Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019)

The Fire Emblem series is one that is divisively split across different eras. The staunch difference between the “new” and the “old” is palpable. The newer games in the series have a much more pronounced emphasis on the characters and their relationships, as opposed to the older games which placed importance primarily on gameplay. The newer games in the series feel a lot more anime-ish than their ancestors. Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes strides to attempt to reconcile these separate styles, so that fans of both the new and the old will be satisfied.

The premise of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that the player is a professor at a prestigious institution for nobles from three nations of the fictional land of Fódlan. The members of the institution separated into three houses according to their home nation, and the player must choose which house they would like to lead. This important choice will dictate which characters you will be using and how the story progresses. Of course, the land of Fódlan is not safe from strife, as eventually tension between the three nations erupt. The shift between playing at war and war itself is well delineated in the gameplay. Fire Emblem: Three Houses separates its core gameplay into two parts: the monastery and battles.

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The monastery houses the institution, and all of the corresponding activities. This parallels to the newer aspects of the series as the player teaches students, converses with various characters, completes side-quests, plays mini-games, and various other life simulation features. The battles are standard to the series, turn-based tactical bouts of war. The battles themselves seem to mirror the older games in the series with more interesting maps and objectives. By cleanly separating the game into its components, players could focus more one which aspect they enjoy more, and I appreciate the attempt to satisfy all fans of the series.

The presentation of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a bit all over the place. Character art is superb and the game is fully voice acted. The game is by far the most ambitious entry into the series. I’d wager that this is due to the move from an old handheld console to a new home console. This huge upgrade in hardware let the developers really increase the scope of the game. There are multiple routes, each with different characters, battles, interactions, and stories. Additionally, there is an entire explorable monastery, which is really more like a small town. It houses every character in the game who can be conversed with at any time. Despite all of these great things, it is impossible to ignore just how ugly the game is. The 3D visuals are incredibly out of date, it genuinely looks similar to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance which was released back in 2005. I rarely harp on graphics, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is just so jarringly unpleasant to look at.

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One of the core aspects of the Fire Emblem series is its emphasis on resource management. The two primary management facets make a return: weapons have limited uses until they break and you want to dole out experience to appropriate members of your army. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses there are some additional resources that correspond with being a professor to inexperienced recruits. Each unit in your house begins as a complete novice, and you can tailor them however you would like. Of course, each character has their own strengths and weaknesses that should be taken into account. Once a character has learned enough about their requisite class and is a high enough level, they can take an exam to promote to the next tier of classes. For example, one of my units had an affinity for lances and horseback riding, so that is what I trained him in. As he mastered those traits, he went from being a basic recruit, to a soldier, to a cavalier, and finally became a paladin.

I really enjoyed the beginning portion of the game as I took note of all of my units and their strengths. I planned out paths for them, figuring out what classes I would like them to be down the line. Moreover, time is extremely limited in the early game. You can only train a couple of units per session, so I had to carefully choose who needed training the most. Planning out my army from scratch was incredibly enjoyable. Trying to fill all of my needs in terms of units while also satisfying each character’s strengths was a fun management aspect.

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The switch to the Switch led the developers of Fire Emblem: Three Houses to make as expansive of a game as possible. I appreciate that the developers attempted to include as many features as possible. Alongside the explorable monastery, multiple routes, and personally teaching each unit, Fire Emblem: Three Houses also brings back a few key gameplay features. First and foremost are abilities. In the past few Fire Emblem games, units would be granted new abilities upon reaching certain thresholds within their classes. These class specific abilities are great because they further specialize units and differentiate classes.

In addition to abilities, combat arts make a return from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Similar to abilities, combat arts are learned by units throughout the game but instead of inherent bonuses, combat arts are more powerful attacks that can be used at the cost of weapon durability. Some of these attacks do additional damage, while others have special traits like immobilizing enemies. Moreover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces a whole new strategic option: battalions. Battalions can be equipped to units, granting them small bonuses in stats while also allowing them to use battalion specific gambits. These gambits were frequently low-accuracy but high-power attacks, often times hitting multiple enemies. While I found combat arts and gambits to have a more niche use than the ubiquitous abilities, I am glad that there are additional tactical options at the player’s disposal.

