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Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review -- The New School

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Long-time fans of the Fire Emblem franchise have seen the recent games shift away from the brutal and hardcore tactical role-playing game where your favorite characters could get killed in the blink of an eye into a relationship/dating sim where your favorite characters could get killed in a blink of an eye in brutal and hardcore tactical role-playing battles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest entry in the franchise and first console Fire Emblem game released in over a decade. Three Houses is another change in the franchise, replacing much of the emphasis on marriage/children with more slice-of-life elements. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a brutal tactical role-playing game where your favorite characters can get taken in the blink of an eye. It’s just this time, they’re your students.

Three Houses is set in Fódlan, a medieval fantasy continent broken into three distinct countries. At the center of them all is the Church of Seiros which is headquartered centrally at the Garreg Mach Monastery, a school where the children destined to lead these three nations are divided into houses and taught how to fight and lead armies. Think of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, but slightly older, (slightly) less magic, and (probably) more murder. Players take on the role of Byleth, a silent protagonist with a mysterious past who can talk to a mysterious green-haired girl that only he or she can see. So, you know, your typical J-RPG protagonist. Soon after the game’s opening, Byleth arrives at the school and becomes a professor in charge of one of the games titular three houses. In typical gaming fashion, players are forced to choose a house far too early to make an informed decision and are then subsequently given over a half-dozen students to supervise and educate (read: train to be your personal army).

Each house has distinct characters and themes. The Black Eagle House is led by Edelgard von Hresvelg and has a number of powerful melee units as well as a few useful mages. Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd leads the Blue Lion House which is a house of knights and chivalry. As such, the house has a number of lance users which naturally evolve into mounted units. Finally, the third house is the Golden Deers under the leadership of Claude von Riegan. Unlike the other houses, this house has more bow users rather than close-range fighters. Although players can recruit from the other houses over the course of the game, the central characters for each embody the three houses and remain with their own houses. I personally sided with the Black Eagles for my initial play-through (currently my only play-through) and enjoyed the dynamics of the house. The story heavily focused on Edelgard and her ambitions, but several of the other characters didn’t feel completely like side characters. The stories of many of the others (including some initially outside the Black Eagle House) do a good job of expanding the world and better explaining her motives. Although I can’t speak for sure about the other houses, I imagine players can expect a similar experience where the house leader takes center stage and the remaining cast plays support.

As you can imagine, in a game built around choosing one of three houses, that initial choice eventually produces significant differences. I’ve only had the opportunity to play though one of the campaigns so far, but I imagine it is a safe assumption that Three Houses’ first act is more or less the same for each house. Players are assigned missions which don’t really revolve around the individual characters and the houses fill roles that are seemingly interchangeable. However, the consequences of this choice manifest in the game’s second act when the houses’ stories split. For the Black Eagles, the second act is when Edelgard’s story takes center stage and she becomes the major driving force for the game’s narrative. That said, the build-up of the first act doesn’t feel entirely rewarding because the second act was much shorter. The game spends the first act letting players get to know the students through various interactions and conversations around the school, but at the point when those interactions and relationships are meant to payoff, things feel rushed. That said, I still have two campaigns to play (and an eventual story DLC), so the whole might provide a more complete and satisfying experience.

At its core, the gameplay of Three Houses largely adheres to the franchise’s roots. It is still a top-down, turn-based, tactical role-playing game. Each level is essentially a giant puzzle, where players start with a fixed number of units against an army of foes, and the goal is to defeat your opponents and get all your students out alive (or as many as possible). Each fight isn’t just about taking into account whether your unit can defeat his or her opponent, but predicting what your enemies will do on their turn. As ever, there is also an element of randomness as every attack has a probability of success and failure. Similar to Shadows of Valentia, the game also gives players the ability to rewind and redo a limited number of turns if necessary. While the combat decisions feel mostly the same as previous Fire Emblem games, the effects of the iconic weapon triangle have largely been removed, although some weapons still provide advantages over certain foes. Weapon durability is back, so players need to remember to maintain their weapons between battles lest they break down during an inopportune moment. Magic, on the other hand, doesn’t break down, but instead has a set number of uses per battle.

Three Houses also introduces a number of new features to the combat experience. One of the biggest is a visual change which makes combat feel more like war. Units are no longer alone in battle and are instead surrounded by armies which adds to the scope of each skirmish. During confrontations, players can see these troops rallying and clashing around each other and troops will even run off when their commanders are defeated. Characters and these armies can also learn and use abilities which come with trade-offs and additional effects and add a new strategic element to battle. In place of pairing from the recent games, players can now assign a limited number of adjuncts from the reserves which provide significantly toned down battle support. The game also introduces massive monsters which offer a completely new challenge. These opponents can occupy multiple tiles on a map, are far more defensive and durable than standard enemies, have massive area of effect attacks, and require different tactics and approaches.

Although combat feels largely the same, albeit with some tweaks, the classic class system has undergone some drastic changes. In previous games, every character had a class which could then be upgraded to one or more advanced classes upon reaching the necessary level. In Three Houses, characters level skills which are required to pass class exams which unlock at specific level intervals. Although each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, in theory, there is nothing that stops players from turning characters like the diminutive and magically inclined Lysithea into a defensive Fortress Knight and the stocky Raphael into an offensive mage. While skills develop through battle (for instance, using a bow in combat increases bow skill), many of the advanced classes require players spend time developing characters’ skills outside battle.

Between missions, players spend the rest of the month at the Monastery to fulfill Byleth’s duties as a professor. These duties include a number of distractions from combat and players can spend time instructing students to help increase their stats, go fishing, grow and harvest plants, and even grab meals with students and staff. By completing activities in the Monastery, players can increase Byleth’s professor level which increases the number of actions that can be completed in a single session. Garreg Mach Monastery essentially expands the between mission segments of prior Fire Emblem games and in many ways feels like a natural evolution of those activities. That said, I’m personally not a huge fan of this hub. There were times that the activities I had to do in the Monastery felt like chores and distractions that kept me away from progressing the game’s narrative or moving onto the next mission or battle. While players can choose to largely avoid the monastery and spend their weeks doing random battles in the world, this isn’t optimal and your characters will likely be worse off. Players are given several opportunities to instruct students over the course of each month to increase specific skills. The number of times a student can be taught depends on his or her motivation, which is best increased by interactions around the Monastery. As a result, there were times when I’d have to choose to not spend my free time doing battles because I needed to optimize my next teaching opportunity. For fans of the recent Fire Emblem games, it is also worth noting that Three Houses has removed the dating/offspring element. While I know some are unhappy with this omission, it required a stretch to make sense in Fire Emblem: Fates and would have made no sense in Three Houses, so I’m glad the feature was removed.

I was really excited to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Having played a lot of Fire Emblem games though, I honestly didn’t find myself enjoying the early parts of the game because of the emphasis on the activities within Monastery. However, as I kept playing the game, and as the story developed, I found myself loving the game. I understand that the slice-of-life school section gets players more attached and invested in the students, but there are still parts of me that wish the school activities had been toned down. I also wish that investment paid off more in the game’s second act, and I accept that I’m putting a lot of faith in the two-thirds of the story I haven’t experienced -- faith that might not actually be rewarded. Usually I like to beat a game and do as much as I can before putting out a review. Unfortunately for this review (although certainly not the worst problem), I only managed to finish the story of the Black Eagle House. I spent nearly sixty hours on my first campaign, and the only thing that stopped me from immediately starting another was that I needed to finish this review. Now, with this out of the way, if you’ll excuse me, I think it is time I dive back into Three Houses.

Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others ~Virginia Woolf

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