Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Video Game Review)
It was a rescue mission. An old friend was on the ropes with an enemy army bearing down on him. I’d wronged him months ago, and saving his life was the least I could do. My team of warriors were on the other side of the city, trying to fight their way to the enemy general, an imposing Dark Mage. If I could take him out, his men would withdraw and the fight would be over. As I pushed through the enemy troops, I watched my allies struggle, and when I made it to the center of the city, the enemy general abandoned his post to charge at my old friend.
I knew I was out of time. I had to take down the enemy general that round, so I selected my Warlock Annette. “I’m your girl,” she said, cheerfully. That’s Annette for you, a ray of sunshine no matter how rough things get. The battle preview showed me that she would strike the general with two blasts of Wind, which would bring him down to 1 point of health. That was good enough. I could mop up a few more of his troops before ending the battle. I had things under control.
And then Annette brought the fury with a critical hit and the battle was over.
That’s Fire Emblem for you. Nothing ever really goes to plan, but even though Annette ended the battle prematurely and denied her teammates some precious experience points, she’s still my girl.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you play as Byleth, a mysterious mercenary who has been hired as a professor in Garreg Mach Monastery, which is essentially a combination of The Vatican and a military academy.
At the start of the game, Byleth must choose between one of three classes, each representing a region of the continent of Fódlan: The Adrestian Empire, The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. An uneasy peace exists between those three countries, held together by the Church of Sieros from its seat of power in Garreg Mach. Little does Byleth know that she didn’t just choose a group of lovable goofballs to nurture into elite soldiers–she chose a side in an inevitable war.
For my first playthrough, I chose the Blue Lions, the reserved students from the frozen north of Faerghus. Their house leader is Dimitri, a prince who seems polite and noble on the outside, but a man with a serious dark side who is tortured by past trauma. In general, that’s how all the characters are written. At first glance, they seem like one-dimensional archetypes, but each of them has hidden depths and insecurities to overcome that are slowly revealed as you get to know them.
Each chapter of the game is divided into two phases: Monastery and Mission battles. Mission battles are where we get the meat of the story and tactical gameplay this series is known for. You field around 10 of your characters onto a grid-based battle system that should be familiar to fans of the genre. On each turn, each of your characters can move and take an action, and you have free choice of what order to use each character in. When you attack, the defending enemy can counter-attack provided the attacker is within his range. Therefore, surviving or avoiding counter-attacks is part of the strategy. For example, your archer can use his extended range to safely snipe at an enemy mage without fear of reprisal, or your melee tank can shrug off any damage from counter-attacks. The complexity rises from there. For example, a character with great physical defense may be highly susceptible to magic. Different weapons might extend the range of an attack. Defenders have a chance to dodge an attack, and each attack has a chance for a critical strike at 3x damage. If one combatant has significantly higher speed, he’ll take a follow-up attack.
There’s a lot to keep track of, but fortunately it’s all laid out in an easily understood graphic interface. I can go on all day describing battle mechanics, but the important thing is that it’s complex and satisfying.
Another Fire Emblem mainstay is permadeath. In Classic mode, when one of your units dies it battle, they stay dead. There are a few ways to deal with this. You can say, “No thank you,” at the beginning of the screen and choose Casual mode in the difficulty settings, which revives fallen characters at the start of the next chapter. You can also take advantage of the Divine Pulse mechanic, which allows you to rewind time and undo tactical mistakes. You can also treat each character death as a game over and restart the battle. Finally, I’ve heard rumors that some people accept character deaths and carry on with the game when they are down a fighter, but I can’t imagine how anyone could be so heartless. Personally, I played the game on Hard Classic and made liberal use of Divine Pulses to correct my foolish mistakes. It was a major time saver compared to, say, restarting a map because I misjudged how safe one of my units was or an enemy landed a critical hit. In general, that was more than enough to keep my units alive, and I only ran out of pulses in one map.
Most of the combat mechanics I just described are old hat for the series, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses adds some new mechanics to further increase the tactical depth. Combat Arts are special attacks that characters learn either by ranking up their skill in a weapon or by mastering a character class. They consume extra weapon durability (the number of times you can use a weapon before it breaks and needs to be repaired) in exchange for attacks with special effects, such as increased damage, range, or critical strike chance. You have to choose between the cost of the weapon and the needs of the moment.
The game also introduces Battalions. Battalions are groups of soldiers that latch onto your units. They will provide stat boosts and special attacks called gambits. Gambits are generally powerful attacks that can hit multiple enemies and often apply debuffs, but I also saw some with less conventional effects, like area of effect healing or allowing your units to counter-attack at any range for a few turns. As an added bonus, gambits allow your characters to attack without fear of counter-attack, which can come in handy when you can’t afford to leave your soldiers vulnerable.
