Fire Emblem is a series I hold quite close to my heart. Starting with Shadow Dragon on the DS and jumping between the other titles ever since, the combination of strategy, dice rolling, character development, and brilliant writing has enthralled me in a way other games simply can't mimic. Though it's undoubtedly had its ups and downs, I picked up Three Houses in hope it might inspire another generation of fans in the same way Awakening once did, and in that respect, it certainly didn't disappoint.
For those of you not familiar with the larger series, Fire Emblem is known for its strategic turn-based battles and the accompanying stories of war, betrayal, and more often than not, dragons. Where it stands out for me personally is in its limited resources; be it experience, gold, or weapon durability, you're constantly having to plan out who kills what, with which weapon, and how you're going to be managing five chapters later. It's in linearity this balance truly shines, giving decisions a sense of finality and consequence, forcing you to adapt as you realise piling all your resources into a healer because you really wanted her to be a swordsman may not have been the best idea.
As the series has evolved, so too has this formula, adjusting the limitations I'm so fond of in ways as to make the game more accessible through optional extras. Implementing open worlds to be moved through and bonus battles to be fought for extra experience and money, it fuelled players intent on maxing stats and destroying difficulty. It's in this accessibility Fire Emblem found new life on the 3DS, and for that I'll forever be grateful, but in these options I felt the series had lost something along the way. Where a player can grind, they will grind. Where a player can have a team with a lot of big numbers, they'll put in time to have it. In having these options, I've historically found myself using them—often to the point of prematurely burning myself out. Coming into Three Houses with very little knowledge, this was perhaps my most significant cause for concern. With, as the title may suggest, three houses to side with, and three paths to explore, burning out before seeing all the game had to offer seemed an inevitability.
After passing the initial fanfare of difficulty selection, cutscenes, and scene setting, you're whisked into battle to assist three young nobles being pursued by bandits. Basics learned and bandits wiped out, they're properly introduced to you as the upcoming rulers of the game's three major powers: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. Accompanying them back to the officer's academy at Garreg Mach Monastery, you're soon roped in by the church's archbishop Rhea to stay as a professor and guide one of the academy's three houses, and it's here the game really begins.
The basic gameplay cycle can be broken down into months. At the start of the month, you'll get a mission. These missions start out simple in exterminating bandits and the like, but as the story escalates, so too do the manner of mission you take on. These are the key events that move the story forwards, comparable to the traditional chapters of your average Fire Emblem game. Regardless of the house you chose, the first half of the game shares common missions, with the game branching out in completely different directions when the second half begins and things really start kicking off. If you're to judge the game on these maps alone, in both their design and the story told to connect them, I believe you already have the workings of a good game—a good game however, and nothing more.
I like most sided with Edelgard's Black Eagles for my first playthrough.
The story is something I want to keep as vague as possible in this review. Instead of talking about the events themselves, I find it more interesting to look at how it progresses, escalates, twists, warps, and subverts your expectations. In short, it's fantastic, and among the most enjoyable I've played in a Fire Emblem game. The design of the three routes is different to, for example, Fire Emblem Fates. Fates gave the player an introduction to each side of the moral coin and presented them with an informed decision, but even beyond this the structure of the game remained relatively constant. Putting the chapters side by side, you could match up key events, and in the grand scheme of things, it didn't feel as though your presence made all that much of a difference. Each path had its own set of information revealed to the player, but you'd only find a few unique pieces of information. Three Houses in contrast gives you three bright and fresh-faced characters. They're each ambitious and glowing in their unique ways. They introduce you to each member of their house, and based on little more than that you're expected to make what is ultimately the most significant decision in the game. Because you chose your house for its cast of personalities, or even just for its leader, you want them to succeed in an incredibly personal way, almost as if to scream to the rest of the game that you made the right choice and that you stand by it.
