Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: July 26, 2019


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Switch Review - 'Fire Emblem: Three Houses'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 8, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a turn-based tactical RPG that adds strategic twists to battles, with formations of troops supporting individual units on the battlefield.

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses follows Byleth, a mercenary who encounters three young people in trouble. After saving the trio, Byleth finds that the three are members of a prestigious academy, and before long, Byleth is recruited as a professor, and in true Hogwartsian style, must choose to be the head of either the Black Eagles, Blue Lions or Golden Deer house.  This selection determines your main storyline and your starting roster of characters.  There are troubles brewing in the land, and the seemingly stable political situation has begun to fracture. Byleth becomes entangled in a battle for the fate of the entire land, aided by their house of choice.

The early part of the game is fairly similar for all houses, but the title focuses on different characters depending on your selected house, so Three Houses ends up feeling like three separate storylines. By the end, the narrative goes to very different places, depending on who you're aligned with. Fortunately, Three Houses has what is perhaps the strongest cast in the franchise's history, with a ton of likeable characters in every house. While you can poach certain members from other houses, certain story beats have more of an impact if you avoid poaching members and leave things as-is.

The most obvious change to the Fire Emblem formula is the school setting. The first half of the game takes place in an office academy. Rather than marching across the world, you'll spend most of your time at your home base, training and socializing. This works really well. Rather than having characters slowly introduced, you begin with the entire cast (more or less) available to you. You spend a lot of time building up your characters and getting to know them. It makes it far easier to get attached to characters and to grow interested in other characters.

By default in School mode, you have four options: Battle, Explore, Rest and Seminar. Battle lets you take optional battles, which range from mere melees to specialized side-quests (paralogues) with their own boss battles, plots and rewards. Explore allows you to walk around the school, talking to people, taking on side-quests, finding hidden items, fishing and so on. You'll want to do it at least once a month to assure you're not missing anything. Rest allows you to, well, rest, which passes the time, improves student morale, and can freely repair your protagonist's special sword.

Seminar plays into the other part of School learning. At the end of every non-plot-battle week, students engage in studying, which improves one of their skills. Each student has strengths and weaknesses that determine what they study well, and your goal is to guide students into the role you want them to fill. Some students have hidden talents that only bloom when you give them dedicated tutoring, and some are so good at their job that they can teach other students. It's important to consider your lesson plan to assure your students are growing properly. It doesn't matter how high their levels are if they don't know a sword from a shield.

All of this plays into the significant changes in Three Houses' combat system. Right off the bat, Three Houses does away with pretty much every single Fire Emblem standard gameplay mechanic. The core gameplay is still the same, but that's about it. The biggest change is that the weapon triangle is gone. While certain skills can make some weapons more or less effective, the weapons are more similar. Axes tend to hit harder but have lower accuracy, while swords are arguably the weakest but most accurate, and spears exist somewhere in between. There is also a new melee weapon type, fists, which have the least overall power but can attack twice by default and up to four times with a speed advantage. The weapon durability system, gone in Fates, has returned, but if a weapon is broken, it isn't lost but can be repaired at the blacksmith.

Weapons shine in their Combat Arts, which are special skills that characters learn by improving their proficiency with weapons. Different characters can learn different skills, and certain classes teach the skills. These Combat Arts are extremely powerful but cost more usages of your weapon. That barely matters for plentiful items, such as iron swords, but it's a concern for the most powerful weapons (many of which have their own unique Combat Arts), since those weapons tend to require rare and specialized materials to repair.

Also changing significantly is magic. Gone are the staves and tomes. Almost like Fire Emblem Echoes, characters have their own distinct spell charts, which are divided into Faith and Reason. Faith is healing and light magic, while Reason covers both black (elemental) and dark (evilish) magic. Each spell has a number of casts that can be used per level, but they refill at the end of every level.  Some characters are naturally more proficient in magic and will easily learn more powerful spells while others lag behind.

This change is fantastic. While it means mages are extremely powerful, it's done in a way that feels fun and satisfying. They can attack far more freely and use their utility spells more often, like Rescue or Warp. The fact they don't have Combat Arts means their damage is less flexible, and most characters who excel as a mage will find they're too vulnerable to survive on the front lines without being vigilant.

Speaking of character classes, gone are the days of each character having one class to upgrade. Instead, almost every character begins as either a commoner or noble. Early on, they can take an exam for a character class. Should they succeed, that class is permanently unlocked, and the player can swap between unlocked classes at any time. Each class has its own mastery abilities, passive skills, and strengths. Most classes can use any weapon, and quite a few can also use magic. Some classes specialize in certain areas, such as magic-using classes gaining extra spell casts.

This change feels awesome. The flexibility of having multiple classes is great, and it prevents characters from feeling pigeonholed into one role. There's also the fact that higher-tier classes are not necessarily better than lower-tier classes. For example, the highest-tier magic class, the Gremory, gets additional spell casts for all magic but less of a damage boost compared to its lower-tier specialized counterparts.

The other big change is the Gambit system. Characters won't be fighting alone on the battlefield. You can equip a battalion to a character to change up their stats (usually improves) and grants them access to a Gambit attack. These attacks can't be used often but hit multiple squares, have special effects, or can't be counter-attacked. In short, they allow for much safer and more devastating ways to attack enemies, and using them properly can turn overwhelming odds in your favor. On the other hand, enemies also have Gambit attacks, and they can hurt a lot if you're not careful.

One feature I like quite a bit is the new Monster system. Monsters are large-sized foes like dragons, golems or other huge creatures. They are significantly more powerful than standard foes and take up multiple squares on the battlefield. They also all have innate abilities and multiple lives. Kill a monster, and it respawns stronger until you defeat all of its lives. Each monster also has armor, with one "square" of armor for each area it takes up on the battlefield. If you break the armor by attacking it, you can get special gear, but doing so usually risks the monster dealing horrifying damage to you. They are a great addition to the combat system and feel more significant than the monsters in previous games, who didn't felt much different from the usual foes.

The general combat in Three Houses is a lot of fun. The game reuses maps a touch too often, but otherwise, it does a great job with what it has. Each level usually has a fun or interesting gimmick, including optional objectives that push players to use skills wisely. The game offers the Casual mode that was introduced in Awakening, but I strongly recommend playing Classic, where characters can permanently die. It changes up the combat, and similar to Echoes, you can rewind time a certain number of times per level, so simple mistakes don't necessarily equal a reset.

Three Houses has an absurd amount of content. Even if you ignored all the school things and just played it as a regular Fire Emblem game, it has three distinct storylines and an absurd number of bonus stages. It gives you more in a single game than Fates gave you over two games and a DLC. Fire Emblem fans will have a ton of fun with what is included in the base package, and they'll probably be determined to try at least one other house before finishing up with the game.

Three Houses is likely the best-looking Fire Emblem game. The graphics are bright, well animated and colorful, including a lot of cel-shaded cut scenes. I wish they didn't go for the "24 fps" look for the cut scenes, as it makes some of them look jerky and awkward, but once you get used to them, they look excellent and convey emotion well. The game is also fully voice-acted with overall high-quality voice work that gives the characters personality. Add to that a top-notch soundtrack, and the presentation is through the roof.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a very strong contender for the best Fire Emblem game. Pretty much every change to the systems is a smashing success, the storyline is fun and engaging, the characters are likeable, and the presentation is excellent. It's possible that the combat changes won't work for every fan of the franchise, but they feel like the series' strengths have been refined, without the plot weaknesses that hurt Fates. Three Houses is a must-have for tactical gamers, fans of the franchise, or anyone who's looking for a solid JRPG on the Switch.

Score: 9.0/10

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