What is it about school settings that work so well with video games? High schools have long been familiar locations in fiction, from books to movies to TV shows. But they seem to work especially well in RPGs, as we've seen in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, Persona, and now Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
From Persona to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to every high school anime ever, school settings have a durable and nostalgic appeal to them. They can take an unfamiliar fantasy setting and make it instantly relatable, and they offer fertile ground for the development of relationships and rivalries. In games, they trade in school age nostalgia while visualizing the passage of time.
All of these elements are visible in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and they represent a remarkable transformation for the series. While not exactly stagnant, the classic formula that made it a pioneer in the turn-based tactics genre did feel a little small-scale for a full-priced Switch game. That made it incumbent upon developer Intelligent Systems to find a way to expand the formula, and it has responded with a big, beautiful, and fully-explorable academy to go with a host of other changes. I don't wish to disparage the 3DS, which is a fine system, but if Fire Emblem: Three Houses' goal is to feel like a game that belongs on a TV, then mission accomplished.
You begin in the role of Byleth, a silent mercenary who, like Yu from Persona 4, can apparently win adoration and respect with just a brisk shake of their head. After saving three young lords from a host of bandits, and receiving a strange visit from a goddess who seemingly lives in their head, Byleth is invited to accompany the crew to the nearby Garreg Mach monastery. The monastery's leader, a Pope-like religious leader named Rhea, surprises Byleth with a job offer: a chance to be a professor in the monastery's school.
After accepting the offer—tenured positions are hard to come by these days, after all—Byleth's first major decision is picking one of the monastery's three houses to join: Golden Deer, Black Eagles, or Ravenclaw, er, Blue Lions. The decision you make results in different maps and exclusive characters (though you can recruit from other houses if you build up your support with them). Their stories naturally differ quite a bit, with different villains stepping in depending on the choices that you make. There are themes of loyalty and betrayal, but also heritage and identity.
No matter who you choose, your first year in the monastery is spent in a comfortable routine of exploring, fishing, gardening, and getting to know your students. Like Persona, the calendar advances day by day, with your character being free to wander the grounds on weekends. Much of the character development is contextualized in lessons, which is where you can choose which skills to grow (leveling up happening during combat as usual). Missions fall at the end of every month, but there are also optional side missions that you can tackle in the meantime, some featuring characters from your class, others being more generic "kill the bandits" missions.
It makes for a lively and interesting setting, especially in the first half, which is when you get to make a bid to recruit members of other houses. It works because it feels like a natural outgrowth of traditional Fire Emblem pillars like romance, but also because it's easy to navigate, features multiple activities of interest, and is full of personality. Later, it starts to lose momentum, especially as your characters begin promoting into master classes and recruiting falls away. But in the early going it feels like a total masterstroke, rolling everything that Fire Emblem does well into a fresh and well-realized location. It feels like the kind of addition that could have only happened on console.
Bidding Goodbye to the Weapons Triangle
Upon transitioning to the field, Fire Emblem: Three Houses begins to feel like it's on more traditional ground. Like every entry going back to the days of the NES, Three Houses is a turn-based tactics RPG, and I'm grateful for that. Too many classic franchises have abandoned their bread and butter gameplay in a misguided bid for mass appeal (looking at you, Final Fantasy). Fire Emblem: Three Houses is proof that a series can reinvent itself without sacrificing the gameplay that made it appealing in the first place.
Still, there are plenty of differences. A new "Gambit" system puts battalions of common soldiers at your disposal, who can both deal damage and inflict effects like poison—a well-implemented system that helps to enhance the combat's tactical layer. Flyers and horseback riders can move after attacking, enhancing their mobility and utility on the battlefield. You still can't save during a mission, but a limited number of "Divine Pulses" let you rewind time and erase bad moves.
The biggest change, of course, is the removal of the Weapons Triangle—the old rock, paper, scissors system that has formed the basis of the gameplay going back to the SNES—which takes the spotlight off the tactics and puts it on stats. This has consequences, such as making character positioning a little less essential, and making enemies like the final boss more of a grind than they might be otherwise. It also makes it easier to earn success by leveling through the optional side missions, though your window to do so is restricted by the calendar, so you can't go completely nuts.
The character customization is thankfully deep enough to support this shift. There are multiple layers to building a successful character, including taking into account their special abilities, picking the right supports, and choosing a class with the best possible stats growth. The removal of the weapons triangle makes growing a strong character all the more crucial, as raw damage is more critical than ever.
The maps themselves still have some interesting wrinkles, but the majority are marathons in which you patiently bait in enemies and slowly roll to the end. Giant monsters and dragons, which fill several spaces on the map and have multiple health bars, exemplify this aspect of Three Houses' design. I wouldn't exactly say that Three Houses' maps are "boring," or even that hard. Mostly, they're a matter of endurance; an opportunity to put your hard work developing your characters to the test. Some will happily embrace this shift, others will pine for the hardcore tactics of Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, which featured some of the best maps in the series. Personally, I'm somewhere in between.
The Reinvention Fire Emblem Needed
As Fire Emblem: Three Houses continues, you slowly get to know your students—I especially liked the shy archer Bernadetta, with whom I would frequently cook meals to temporarily enhance my stats on the field—and promote them up to higher level classes. You build up relationships by having them fight alongside one another, or by inviting them to tea, and in true Fire Emblem fashion, their stats improve accordingly. None of the characters on the roster really break out of the anime archetypes that define them, but when they inevitably die, you still feel a little sad just by virtue of how much time you spend developing them. And yes, characters will die no matter which side you choose. It is a Fire Emblem game after all.
Three Houses hits a crescendo around the halfway point, which is where the best maps and some big reveals intersect. Then, surprisingly, it begins to fall off a bit: the school becomes less interesting, the maps get to be a grind, and the story starts to feel rushed and disjointed. Many of the biggest moments in the Black Eagles storyline just sort of happen with little to no buildup. Byleth's romance, if you should choose to pursue it, is practically an afterthought—a couple quick cutscenes and an epilogue.
By the time the credits rolled, I had mixed feelings, which was a far cry from the genuine excitement I had felt earlier. But then I started up a new game with Dimitri and the Blue Lions; not just because I felt obligated to do so for the review, but because I wanted to see what happened in the other storylines. New Game Plus makes it easy, smoothing the way to recruit whoever you want from other houses, and letting you purchase abilities earned during your previous run. There are at least four major storylines to see, and having the chance to mess around with a different set of characters almost makes it feel like a fresh game.
If you dig it, there's a lot of game to be found here, much of it excellent. Over the past decade or so, it's felt as if Fire Emblem has been in transition, eager to embrace a new audience without entirely alienating its original fans. The endpoint of that process is a game that manages to transcend its tactical roots without entirely abandoning them, establishing a framework in which it can credibly compete on consoles. Three Houses is the game that Fire Emblem: Fates wanted to be.
It comes achingly close to being truly amazing, which makes the letdown of the second half all the more disappointing. But Intelligent Systems gets a lot of the big picture decisions exactly right. What might otherwise have felt like a cynical attempt to crib off the success of Persona instead feels like the reinvention that Fire Emblem needed. In what is turning out to be a surprisingly weak year for first-party Switch games, Fire Emblem: Three Houses looks like the game to beat.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses soars on to Switch with a fully-realized school setting, deep character customization, and multiple full-length campaigns. While it loses momentum in the second half, it still manages to come off as a striking reinvention of the well-worn Fire Emblem formula. That makes its first real console appearance in more than a decade a triumph.