Developer: Intelligent Systems, KOEI TECMO GAMES CO., LTD.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Version Reviewed: Digital Version
No. of Players: 1
Release Date: July 26th, 2019 (Worldwide)
Price: $59.99 USD
Intelligent Systems’ 1990 release of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light saw the birth of the SRPG genre. Unlike the company’s earlier game, Famicom Wars, Fire Emblem emphasized a diverse cast of characters and their growth. 7 games and 13 years later, Fire Emblem reached the West with Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword.
At first, Fire Emblem did fairly well in the West, but sales eventually fell. After the Wii’s ambitious Radiant Dawn, the series returned to handhelds, yet the decline continued. On the verge of cancellation, the series was saved, however. When Fire Emblem Awakening released in 2012, Nintendo poured new life into the series with an unparalleled marketing campaign. A plethora of games, both mainline and spinoff, were born from this renewed interest.
Despite prosperous sales, the fanbase became polarized, divided over new and old. After Fire Emblem Fates took the Awakening style to an extreme, it seemed that the fanbase would be forever fractured. As a result, the 16th Fire Emblem game, Three Houses, has a tremendous role to fill. It has to be worthy of the 12-year wait for a home console Fire Emblem while satisfying all types of fans. Fortunately, it does a fantastic job.
(If you are interested in a game-by-game look at the Fire Emblem series, you may be interested in my previous series, Fire Emblem Frenzy.)
The continent of Fódlan is divided into three major nations: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. The Empire was formed over a millennium ago, once in control of the entire continent. The northern regions eventually revolted, forming the Kingdom in the process. Years later, the eastern region became autonomous of both monarchies, forming a republic of merchant states. In the center of Fódlan exists the Church of Seiros, independent of any nation.
According to the Church, the saint Seiros received a revelation from the goddess. She founded the Church of Seiros in order to spread her teachings. Supposedly, the goddess granted sacred weapons to heroes across Fódlan, which would come to be known as Heroes’ Relics. The greatest Relic, the Sword of the Creator, corrupted its wielder Nemesis, plunging Fódlan into the War of Heroes. It is said that Seiros allied herself with the other relic users, defeated Nemesis, and ushered in an age of peace.
Serving as a mediator between the three powers of Fódlan, the Church’s Garreg Mach Monastery is now the home to the Officer’s Academy, a school for nobles and aspiring knights. Each House of the Academy represents a nation. The Black Eagles, Blue Lions, and Golden Deer contain Adrestia’s students, Faerghus’ students, and Leicester’s students, respectively.
The Avatar (Who is canonically known as Byleth) works for their father Jeralt’s mercenary band. One day, the group finds bandits attacking three students: Edelgard, Dmitri, and Claude. After defeating the bandits, it is revealed that the students are the heads of the Officer Academy’s Houses and the future leaders of their respective countries. Soon, the Knights of Seiros, the Church’s military branch, finds the students. Captain Alois recognizes Jeralt as the Knights’ former captain, so he invites the mercenaries to the monastery.
Upon arriving at the Monastery, Byleth and Jeralt meet with Archbishop Rhea, whom Jeralt distrusts. Jeralt is reinstated as Captain of the Knights, and Byleth is offered a teaching position. Byleth chooses one of the Houses to teach, and the school year begins.
The first half of the game is quite similar plot-wise, no matter what house is chosen. Byleth trains his or her house, helping them succeed on the monthly missions assigned by the Church. Along the way, the group crosses paths with antagonists such as the Death Knight or Flame Emperor. Simultaneously, the Church’s censorship and activities begin to garner suspicion as well.
This simply sets the stage for the second half. Certain events transpire, causing a five-year time skip. Byleth finds Fódlan engulfed in war. After reuniting with their chosen house, the player helps their chosen nation emerge victorious, even if it forces them to cross blades with the other Houses.
What makes Three Houses‘ plot remarkable is its world. Intelligent Systems learned from its past mistakes, now focusing a significant amount of time on Fódlan’s history, culture, and geography. Considering that one of Three Houses‘ main themes is about questioning tradition, this development is paramount. At the start of each month during the first year of the game, the narrator describes the month’s impacts on the lives of Fódlan’s people. A seemingly insignificant addition such as this makes the world feel much more organic. The Monastery library houses volumes of historical records, travelers’ remarks, and religious teachings for the player to read. These most certainly didn’t have to be included, yet they were.
The detailed world helps develop believable characters as well. Despite seeming one dimensional and defined by tropes initially, each cast member has a reason for being the way they are. Take Hilda, for example. She is a noble of House Goneril, a territory near the eastern border of Fódlan. Her brother Holst leads the defense of Fódlan against the neighboring Almyrans, making him a lauded general in the process. However, this means that his failures are especially disheartening to the public. Hilda grew up seeing this, so she developed a fear of failure and expends her energy giving other people her work. At first, she seemed to be lazy, yet there is so much beneath that facade.
