The year of 2019 has been a huge year for breaking boundaries in video game series. Throughout the year we have seen some incredible takes on formulas that were in much need of modernising, and there is something for everyone. Borderlands 3, Mortal Kombat 11, Super Mario Maker 2, and even Tetris 99 are some that immediately spring to mind. It’s been an awesome year to totally refresh my memory on why I love series like these so much, and with games like Luigi’s Mansion 3, Doom Eternal and a ton more around the corner I’m excited to rediscover even more. However there was one game this year that gripped that feeling more than others. One game that proved that a series can be built upon in so many ways that it creates an entire new experience. It has taken me nearly three months to even bring myself to write about it, because there is so much that this game does absolutely right. That game is Fire Emblem Three Houses.
Fire Emblem found it’s niche in the western world when Awakening was released, gaining enormous praise, boasting an amazing story, and keeping everything that made the series so great in the first place. In doing so it became one of the hallmark games for the 3DS. Despite this, most of the conversation surrounding the game was mostly delegated to the usual message boards of sites like GameFAQs, and the sprinkle of memes on the side that would occasionally show their faces on social media (Firm Wang featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series, anyone?) Therefore most of us were spared from having the plot spoiled too much. Series sequels Fates and Echoes would equally share a similar internet fame, although there would also be criticism and controversy as well, and eventually leaving the two in the shadow of Awakening.
Fire Emblem Three Houses however has refused to lay down and take the same punishment. Even from my own personal memory, I cannot think of a time where Fire Emblem was talked about more than today. What originally began as simply “New game hype” suddenly became a lot more once the game hit shelves in July. People who have never even considered Fire Emblem before were suddenly really excited to try it. I’ve talked to people who haven’t even a lick of Fire Emblem knowledge (or even a Switch for that matter) express their interest in the game. The internet is rife with discussion and memes of a virality much higher than even Awakening had received, and even a few months down the line there is still a huge amount of discussion surrounding the game. What has suddenly brought this series back into the limelight, and why is it an unmissable experience as a Switch owner? Now that I’ve had a good amount of time to collect my thoughts to and to find the words, I’m going to explain why you’d be a fool to miss it.
Rather than starting within the path of the heroes tale, Three Houses immediately lets you know that there is a looming sense of dread to be feared. War has struck the land of Fodlan many times in the past, resulting in it becoming a country divided between three major factions. The Adrestian Empire, the monarchy holding the largest portion of land, The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, a land rife with internal struggles where wielding a weapon is taught before even the most basic of human functions, and The Leicester Alliance, a republic that chooses to cast aside the traditional royalty and is lead by a large pool of families acting as a council. Despite these factions and their differences, they are ultimately at peace under the guidance of The Holy Church of Seiros, a governing voice over all of these powers that resides between the three nations at Garreg Mach Monestary within the highest mountains of central Fodlan. As neutral territory, the three nations convene together here to train what will be the future generations of royalty and soldiers of Fodlan, and a place that will become a familiar locale to you throughout the game. Though the powers that govern the land may be established, there are those who choose the free path of wandering the continent, ever oblivious to the machinations of these powers, and it’s with those that have no true alliance that your story begins.
After what seems to be a fever dream accompanied by a mysterious voice, you awake as the game’s main protagonist and playable character Byleth. Before you stands a clearly battle-worn man by the name of Jeralt, your father, demanding you wake and prepare for the journey ahead. From a young age, Jeralt has brought Byleth wherever he goes across Fodlan, taking mercenary jobs and never really alluding them to any of the internal struggles that plague Fodlan. After a short conversation with Jeralt, he is interrupted out of the blue by a trio from the Officers Academy, a program ran by the Holy Church of Seiros, pleading that you aid them in battle with an enemy a short distance away.
After engaging in battle, it’s not long before one of the trio is targeted for a killing blow, in which Byleth attempts to guard. Suddenly, time stops. All of a sudden Byleth realises that the fever dream was not a dream at all. A girl donned in mysterious garb and green hair chastises Byleth, letting them know how idiotic they were for making such a move that could end both of their lives. It turns out that this girl’s soul resides within Byleth, and it’s now that she questions you briefly on your actions before letting you know that she possesses the power to rewind time by a fraction and that you may correct your mistakes, and asks you to take actions seriously next time. The girl does just that, the attack is foiled, and suddenly a small squadron of men known as Knights of Seiros arrive to help you clean up the rest of the villains that lay before you. Shortly after the battle the squadron leader, Alois, recognises Jeralt as his previous commander and insists that Byleth and Jeralt return with him to Garreg Mach Monastary so that they may be properly rewarded for their efforts in aiding the Knights of Seiros. Jeralt is reluctant, but knows that he cannot deny the Church once he has been summoned. Upon arriving at the Church, Jeralt immediately spots the archbishop of the Church, Rhea, looking down on them from above and warns Byleth to be on their guard at all times, making note that he left this place for a reason.