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While I do appreciate that Intelligent Systems attempted to incorporate more features to flesh out the experience, I felt as if the monastery and life simulation aspects were ultimately lacking. In the early game, time is valuable and choices are endless. I wanted to carefully plan how to spend my time to get the most out of it. Additionally, figuring out what class path I wanted each unit to take was an interesting puzzle. But once you decide what class you want each unit to be, there really is no engaging gameplay left in the monastery. Sure, you can reclass units and teach them other skills, but there is rarely a point to doing that. Once you invest significant time and experience into a certain skill, you aren’t going to stop using that skill to focus on another. Moreover, as you progress through the game, you gain “professor level” which allows you to spend more time at the monastery. This makes choices feel less important, as you have more than enough time to complete everything that you want to do.

A common comparison that I see is between Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as both have significant downtime spent doing social simulation. I think Persona 5 was more successful in this department because time was extremely scarce in that game, you had to carefully plan your schedule where as you don’t have to do that in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Additionally, in Persona 5 any action you took had an immediate benefit, such as improving your relationship with a character or increasing one of your stats. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there is a layer of abstraction between an action and its benefit. When spending time with a character for example, you increase their “motivation”. The higher the motivation, the more time you can spend lecturing them. So, in order to increase a unit’s level in some skill, you need to spend time with them to motivate them, then spend more time to lecture them on the appropriate subject, and repeat that cycle numerous times to see any benefit. The disconnect between the action and the payoff makes the whole thing far less rewarding to engage in.

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Another issue I have with the monastery is just how barren and repetitive it gets. Outside of recruiting characters from other houses, there is nothing that feels worthwhile to engage in. Between every major battle the player is encouraged to explore the monastery: completing quests, talking to characters, doing mini-games, lecturing, so on and so forth. The problem is how shallow all of these tasks actually are.

All of the quests are incredibly blatant fetch quest padding, there is no substance here. Talking to characters can sometimes be interesting as they have different dialogue depending on where you are in the story, but most of the time its just filler one-liners. The mini-games such as fishing, tournaments, or gardening are all pretty boring and unimportant. The lecturing is fun in the beginning as you figure out what you want each character to focus on, but past that its just a matter of clicking on the character and their respective skill to put experience into it. The only worthwhile thing to do in the monastery is listening to support conversations between characters, but this is hardly a new feature and has existed in nearly every Fire Emblem game to date. Ultimately, the monastery is a pretty shallow time waster, and I feel like it significantly hurts the game.

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I would not be so offended by the monastery if it wasn’t such a gargantuan waste of time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a very long game, especially by Fire Emblem standards. For me, it was about a sixty-hour game to complete a single path, which is two to three times longer than any other Fire Emblem game that I’ve played. There is the same amount of main story battles in this game as any of the other games in the series, so all of that extra time is spent futzing about in the monastery. There is an option to “skip” things like exploring the monastery or lecturing, but it just seems counterintuitive to what the series entails. Resource management is important, so outright skipping things like managing a character’s skill experience just feels wrong to me. Moreover, it is not optimal and is sure to make playthroughs more difficult than they really should be.

Its telling that when I began playing the game, I was excited to try all of the paths to experience all of their characters and unique stories, but by the end of the game I had no desire to attempt even a second playthrough. Not because the gameplay was bad, but it was just such an unnecessarily long experience that it began to drag. Furthermore, the first half of each path is exactly the same, except for the characters of the house you are leading. All of this just put me off playing the game a second time, even as a huge fan of the series who wanted to see how each route would play out.

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While I believe that the time spent in the monastery is by far and way the largest issue in the game, there are a few other problems that will nag at series veterans. Primarily that the game is far too easy. There are a few reasons for this, one of which being that the game only launched with three difficulties: easy, medium and hard. I usually play on the “lunatic” difficulty in Fire Emblem games, but that option was not added until a patch after release. I had to settle for hard, which was suspiciously simple, even for an experience player. This is partially due to the ability to rewind time, a returning feature from Fire Emblem: Shadow’s of Valentia.

