Few can agree on what makes a good Fire Emblem game these days. The diehards—the fans who lionize classic entries like Thracia 776—want challenging maps and political intrigue. Newer fans, the ones weaned on Fire Emblem Awakening, prefer the relationships and are allergic to permadeath.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the review version of which I've been playing for the past week or so, seems intent on pleasing everyone. Its initial battle academy setting; anime stylings, and relationships appear tailored to the newer set; the war drama that breaks out later is for the hardcore. It's heavily based on Genealogy of the Holy War, one of the most popular Fire Emblem games ever, which should please the old-school fans who still grumble about Fire Emblem Awakening.
In taking this approach, Intelligent Systems is at risk of alienating all parties with a watered down game, but so far Fire Emblem: Three Houses seems to work. What begins as a confusing mess of systems quickly boils down into a satisfying loop: explore the academy, build up your characters, take on a mission. The combat is overwhelming at first, but once you get a few missions under your belt, it all begins to make sense.
Graphically, Intelligent Systems has overall done an impressive job of transitioning the series to the Switch. The combat sequences are gorgeous; the monastery you get to explore is huge, and the multiple storylines stand to encompass more than a hundred hours of gameplay. Intelligent Systems is flush with cash these days thanks to the ongoing success of Fire Emblem Heroes, and it shows in the resources it's able to bring to bear in developing Three Houses.
Even just a few hours in, it's clear that Intelligent Systems is really going for it with Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Its sheer scope—practically three games in one, and with a host of new mechanics to boot—practically makes it a new game. But for all its excellence, Fire Emblem also figures to be an adjustment for longtime fans of the series. If you loved the intricate maps and hardcore tactics of Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, you won't really find them in Three Houses, at least not where I am in the story. This is a tactics game that's as much about grinding as it is about strategy.
In Three Houses, there is no Weapon Triangle. Some weapons will still confer advantages over certain character classes, but the old "sword beats axe" dynamic isn't present in Three Houses, putting a much heavier emphasis on character levels and stats. Maps are consequently more of a battle of attrition than a puzzle, not the least because characters are much less likely to be ambushed and killed in one turn, and the role of healing is heightened. Positioning still matters—especially with squishy units like mages and archers—but individual units are far more capable of taking care of themselves. With optional missions available between mandatory quests, players have strong incentive to grind for levels.
None of this is entirely new to the series. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of the second game in the series, dispensed with the Weapon Triangle. Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright had optional missions where you could grind levels. Put another way, Fire Emblem has been trending in this direction for a while now.
In embracing these elements though, Fire Emblem: Three Houses hits at the tension point that has divided the community since Awakening revived the series back in 2013. Some Fire Emblem fans like the tactical elements and feel the grinding waters down the maps. Other fans just want to enjoy the story, and don't care one way or another if the maps consist of simple waves of enemies.
If you can't tell, I'm more in the former camp than the latter. I thought Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, which had some devilishly complicated maps, was one of the best games in the series (okay, the story wasn't very good, but still). Personally, I'd rather Three Houses focus on top-quality map design than building overpowered characters who can brute force their way through maps.
But this just might be where Fire Emblem is now. Three Houses makes no bones about putting character customization first. It introduces a ton of equipable special attacks to the mix, among them special attacks called Combat Arts, as well as support attacks called Gambits that inflict various effects on foes. A huge portion of the early game is spent on building up weapons specializations; choosing the right classes, and grinding for XP. When the actual battles come, you can pretty easily travel in one big ball of death and grind your way to the boss.
This isn't to say that Three Houses is totally lacking in strategy. There's a pretty clear bump in difficulty once you find yourself facing the huge monsters that take up multiple squares and can hit several characters at once. If you're playing Classic Mode, you definitely need to be careful because it's entirely possible for a vulnerable unit to get swarmed and killed, even if you've got a level and weapon advantage. Once it takes the gloves off, Three Houses actually has the potential to get pretty nasty, especially if you're underleveled (do those bonus maps, kids).
Fire Emblem: Three Houses May Finally Balance the Scales
Viewed optimistically, Three Houses has a decent chance to bridge the gap between Fire Emblem's disparate fanbases with accessibility on one side, and a solid amount of depth on the other. Its gameplay appears deeper than the shallow Awakening, and its tale of classmates who are tragically drawn into war against one another is already better than the insipid Fire Emblem Fates.
When we look back on Three Houses, I expect we'll see it as the game that solidified the trends started in Awakening. The familiar outlines of the series are still discernible—the turn-based grid, the romance—but its more strategic than tactical now; more like Final Fantasy Tactics than Fire Emblem. What it loses in strong map design it gains in more interesting customization options and character interaction.
If this is the endpoint of Fire Emblem's rebirth—the period started by Awakening—then it seems to be a good one. Much as I miss the more tactical identity of the older games, I'm happy to celebrate what looks like a successful transition to Nintendo Switch. But much as I like it, there will always be that little part of me that hopes the series will one day get back to the bread and butter design that made it a pioneer in the strategy RPG genre.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is out July 26 on Switch. Click for everything you need to know about its gameplay, characters, and more.