Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games
On the surface, Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t appear like anything particularly special. It’s a turn-based Japanese game set in a school where you make friends and defeat the big bad through the power of teamwork. The academy setting is perhaps about as generic anime trope as you could possibly get, so you can imagine my scepticism going into this. On top of this game’s supposed 200-hour runtime (which ended up being only slightly true since there are three different campaigns with branching storylines to choose from at the beginning), I’m not normally one to stick with strategy games. They’re not bad at all per se, but rather they often take a lot of focus for me to be any good at them at all. XCOM 2 is great, for example, but after one mistake left my four highest-levelled units permanently corpsified, I decided that it just wasn’t for me. However, Fire Emblem is not only a strategy game. Oh no! It’s an anime strategy game! *cue violin suspense sting* So we’re essentially operating in three realms I often don’t dare to cross into: anime, strategy gameplay, and ridiculous play times. So, considering all that, you might be surprised to hear (or not at all considering this dumb, elongated introduction is obviously leading somewhere) that against all conceivable odds, this is one of the most engaging games I’ve played in years. Like I said before, it may not appear to be anything special, but what Three Houses sets its mind to, it achieves with exceptional precision.
Three Houses is split into two halves where you’ll commit your time playing this game: the aforementioned turn-based strategy combat, and the lifestyle stuff as a professor, which often involves managing unit stat progression as well as personal relationships. These two gameplay styles are completely unique from one another, providing a nice variety to the pacing of the experience. The combat can often be quite stressful, especially if you, like me, mistakenly decide that permadeath definitely isn’t going to give you a worryingly high heart rate at all times, so having a completely different, more relaxed gameplay loop eases off the pressure a tad. The game allows you to slow down and think about where you want to prioritise your time. Perhaps you’ll spend your precious hours cooking with a friend, or enjoying the delectible Chef’s Special with a couple eating companions, praciticing your singing in Saint Serios’s Holy Cathedral, entering your prize axe-wielding student into the axe-wielding tournament, chatting with your favourite pal over some nice tea and biscuits, reading anonymous notes and giving profound life advice ranging from how best to overcome one’s traumatic past to simply explaining why being drunk all the time is maybe not the best idea when you’re an educator responsible for children, MANUELA. Or maybe you just wanna fish. The point is there are plentyof activities to try out in your down time, and while none of them are exactly mechanically deep, they never feel pointless either. There’s always a payoff of some kind: singing grants an increase in your faith stat, tournaments grant you money and prizes, and so on. The added benefit of doing any of these, however, is the fact that doing anything with anyone in this game will strengthen your bond with them.
The most important theme running throughout Three Houses is that of friendship. Your friendship level with any given inidivdual is measured with a grading system, with A normally being the highest friend tier. You can achieve the coveted A rank by inviting characters to partake in many of the aforementioned monastery activities, as well as performing kind acts such as returning their lost items or gifting them something they really like. Each character has specific likes and dislikes and you can use this knowledge in order to figure out how to approach someone, either in gift-giving or conversation. I’m not personally a fan of how the game simply tells you their preferences in the character roster screen since it feels like a mechanic the player should learn organically by simply getting to know the character. However, I never consulted the roster to figure things out so it wasn’t the worst addition in the world and it simply provides an easier option for people struggling with that mechanic. The lost items mechanic unfortunately feels a bit no-risk-all-reward as well. It’s a cool idea in theory: picking up a discarded item, reading the description and trying to figure out which character