Hilda was one of the characters I initially wrote off as one dimensional, but I’m happy I was wrong. The characters are what make Three Houses so great. Intertwining character growth and world-building make the development natural. One instance of this is when a character mentions that their parents are dead. In their paralogue, they discover that the deaths were a side effect of a political scheme. This scheme helps develop the player’s understanding of Fódlan’s politics, which in turn helps develop another character. The characters and world of Three Houses complement each other perfectly, creating a complex world that takes many playthroughs to fully understand. Of course, it makes the bloodshed in the second half all the more tragic.
However, the expansive world-building has one downside. Since almost every political issue is interconnected, few conflicts are as simple as good vs evil. While this allows each route to provide a different perspective on the war, it also left some questions unanswered. Even after every path is tread, one group still lacked the development everything else had. I am staying ambiguous to avoid spoilers, but I think that the upcoming story DLC would be a perfect opportunity to give the player a better understanding of their perspective. However, I do not feel that this ruined the story. It was simply a low point in a plot with countless highs.
Fire Emblem games are turn-based strategy titles. The player can perform an action with each of their units, then the enemy does the same. Units can move across a grid-based map, attack enemies, use or trade items with allies, or interact with objects. The series differentiates itself from games such as Advance Wars by allowing the player to use the same units in each battle. After battles, a unit gains experience, ultimately resulting in a level up. However, this is where Fire Emblem‘s most infamous feature comes in: permadeath. When a unit dies, they are lost forever. All of these staples return in Three Houses.
However, this is hardly all Three Houses has to offer. The most significant addition is the Monastery. Byleth isn’t just a teacher for plot purposes. Throughout each in-game month, the player can instruct their units. You choose what skills each unit should focus on, helping them increase weapon proficiencies. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses, which modify the speed of proficiency growth. Raising weapon proficiency allows a unit to use better variants of a type of weapon and unlocks skills.
The proficiency system also ties into the class system. Unlike most Fire Emblem games, Three Houses doesn’t lock each character into a linear class line. Instead, each class requires a certification exam. Each exam requires specific weapon proficiencies but can be taken earlier with the potential of failure. A unit can become nearly any class. Each class provides skills, adjusts stats, and modifies the odds of each stat increasing during a level up.
Most Sundays are free days. Byleth can choose one of four options: Rest, Battle, Seminar, or Explore. Rest is exactly what the name suggests. The class gets the day off, raising everyone’s motivation for the next week of instruction. Battles allow the group to tackle optional paralogues or extra skirmishes. On Normal, an infinite amount of battles can be fought per weekend, but on Hard, only a few may be completed. Seminars are special lessons that focus on specific skills. Up to six attendees are present. Critically, this includes Byleth, who can’t be taught during weekdays.
Finally, there is the main attraction, Monastery Exploration. Byleth can travel around the Monastery, participating in various activities, completing quests, and interacting with various people. Monastery activities include things one would expect from a medieval academy, such as sharing a meal, choir practice, or tournaments. Some activities require Activity Points that replenish each weekend, while others can be done free of charge. Quests are typically fetch based, introducing Byleth to various systems of the Monastery. Most were simple, though some were entertaining showcases of characters. Completing activities and quests typically increase the support points between the characters involved (which eventually unlock support conversations) or increase a certain proficiency.
Critically, both activities and quests involve all students, not just those in your house. In addition, each person has a new thing to say each month, typically remarking on the plot. This allows the player to get to know all of them, so the fighting in the second half of the game becomes heartbreaking. But not all hope is lost! Most students can join your house if you meet certain requirements. If you raise certain proficiencies and stats high enough or simply reach a B-rank Support with them, the student will join your house. Although they don’t appear in the cutscenes like the original house members, recruited students still have Supports with other characters.
Of course, the Monastery is only one aspect of Three Houses that is new. Although battles have not received a complete overhaul, there are a few new systems and a few returning ones. The Combat Art system of Shadows of Valentia returns. At the cost of weapon durability, a unit can use a special skill, typically with a special effect. Mila’s Turnwheel returns in the form of Divine Pulse. This allows the player to undo actions and find their mistakes.
Three Houses‘ main combat addition is the battalion system. These groups can be assigned to units and give the battlefield a larger scope. They provide some stat boosts and Three Houses‘ other addition, Gambits. Gambits are special abilities that can be used a limited amount of times during battle. They target a certain set of tiles instead of a single one. Some gambits are offensive, providing debuffs and preventing enemy movement. Others can heal or even increase movement.
One issue I found was the lack of variety in main story missions. Most of the early maps simply task the player with defeating a boss or routing the enemy. I assume this was done to make the story accessible, but it will become problematic when replaying the identical first half. While there were a few interesting maps in the first half, the best were all relegated to the war or paralogues, giving the game a slower start.
