Fire Emblem: Three Houses review | Switching it up

A classic strategy series makes a triumphant return on Switch. Our review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses…


 

For Fire Emblem players, it used to be that the most crucial choices were on the battlefield, where the positioning of your characters or a mistake could mean losing a beloved unit forever.

But just as war is also about winning hearts and minds, some of the most crippling choices you’ll be making in Three Houses are who to invite to dinner or what topic of conversation to choose over a cuppa.

Your most difficult choice, however, comes at the start, when your mercenary-turned-teacher protagonist is asked to pick which of the three student houses to teach at the Garreg Mach Monastery, determining the campaign path you’ll be on for the next 50 hours.

Will it be the Black Eagles of the Adrestian Empire, the Blue Lions flying the banner for the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, or the Golden Deer representing the Leicester Alliance?

Regardless of which house you pick, each of the students are unique, wonderfully designed, and well-written, surpassing the usual anime tropes the genre can often fall into – which is another way of saying that there’s less of the awkward, sleazy stuff that previous entry Fates was guilty of.

At its best, Three Houses successfully borrows elements from the niche visual novel genre, albeit with a mainstream budget, so interactions come with expressive character animations and full voice-acting (as is becoming more popular; both English and Japanese audio are available).

There’s also a clear technical and graphical leap from previous instalments, since Three Houses marks the series’ return to home consoles since Radiant Dawn on the Wii over a decade ago.

You can see the improvements not just in the monastery’s free-roaming environments, but also on the battlefield, where maps actually display character models instead of sprites, while the battles also have a grander scale now that units fight accompanied by an entourage of troops.

While the quaint and very English house system brings Harry Potter to mind, how you actually go about school life takes its cues from Persona, which brought the social sim to its JRPG dungeon-crawling.

While most of the week is for studying, it’s during rest days where you make the absolute most of your free time. A whole host of activities open up in the monastery, from choir practice to duelling tournaments, but much like Persona, there’s a limit on the number of things you can do and who you can do them with.

Or perhaps seeing the grass as greener, you might be tempted to get to know the students from the rival houses and poach them for your team instead. This does take considerably more effort, either through seeking personal development to build your stats up to a level they find appealing, or the tried-and-tested method of bribing them with gifts, dinner, and tea.

Whatever you do, you’re always balancing priorities, since trying to recruit other members might mean you’re not spending as much time fostering relationships within your own house.

You can’t be too much of a social butterfly, either, as this free time could also be spent on building up your students’ practical experience in skirmish battles – it’s also where bonds between party members still bloom most effectively.

All of which is to say that prioritising the choices available in Three Houses can be overwhelming. You can even choose to skip the socialising aspects altogether and just focus on the battles, but the ability to go deep and customise a character’s specialities as they develop into more advanced fighting machines – there’s nothing stopping you from steering someone who’s initially an archer into, say, a horse-riding mage – makes all the social tinkering worthwhile.

The grid-based, turn-based battles haven’t changed all that much, though. The classic weapon triangle may have been jettisoned in favour of stats and weapon durability, but baiting enemies and keeping units together to boost their bonds and effectiveness remain as crucial as ever.

I would have preferred some more variety in mission objectives rather than simply routing the enemy or killing the commander, though this does improve to an extent in the side quests.

What hardcore purists might take issue with is the difficulty, which feels decidedly easy on normal mode – and that’s before you factor in the ability to rewind your actions a limited number of times to undo any fatal errors, a feature first introduced in 3DS entry Shadows of Valentia.

Nonetheless, it’s a welcome addition for newcomers, and I’m frankly glad I don’t have to reset every time I make one miscalculation. If anything, you’ll only lament that no such undo function exists if you mess up your teatime conversations.

Even if you try your best to be everyone’s favourite teacher, there’s just so many nuances in your relationships, classes to experiment with, and diverging paths that take you from the fragile peace between the continent’s three territories to all-out war, that there’s no way you can finish the campaign satisfied by just one perspective.

Three Houses, then, is one of those rare and remarkable games where, before you’ve even reached its conclusion, you’re already thinking about the next playthrough – and cancelling your social life to do so.

Highlight

Three Houses is undoubtedly the chattiest game in the series yet, and it’s a constant pleasure to unlock support conversations between party members. It’s especially entertaining when some of these relationships start off on the wrong foot, while other characters have questionable personalities. It’s to the game’s credit then that you always find yourself seeing characters in a different light.

Verdict: 88%

More expansive, sophisticated, and replayable than ever, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the series at its best.

Genre: Strategy RPG / Social sim
Format: Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems / Koei Tecmo Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Price: £49.99
Release: Out now

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