I'll admit, I was feeling a little nervous about how Fire Emblem: Three Houses would tackle romance. When I heard that it would be moving to a school setting, I figured it was about to transform into a full-blown visual novel.
After all, the last few Fire Emblem games have made romance a centerpiece of their success. Fire Emblem: Awakening brought back the ability for characters to get married and have kids, and it arguably saved the series. Fire Emblem Fates had its cringeworthy petting minigames. Fire Emblem Heroes never misses an opportunity to put classic heroes in bikinis as part of its seasonal events.
I figured Fire Emblem: Three Houses would continue down that path. But to my surprise, Intelligent Systems has opted to veer back toward the classic Fire Emblem formula. Despite its setting, Three Houses has more in common with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, which itself was a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for Famicom. That is to say, it's got that classic Fire Emblem feel to it.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you play a former mercenary who is mysteriously hired to teach students the art of war at a monastery. As I write in my review, this proves to be a nice framing device for classic Fire Emblem elements like class promotion. Supports continue to play a strong role in Three Houses, but there's a more platonic feel to them now. Petting minigames have been replaced by tea time, and trips to the sauna have been replaced by nice meals in the dining hall. Even the character designs are more conservative. Yeah, we have characters like Sylvain and Dorothea, both of whom will flirt heavily with basically anything that moves, but none of them are on the level of Camilla, who... well... here's her entrance in Fire Emblem Fates.
When you do build up a relationship, the ensuing romance tends to be rather subdued. There's not much in the way of a real storyline. Rather, you learn a bit more about their backstory, or you witness a quick exchange highlight the relationship between two students. Romances in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are developed by attending meals together, giving gifts, answering questions correctly, recovering lost items, or by simply having two characters battle alongside one another.
The opportunity for a true romance is held until the very end, when you're given the chance to choose from one of the relationships you've developed over the course of the story. You're subsequently rewarded with a quick scene of Byleth offering a ring, and some lines from the object of your affection about how they want to spend the rest of their life with you. It concludes with an epilogue sketching out Byleth's long and happy life with their new bae.
It's pretty standard fare for the series, all told. The main draw is in pairing up your favorite characters and being rewarded with a unique epilogue. There are also benefits to be had in battle, which significantly aids in properly min-maxing your character. But given that Three Houses is clearly riffing on the mechanics established in Persona, a series that is basically all about building up relationships, I'm honestly surprised that it doesn't go deeper. Where are the arcs? Where are the moments where characters come to terms with the darkness at the heart of their souls?
Giving the romances an actual arc would have helped them immensely, and as other critics have pointed, they could have used more male same-sex romance options. But... I'm actually kind of fine with Fire Emblem: Three Houses putting its resources elsewhere.
Anyone who's listened to Axe of the Blood God will know that I harbored concerns about Fire Emblem's overall direction going into Three Houses. I didn't love the focus on cheesecake art and fanfic-like pairings at the expense of actual storytelling in Awakening and Fates. Romance has been part of Fire Emblem going back to the Super Famicom's Genealogy of the Holy War (in many ways the franchise's rosetta stone), but with Fire Emblem Fates, it felt as if it was starting to overtake everything I liked about the series.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a welcome (and surprising!) course correction in that regard. I prefer my Fire Emblem with a heavy helping of big heroes, bigger villains, tragic deaths, and plenty of betrayals. The central premise of Three Houses, which sees three disparate factions uneasily coexisting under one roof, is pretty much peak Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn't what I would call a "nuanced" story, but it's practically Tolstoy in comparison to Fire Emblem Fates, where one side, Nohr, is just hopelessly evil. By comparison, Three Houses feels more complex, featuring layered protagonists with interesting motivations. Even Dimitri, who initially comes off as a one-note pretty boy, turns out to have a dark side.
There is, of course, plenty of room for Fire Emblem to have strong storytelling and high-quality romances. The good news is that Three Houses establishes a strong foundation in that regard. Future games can use the template of Three Houses and potentially create something really special—a sprawling war drama with deep and satisfying relationships.
In the meantime, I'm just glad that Three Houses doesn't go further down the path of Fire Emblem Fates, which was the trajectory the series seemed to be on after the success of Awakening. And perhaps as a result, it has an early claim on being the best Switch game of 2019.