Beyond the main events of the game, a greater entity lurks. Each month, as you might expect, is made up of a number of weeks, with each week following a formula. At the start, you perform your duty as a professor and teach your class. What this equates to is giving bonus experience to chosen skills, allowing you to develop your units outside of battle. If you want an army of Dark Knights by the end of the game, you'll be training all your units in reason and riding for example. Though each character excels at different things and each have their own optimal end classes, it's down to you to decide what they'll become—you can even have an army of healers if you so desire! What you ultimately have is the freedom of Shadow Dragon's class changing system without the limitations it imposed. As long as you can get a skill to the required level, the sky is the limit. Such freedom does however only go to highlight what limits are in place, these being the few gender-locked classes there are. What this unfortunately means is that there is no female class specialised in the new gauntlet weapon type, and that there's no male class built to wield both types of magic. There's nothing stopping you from putting gauntlets on a female Swordmaster, or giving your male Holy Knight some black magic to play with, but with how far the series has come in player choice and opportunities, I find this a shame all the same.
As each week ends and teaching concludes, you're given free time to do with as you wish. Here you can choose between exploration, battles, lectures, and resting. The latter three are self-explanatory; battles are akin to the additional battles seen in previous games, lectures give separate opportunity for skill growth, and resting skips ahead with a few minor benefits. Of the available options exploring is by far the most interesting, at least for your first playthrough. During this time you're free to roam the monastery grounds, talking with students for their thoughts on current events, collecting quests to be fulfilled each month, fishing, and even a sharing a pot of tea should you so desire. While actions like talking and fishing can be done to your heart's content, others are limited to a set number each week based on your professor level. Most of these are directly tied to growth to avoid abuse, such as having a meal with your students to improve their motivation and, in turn, allow them to be taught to more in the coming week's lecture time. Your professor level improves naturally as you play the game, rewarding you for responding to questions with reasonable answers, taking the time to interact with your students, and completing quests as they arise. On top of giving you more to do in exploring the monastery, your professor level also grants additional battles each week should you decide to forgo exploration. Starting at just one battle a week, it soon becomes two, and when you finally reach the maximum level, you can do up to three. This gives your choice of free time a sense of balance and ultimately transforms it into a resource for you to manage. Battling too much can result in a lack of skill development, but avoiding extra battles altogether can lead to some of your units feeling underdeveloped. It truly feels as though there is no real right or wrong way to play, but for those picking it up and feeling overwhelmed with the choices at hand, the game is kind enough to show you how other players have spent their time for the current week with statistics shown beside each choice. Whether you choose to follow the herd or forge your own path however is up to you.
While fans of the series will feel right at home with the game's battling system, it definitely isn't without its own set of notable changes. One of the easier to miss, and perhaps most significant, is the absence of a weapon triangle. In many a modern game, it's established that swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords, this reinforced with bonuses to the unit with the advantage. In Three Houses, the field is an even one. Personally, I think this is fantastic, removing a component of team composition that at times serves only to shackle you into specific classes. Each weapon type still comes with its own set of pros and cons; axes do a lot of damage with bad hit rate, swords have a good hit rate with middling attack, gauntlets even let you strike twice before your opponent can attack, with the caveat you can't use them while mounted. Teams are now diverse through choice, in oppose to being through a sense of obligation and caution.
The satisfying triumph of man over beast.
A more difficult addition to miss comes in the form of demonic beasts, a boss-type enemy with a few fun twists. First, they're huge. With normal demonic beasts occupying four tiles in a square and special beasts going even larger, their presence is known. Of course, with size comes more areas to be hit, and to counter that, demonic beasts have two things: barriers and multiple health bars. Barriers are simple; there's one for each tile it occupies and they require two hits to break, regardless of how much damage you're doing. While you can just keep breaking one part of its barrier to expose a weak point, you're encouraged to smash it all, receiving rare bonus items as a reward. As you take down each bar of health, the demonic beast gains new abilities, providing a thrilling rush and a fight much unlike the rest of the series that gets more difficult as you progress through it. As you battle more and more, you begin to form strategies to dismantle their barriers and defeat them in a turn, as to deprive them of their last wind. It's all satisfying in a way I wouldn't have expected from the series, providing a frequent boss-killing buzz in bitesize portions.
