Sending school students off to war is a tried and tested trope that Japanese developers have been ploughing for years, but the ever-appropriate Nintendo has often steered clear of it until now. Three Houses takes elements from the hugely successful run of 3DS Fire Emblem games, but rather than plonking you in your own keep, you’re cast as a school professor in a monastic-school for budding knights, nobles and royals – try to unpick that one, folks!
The Three Houses – The Black Eagles , Blue Lions and Golden Deer – represent the three regions of the land of Foldur, with a royal representative at the head of each. It’s literally moments before the game expects you to choose which one you want to mentor, but at least you can have a wander around the school talking to everyone first. It’ll give you a good idea of what to expect from the opening few hours of the game, and it seems as though it’ll be essential to your progress.
If the relationship building of the previous games wasn’t your sort of thing, then you can forget about Three Houses now. It takes it to somewhere between its logical conclusion and utter madness, with your downtime between training exercises and missions from the principal filled to the brim with social activities. You need to speak to everyone – and I mean everyone – as you nurture your relationship with them, which in turn might mean that you can later recruit them from a rival house.
The school is a wholly three-dimensional entity, with ten distinctive areas to explore from the student dormitories through to the kitchen and library. NPCs, students and other teachers can be found wandering through its halls, waiting to have a chat, or to give you a little quest to help improve your standing in the school. Once a week – schools run on timetables, remember? – you get a day to explore, and you can use action points to improve your relationship with some of the students or teachers, whether choir singing in the chapel or chowing down together in the banquet hall.
This being a monastic school, faith is a key component to Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Religion has always played a part in the series, but here it’s an even more obvious element, and for those of an agnostic or atheist persuasion I wonder if it’s going to grate a little taking your class to choir practice in order to level them up.
Besides that, you can use your time to actually tutor the students, helping to personally raise their weapon abilities or level up their warrior class. You might even be able to unlock a talent with a new weapon, if you find the right one. For those worried by how much time this all sounds like you’re going to be putting in between battles, all of the weapon tutoring can be automated, but in doing so you’ll lose the ability to tailor your characters in exactly the way you want, which seems like too much of a downside to me.
Doubling down on the school setting, you even have to participate in examinations in order to change a character’s class, with tiers beginning when you reach level 5. It’s not a huge change from what’s gone before, but now you can attempt to pass the certification for an utterly different type of class, just with reduced chances of passing.
While I have to admit the writing, humour and lightness of tone remain as stellar as ever through the game’s opening – it’s as much Discworld’s Unseen Academy as it is Hogwarts – I did begin to wonder just how far my manipulation of the pupils would go. I’ve already made the decision to only pick dialogue choices that I actually agree with in real life, rather than chumming up to them by saying what they want to hear, so maybe Three Houses has taught me a valuable lesson. Isn’t that what school is for?
When you head into battle you’re now given you the opportunity to hire battalions. If you’re zoomed out on the battlefield it’ll make no visual difference to you whatsoever, but zoom in and you’ll find that your character is surrounded by their own troops and see the reason for an increase in a number of their stats.
Battalions each have their own Gambit which is a further special attack, and can cause absolute chaos on the battlefield. An enemy unit hit by a Gambit will be rattled, which not only stops them from moving but also reduces all their stats and stops them from doing a number of other things.
True to the series, if you hit an enemy with a Gambit when you’ve got another unit in range it’ll become a Gambit Boost, with them adding their might to the attack. It feels like mastering Gambits is going to be crucial to mastering later stages, and with the inclusion of Battalions I still haven’t tired of being able to zoom into see crowds of troops going at it in a mainline Fire Emblem game.
If you’re keen to know how everyone else is getting on in Three Houses, you can check out the online stats for the current month, taking a gander at who’s been the most recruited student, the most deployed units, and which warrior classes have received the most certification exams. Most importantly, particularly for the British, you can also check out the top tea party enthusiasts, just to give you an idea of who’s more interested in wielding a teacup than a sword.
Fire Emblem:Three Houses is setting out to be the deepest entry in the series so far, and the character building, interaction and relationships between them all is more at the forefront than ever. The classic strategy has seen some welcome tweaks as well, and alongside the most impressive visuals for the series so far, Intelligent Systems could well be sitting on a smash hit this summer.