"Only a few games in my life have ruined my sleep schedule like Fire Emblem: Three Houses."
Note: The reviewer chose the Black Eagles route: the story score and story thoughts are based on this path.
WARNING! This review contains some general support conversation spoilers.
Three countries, three houses, one game.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks the franchise's return to home consoles after Radiant Dawn on Wii. A lot has changed since then. Nintendo had to be considering how to best approach the next Fire Emblem game for consoles and how to get it to have a big impact; for assistance, Intelligent Systems brought on Kou Shibusawa's team at Koei Tecmo, famous for producing the Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. This isn't the first time Nintendo has collaborated with this team. They previously developed the underrated Pokémon Conquest on DS. Koei Tecmo has first-hand knowledge on the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era of China's history (likely a direct influence for Three Houses) as well as experience developing for Switch with the release of Fire Emblem Warriors two years ago. With Koei Tecmo taking the reins of Three Houses for the most part, how would this game turn out?
You play as Byleth (or the name of your choosing), and you live with your father as a mercenary. One night, the village you're staying in comes under attack from bandits. You and your father are joined by three students from the nearby Garreg Mach Monastery school: Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude. These three students are the leaders of the school's houses: the Black Eagles (Edelgard), the Blue Lions (Dimitri), and the Golden Deer (Claude). Impressed by your skills and your father's reputation as a skilled warrior, the students ask if you could join them at the school as a professor and teach them the ways of war. Garreg Mach Monastery is owned by the Church of Seiros, whose teachings are followed by all three nations, making it the perfect meeting place for these three rival nations.
Each of these houses are owned by their respective countries: the Adrestian Empire (Black Eagles), the Kingdom of Faerghus (Blue Lions), and the Leicester Alliance (Golden Deer). The house leaders this year are all heirs apparent to their respective countries, making this one of the most important years in the school's history. After the prologue chapter where these three characters are introduced, you then choose which house to join for the rest of the game. While the general story is the same across the three houses for the first half of the game, they each have their own story in the second half. You get different perspectives on the events that happen depending on which house you choose in the first half, with some events seeming to happen in the background for one house while being at the forefront for another. I chose the Black Eagles for my playthrough.
In most Fire Emblem games, it takes a couple of chapters for the story to pick up, and that remains true in Three Houses. Early on, it's mostly about getting yourself acclimated to the monastery and fighting bandits around the school. This is fine, since the game will overwhelm you with the monastery itself, which is huge. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to learn where everything is. Fortunately, the game holds your hand just enough through its mechanics and story that it doesn't actually feel that slow; it won't be long before you're thrust into the story. Once you get down to the nitty-gritty, it doesn't stop — especially once you reach the pivotal second half of the game. At the halfway point, I had to make a critical choice that kept me thinking about my decision for a full day. I've only agonized over a choice like this a couple of times in my gaming life, and it's a feeling that I love. It means that I care so much about what happens, I actually lose sleep over it. On the route that I took, the story ended well, but there was a big loose end that was only mentioned in passing during the epilogue. I feel it could have played out with additional chapters, as this route is the shortest of all of them, only coming in at 18 chapters. Either they ran out of time to make additional chapters, or maybe DLC will fill out this route down the road.
Now, it wouldn't be Fire Emblem if it didn't have a cast of characters for you to fall in love with. I am glad to say that this cast is one of the best I've played with. While some fall into some form of anime archetype, they either have a reason for it or are hiding some kind of childhood trauma. One example is the shy and socially awkward Bernadetta. She is the way she is because of her father's abuse as a child. She was told to be submissive since that's what a man would like for a wife. Lysithea was the victim of inhumane experiments, which were meant to bring out more powerful abilities. Raphael lost his parents to bandits and was forced to try and take care of his little sister alone. Dorothea had her traumatic experiences with men as a former performer. Even one-note characters without a lot of depth to them like the bright and earnest Annette, or the impetuous Caspar, are hard to hate even if they only have one thing going for them. As you dig more into their past and progress through the support conversations, you get a feel for each character and how most are being used for the political games their parents are playing. Three Houses makes political maneuverings its primary subject in support conversations, and this is an aspect of Fire Emblem that I've sorely missed in recent entries. There's always war, but governments and their support systems are behind the wars, and getting to know it intimately in Three Houses reminded me of the Tellius games (Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn) which are my favourite games in this series.
One character I ended up being truly intrigued by was the Flame Emperor. Oftentimes, villains in Fire Emblem games are evil for the sake of being evil characters, so they usually don't stick out. However, I place the Flame Emperor among the elite villains in the series. Playing through the Black Eagles route puts the Flame Emperor at the forefront in the second half of the game. You see him struggle with this path he's chosen, believing the end will justify the means. He believes that going on this path of destruction will ensure a brighter and fair future for everyone in the land, who have been oppressed by the corrupt nobles in power. Any time I can sympathize with a villain usually means they're going to be a memorable one for me. If anything, the Flame Emperor is a symbol for the game itself: no one path is truly "just," and all is fair in war.
Three Houses looks to incorporate what has worked in past games and successfully implement improvements in this game. Pair Ups from Awakening and Fates have been toned down significantly, the famous Fire Emblem weapon triangle is missing for the second game in a row, weapon durability returns for the first time since Awakening, and Combat Arts return after being a success in Echoes. With those things out of the way, Three Houses contains Fire Emblem's traditional gameplay. You move your units around a grid on the map and try and complete the map objective. For the most part it's simply beating the boss or defeating all units, but there's occasionally different objectives like reaching a certain point on the map, defending an area, or completing within a time limit. Some units have "supports" with each other, and you can increase support ranks for combat bonuses and conversations between them, which reveal more about each character (as I referenced earlier). Love it or hate it, S-ranks (AKA marriages), between units have been taken out of Three Houses and along with that, child units and the overpowered stat bonuses S-ranks gave. As an added support for newer or casual players, or players like me who won't accept a single unit loss, "Mila's Turnwheel" from Echoes returns, known as Divine Pulse in this game. Divine Pulse allows you to go back to any point in the battle. You can choose to redo a bad unit placement, a necessary attack that missed, or simply change your approach to an attack. Divine Pulse has limits of course, but you can increase them by upgrading statues at the monastery or your "professor level."