You can control characters directly if that's your thing, you can even watch your battalion follow behind you!
If you've not played the game, you may think these one turn strategies require a small army to execute—four barriers to break, each with up to two health. One of the things I love about Three Houses is how each new feature seems to tie in with another. Roll on battalions! Once again new to the series, each unit can now equip a battalion to join them in battle. Each one provides small stat boosts to the unit they're assigned to, and if you zoom the camera in, you can actually see them following behind. The biggest thing they bring to the table however, are gambits. Gambits are limited use special attacks that do damage over a number of tiles, accompanied by a unique effect. Some push enemies back, some set tiles on fire for environmental damage, others poison enemies, but the key part for the avid beast slayers among us is that they hit a number of tiles. With the right battalions assigned, you can dismantle a fully-functioning barrier with just two attacks! On top of this, enemies are unable to retaliate when attacked with these, allowing you to chip away at stronger foes to push them within range of a kill, especially early on when you're lacking in firepower.
My misguided Blue Lions run was... Misguided. Magic is everything..?
Alongside your major additions are a few small things of note. Magic has a fresh coat of paint with how it functions, giving the unit a set number of uses for each spell per battle, and new spells being learned as you level up your reason and faith skills. Magic users are incredibly powerful against a good majority of enemies, but the limited spell uses mean they need to be played effectively so as not to waste what little they have. As their library grows, they become mightier and more capable of singlehanded destruction, worrying less about remaining uses with advanced classes doubling how much you can cast.
The last tweak to the formula comes in the form of combat arts, powerful attacks that consume weapon durability to use. Often learned for mastering a class or attaining a new skill level, combat arts provide a huge range of different bonuses. Ranging from a higher critical chance, to extra range for bow users, to effective damage against certain types of foe, you have three slots to decide how to fill, varying greatly from unit to unit. Though they can be overlooked while playing in favour of a more standard approach, I found combat arts invaluable, especially so for bow users where any extra range is appreciated. Like much of what I love about Three Houses, they're something you can embrace, overlook, or ignore entirely. Again it provides choice with limitation, and even deciding to use them you find yourself debating whether a one round kill is worth losing the additional weapon durability. With a power akin to Mila's Turnwheel from Shadows of Valentia handy however, you're also free to experiment in-game. Thanks to a godly power you possess, you're able to rewind turns a set number of times each battle, pushing you to try for that 40% hit chance kill or that unlikely crit in a brilliantly satisfying way.
Starting a new game without this monster was a significant hurdle to overcome.
There's so much to keep you interested and occupied as you play, but what stands out to me is how the game rewards you for coming back and playing again. After facing a story's climax and raising an army for upwards of 30 hours, it can feel a little disheartening to be starting from nothing. Gone is your level 62 Great Knight, gone is the money you were hording because you were worried about running out, gone is your progress—and yet you find yourself tempted back with just enough to feel like your previous efforts are still with you. What you retain in actuality is really rather little: the battalions you've collected, the progress you've made in levelling up statues that provide you with various benefits, and your renown, something obtained by completing quests and battles. Digging a little deeper however, you find your progress still remains. What's added for New Game Plus is a new way of spending your renown, allowing you to instantly jump back to your old professor level, and buy back both support rankings and skill levels previously acquired. With this, you're able to recruit familiar faces to your house almost instantly, and your high professor level from the start means you have more time to develop your students, both in exploring the monastery and in the number of battles you're able to do per free day. Add to this the mysteries and puzzles yet unsolved and you're soon drawn in once more, standing by a new face, holding the banner of a new house. It's a vicious cycle I can only applaud.
Please take a moment to appreciate everybody's favourite gatekeeper.