CONTENT & FEATURES:
Simply put, Three Houses is content packed. There are numerous routes to play through, though some overlap significantly. Each character has numerous fully voiced supports that require numerous playthroughs to fully unlock. The class system allows for plenty of variety on each playthrough. I do feel that there could have been more Master Classes. Many class lines converge into one Master Class, so that might make repeat playthroughs of the late game repetitive.
If you are worried about permadeath, fret not. Three Houses offers a few options for difficulty. First, one can choose between Casual and Classic. Casual mode turns off permadeath, while Classic retains it. Independent of that is the choice between Normal and Hard. Hard increases enemy stats. There is a Lunatic difficulty arriving in a free update as well. An Infernal difficulty was datamined, but it is extremely rudimentary right now. Perhaps it will become a reality in the future.
In addition, Three Houses has DLC. The season pass is $25 USD or £22.49. New quests, auxiliary battles, and story content are planned. It is worth noting that Intelligent Systems has a poor record with DLC, so it is hard to tell how this will turn out.
As expected from a Fire Emblem game, the soundtrack of Three Houses is stellar. Each track helps set appropriate tone. There is a surprising amount of variety stylistically, as can be seen when comparing the choral whisper of The Spirit Dais with the intense strings of As Fierce As Fire.
Three Houses‘ combat tracks feature the same calm and fierce duality as Awakening‘s and Fates‘. While maneuvering units, the music is generally calmer, but an intense rendition breaks through when a battle is initiated.
VISUALS & PERFORMANCE:
Three Houses primarily features a cel-shaded style. While some cutscenes use fairly decent looking models, others are pre-rendered or animated in an anime style. The latter are extraordinary to watch, especially in fights such as the opening duel between Seiros and Nemesis. There are definitely some lower quality textures here and there during the gameplay, though they never bothered me. The visuals don’t suffer too much in handheld mode, likely because of the style. Some edges do look a bit more jagged, especially during Monastery exploration. A full battery charge should last about two and a half to three hours of play.
The game’s performance isn’t perfect. Slowdown occasionally occurs during Monastery exploration, though usually, the drops are slight. Slowdown during battles was rare. During my 65 hour playthrough, I had one random crash during the Monastery segment, but there were no other major issues.
What if you just want traditional Fire Emblem gameplay? This is where the magic of Three Houses lies. If you wish, you can skip through the month and automate teaching to experience a more linear Fire Emblem. While you may not grow as attached to characters outside your house, the experience isn’t ultimately ruined. On the other hand, you can dawdle in the Monastery, fishing, and hunting for lost items to your heart’s content. I think this is a great way to address the division among fans. There is no “true” way to experience Three Houses.
The fact that there are so many methods of progression is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it always feels like you are progressing, which feeds the addictive gameplay loop. On the other hand, the game becomes a bit too easy if you utilize every feature. I only felt challenged a few times on my Golden Deer Hard/Classic playthrough. I refrained from most extra battles, yet I still felt overpowered much of the time. Granted, I am a Fire Emblem veteran, but I wouldn’t consider myself a master of the series.
I think the lack of difficulty comes from the restrictions placed on enemies. Enemies didn’t make use of gambits besides a few attack based ones, which I felt was a disappointing representation of the system. In addition, I don’t remember a single instance of an enemy using a Combat Art. Besides Bosses and final map enemies, it was hard to find opponents with more than one or two skills. Hopefully, the extra time spent on Lunatic will lead to enemies that can make use of every system the player has access to instead of simply having inflated stats.
The addictive gameplay cycle kept me engrossed for hours on end, even with a slower start. It is disappointing for a Fire Emblem to be unbalanced, but the game is still holistically great. Sometimes a lack of balance isn’t always a bad thing. One of my favorite Fire Emblem games, Genealogy of the Holy War, is notoriously unbalanced, yet I still love it. It’s the same with Three Houses. Though the game isn’t hard, that doesn’t stop it from being fun. Having so many systems means that there exist practically infinite options for gimmick runs. Want to make everyone a Knight? Why not? The amount of customization present is unparalleled.
It is impossible to overstate how addictive Three Houses is. The calendar links combat and monastery life. Story missions occur at the end of the month, and upon completion, the next month begins. This is what causes the addiction. In most Fire Emblem games, I want to take a break after a few battles, but here, the Monastery segments come in just as I grow weary of battle (and vice versa). I haven’t been this addicted to a game since Breath of the Wild.
Ironically, the Monastery loses its luster for the same reason it had it in the first place. In the second half of the game, the main plot and battles take over as the driving force of the addiction. Due to the war, the Monastery becomes much emptier and less enjoyable. It felt unnecessary most of the time, and I found myself rushing through the month to reach the story content. The Monastery is great in the first half because of how it divides the action, but it becomes secondary to the second half’s enticing battles.
While it isn’t a perfect Fire Emblem, Three Houses is a remarkable game. The world building and character development are logically connected, creating emotional investment that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I look forward to continuing to learn about the world and characters as I walk the other paths of this gargantuan title.
THE VERDICT: 9/10
*A Review Copy was provided by the Publisher for the purposes of this review
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