Quick Take – Fire Emblem: Three Houses is basically what happens when Persona meets tactical, turn-based RPGs in the best possible way. With an impressive array of meaningful choices, engrossing combat, and a compelling narrative, it’s a fantastic addition for any Fire Emblem, or tactical RPG, fan!
I am an absolute sucker for tactical RPGs. Before World of Warcraft, Disgaea was the game that I had spent the most time playing – hundreds upon hundreds of hours navigating item worlds, power-leveling classes, and doing my best to become the most powerful Demon Overlord there was.
While Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t allow you to level characters to 9,999 or delve hundreds of stories into a mystical weapon, it instead offers a razor-sharp focus on its characters – your students.
Youngest. Professor. Ever.
That’s right – following a successful mission disposing of some bandits alongside your mercenary father, Jeralt, you are responsible for saving 3 influential students from the Garreg Mach Monastery. An institution devoted to the Church, and the worship of the All-Powerful Goddess. Here, students from three different kingdoms study side-by-side in preparation for becoming competent Lords, Nobles, and Rulers.
Within the school are three main classes, representing the various kingdoms. There’s the Blue Lions, which represent the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, led by Prince Dimitri. There’s the Golden Deer, which represents the Leicester Alliance, led by Claude. Finally, there’s the Black Eagles, which represents the Adrestian Empire, led by heir-apparent Edelgard von Hresvelg.
Each house has a different roster of students, with their own strengths and personality quirks. Claude’s class has a lot of ranged fighters/archers, Edelgard’s sports a healthy amount of magic users, and Dimitri’s emphasizes more melee combatants and knights. Once you’ve made your choice (and do pick carefully…the internet may never forgive you if you choose poorly), you’re off!
The story is broken up into two very distinct parts. It’s hard to say you don’t see the narrative shift coming, as things are almost too happy-go-lucky in the early hours to make sense for a game that’s supposed to feature, you know…war.
The broader narrative (which is great) aside, the real standout moments, I found, were in the side missions that spotlighted some of your students. These “paralogue” missions and side quests help flesh out characters that typically would be described as “that one dude I always use for the killing blow” or “that chick who’s really good at healing”.
Back To School
As I mentioned, the general structure of training up your units is that you are their Professor (Tenure-track? Probably.) You start off in a proper school-year, administering lectures through the week, and using Sunday – the inter-dimensionally recognized Day of Rest – to explore or perform alternative tasks. More on that later.
When it comes to schooling, you’ll have a certain number of “Teaching Points” to spend one-on-one time with units and help drive their development. Each student has a “motivation” bar, which can be increased by interacting with them on school grounds, inviting them for a meal, completing quests for them, or enjoying a nice cup of tea during your downtime. The higher the motivation, the more you can tutor them privately.
In addition, you can help your students set individual “Goals” as they work towards particular classes, or sometimes they’ll approach you and ask permission if they can change their focus. One of my students, Felix, is devoted to the sword. Initially he was focusing on the sword and authority, but ultimately decided to focus just on swordplay. Now he’s shifted his focus once again to sprinkle in some black magic and become a “Mortal Savant” – an advanced class that combines melee attacks with magic utility. Mercedes, my chief healer, wanted to become a Warlock.
I said no.
We all loved group projects in school, right? No? Well, now’s your chance to inflict said pain upon the digital avatars of your choice! Another interesting element of the instruction mechanic is the “Group Tasks” function. You can assign a pair of students to do various errands around campus to help them improve certain skills like their riding or flying abilities.
Of particular note is that your character isn’t a “Marty Stu” that’s all-knowledgable. He has some particular strengths, namely in swordsmanship and authority. Other professors on campus can offer their expertise to help you sharpen your skills in Faculty Training, or by delivering Seminars for interested students. By inviting other professors to share their knowledge, you can foster a more well-rounded class, or really expedite the development of your favorite students.