it belonged to by getting to know each one as much as possible. However, in practice, the player can simply offer each lost item to every character and their response if the item not theirs is simply ‘oh, that’s not mine’ and that’s it. Perhaps if there was a lives system where you had three guesses before the option to give lost items is locked out entirely, this mechanic would feel less thoughtless. As it stands, it’s a nice idea, but simply in need of refinement. However, once you eventually figure all this stuff out, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a support. Supports are essentially cutscenes for when you reach one of the friendship grades I mentioned earlier. The cutscene often lets you get to know the character better as they slowly open up to you. After all, who could possibly resist your generic silent anime protagonist charms? Anyway, these supports are easily my favourite part of the game because if Three Houses excels at any one thing, it’s character writing. There are, to my knowledge, 35 possible characters to bond with over the course of the game (some of which are only available based on which house you choose to lead early on), as well as many other non-befriendable characters, and each one of them is unique in their own individual way. As a result, each of the mini-arcs the characters experience always feel a little different from one another and never feel contrived either. Each new piece of information you discover about any given character is always consistent but often still manages to surprise. A lot of effort has clearly been devoted to making these people has well-rounded as possible because if any of them ever felt inauthentic then the world itself would begin to feel inauthentic too, which would be simply disastrous. You might think it’s quite impressive that there are at least 35 small but well-rounded character arcs, but prepare yourself to be amazed because this is not where the ride stops. Not only is there the relationships between the player and the other characters, there are also supports between other characters and, once again, they are all unique from one another and generally quite compelling as well. The writers have such a strong grasp on each character and how they would logically react to one another’s actions that they are easily able to create these other separate mini-stories where they all grow off of one another in completely believable ways. The fact that the characters interact outside of the realm of your influence makes them feel so much more real. You get a real sense that these are people, just like you, who wake up and do their own thing and then go to sleep. It’s just wonderful and it inevitably results in the player becoming tremendously affectionate for each of them in different ways, which makes the permadeath mechanic in the combat so much more of a looming threat. Of course I don’t want Raphael to die! He has a little sister back home he’s got to take care of. And I need to defend Marianne with all of my might, because she’s only now beginning to come out of her shell and trust other people. I got attached to these people in a way very few games have managed before this.
Of course, in order to make a game’s narrative engaging, it is not quite enough to make characters simply believable. They must also exist in a tangible world and be subjected to a real threat. Otherwise, why should I be scared for them? Luckily, despite its generally upbeat tone, Three Houses does this simple but absolutely necessary thing with its worldbuilding: it never once pulls any punches. You might spend much of your free time basking in the almost utopian setting of the monastery, far away from the front lines, but that doesn’t mask the truth of the Fire Emblem universe: war is very real and it will destroy you if you let it. The combat does an excellent job of preparing you for this. In my first real combat encounter, I was still getting to grips with the gameplay so inevitably a screwed up big time and three of my units were killed in a single turn. The part that hurt the most was when they died, they gave their final words and every single time they would remind me of why I loved them and every single time it stung like a hornet’s nest. Panicked, I quit the game and restarted, thankfully returning me to my pre-fight save so I could start again. However, that one crucial moment was enough to decimate any doubt in my mind that this would be a sugar-coated experience. Three Houses does not fuck around, and it will annihilate you if you slip up.