Yet another new addition are giant monsters. These are powerful enemies that take up multiple tiles on the map. Each tile contains magical armor, which is best broken by a gambit to debuff its defense and focus its attention on the unit that ordered the gambit, preferably someone who can survive a hit on the enemy phase. Breaking all their armor stuns beasts and rewards the player with rare items, but you have to decide whether you have time for that amongst the chaos of battle.
Overall, the battle system is deep and involved, and will grow in size and difficulty as the game progresses. In a lot of ways, Fire Emblem feels like tabletop gaming as you try to find the most efficient way to move your characters across the board and take advantage of their unique skills and abilities to safely clear a path to the objective, while making sure you don’t leave your squishy units vulnerable on the enemy’s turn.
What makes a Fire Emblem game a Fire Emblem game, though, is that these aren’t just expendable troops you can use as cannon fodder. These are fleshed-out characters with hopes and dreams and past traumas, who grow and mature as the game goes on. You’ll care about them and want to keep them alive.
The other phase is the Monastery, and it’s quite a contrast to the tense, strategic battles. Here, you’re playing the role of a professor charged with whipping her students into shape. During weekdays, you teach your students, helping them level up their skill ranks to learn new combat arts and qualify for new weapons and class promotions. You can set goals for them to help them focus their studies; students might suggest their own goals, but you have full control over how they develop. For example, I constantly had to insist that my tankiest unit get over his fear of horses so he could become a Great Knight, which is effectively a highly mobile wall.
During the weekends, you have a few options. You can fight side-battles, host seminars where other professors teach a group of students for additional skill points, rest to recharge your students, or explore the monastery. Exploring the monastery opens up a world of content. You can visit the blacksmith to repair or upgrade weapons, shop for weapons and items, chat with students and NPCs, or participate in a variety of activities with students to improve bonds between them. I was expecting this segment of the game to be a chore, but it was all in service of building my team so they could dominate the mission battles. Interacting with students raises support levels among characters–which unlocks skits that provide characterization to your army and grant buffs in combat. You can even befriend students from other Houses and poach them into yours. And it goes on.
Essentially, battles are all about tactics while the monastery is where you manage your long-term strategy. The two feed into each other and find a nice balance, providing a long, satisfying gameplay loop that makes the game hard to put down.
On top of all that excellent gameplay, the story is very good, supported by fantastic voice acting. Each House has its own story, so I can only speak to the Blue Lions. About half the game follows the same plot points regardless of which House you choose, but it’s presented from a different perspective and there is a lot going on behind the scenes, much of which I can only assume other routes deal with.
For example, there’s the concept of Crests. Crests are basically magical birthmarks that have been passed down through the generations since an age of heroes. They are coveted by noble houses, and this leads to all sorts of social problems. One of my Blue Lions, Ingrid, bears a Crest and her family is constantly trying to arrange a marriage for her to take advantage of it. Another, Mercedes, has a widowed mother who bears a Crest. She had no trouble finding a husband, but was cast aside as soon as she bore a Crest baby (that’s the technical term) to that ambitious noble. Crests are a source of angst and injustice in the world and the driver of many character motivations. In a way, this reminded me of Mistborn and the atrocities nobles committed for the prestige of having allomancers in the family. While they mostly serve to flesh out worldbuilding and background elements in the Blue Lions route, I understand that the politics surrounding Crests are a major plot point in another path.
The world is also full of tension. One of the Black Eagle students, Petra, is a Princess of the island nation of Brigid, who is essentially being held as a political hostage in the Adrestian Empire. Similarly, The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus burned the nation of the Duscar to the ground after their king and his retinue were assassinated and Duscar took the blame. Rhea, the archbishop of the Church of Sieros, gets a little too excited about killing heretics. In short, there’s a lot going on about this world that is slowly revealed through the main plot and character interactions. Each faction faces dissidents and rebellions, and which conflicts come to a head will depend on which path you choose.
As I played, I was impressed by how the story felt like it naturally applied to the Blue Lions. Many of the characters had personal stakes in chapter missions, and I found myself very curious how the same story could be so meaningful to a different House–and I fully intend to find out. After a certain point, the paths diverge into completely separate stories.
I found the Blue Lions campaign to be one of the best video game stories I have ever encountered. It was a character-driven storyline that covers heavy themes like loss, the cost of war, trauma, racism, survivor’s guilt, and forgiveness. Dimitri’s character arc is dark, complex, and touching. At one point, I had to put the game down for a while and go for a walk to clear my head–and that’s coming from a guy who normally can’t stand when story sidelines gameplay for more than 30 seconds. That’s how much it affected me.
The Blue Lions story was satisfying, but in the end, I never felt like I had the full picture. The game was designed for multiple playthroughs, and it absolutely deserves them. I’m really looking forward to playing each House and seeing the world from their perspectives.
This is already a long review and I feel like I’m just skimming the surface of this game. Between all the options and meaningful choices in this game, everyone will have a different experience. Overall, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is already one of my favorite games in the franchise, one of the best games available for Nintendo Switch, and a contender for game of the year. If you have any interest in tactical RPGs, you owe it to yourself to play this game.