JRPG Journey 2021: Fire Emblem: Three Houses (September)
August’s game: Rogue Galaxy
October’s game: Romancing SaGa 3
I wasn’t planning to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses this year, but I got the itch to try another Fire Emblem game, and Three Houses’s shiny newness — relatively speaking — kept calling to me. I’m glad I answered that call. Developed by Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo, Three Houses was released in 2019 and is the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running series. Prior to this, I had only played Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn (reviews linked), so I was excited to try out a different style of Fire Emblem game and see how the series has evolved since the Wii era.
Now, I haven’t finished every story path yet, so I won’t address story specifics in this review, but I will note that I’ve completed the Azure Moon and Crimson Flower paths and dabbled into Verdant Wind. With that out of the way, let’s get to the gameplay.
For the unfamiliar, Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy series where you move units on a board, similar to chess. Generally, the goal is to vanquish your enemies using a variety of unit types, weapons, and special skills, all in a vaguely medieval world. Three Houses, though, feels more modern to me. There’s no cars or cell phones or other current tech or anything, but the monastery, which is the game’s “home base” location, looks like something out of Harry Potter rather than Game of Thrones. Colors are bright and vibrant, even during dark story beats, and the game’s got a nice, cel-shaded style that fits the series well. While I’d personally like to see a more realistic approach in the future, I enjoy this style too, and it sure is gorgeous — mostly, anyway. More on that later.
While I haven’t played Fire Emblem Fates, I know the decision to split that story across multiple games in order to charge customers three times was met with a sour reception by many fans. That’s no surprise. This time, Intelligent Systems makes a vital adjustment — putting multiple stories in the same game. Like Fates (again, as far as I understand), you play out the viewpoints of various powers in a war, only this time you get to see how they relate during a time of peace and even get to know your foreign countrymen.
There’s still a kingdom with separate powers vying for dominance, but for the first half of the game, they’re working together. You play as Byleth, a new professor at Garreg Mach Monastery, a castle devoted to the Church that lies in neutral territory, smack dab in the middle of the land of Fodlan. Students from each of the three territories make up the three school houses of the game, one of which you pick to lead. In fact, you can recruit almost any other student into your own house, who will stay with you even after the war begins — well, most characters will, anyway. There’s plenty of time to get to know your students, explore, and do optional tasks to raise either Byleth’s weapon ranks or motivate your students, which gives them points to use for training their own ranks.
For someone coming from the Tellius games, this is a lot to take in, but it’s a welcome change. Instead of just being able to buy a few weapons and manage items between battles, Three Houses’s calendar-based system gives you multiple opportunities per month to choose activities to complete, such as exploring the monastery, doing optional battles, or attending lectures, all before the main story battle happens at the end of the month. With plenty of variety in stuff to do, I didn’t get bored, even though my first playthrough took me 92 hours. If you love to get money’s worth out of games, this is a perfect choice, since there’s a total of four unique storylines and near infinite replayability due to all the potential strategies you can try out.
It’s not all great, though. A new feature for the series lets you zoom in to your units on the battlefield, where you can see them up close alongside their battalions, but this feels underbaked. I can’t angle the camera how I like, moving the cursor is janky, and there’s too much graphical clipping to say it truly looks good. It’s kinda cool, but I never used this view during combat. Maybe it’ll be better implemented in a future game. The monastery, too, is underwhelming both visually and performance-wise, with frequent frame drops and a general “last-gen” feel, and some of the activities available are downright boring, like fishing or collecting lost items. Thankfully, both of these are optional, especially on subsequent playthroughs.
Also, unlike the Tellius games, Three Houses allows you to fight many optional battles between story mission s— you can do them almost every week of each month if you want to. This seems like overkill, and it is. During my first playthrough, I found it useful to battle twice a month or so as I got a feel for the game. Looking back, the amount of time this takes probably isn’t worth it, so for my second time around I chose to explore more often, both to build supports and train Byleth’s ranks.
The game is flexible enough that both approaches work great, but I would prefer a game without any optional battles, or maybe just a few during the course of the story — enough to feel stronger for a few battles, maybe a few nice reward items, but nothing that makes much of a difference stat-wise by the end. Sure, you can skip these battles, but I find it hard to resist that sweet, sweet experience. Maybe I’m too obsessive.
Building supports and watching them grow is rewarding, certainly more than the Tellius games, where supports could only be built during combat. I never liked that system much, since when I’m in combat, I want to focus on the combat and not waste turns positioning units just to build supports. Three Houses throws all that out in favor of a system with various ways to build supports between almost any pair of students or professors, including Byleth, all outside of combat. Whether by sharing meals, giving gifts, or singing together in the choir, there’s plenty of ways to increase your characters’ bonds, and unlike in previous Fire Emblems I’ve played, you’ve got an abundance of opportunities to do so. By the end of each playthrough, I had completed all supports for all students in my house as well as for students I had recruited, with a bit of time to spare. That feels good.