As a reward for aiding the Knights of Seiros and the trio in their struggle, both Byleth and Jeralt are offered positions at Garreg Mach Monestary so that they may have stability in their lives. Jeralt is offered a high ranking position within the Knights of Seiros (Similar to which he had in the past) and Byleth, after being commended on their skills in tactical combat, is offered a position as a teacher within the Officers Academy. Byleth is introduced to their fellow teachers Manuela and Hanneman, and you are given first choice as to which class you will be teaching during your time in the Academy. You are sent to investigate each class which, to no surprise, is headlined by one of each of the trio that requested your help in the last battle. The Black Eagles, a class aligned with the Adrestian Empire lead by Edelgard, heir to the throne of the Adrestian Empire. The Blue Lions, a class aligned with the Kingdom of Faerghus lead by Dimitri, the crown prince of Faerghus, and the Golden Deer a class aligned with the Leicester Alliance lead by Claude, the heir to house Reigan, the family with the largest power within the Leicester Alliance.
After investigating each class and having a peek at each student you will be teaching, you are given a choice of one. Whichever you do not take, Hanneman and Manuela will pick the remaining two and the school year officially begins. In a typical Fire Emblem standard, you would usually be guided through a mission by mission basis, with the opportunity to shop, challenge encounters that appear on the world map, or continue with your journey by selecting the newest mission on the map. Three Houses throws this almost completely out the window from the get go, and you are introduced to something that will instead throw Persona 5 vibes right at you. Much like in Persona, you are given a calendar and the opportunity to free roam and spend as much time as you wish in Garreg Mach Monastary completing a whole host of tasks such as growing crops, fishing, shopping, competing in tournaments, bonding with students and teachers; the list goes on. Spending as much time as you can at Garreg Mach and completing tasks suddenly becomes a whole new reward system never explored in Fire Emblem games before, and this system is such a perfect mesh of what Fire Emblem embodies. Traditionally, a lot of your work in Fire Emblem games would be done through farming battles, having characters fight along-side each other for support ranks, obtaining levels by prioritising units in battle but no longer is fighting the only way you can achieve these things. Garreg Mach is designed in such a way that, if you so desire, you can recruit a whole host of characters from other classes within your ranks, which you achieve by gaining favour with them off the battlefield. When it was initially revealed, even having just a hub to walk around in within a Fire Emblem game was a big deal, but it became so much more than I had originally expected. Choosing a single house on my first play through was such a hard choice because I saw so many characters I loved the designs and personalities of in other houses, and at the end of the day it actually didn’t matter. If I chose to invest in those characters outside my class, learning even more about them as I interacted with them each time I had returned from battle, I would eventually recruit them and have them join my team. These characters have interests, hobbies, dreams and relationships of their own outside of battle, and all the while every line of dialogue they deliver is voiced (instead of just delegated to text) and it gives the characters so much extra charm.
Throughout each day you spend in Garreg Mach you are given a set amount of times you can interact with them, which makes you think a little more cautiously about how you approach each character. You don’t want to get the worst bonding options because it means less time spent with other characters, and fair warning, there will be a time down the line where you won’t get any more. You can spend as much time as you want fishing, gardening, shopping or even completing side quests around the Monastery, but the finite time you get with your students is precious, so you have to make sure you read their personalities correctly and make sure you are giving them the right gifts, social options, and even meals to make them the happiest they can be. Even during the week, these characters will approach you and ask you questions during study sessions where your answer will help guide them to a path they want to follow. It could be as simple as how to approach a task, or even ask for your permission to change their role within the team. A character who dons an axe may want to drop it completely in favour for a magic role, and as their instructor it’s your guiding hand that will ultimately decide which character does what on your journey. Every choice you make will matter down the line, as times are changing in Fodlan, and eventually your students will no longer be students anymore.
