Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review (Switch)

Nintendo's Critical Hit of 2019

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the next iteration in the Fire Emblem franchise, and a perfect starting point for those new to the series. Taking place in the continent of Fódlan, players choose one of the three titular houses, the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer, and lead their house on very different journeys. This is Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Intelligent Systems’ newest title coming off of 2015’s Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and Birthright, which released on the Nintendo 3DS family of consoles. It was a particularly divisive entry into the franchise, with trope-ridden characters and controversial gameplay mechanics that diluted the quality of the final game. Three Houses is a wonderful return to form, with some of the best gameplay and writing since Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn came out on the GameCube circa 2007, which is perfect because Three Houses is the first main line console Fire Emblem title since then.

Nintendo Laughing to the Bank

You’re put into the boots of Byleth, an amnesiac/blank slate mercenary-turned-professor who finds their home at the Garreg Mach Monastery. This monastery is a neutral territory within Fódlan that sits in the middle of the three houses, the Leicester Alliance, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Adrestrian Empire, and is the stage for a large portion of this game. I chose to align my interests with crown prince Dimitri of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus and his allies because I wanted to know what exactly occurred in five years that turned Dimitri from a friendly, albeit naïve young man into a brooding, cynical warlord bent on murder and revenge. The answer to that question was far better than anything I was expecting.

This game’s writing is a product of great localization, as each character has a level of relatability and a three-dimensional personality. They each have their own story arcs, and this game does not hesitate to dole out dark and brooding content in spades, making the player think long and hard about the decisions that these characters had to make in order to make it to their current spot. There is no truly correct answer for each character, and the game does an admirable job of mixing the good and bad qualities together into a cohesive, believable whole that makes the character feel human, and it makes sense because we’re all imperfect, flawed beings who have issues. Issues like human experimentation, abuse, intrafamilial violence, torture, and religion take center stage and receive development through the various support conversations that take place between characters in cutscenes or in the monastery exploration phase.

Oh look, it’s a dad in a Fire Emblem game.

These stages are set and built upon worldbuilding lore dished out at the start of each chapter, using an almost archaic art style reminiscent of early paintings – these are a highlight that doles out Fódlan history and how the commoners of the country see the legends. On a docked Switch, these openers are like picturesque paintings that make for excellent screenshots and wallpapers. Simply put, fantasy politics has not looked this good since the first four seasons of Game of Thrones. Which is interesting because you can definitely see a lot of the inspiration in the Three Houses cast within the Game of Thrones cast – Edelgard being modeled after Daenerys Targaryen, Dimitri off of Houses Stark and Lannister, and Claude after House Baratheon. There are a few familiar story strokes that longtime Fire Emblem players will know and recognize in Three Houses, but even still there were still plenty of moments in the Blue Lions route that genuinely surprised me as they developed.

Welcome to Hogwarts… er, I mean, Garreg Mach Monastery.

The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses focuses on battling just as much as exploring the Garreg Mach Monastery. Centered on a calendar that is filled with activity, players are given ample opportunity to mingle with other members of their chosen house or the other two houses. These opportunities allow the player to develop their characters in next to limitless ways. Time can be spent on rapport building activities, simple tasks like fishing or gardening, or learning from other faculty members. Each way, characters can be instructed in their respective weapon choice(s) and built into whatever classes that suit the player’s need for the upcoming maps. The lines are blurred for units to become whatever kind of unit they want – a character that looks like a typical mage unit can be trained into an armor unit. The true joy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses rests in the freedom of choices, and the flexibility to change back and forth between multiple classes depending on the certifications each unit has passed. The fruits of these labors occur on the battlefield, where you really find out if your choices worked out or not. Previous strategies of using the “tactician” character and the main lord quickly backfired on maps, which often required multiple small teams to seize points of interest on the maps (key difference in that these points of interest weren’t explicit objectives!) to prevent loss of my party. I appreciate the almost sprawling nature of the maps, taking cues from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia and in my Blue Lions play through I appreciated the changes in difficulty as time went on during my Hard and Classic run.

Another function that Intelligent Systems nailed down with Fire Emblem: Three Houses was the sound design. The tunes are delightful, and the seamless transitions from the “rain” versions of the field themes to their “thunder” variants in battle are amazing and add a layer of immersion into the experience. Some of my highlights from the soundtrack included the monastery exploration themes in the early game, “Life at Garreg Mach Monastery,” the battle theme that takes place after the five-year time skip “Chasing Daybreak,” and the “Tempest of Seasons” that occurs during side quests. I wanted to take a second to talk about “Chasing Daybreak” in particular, because the piece comes at a dark story moment, and conveys such a sense of sinister urgency, culminating in the “daybreak” part of the song and becoming happier to the tune of a choir in the background. I am also incredibly glad that the game kept track of the emotions that it wanted to convey through its music. What I mean here is that, whenever a specific emotion occurred, the music transitioned to an appropriate emotion that was maintained for quite a while, instead of transitioning into the normal version that I had been hearing for the last few hours of gameplay [Editor’s note: There is a story spoiler moment that I am referring to in this statement]. It’s moments like this that keep the immersion intact. I am such a stickler for games that do this wrong, and Three Houses managed to stick the landing the whole way through. The orchestration is strong, and the almost techno or electronic music elements adds a wonderful and modernized sound to the soundtrack. The piano and violin were, in my opinion, huge standouts for the soundtrack.

What kind of blows my mind a bit is the overall value that Fire Emblem: Three Houses provides. For $59.99, you can get one Male Byleth for Fire Emblem Heroes and a full game that contains four very different stories, stories that can take on average 50-60 hours apiece. That, right there, is an amazing value compared to the three separate payment walls of Fire Emblem Fates, and many times better than the downloadable content of Fire Emblem Echoes, which cost more than the game itself! In addition, there is a $24.99 expansion pass. Now, I am normally loathe to such passes, unless it contains the level of content that Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Torna – The Golden Country contained, but this pass looks like that and then some. While the first wave of the pass completely sucked with an awful costume, the next few waves of the pass look incredible, and that is something that I will easily, easily get behind.

In a way, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the quintessential tactical RPG experience for the Nintendo Switch. It also is a contender for the best game I’ve played all year, scratching so many itches that I’ve not had since last year’s conclusion of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. And trust me, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was one hell of a serious itch. That alone is in one of my top five favorites that I’ve ever played. For Fire Emblem: Three Houses to land near that category, which consists mostly of other (J)RPGs, is high praise. I delight on a good single player experience, and this game does such a great job at getting me immersed in its world, its characters, and the gameplay; it has a perfect spread of mixing battles with exploring Garreg Mach. It’s funny, too, because Fire Emblem: Three Houses went the complete opposite direction on me: not super interested to incredibly excited in the last month and a half leading to release. I have to hand it to the marketing team of Nintendo of America, they know how to reel people in. Needless to say, it worked on me, and judging by how people on social media are reacting to it, the franchise is going to be just fine.