Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review

August 14, 2019

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest iteration of the beloved series, this time making its debut on the Nintendo Switch. A turn-based role-playing game at its core, the focus is — as always — on relationships, be they with friends, family or future lovers. The gift wrapping around this delightful package is in the form of three mammoth and engaging narratives where you (in each case) play the role of Professor in a school and get to know, support and help grow, all of your students. As such you spend a lot of your time teaching, or doing choir practice with some of your flock and passing love letters between others. It’s very mundane in an Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon way, but like each of those, so very moreish. It really is difficult to put down at times, and, combined with the fabulous battles requiring ever developing strategy and tactics, one hell of a game.  

As you first load up the new card or digital download, you’re able to choose one of two non-customisable characters dependent on your sex preference. Neither talks throughout the game at all and whichever question you ask, or conversational response you give to any of the many and varied NPCs, will always make the same gesture when talking to a character. What this means is that the choice is entirely aesthetic or beneficial only for superficial reasons. Anyway, once you’ve selected your avatar the story starts off and soon you’re into a battle, and the first of several big decisions you’ll have to make: which house will you teach? Coming so early it’s one bereft of an informed feeling, but you will have been able to side with one of the three house’s student leaders already based either on the limited screen time and dialogue or the combat preferences; think magic, swords and ranged battle. 

Meet Edelgard, leader of the Black Eagles house

Once your chosen house is finalised you’re soon at the place you’ll be calling home for quite some time: Garegg Mach Monastery. From here a lovely cadence develops as you spend time in the gameworld getting used to the various mechanics and progressing the narrative, finding out more about the students — especially those you’re most interested in, and fighting. You see, the game plays out in the classroom and monastery grounds for much of each and every month, before going into battle ahead of the start of the next month, or moon.

In the classroom you have a say in what you do or don’t want to do. You can instruct students manually if you’d like, a time-consuming affair whereby you choose which students to teach (limited each month) and what to teach them. Normally you’d teach in accordance with the goals you have also set them — for instance, if a student has a goal to become a better swordsman, then you’ll probably want to teach them swordplay. The amount you can teach them and how well it goes will be influenced by how well motivated the chosen students are. Their motivation can be impacted by various events throughout the game, for instance do you praise them when they do well, and console if they don’t? Do you get to know them outside of class, enhancing your relationship? Perhaps you cook for them, sing with them or invite them to tea and do so well in conversation over said tea that they let you just look at them for a while and tell jokes. Ahem — more on that in a little while (hint — it’s all about romancing them, although the game manages it in such a way that it isn’t quite as it sounds). You can teach automatically but I found the results were always better if I took the time to actually do it myself.

A fight, zoomed in on the battlefield grid.

After teaching you get to explore the monastery, or perhaps head off into some side quest battle for experience and reward. The latter comes in the form of loot, which can be actual in-game money or a cool weapon. Weapons this time around will degrade and ultimately break, which is annoying but means gathering resources from successful fights or from merchants once available is tactically sensible. If you choose to spend your free time exploring, you’ll have your eyes opened to the myriad of opportunities available to you to pass the time and build those relationships. You can go fishing, garden, cook, sing, learn, give gifts and just talk. There’s more, and it all becomes available over the course of your first few months of in-game time. You’ll quickly work out what you like doing, or don’t, and adjust accordingly, helping you to get into the rhythm of teaching, exploring and fighting. 

I know the description of what you do when you’re NOT fighting sounds somewhat lacklustre. It does, and at times it can be a bit of a slog. Going through the motions of manually instructing Edelgard (Black Eagles’ house leader) to build up her skills is a repetitive process, and perhaps it could be done more quickly and easily another way. But, and here’s the thing — it’s all very compelling despite the seemingly tedious nature because it supports the relationship building and my word, do you want to do that.

Here's my character teaching Dorothea and getting a boost in their relationship.

If I’m honest there are three reasons you want to build those special relationships. One, you like the character (there are lots so I’m sure you’d like at least one); two, you want to gather all the sweet relationship effects to aid battle; and three, you want to have it off with them. Yes, the true aim of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is to find that special someone, even if you are their Professor. You see, the game’s core might be turn-based tactical role-playing but its heart is very much romance, love and life thereafter. 

So, after a month of completing various side quests, building your experience and honing yours and others’ skills, you get to go into battle and move the story along. There’s a lot of this as playing through even one house will take upwards of sixty hours, and if you choose to do all three — naturally there will be crossover combined with the unique content when playing as your second or third house — you’re looking at around two hundred hours. That’s a lot of game. It’s a good job then that the fighting is utterly brilliant. 

When you do a gambit you get this awesome screen which makes it look like something out of the X-Men.

At the start of any battle you can choose your units from those in your class (you can get people to move into your class if you have the sufficient attraction meaning playing through as just one house does not limit the relationships you can make and grow) — and any others you have recruited temporarily — and head into battle. The battlefield will be set from the start and split into an X by Y grid. On the field will be the player units, ally units where relevant (goodie NPCs), and the enemy. The goal will vary, but tends to involve routing the evildoers and/or defeating their leader. Depending on the situation there may be conditions too, for example you might need to achieve a win in a certain number of turns or less. 

Each and every battle can be approached in any way you choose. You might lead with your ranged warriors, or go first with your tanks. You can use terrain to gain defensive and offensive benefits and you can go after the cackling nasties, or let them come to you. You can take them on in small chunks or wait for everyone to descend. It’s up to you, and one size does not fit all, meaning for one battle a strategy might work but fail in another. The tactics you employ will be key too. Do you restore health immediately using up that character’s turn, or attack again in the hope you’ll win this time? You can use your weapon, a combat art which is a special skill that accelerates weapon damage or a gambit, where you attack in concert with another character in your army and do so whilst varying your weapon at the same time. Each will be useful at different times to others, and a variety of approaches will be needed. The game is challenging, especially if you lose team members early on in a battle. If playing with permadeath on, then that will also up the difficulty for later, too. As you progress, the battles become more difficult as you’d hope, with the enemy stronger, the units harder to beat and more numerous. Of course you’ll be developing your units’ experience and skills along the way too, but you must be developing your own real brain as well if you want to succeed. The depth of thinking required is immense and winning a fight incredibly satisfying.

A typical battle, showing the grid and where your unit can move to (highlighted blue).

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a gargantuan prospect full of character, flavour and greatness. It’s mixed in with aspects of real life throughout which whilst unexciting and perhaps a little tedious, are compelling in partnership with everything else. The combat is excellent, constantly engaging and providing varied fun, and allied with the relationship building here, there’s a game which is a joy to play for long and short periods alike, with no pressure to finish or get to the end quickly. It’s an entirely imperfect delight and one I cannot hesitate to recommend.

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a fine example of brutal turn-based combat involving people you love. Get going in the game and you’ll struggle to stop.
Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 35+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the PlayStation 5 and pretty much everything in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple in particular, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either an awful lot should you want to!