A new mechanic to this game is "battalions," which are soldiers that follow their assigned unit around the battlefield. Each battalion gives its unit certain stats and, when battalions level up, increase the amount of the status boost. There are ranks to each battalion which usually indicate how well the battalion will grow when it levels up. Battalions also give their assigned units "gambits," a mechanic taken from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. Gambits are attacks that can greatly weaken a unit and render it unable to move on its next turn. Enemies have battalions too, which will really get you to stop and think about your moves even more carefully. If an enemy unit lands a gambit on one of your units, you could be saying goodbye to that unit, as it's a sitting duck for two turns. Gambits are also effective for drawing monsters' attention, monsters being massive units you see every so often. Battles against monsters require the most strategy in the game as you think about how to approach each massive beast. Monsters have barriers and multiple health bars, as well as skills they can gain for every health bar lost.
Each chapter in Three Houses consists of one month. Sundays are your free days, Mondays are your instructing days, and the rest of the week is for students to implement your lessons. Instructing students costs their motivation, which can be increased by hanging out with them on free days, giving them gifts, returning lost items to them, or getting MVP in story battles and paralogues. Instructing your students allows them to put points into various weapons or unit classes like horses or heavy armour, which will allow them to class change. Three Houses allows your units to learn whatever weapons you want them to and get put into whatever class you want. The only thing blocking progress into higher tier classes is their proficiency in certain weapons or unit classes. Every character has their natural talents in certain classes, as well as their own personal preferences, which they'll sometimes remind you about after your instruction for the week. It's charming to have a student come up and say "I want to focus on this skill so that I can become this class later on. It suits me because X reason." There are other reasons to get your units to switch into a new role though. Some characters have "budding talents," areas where they have a hidden skill that might well go against what they want to do. For some units, it's worth pursuing their budding talent, for others, not so much. It's all up to you what your units become, and that choice is a welcome change.
There's a lot of things to do in this game and, because of the activity limit, you want to make sure you're maximizing your time. While the game gives you tutorials on every mechanic it introduces, it's not the best guide on how to go about your free time. The tutorials fail to mention — or don't emphasize — important details, leaving you to experiment early on. You only have 3 days on average each month to yourself to do whatever you want. Each off day has a limit on what you can do on it. Seminars and resting immediately end the day no matter what, and you can do up to three optional battles a day once your professor level is high enough. The main thing to do, though, is exploring. Garreg Mach Monastery is full of things to do: hanging out with students over meals or tea, choir practice in the cathedral, combat tournaments, fishing, gardening, and giving advice. Some of these activities cost activity points, which are refreshed every new free day. As you gain professor rank, the amount of activities you can do while exploring increases. You can increase professor rank by doing most activities when exploring, but you mostly rank up by hanging out with the students. There's always a use for activity points: bonding with students to gain support, tournament matches to get money and useful items, or training yourself in new skills from other professors.
While I love the art for this game, there are some technical issues that stand out for me. The frame rate can stutter if there's too much on screen, particularly in forests (which was a problem in Fire Emblem Echoes as well). Sometimes backgrounds during scenes where characters are talking on the battlefield look like they're a 2D image since the depth of field looks off. Occasionally, character models seemed a bit distorted when viewed at specific angles. There are some long loading times, especially if you're just restarting a game. I'm also not a big fan of the cutscenes. Maybe I've watched a lot of really well animated stuff lately, but when I watched the cutscenes for Three Houses, I always felt like there should have been another frame between every single frame of animation. It seems to stutter, as if there wasn't enough time to finish doing the animation properly. Barring that, the world itself is well designed and looks good on your TV.
Right from the first trailer, I knew we were in for a treat with the soundtrack. Fire Emblem games typically have some great themes, but now that we have a Fire Emblem game back on home consoles, the series can flex its muscles. Three Houses has some of the best music in the series, with a number of incredible tracks: the thought-provoking theme song "Edge of Dawn," the intense "Blue Skies and a Battle/Between Heaven and Earth" which plays during the symbolic battles between the three houses, the powerful "Chasing Daybreak," and the somber "Mask of Fire." Even the battle preparation music, "As Swift As Wind" and "As Fierce As Fire," gets you hyped up and in the mindset to get down to business. You can listen to every song in the game in the main menu, and I've already taken a couple of breaks from playing and fired up the soundtrack to listen to while I do something else. I would pay good money for the full soundtrack. For the first time since Fire Emblem Awakening, Three Houses features dual audio. Feel free to pick out your personal preference, as both the English and Japanese casts are very good. This game also features full voiceover for the first time in the series.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Fire Emblem at the top of its game. Only a few games in my life have ruined my sleep schedule like Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Getting back home late after work, playing until I saw the sun rise, agonizing over in-game decisions, laughing and crying alongside the cast... this is what it means to truly fall in love with a game. Three Houses should be a part of any Switch owner's library at some point. It has pretty much everything you could possibly want in a video game: good graphics, great music, an epic story and, of course, top-notch gameplay. Fire Emblem has a new, higher bar moving forward, and hopefully we'll see this effort replicated for future titles.