If my school had been anything like the one found in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I might have been slightly more inclined to turn up to class. Garreg Mach Monastery plays home to knights, mercenaries and mages in training, split, unsurprisingly given the title, into three houses. While there’s no sorting hat to help you decide which of these houses you’re going to teach – don’t worry, there’s no Hufflepuff – soon enough you’re leading a group of these entitled youths into battle. Or indeed the kitchen, choir practice or just having them round for a cuppa, as Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes the series’ penchant for social interaction to its logical conclusion.
While Fire Emblem’s tactical action remains rooted in twenty years of strategic framing, Three Houses really does take the series back to school, and along with classes, schedules and other faculty members, you’re tasked with dealing with student’s personal growth, from supporting their academics to tinkering with their love lives. Your leadership – and your willingness to be an insufferable busybody – will help determine how they progress on the battlefield, and on into adulthood, and you have to consider every little move to fashion them all into the team members you need.
Against this backdrop the generation-spanning heroic fantasy narrative swirls around the central points of the church led by Lady Rhea and the Goddess, with twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing while shadowy forces lurk all around. There’s some very cool moments, heightened by the fantastically produced anime cutscenes and emotive score. That said, it’s a tale that’s also about the students growth and their families, and the land of Fodlan manages to come to life as much through its political make-up as anything else.
Three Houses is aesthetically more subdued than some of the recent 3DS games, despite the fact that the cel-shaded visuals are much more compelling. The character designs are more realistic than the excesses of Fates, which may disappoint some, but it gives them more room to behave as people rather than as caricatures. The full voice acting throughout is also generally excellent as well, bringing each of the numerous characters vividly to life.
One of Three Houses greatest successes is making you truly understand each of the characters around you. Even the students in rival houses come into focus while you’re running through the halls of Garreg Mach and beyond, whether through brief chats or thanks to the fact they’re all dropping their stuff all over the place and you have to help return things to their rightful owners. These kind of dogsbody mechanics have left me utterly cold in the past, but Three Houses has weighted them perfectly, making each of the characters feel like real, fully formed people, even if it all eventually gets a bit awkward thanks to you being their professor.
It’s almost a disservice to shift and now only talk about the actual tactical sections, but if you’ve experienced any turn-based strategy game in the last twenty years, you’ll understand the basis of Fire Emblem’s tactical combat. Units can move across the grid-covered battlefield and perform an action each turn, with the goal of each battle generally being to remove the enemy commander from the battlefield, though the occasional different mission type brings some variety.
While the framework may be familiar, Three Houses overhauls the Fire Emblem staples, beginning with the loss of the iconic weapon triangle – you can argue amongst yourselves about whether it’s a loss or actually a return to the earlier system that Echoes: Shadows of Valentia featured. In broader strokes, it adds some clarity to combat and there’s still plenty of aspects that will see one unit stronger or weaker against another. If anything there’s further strides towards realism, such as lances being strong against cavalry, and the weapon triangle still rears its head in a different form with character specific skills that perform much the same function.
The major new addition is Battalions, which bring with them Gambit attacks. Each character can now command their own Battalion, which have differing strengths and attacks that mirror or accentuate those of your characters. Assigning a Battalion has the added benefit of improving your character’s stats, making them virtually essential from the off. In practice, the inclusion of a Battalion opens up a powerful attacking option in the shape of Gambits. These are group attacks that can’t be countered, and which can cause major problems to the unit on the receiving end, limiting their movement and stopping them from using their own Gambit against you. When used at the right time they can easily mean the difference between survival and defeat, though in smaller skirmishes they become less important.
The levelling up system is gloriously versatile, and while each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, you’re not tied into a set path for any of them. You can even unlock hidden talents if you angle their training in a particular way. Just as in previous games there’s a huge wealth of abilities to unlock and choose from for each unit, so you can tailor them to your own play style, and lose hours of your life in the process. They’re hours well spent.
Fire Emblem has always thrown the wrinkle of permadeath into the mix, though thankfully now optional since Fire Emblem: Awakening. Three Houses is the most accessible outing for the franchise so far. On Normal difficulty I actually found the going pretty easy, especially once I started to dive into side quests to level up my team. With the addition of the Divine Pulse – fundamentally a limited-use rewind ability – I only had to be mildly cautious where previous games put your units at risk every single moment. Mind you, I’ve been playing Fire Emblem, and it’s sibling the Wars series, for the best part of twenty years, so results may vary. If you’re a returning player though I’d jump straight into the higher difficulty, and there’s the promise of an even higher difficulty being patched in.
At times it can all become too much. Conversations and working on the relationships between characters can take up as much time as combat if you’re the kind of person to let it, and being presented with a whole teams-worth of Support skits between later missions can put the brakes on the overarching narrative. There are plenty of ways to speed everything up though, whether it’s just the ability to fast travel around the monastery, have all of your tuition automatically selected, or glowing indicators which make most side quests a doddle. If you don’t want to sink into the characters and setting Three Houses allows you to do that too, but then you’re rather missing the point.
Not everything hits the mark. Some of the writing can be a touch overwrought, and for all that it manages to pull off being a huge sweeping epic there are some disappointments like the consistent recycling of maps throughout the side quests.There can even be some awful screen tearing when playing docked, but fortunately it’s rare enough not to ruin the experience. It’s likely that you’ll be too invested to think that hard about it, anyway.