But despite all that, you are a tactics and combat instructor. During your time as a teacher, you will be charged to lead your students on the battlefield so that they may gain first hand experience. That being said, even if you are a seasoned Fire Emblem fan, you are about to experience a whole host of combat differences and changes that you will have to become accustomed to. Whilst the core gameplay of unit-based chess ultimately remains the same, some of the reigns on previous mechanics have been loosened so that characters traits may stand out. Almost every character can be specialised in almost every class, whereas in the past some characters were very specifically restricted to certain roles (IE Melee based classes or ranged based classes) and none of them particularly “suck” at any given role; yes, they may be better in some than others, but if you want to make a very fragile little girl who is usually a practitioner of healing arts into a heavy armour brick wall, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Is it the best choice? Probably not if you consider their stat spread, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t at least try it. By having them attend seminars and after school duties that help train them in those roles outside of the battlefield (Even if you are playing in the traditional “If they die, they’re gone” classic mode) you can safely do just that.
When you actually take to the battlefield to put your students to the test, you’ll find a handful of changes that I believe will please both veterans and newcomers alike. First and foremost, the entire melee weapon triangle no longer exist. No longer are you restricted in making sure that you have a balanced count of melee units in fear that any enemy axe unit will hunt down your spear units for the slaughter. Fair is fair here, if your unit is melee, it has a standing chance in battle. What this does mean however is that swords, spears, and axes are a little more unique in how they interact in battle, tailored better for different situations at different times and not just being “better” than another melee weapon. What this achieves is more than just which direction you send your unit, but also in what condition they attack, whether they are countering, and a whole bunch of variables. Reading your passives suddenly becomes a lot more important when managing your units and it’s a welcome change rather than just relying on rock-paper-scissors to determine their fate.
Something that does remain, and for good reason, is the weaknesses to power units. Power units have always been represented in the form of heavy armor, magic, ranged and mounted units and they have a lot more leverage on the battlefield than your standard soldiers. Mages and rangers are terribly frail and hate any form of close combat and are easily dispersed if they are out of an artillery position, but revel in having a bit of distance so that they can safely barrage their enemies with shockingly powerful spells or a rain of arrows respectively. Heavy armour are huge blockades that protect those that are fragile, but are helpless once they are cooked from the outside in by the power of magic. Mounted units come in three forms, horses, wyverns and pegasi, and while horses have no true weakness, they suffer a lack of mobility in comparison to their flighty brethren, whom can travel over any terrain at the cost of being weak to ranged attacks. Three Houses brings a huge change to the table however, in which units that can utilise mounts can also dismount to remove these weaknesses. The trade-off being that they are no longer able to hold the same strength whilst dismounted, so if you ever fear that the stray arrow may take you down on your next turn you may dismount from your steed so that your unit may not find it’s untimely end so quickly. However despite all of this, it may not even be enemy units that you need to fear anymore, but something far more sinister…
Fire Emblem Three Houses boasts a whole new challenge on the battlefield that will put your units to the test unlike ever before in the form of Monsters; gargantuan, blood hungry fiends who would like nothing more than to tear apart your forces and eat them for breakfast. These guys are no joke on higher levels of difficulty and demand that you have a strategic approach at all times, with the promise of a great reward that will no doubt help you on your journey through Fodlan. They sport some of the highest damage in the game, cover four panels instead of just one, have multiple HP bars and have their own unique mechanic that is essential to adhere to in order to fell them. Failing to respect just how powerful these guys are could leave you a few members short in one battle very easily. Strategic placement and good execution will save you from a lot of loss, so be sure to know which of your units can take a hit and which ones can dish out the pain to bring them to their knees.
Lastly, a huge addition is battalions, which add a whole new way to interact with allies, enemies or even monsters in battle. As you progress, you’ll slowly unlock battalions ranging from well trained knights to even just common folk who will follow your units into battle, making your army more than just what you have in your own back pocket. Equipping a battalion will arm your units with effects ranging from extra damage, status effects or even just a huge heal for your team. How you use these battalions will effectively change the tide of battle in your favour, and you can even team up two units or more to combine your battalion strength to enhance the effect that you activate. It brings a whole new way to partner your units together that is quintessential in your arsenal that you will surely become accustomed to once you realise just how strong the power of many can actually be.
