Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an excellent game. But if I can be real for a moment, I must admit it's not an excellent-looking game. The graphics don't cause any major offense, but neither do they excite me outside the characters' designs (a field Fire Emblem has long excelled at) and some of the character models.
Otherwise, Fire Emblem: Three Houses' environments fall on the meh side, especially the Monastery that serves as the game's central hub. It's a bit muddy-looking, objects fade in and out of your field of vision with the regularity of a PSOne game, and I've experienced some frame rate drops in abbey's open areas. You also clip through animals, which is mystifying to me. It's funny to stand in the middle of a horse and pretend you're cosplaying as Odin's horse Sleipnir, but it makes me wonder why Intelligent Systems neglected to program any kind of collision detection for the beasts.
3D graphics have never been Fire Emblem's strongest field. Remember the Awakening characters' lack of feet? Still, I don't count it as a mark against the games because Fire Emblem is tops when it comes to turn-based battles, story, and character interactions. Besides, Three Houses' graphics aren't beautiful, but they're not exactly atrocious either. They're serviceable.
I don't think anyone will begrudge my warm memories for the big, gorgeous sprites that came to define the Game Boy Advance's Fire Emblem games, though. Even looking back at videos of each class' attack animation lets me appreciate small details that must've taken a ton of time and effort to implement. It's enough to make me hope the next Fire Emblem game will have an option to switch to sprite-based graphics, much how we can in Dragon Quest XI S.
I know that'd be a lot of extra work for a series as content-rich as Fire Emblem, but it's been so long since we've seen the characters move with such weight and purpose. (Outside of Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile, which is a fun game on its own merits, but isn't part of the mainline series.) I love how Archers spin their arrows before they fire a critical hit, or how Heroes throw their shields into the air before slamming their giant swords down on a foe's head. (What's a shield except a prop to help make critical strikes look cool?) Better still, characters' moves become cooler when they achieve higher classes. A magic pupil will stumble slightly before casting a spell, whereas full-blown mages trace deadly sigils in the air before unleashing a powerful barrage of magic.
Intelligent Systems deserves an extra pat on the back for some of its clever labor-saving tricks, too. The Myrmidon and Assassin blur and then "disappear" to apply their killing blows. Even though we don't see the characters' sprites at this moment, the blur and appearance of white impact marks paint a very strong illusion of the attacker moving quicker than the eye can follow. It's really boss.
I think the animals are the real stars of Fire Emblem GBA's show, however. Their movements have the same level of flourish as their human masters', and it's great. Watch how a Pegasus tosses its head as it flies back to its starting point following an attack, or how Wyvern Lords' mounts rear back and pause for a beautiful second before slamming into their foes.
Even plain horses get special treatment. I like how the Cavaliers' mounts take a couple of steps to settle back into their starting position after an attack. I also love how horses for higher-class characters move with a confident fluidity that's missing from lower-class horses. Watch how a Paladin's horse moves almost exclusively with dramatic leaps, or how it gallops in place for a moment before charging directly into an enemy. Bam.
Finally, make sure to appreciate how different types of horses fulfill different jobs. The aforementioned Paladin's horse is lean and striking, whereas the Clydesdale-like horse that carries the Great Knight is stockier and seemingly better-suited for the job of hefting all that armor.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses demonstrates mind-blowing graphics aren't necessary for an epic game experience. On the other hand, the Fire Emblem's GBA sprites remind us frivolities like dancing horses and assassins that move quicker than light provide that pinch of spice that makes war extra nice. If they don't return to Fire Emblem, I'm sure I'll continue to love the games regardless. Wouldn't it be awesome if they did return, though? There's nothing like a Falcon Knight descending from outer space to assure you "Yeah, your opponent is dead. Great job."
Banner art via The Cover Project