Luckily, the combat is actually quite forgiving if you take the time to learn its ins and outs. The divine pulse mechanic allows you to rewind time as far back as you like to correcet any mistakes that might have led to someone’s untimely demise. You only get a certain amount of these pulses, but they become faily plentiful the further the game progresses so it always remains a viable option, but never so plentiful that you feel as though you can waste them. However, you can get up to fifteen by the endgame which felt a little too kind in my opinion, despite the final battle being easily the toughest of them all and requiring more focus from me than ever. As you partake in mroe and more battles, you begin to develop an understanding of every unit’s strengths and weaknesses. You learn more about the class system and begin prioritising certain stats in order to give them the smoothest ride possible. At a certain point, I began to realise the rock-paper-scissors nature of classes. Archers, for example, are incredbily strong against flying units, but are unable to fight counter-attack against close-range weapons such as swords and axes. Mages, on the other hand, are incredibly powerful against heavy armour opponents, but are easily the weakest units and can be easily one-shotted if caught too close to a particularly strong set of gauntlets. This makes every decision feel dense with prediction and consequence. You’ve gotta be two steps ahead of the enemy at all times, unless you’d rather be six feet under in the next five seconds. However, Three Houses does not forget the importance of friendship, and manages to cleverly implement it into the combat. Essentially, if you were to move one unit next to another, it supposedly intimidates the enemy, making them more likely to miss their attack or reduce their damage output and so on. You can also activate gambits, which are special attacks that often stun the enemy, locking them in place for a turn, and this gambit can be strengthened in the event of nearby allies. Furthermore, if two units are placed alongside one another, their bond will be improved, making their supports more likely to trigger in the exploration phase. There is plenty of reason to make people work together on the battlefield so they can do so off it, and if that somehow wasn’t enough to convince you that this game is a masterpiece, these teamwork mechanics can be made even more effective if the adjacent units have a strong friendship grade outside of combat. By providing a very real gameplay incentive for deepening character relationships, it basically forces players to become more aware of the characters around them, which will inevitably result in a much more emotionally engaging experience. This beautiful marriage of combat and relationship mechanics is – and I mean this with no hyperbole – truly genius, and it’s this kind of incredible attention to detail that sets Three Houses apart from other games in its genre.
I’ve been blathering on and on about the game’s dedicated focus on the theme of friendship, but I’ve done so because I cannot understate the sheer magnitude of Intelligent System’s and Koei Tecmo’s achievement here. Three Houses is a (allegedly) 200-hour product with three fully fleshed out campaigns with complex and branching narratives, literally hours upon hours of consistenly engaging character interactions, and an impressively deep turn-based strategy combat system. Depsite doing all of this tremendously well, it still somehow manages to feel totally focused on this one key theme of friendship, and it is confidently able to express its ideas both with its wonderfully written dialogue and through the experience of its gameplay, in a way only achievable with the medium of video games. It truly feels like the perfect package. However, what’s most compelling about its theming is how the story examines friendship in the context of a many-sided war. Without spoilers, there eventually comes a heartbreaking realisation that, after a huge plot development about midway through the game, there are some individuals who, once considered friends, must now face you on the battlefield. Despite my best efforts to avoid it, I was forced to kill one of my favourite characters in the entire game and it felt just as awful as seeing one of my students die in front of my eyes like earlier. These people who once happily greeted me at the monostery, who beamed when I gave them gifts or offered them their favourite meal, now had their arrows and spears pointed directly at my heart and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Oftentimes, in games like these, a war in the background can often feel somewhat arbitrary. “We need a conflict, here’s the conflict, go shoot the faceless baddies please, for queen and country!” etc. Fire Emblem takes a different approach, however. Instead of just having a war happen for the sake of raising the stakes, the developers instead make you fall in love with these people, before handing you a gun and giving you the responsibility of pulling the trigger. Even some of your remaining allies can sometimes comment on who you were forced to kill in battle if they knew them. It is beyond heartbreaking. Three Houses really gets to the core of what makes war as a concept so horrifying. At the end of the day, it’s just ordinary people fighting other, equally ordinary people. Maybe in another life you could have been friends, but this stupid conflict caused by a few stupid leaders has prevented that. Another recurring theme in Three Houses is this idea of expectation. You are at an academy occupied almost entirely by nobles, royalty and other children of powerful leaders, after all, so the burden of responsibility is inevitably passed down to most of the students. Perhaps at the beginning of Three Houses‘s story, war was inevitable. However, the flaws of the current leaders are not hereditary. Your father might be a power-hungry elitist, but YOU don’t have to be. Despite its many depressing moments, Fire Emblem: Three Houses ends on a refreshingly optimistic note. Our elders might have made mistakes today, but we don’t have to make those same mistakes tomorrow. It’s a moving and oddly timely message (considering the 12th century setting of the game), and in this world run by insane bigots from another age, it’s one that I think really needs to be heard right now. If you have a Nintendo Switch, please give this game a try. I promise you will not regret it.