During these adventures whether it be spending your time in the gorgeous Garreg Mach Monestary or on the battlefields of Fodlan, one thing is for certain. Fire Emblem Three Houses is absolutely beautiful in terms of visual fidelity. When roaming Garreg Mach the world is bustling with NPC’s to talk to as Byleth, whether they be students from all three classes, your fellow teachers or even the Knights and personalities of the Church of Seiros. Someone always has something to say, and every time you return from the battlefield they will have even more. You are rewarded for exploring the Monastery every free day you have, and you appreciate it a little more every time, discovering things you may have never even noticed previously but were there all along. You’ll find students training in the barracks, tending to the horses, attending choir or even just eating in the dining hall in well animated and colourful bliss. Garreg Mach is a magical little hub for you to simply enjoy your time in. On the battlefield, fighting is fierce and visually intense as your battalions charge into battle with you, helping you crush the enemy before you. The locations themselves are large in variety offering a mixture of lush green fields and harsh weather torn environments, or even in towns with beautiful architecture or ports docked with fierce looking pirate ships. You can even zoom out to view these locales in full view, or zoom right in to take control of your unit movements away from grid based movement to check out the environment around you which will make a traditionally grid based game feel like you have far more control over your characters. Never has Fire Emblem felt so free of it’s restrictions than ever before, and this is largely in part due to the presence of Koei Tecmo joining forces with Intelligent Systems to create what is probably the greatest Fire Emblem experience to date, or at least in my eyes.
Fire Emblem Three Houses also boasts an amazing soundtrack that I never get sick of listening to. Even right out of the gate, the first battle theme you are introduced to is something I’ve found myself humming for the last three months. I talk about music in most of my reviews pretty highly because honestly, it’s a huge make or break factor in whether a game will keep me interested from start to finish. Bad compositions can kill a game for me because I feel that being in the moment is largely down to how emotion is portrayed, and while good acting is the cake, music is the accompanying frosting. If something is mysterious, you’ll be accompanied by creeping melodies that are made to chill the spine. If you’re in the midst of battle, a myriad of war drums and trumpets will sound to your forward march. When emotion hits high, a symphony aims to heighten your emotion to new levels; Fire Emblem Three Houses has all of these things in mind. It aims to get you lost in it’s world of emotional bonds between the characters and you, and it could not be more fitting in a game where one wrong move could be a characters last for the remainder of the entire journey. If you want a taste of this, I highly recommend the main theme of the game “The Edge of Dawn” , or the main battle theme “Fodlan Winds”. It will give you a sense of just how great this games music truly is. I love it to death, and I’m sure you will too.
I’m seven pages down by this point, and I’m still entirely unsure that I’ve said enough by how much I appreciate Fire Emblem Three Houses, so my TL;DR is hardly going to be just that, because I’ll be dropping a bit of emotion here. Fire Emblem Three Houses is my game of the year so far and I’m fairly certain that will not change, period. When I first approached any kind of strategy game in my youth, I was entirely convinced that Strategy games were just not my thing. Fire Emblem Awakening opened the doors slightly, allowing me to catch a peek at what I was missing. Fire Emblem Three Houses has thrown that door wide open. I somehow knew in my heart once the game was first revealed that it would help me realise that there was something to adore in the strategy genre, especially given the history of Fire Emblem’s popularity in Japan and it’s committed fan base all over the world. It not only did that but so much more. On first approach I was scared by the amount of choice the game offered. This game was made to be played more than once, and the estimated time of first play through of 80 hours is something I’d never thought I could dedicate to a game in a genre that I had barren interest in just a few short years ago. What Three Houses has taught me is that it’s okay to not be the first at the finish line. One play through is enough, and on the chance that I ever want to play again (Which I most definitely will) I could have a whole new experience to accompany it, something that Fates attempted and failed to achieve thanks to it’s high price gate of 210 Australian dollars for the entire experience. Not this time around though, because for 80 dollars you get 4 different stories, with roughly 50 hours of entirely unique dialogue and scenarios in each path, bringing it to a grand total of 230 hours in story content alone. That is absolutely insane in the modern day, where most games will settle for 80 hours worth of content with 50 hours of it being story and that is absolutely acceptable. The absolute power of pick up and play and put down 10 minutes later is strong with this title and accompanies the entire M.O of the Switch perfectly. I’ve said it once before; you would be a fool to miss out.
Fire Emblem Three Houses is a crowning jewel of the Switch library, up there with the likes of Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. It’s a game that pulls no punches and delivers on every promise, while giving you even more than you originally asked for. It’s on a level that I would have never even thought a Strategy RPG could achieve in terms of the sheer amount of content and without the sacrifice of quality. It’s also now the first review that I’ve ever written that has a perfect score. I will be playing this game for years to come.
Thank you Intelligent Systems, and thank you Koei Tecmo, for igniting a fire that I never knew even existed within me.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Nintendo
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a tactical role-playing game, developed by Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo for the Nintendo Switch, and published worldwide by Nintendo on July 26, 2019. The game is an entry in the Fire Emblem series, and the first for home consoles since Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn in 2007.