, but these ideas are not forced upon the player if they want a more traditional experience.

Though there’s no direct online multiplayer to speak of, online features still are present in a more passive sense. For example, the “Spirits of the Fallen” feature will create purple or yellow-tinged tiles on the battlefield in places where other players felled enemies or were cut down themselves. If you move a unit over one of those tiles, you can then receive benefits like new equipment or a bump in experience. Additionally, on free days, you can see what percentage of players picked which options for that day, which can go a long way into helping you decide whether to spend that day exploring the monastery or grinding out battles in paralogues. Finally, there’s a small mini-game a bit like the Luigi’s Balloon World part in Super Mario Odyssey, in which you have to find another player’s character in your monastery in a set amount of time. It’s admittedly a bit disappointing that you can’t directly play against other players in a typical battle setting, but the inclusion of these neat little online bonuses is still welcome, especially in seeing the decisions others have been making in their journeys.

As for its presentation, Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn’t exactly a system showcase, but it’s easily the best-looking title in the series to date. The missing feet and chibi-like characters of the 3DS games have been replaced by a much more visually striking cel-shaded art style with more realistically-proportioned characters. Character portraits and models are both exceptionally detailed, and colours – such as a character’s vibrant green hair – pop in ways that no previous entry has achieved – although it all comes at the cost of somewhat lacking performance, in docked or handheld mode.

For example, when running around the monastery – or even when moving the cursor around larger maps – the framerate tends to take a noticeable hit. This being a slow-paced game, the frame drops are certainly more forgivable than they would be in a more action-heavy release like Breath of the Wild, but their presence at all is rather head-scratching at best. Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t come off as being particularly hard on the Switch’s hardware, but if the framerates are anything to go by, it must be. This isn’t even including the pop-in that sometimes occurs on the battlefield, in which trees or other decorations behind the fighting characters will jump in and out of existence with each footstep and clash of swords. Now, it may sound like Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a technical mess, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. For the majority of your time, things will be running smoothly and you’ll barely notice any hiccups, but the interruptions occur just frequently enough that they do tend to take you out of the experience.

Though the visuals don’t fully stick the landing, the soundtrack – composed by Takeru Kanazaki – hits all the right beats, nailing that perfect balance between sounding both dreamlike and epic in scope. Whether it be the ethereal whispering voices of “The Spirit Dais” or the thundering percussion and intense strings of “Tearing Through Heaven”, this is a wonderfully diverse and interesting soundtrack that’s packed with quality tunes, many of which have a “Rain” and “Thunder” variant for different moods.

Following on from this excellent soundtrack, we feel that the voice acting deserves a particular shout out. Every single line of dialogue has been voiced this time around – eschewing the various grunts that previous releases ran with – and we haven’t yet heard a voice actor that doesn’t seem to be giving it their all. Each character has a memorable identity to their cadence or accent, and the focus on voicing every line of dialogue goes that extra mile in further humanizing these characters and giving them more dimension.

Conclusion

There was a lot riding on it, but we can confidently say that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has managed to live up to the hype and will stand as a highlight in the series for years to come. The expanded gameplay styles, retooled combat, lovable characters, and in-depth character customization hook you fast and are almost guaranteed to keep you engaged for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours as you come to understand this enormous game in its entirety. Fans both new and old won’t want to miss out on what Fire Emblem: Three Houses has to offer; this sets a new standard for what a strategy RPG can be and most certainly proves itself to be the next must-have release for the Nintendo Switch.

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