The support conversations are often charming, funny, or touching, and I rarely felt like skipping through them. In fact some of these were my among my favorite parts of the game. They’re the primary way the game fleshes out its characters, and often I chose to use certain units just because I liked their personalities. This is a critical difference that separates Fire Emblem from other strategy games, and it’s one of the things I like most bout the series. I grew to care about all my students, and of course, I never let any of them die—I suppose I’m a sucker for happy endings. On my first playthrough, I went with Japanese voice acting, but unlike most JRPGs, the English VA turned out to be pretty damn great when I gave it a chance. I plan to stick with English for future playthroughs.
I played on Hard mode both times, as I haven’t yet felt up to the challenge of any Fire Emblem game’s highest difficulty level (though I plan to play my final route, Silver Snow, on Maddening). On Hard, almost any strategy works, and I enjoy the freedom Three Houses’s class system provides. Unlike previous Fire Emblem games, any character can become any class, with the exception of a few gender-specific ones, which makes the game more of an RPG than ever. While many classes aren’t so great, and some characters have clear options that best fit their inherent traits, you can make any class viable on Hard if you put enough work into raising the required weapon and class ranks. And normal difficulty is a joke — you can breeze through the game doing whatever you want, or so I’ve gathered from watching a few playthroughs from fellow Youtubers.
This free-form system gives you a ton of options. Each unit has a unique personal skill, which range from being almost useless to an essential part of the unit’s strategy. You might want to work a character toward a particular endgame class that takes full advantage of their personal skill, or you could ignore it and still do just fine. Most skills in the game are underwhelming, however, so they’re not worth too much of your attention.
Classes have inherent skills as well, including one mastery skill, which characters get to keep forever once they’ve reached the max level for that class — even if they change classes later. (I love mechanics like this in RPGs.) While some class skills are too situational or weak to be worth it, others are very useful, such as Death Blow, which gives +6 to strength when the user initiates combat. It’s a good idea to send your best attackers through the Brigand class to grab that one. Some of the best skills are locked behind gender-specific classes, like the Pegasus Knight’s Darting Blow, and choosing how to best use the characters you’ve got helps make each playthrough different. The amount and variety of skills is impressive, especially for someone who’s only played the Tellius games. In my Blue Lions playthrough, my Annette got a bunch of nice level-ups and ended up with a great Magic stat, so I turned her into a magic axe-wielding, destruction-bringing Wyvern Lord. She’s now my favorite character. (Being a cutie helps, too.)
Battalions, and their associated gambits, are the fancy new battle mechanic this time around. I’m weary of major changes to series I love, but these add a layer of strategy that was much needed for this more than 30 year old franchise. It took me a while to realize this, though. Each unit can equip a battalion, and ostensibly, the main reason to use one is for its gambit, an attack that has high accuracy but relatively low damage, in addition to preventing its target from moving on the next turn. This provides lot more options than your traditional Fire Emblem game, with the trade off being that a unit who uses a gambit could have otherwise attacked, and that’s why I ignored battalions initially. Even once you get gambits that target multiple units, attacking is almost always the better choice, and it’s difficult to justify using a gambit except in a few specialized situations, such as guaranteeing damage against a boss with a high evasion chance or freezing a scary unit in place so your units can run away.
It’s worth noting that a few gambits heal your units instead, but I found these less useful than traditional healing methods, like vulneraries or dedicated healers. Perhaps there are good strategies for Maddening that use them, though — as I understand, on Maddening gambits are more useful in general.
No, gambits aren’t why I like battalions so much. See, a battalion also gives stat bonuses to the unit who equips it. These aren’t minor bonuses, either. By the end of the game, you can get as much as +3, +5, even +8 or 10 to key stats such as strength or attack speed. In a game where 40 strength is considered a lot, that’s huge. And these are passive bonuses that remain as long as your battalions have health, which is easy to keep up by avoiding attacks, which you want to do as much as possible anyway. Since there are limited amounts of each battalion type and some are better than others, deciding which battalions to give to which units, and keeping this all in your head while you play is the fun part for me. A lot of crazy strategies open up once you’re giving attention to all the game’s mechanics, and while they don’t end with battalions, I’ll move on.
Three Houses’s music is fantastic. A few tracks don’t stick out as much as others, but the entire soundtrack is more than solid and stands alongside Radiant Dawn as the best of the Fire Emblem games I’ve played so far, but that’s not saying much — I’ve only played three of them. While the battles themes are mostly excellent and form the highlights of the OST, I wish I could choose the music for story battles, even if only on New Game+. Regardless, that’s not a big deal. This soundrack is great, and I couldn’t help humming it to myself when not playing the game.
My apologies for the late review this month. Thankfully, I’m only behind on writing, as I’ve already completed October’s game: Romancing SaGa 3. Look out for that review soon.