The last mainline Fire Emblem game to grace a home console was Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn back in 2007 – more than a decade ago. That’s all finally changing with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which also happens to be the first HD outing in the core series. This is important to consider with a flagship Nintendo franchise that puts a significant emphasis on unique art styles and visual finesse, so the long-awaited transition from Nintendo 3DS is beneficial to both the game’s performance and fans who’ve been clamouring for more. It’s a bold move to finally showcase the series’ appeal on a larger scale.
The game is set on a massive continent known as Fódlan, which is governed by the Church of Seiros. This entity is also responsible for maintaining the Officers Academy, housed in the Garreg Mach Monastery. As Byleth, you’re accompanied by a mysterious yet charming character named Sothis, who drives the narrative in her own way by sharing her candid input with you whenever she wants. After being introduced to her, you follow a number of events that lead you to being asked to join the academy as the professor of one one of three houses – the Black Eagles, Blue Lions and Golden Deer – each of which is helmed by a House Leader. There’s the uber-confident Edelgard, the oh-so-proper Dimitri and the down-to-earth Claude, respectively. This is where your choice comes in to play; you get to select which house to lead and therefore pave the way for your journey.
The main difference between the houses is the House Leader. Your decision will most likely be influenced by how the leader’s personality appeals to you, and you get a good sense of that simply by interacting with them throughout the academy and on the battlefield. While each leader is unique in their own right, there’s only one clear choice that stands above the rest… you’ll probably come to the same conclusion after taking them out for a spin. Regardless, the game’s replayability factor is multiplied thanks to this system. If you decide to play the game again after your first playthrough, you can join another house for an alternate experience with different dialogue and paths to take.
Depending on the house you decide to adopt under your wing, the other two will be led by a flirtatious dame named Manuela and the research-obsessed instructor Hanneman. Obsessed might be an understatement – the guy literally asks for a sample of your blood for “research purposes.” Each teacher is responsible for guiding the handful of students within each house. In addition to being your underlings in school, students also serve as your comrades on the battlefield. All these characters aren’t uninspired NPCs; each one has their own backstory and purpose, inviting you to engage with them to get a sense of their background. Not to mention their hair styles, which – by the way – would form the most colorful rainbow you’ve ever seen if they ever came together.
You’ll meet characters who are lovable, annoying, indifferent or anything in between. The cool thing is you’ll unlock the option to recruit students from other classes by meeting certain standards, essentially leading you to form your very own dream team. In typical Fire Emblem fashion, you can build relationships with characters by strengthening support levels in battle, inviting them to meals, giving them gifts, retrieving items for them, etc. Depending on how you set things up, certain characters’ relationships develop profoundly to the point where they eventually decide to tie the knot, serving as an unstoppable duo that always has their significant other’s back.
One of the chief elements that sets the game apart from other Fire Emblem titles is the Garreg Mach Monastery; this is where exploration comes in. While the controls here aren’t as tight as other exploration-driven Nintendo games, you freely control Byleth to see everything the monastery has to offer. This place is huge and filled with things to do. You might easily get lost or feel overwhelmed at first, but you eventually adjust to where everything is and gain the ability to conveniently fast travel to locations you’ve visited before. Due to its massive scale, structure and the way it’s organized into different houses and halls, the monastery bears a striking resemblance to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from Harry Potter. There are even animals like cats and owls roaming around, but you unfortunately can’t pet or interact with them. They don’t notice you there and you could literally walk straight through them.
You can, however, chat with students, take on sidequests and participate in various activities such as gardening, singing in a choir, inviting friends to a meal and fishing at the local pond. There are even seasonal events throughout the year to mix things up. Speaking of, the game implements a handy calendar system that lists various actions that need to be fulfilled on a given day. At the end of each month, you’ll be tasked with setting out on missions that involve taking your students out to the battlefield in order to get rid of a posing threat. While a large portion of the intro takes place at the monastery, more battles start to kick in as you progress.
Battles will seem familiar to anyone who’s played Fire Emblem before. They are held on a grid-based terrain that you must carefully tread in order to overcome your opponents. It’s all about strategy; you choose where to position your units and issue commands for each one. A series first, you can also hire Battalions to aid you on the battlefield. Each battalion is equipped with a special move called a Gambit, which can be dispatched to gain a significant advantage during battle. In addition to the standard Attack and Magic functions, you can also choose to deploy Combat Arts to overwhelm opposing parties. While these types of attacks are more powerful, they take a toll on your weapon durability, so it’d be wise to save them for when they’re needed most.
At the beginning of the game, you can choose between casual and classic modes, the latter of which results in your units being lost forever if they happen to fall in battle. However, going with this option isn’t as risky as it used to be. There’s a new ability called Divine Pulse, which allows you to rewind to a particular point during battle. Although this has limited uses, it gives you another incentive to experience the game in its truest form, without the fear of losing your favorite characters always looming behind you.
If you ever get stumped or need a refresher, there are plenty of tutorials to read and helpful hints to acquire by chatting with characters. The main issue with this is how on-screen text displays as being too small and difficult to read at times, particularly in handheld mode. This may prove to be disadvantageous to future owners of Nintendo Switch Lite. The same doesn’t apply to the dialogue, which features fully-voiced conversations. If you’re an anime and/or a modern JRPG fan, you’re going to hear many familiar voices. Throughout the game, the dialogue remains interesting and doesn’t tend to get stale. Similarly, the game features vibrant cutscenes that could easily compete with some of the best anime out there. Nintendo deserves a pat on the back for nailing these aspects.
On the battlefield, units are more vocal than ever before and appear to be equipped with more flair. Interactions regularly take place between characters, and your enemies respond as you approach them or find alternate routes toward where they stand. This dynamic feeling is enhanced when two units initiate a battle; the screen no longer transitions to a different setting with a generic backdrop; all the action takes place right then and there. They sometimes tend to be repetitive, but you could still skip these sequences and instead focus on advancing on the grid.
It goes without saying that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a massive title. There’s a ton of things to do both in and out of battle, with variety scattered throughout most elements to keep you on your toes. It’s safe to say it’s the most polished and engaging console entry in the Fire Emblem series to date. With the staggering amount of content and more in the pipeline via multiple waves of DLC, the game may very well keep you entertained for the remainder of the Switch’s promising life cycle.
A review copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses was provided by Nintendo UK.