As your students level up and increase their proficiency in various skills, they will become eligible to take certifications for new classes. There will be a % associated with their likeliness to pass such an exam, and success unlocks a new path for them.
One of the options for your day off is to “Explore” the monastery. This is your chance to engage in side-conversations with your students, recruit new students to your class, tackle various quests, enjoy meals with others, consult with other professors to get specialized training, do some gardening, catch some fish, *breath* sit down for tea, offer advice in an “Ask Amy” style correspondence structure, repair divine statues for stat bonuses, return lost items to students, give gifts to foster better relationships…things like that.
As your Professor level increases, you get more “points” that you can spend to do activities that take time. Certain quests take time, as do benefits like faculty training, having tea or sharing a meal with a student. However, a great deal of tasks are things you can do to improve your rapport with the rest of the school without having to spend the precious currency of time.
As the earlier paragraph might indicate – there’s a lot to do. Recruiting other students is a particularly fun challenge, as there’s no particular system (at least initially) for just creating new units out of a soldier-factory like you might do in other tactical RPGs. See a capable-looking meat shield that you’d like to recruit as your new Fortress Knight? Better have impressive strength stats!
The depth of gameplay styles and replayability really shines when you’re taking time to explore the monastery. It’s a fantastic way to spend many, many hours in Fire Emblem.
“Alright alright, we get it. You can have tea parties with your students and learn a bunch of stuff blah blah blah – boring! I wanna kill things!”
And kill things you shall. Every month there is a broader quest to be completed that inevitably involves a conflict of one sort or another. However, a key option on your days off is to engage in Battle. Now, similar to instruction and time wandering the monastery, you are limited by a number of “Battle Points”. However, there is typically at least one auxillary battle that doesn’t require a battle point to engage in, thereby giving you free reign to farm that battle to your power-leveling heart’s content!
Once on the battlefield, the gameplay is very similar to many other tactical RPGs that you have likely encountered before – a battle-map style design with certain ranges for movement, attack, healing, etc. There are various terrain types to keep in mind that may hinder or help you, as well as special “tiles” that grant units bonuses (or penalties) for ending their turn on it.
Besides a regular “Attack”, units may utilize “Combat Arts” or “Gambits”. Combat arts are essentially special attacks based on class/weapon. These skills may be particularly useful against monsters, deal extra damage to flying units, ignore armor, etc. Gambits are performed by having an assigned battalion, unique sub-units that can amplify particular stats and unlocks a separate action that can either heal/assist allies, or deal damage to enemies in a particular area-of-effect. An added bonus of performing a gambit is that the units are weakened in the following round.
At a certain point, monsters find their way to the field of battle. Monsters are a unique challenge in that they possess multiple health bars and an impressive shield that needs to be broken through. By completely breaking their shield, however, you can stun them and receive rare items.
Sometimes in battle, especially in tactical RPGs, we make a mistake. We zig when we should have zagged, or accidentally leave a squishy unit right in the path of an unstoppable juggernaut of pain. If you’re playing on Classic mode, as I did, when you lose a unit in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, they’re gone for good. SO, you want to avoid death whenever possible.
Enter the “Divine Pulse” – a supernatural power bestowed upon your character that basically gives you an “undo” button for battle! Of course, it’s limited to 3 uses at the start of the game, though you can increase this over time by repairing divine statues during your extracurricular activities. This is a great balance that can help stifle some frustration, while also reminding you that while the battles may seem elementary at times, you should never underestimate your enemy.
First I’ll just vent my main gripe, and it is admittedly small – there weren’t enough animations for the various attacks. I know it seems silly, but doesn’t it make sense that “Monster Piercer” should have a different flourish or look than say, “Tempest Lance”? Bah.
Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Fire Emblem: Three Houses so far, and I’m sure that I will have dozens more hours of fun with the game before I tuck it away in preparation for Dragon Quest XI‘s arrival on the Switch next month.