I struggled to decide on a way to begin this. I just don’t know enough about the Fire Emblem series to give adequate context; in fact, I have mocked it for its anime artstyle and seemingly oversaturated presence in Super Smash Bros. Now, however, I have played Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and while I still feel like I barely know anything about the series and have only scratched the surface of the latest game, I think I’m a Fire Emblem fan now. Yeah, I’ll just say it--I loved this game. So much so that it has quickly become one of my favorite Nintendo Switch games and influenced me into immediately starting another playthrough upon completion. If you are a fan of the tactics genre or RPGs in general, go try out Three Houses--you won’t regret it.
What follows is my attempt to cover this game relatively briefly, based on the elements that stood out to me because I can’t compare it with past games’ mechanics. There will be no story spoilers, nor will I reveal any events that were not previously revealed by Nintendo.
Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in the RPG genre. Octopath Traveler enthralled me with its variety and depth that kept the boring, in-between moments feeling fun. The combat in Three Houses engaged me just as much--if not more--because of the way everything comes together to create a convincing feeling of commanding an important battle.
Movement is the core as characters move across a grid to take out rival units. Characters take on a variety of classes that provide different attacks and options in battle. The game also features combat arts, weapon durability, a unique magic system, and other new things that aren’t worth explaining, but are worth experiencing, that contribute to a strategic experience in every battle.
While tactics combat is the focus that Fire Emblem builds up to, Three Houses features a major portion of gameplay that involves exploring a school environment and teaching students to prepare for battle. This involves quests, fishing, dining, tea parties, and lots of talking to students, faculty, and other characters that populate the world. There is great variety to be found here to distract you, though ultimately your efforts with students is to prepare them for battle. The player’s role as a teacher of one of three houses involves choosing how to dedicate time in each in-game month to improve the bonds and skills of students. I expected this gameplay loop to work fairly well, if a bit tedious, but it works very well. It is endlessly satisfying to see your efforts in the Garreg Mach Monastery translate into battle and the story.
One of this game’s best surprises for me was how well written and simply epic the story plays out. Basically, the continent of Fodlan contains three rivalling lands of the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. These nations are each represented at the central monastery as houses of students that you will choose to lead. This element leads to a vastly different experience based on the initial choice of house that gives the player the perspective of the story from chosen side.
There’s a lot to take in at the start of the game, as the plot doesn’t skip a beat and lore is expanded on quickly. But as questions increase, answers inevitably follow, leading to a very, very satisfying and emotional adventure.
Another one of the best things about Three Houses is the character development and writing that create the impression that the students are more than battle units, and are people with complicated backstories and ambitions for the future. They can even contribute their opinions on their path of skill training. Everyone is written perfectly, and every single line of dialogue in the game is brilliantly voice acted. It is clear that there were no resources held back in this department.
The visual fidelity is a somewhat interesting element of this game. On one hand, most of the world is not visually striking. With relatively low-quality textures, it is clear that the scale of the game is a bit too ambitious for the Switch. Nevertheless, it does not look too bad, and parts of the world can be very pleasing. But while a simple scene is not too beautiful, whether in the monastery or in battle, what is extremely impressive is the way the world scales instantly. In battle, maps feature surprisingly detailed environments that seamlessly zoom out to an overhead grid and zoom in to a fully-realized world during combat animations. So while the overall graphical fidelity is nothing to write home about, the tradeoff for the instant transitions to maintain battle flow is a fair sacrifice and is impressive considering the Switch hardware.
If anything, I do wish that they could have gone further with the cel-shaded style and generally added more color to the game. But overall, the graphical presentation excites me for the future of the series as the team has more time with the Switch and hardware improves.
There’s music in this game too, I think. I hear that it’s good? I’m not really sure.
Seriously though--the soundtrack is decently solid, and while I didn’t notice a lot of the music, I think the fact that it goes unnoticed for me is telling on how well it fits the theme of each setting. That being said, some songs are certainly outstanding.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses surprised me. Not because of how truly great it is--I definitely had high hopes for it--but because of how absolutely stuffed with delightfully surprising content it is. Characters are beautifully nuanced, gameplay is captivating, and the presentation is impressive. Three Houses is an emotionally charged, thrilling tactics masterpiece that has earned its spot among the Switch’s must-play games.