This past week marked the second anniversary of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest entry in Intelligent Systems’ popular tactics series. Ten years ago, you would’ve been forgiven for believing that the Fire Emblem series was going the way of the dinosaur, and yet Three Houses now sits at somewhere around 3 million units sold, following the success of three (well, sort of five) critically acclaimed 3DS entries. It may not be as widely appealing as Animal Crossing or as outwardly exciting as Monster Hunter, but let’s take a brief moment to reflect on why we connected so strongly with the franchise’s latest outing.
Three Houses actually began as a 3DS title before it was planned for the Switch, and that shift in development brought with it greater expectations. As the first new entry on a home console in over a decade, Three Houses needed to deliver a little something more to justify the jump to better hardware. Just adding better graphics and flashier battles to the old foundations wouldn’t cut it, so Intelligent Systems needed something that would prove the series had evolved beyond its humble origins.
One would naturally think this would be something to showcase the hardware, perhaps like an expansion of the dungeon crawling of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia or even an experiment into some kind of open world structure. But no, Intelligent Systems instead opted for one of the most popular (and perhaps divisive…) elements of the first two 3DS games: the social sim gameplay. At first blush, one might even be inclined to think of this as a mistake, but the development team ultimately showcased a grander vision that previous entries only hinted at.
The Support systems in Awakening and Fates were almost completely optional, yet they were critical to drawing the player into the world. Not only did all the subplots grant some tasty stat benefits in battle, but the stories did a lot of work towards fleshing out the crew in a way that earlier games did not. Still, the method behind these interactions was a bit limited. You were pretty much chained down to just having characters fight together and then reading an interaction between them later on. And yeah, you could, uh, touch some characters’… faces… in Fates, but let’s all try to forget that happened. Suffice to say, Supports still felt like an auxiliary idea to the main course of tactics gameplay; they were there, but you didn’t really need them.
Your team wasn’t just a ragtag group of mercenaries, warriors, and dignitaries anymore, they were now kids that would look up to you and heed your instructions.
Three Houses changed all of that by making Supports the foundation of not just the gameplay, but the story, too. Putting you in the role of a teacher of a group of students saddled you with something the previous games didn’t: responsibility. Your team wasn’t just a ragtag group of mercenaries, warriors, and dignitaries anymore, they were now kids that would look up to you and heed your instructions. Kids being placed under your care for the purpose of their betterment. Framing the story this way granted a natural and meaningful reason to place more emphasis on the importance of Supports, as the relationships your character formed now weren’t merely being made for frivolous reasons.
And on the gameplay side of things, Supports grew far beyond just fighting on adjacent tiles. While running to meet someone or reach another building, you might happen to pass by someone stepping out of their dorm room and pause for a brief chat. You could go horseback riding with your students. You could give them one on one tutoring sessions in subjects they struggled with. You could have a nice conversation with them over an afternoon tea. All these extra options helped to make the development of relationships feel more natural, as you now didn’t only bond over teaming up to murder a man you managed to corner together. You still bonded over that, but now you could cook a nice meal afterward.
Sure, you could make an argument that removing the option for characters to have children dulled the perceived effect of the Support system compared to Three Houses’ predecessors, but any losses there were easily made back by this more organically integrated approach to relationships within the team. Intelligent Systems finally discovered a way to not only make the interactions more natural, but to have them included as part of the core rhythm of the game as each chapter rolled by. They weren’t just a fun side thing where you could make your favorite ships happen anymore - Supports became an important pillar that drove both the gameplay and story forward.
If the broad audience reaction is anything to go by, it certainly seems that Intelligent Systems made the right call in making that change. Three Houses went on to become the best-selling release in the franchise yet, all while attracting plenty of acclaim. And though the Fire Emblem series is currently in its off-season, it’s no exaggeration to say that things have never looked better for Nintendo’s biggest tactics franchise. No doubt Intelligent Systems has got something good in the oven right now for the next entry, and we can’t wait to see how the team continues to push the boundaries of what a tactics game can be. And while we wait, we have this deeply engaging and extremely replayable entry to play in the meantime, which you seriously need to try out if you haven’t yet.