Turn-based games involving some sort of luck factor always have the issue that sometimes the player can get unlucky and get screwed over. While it is the player’s job to mitigate risk and take high-percentage plays, sometimes lady luck just isn’t on your side. The ability to rewind turns is a feature that included in Fire Emblem: Three Houses to prevent this. I welcome this idea, as it prevents losing units or having to restart chapters due to an unlucky roll. The issue arises with how often the game lets you use this feature. Being able to do this once or twice a battle to combat bad luck is reasonable, being able to rewind time ten times in a single battle is unacceptable. It completely undermines the point of tactical decisions in the game. The goal of games such as Fire Emblem or XCOM is to make low-risk moves to maximize chances for success. By allowing the player to undo moves so frequently, it lets the player make reckless decisions and play poorly with the knowledge that they can just undo it if things go south.

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Moreover, the map design in the game was not capable of being pushed to a point of sufficiently challenging players. Unfortunately, this is due to the fact that any unit can be made into any class that you want and reclassed at any time. This puts map designers in a tough spot, as they can’t possibly know what units the player has in their arsenal to design around. Maps can’t require or heavily encourage the use of a certain type of unit, as there is no guarantee that the player ever pushed one of their units into that class. Generally, the maps are pretty decent, especially by modern Fire Emblem standards. There are some interesting objectives, and many maps encourage the player to move quickly. Its just a shame that the maps are frequently too easy and let the player steamroll them without having to engage in strategic thinking.

My final, and undoubtably nitpicky, complaint about Fire Emblem: Three Houses is how the classes are handled. Admittedly, some classes got some interesting features which I appreciate: archers are far more useful than they were in the past due to increased range, and mages get to carry more interesting spells for various situations. Class balance has always been a bit of a problem in the series, but not nearly as bad as it is in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Certain classes are just exceedingly powerful, while others are strangely weak. This is a large problem because the player gets to choose what class each unit is, so naturally players are going to gravitate towards the more powerful ones. There’s just no reason to ever use half of the classes in the game, and that kills variety. Furthermore, each unit begins as a basic recruit, so the early portions of the game feel like you are just using ten of the same unit.

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A bizarre decision was to include weapon mastery and all of its perks as abilities rather than just being inherent. In previous games characters would get increased hit rate, avoidance, and critical strike chance after gaining a level in their weapon skill. In this game, you have to equip a “mastery” skill into one of the character’s ability slots. Additionally, skills like “breaker” or “faire” which are gained from mastering a weapon have to also be equipped in an ability slot. A character only has five slots for abilities, and right off the bat three of those are taken simply for weapon mastery. The more interesting abilities have to fight over the remaining two slots. Moreover, this completely negates any potential for hybrid units. There’s no feasible way for units to use multiple weapon types, since you need three ability slots to fully utilize a weapon and you only get five ability slots. And that’s not accounting for other powerful abilities.

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The classes also do not have anything resembling clear and intentional paths to follow. There are five tiers of class: recruit, basic, intermediate, advanced, master. For many units, there exists no logical path through these tiers. For example, if you want to make a unit which flies on the back of a Pegasus: they begin as a recruit, then become a soldier, then become a Pegasus Knight, then there is no advanced Pegasus class, and then they become a Falcon Knight. Inexplicably, there is a gap between intermediate and master. So, I either must turn my Pegasus unit into an unrelated advanced class, or simply leave them as an intermediate class until they are ready to become a Falcon Knight. Neither choice is particularly appealing.

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The master classes in general are completely wonky, many of them are bizarre hybrid classes, which as previously stated are just not viable. They have no sensible paths which lead into them. For example, Mortal Savant requires a master of swords and magic, yet none of the tiers below master have a class which remotely resembles this. For many classes, their logical path ends at the advanced tier, as there is no corresponding master class. It’s a shame because it feels like my units were done promoting halfway through the game, since there was no rational master class to promote them into.

I understand that I am harsh on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as I am with every series that I love. After playing so many of these games, and playing them for so long, I’d like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable about the series and its mechanics. Things like the difficulty, class balance, and map design weren’t major flaws, but were noticeably problematic. The biggest issue, the monastery outright decimated any desire I had to replay the game on separate routes. Its slow, repetitive, tedious, and a large part of the games play time. Despite this, Fire Emblem: Three Houses still manages to be a triumphant success for the series. The scope of the game, the story, the swathe of new mechanics, the multitude of playable routes, the interesting characters, and the solid gameplay all make for one of the best modern Fire Emblem games. It is for these reasons that I give Fire Emblem: Three Houses a 7.5/10. While not perfect, Fire Emblem: Three Houses melds the varying directions of the franchise into one cohesive game.

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