Title (JP): Fire Emblem: Fuukasetsugetsu (ファイアーエムブレム 風花雪月)
Title (NA/EU): Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games
Release date: 26 Jul 2019
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as the first non-portable entry in twelve years in the long-running Fire Emblem SRPG series which sees its thirtieth anniversary next year, had a lot of expectations to live up to, especially due to the series having enjoyed a renaissance ever since the runaway success of Fire Emblem: Awakening for the 3DS (2012). It should thus be reassuring to series fans that Three Houses fully embraces these expectations, turning out to be the single most ambitious game in the series yet.
The game takes place in an entirely new world separate from previous games, and puts the player in the role of a mercenary who is hired as a new tutor at a military academy which has students from all three major countries on the continent. The player then gets to choose one of the academy’s three classes, each representing a different country, and takes charge of it, which determines the character roster (consisting of the students from that class) and the story route for that playthrough.
It soon becomes apparent that Three Houses is drastically different from recent Fire Emblem games: While the game remains similar at the most fundamental of levels- It is still a turn-based strategy game- There are changes made to almost every single aspect of gameplay. The rock-paper-scissors element to weapons has been removed, and new features such as individual units being able to equip battalions which alter stats and grant them access to special skills, characters now being able to use special moves more powerful than regular attacks at the cost of using up more weapon durability than usual, and the player having the ability to turn back time (in a fashion similar to that of the mechanics used previously in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, or 2013 PS3 SRPG Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord).
The biggest change to the classic Fire Emblem formula, however, is the addition of Persona-esque simulation elements. A large amount of the game is spent exploring and participating in activities in the monastery the military academy is located in, raising skill levels via tutoring, recruiting characters from other classes to the player’s, and building relationships between characters. The addition of these features play a large part in making the game feel a bit more like a traditional RPG, and also helps to get the player to know the characters and world more.
The game is distinctly split into two parts, the first having the player as a tutor at the academy, and the second taking place years later, once war has broken out, putting the former students of the academy on opposing sides. While the first part of the game remains mostly the same regardless of what the player does, the second part can differ greatly depending on the route the player chooses: Two of the four routes are very similar, but the routes are otherwise extremely different, and all four have different final stages and conclusions.
Despite the many changes, the core strategic gameplay of Three Houses remains well done, possibly because the game was mostly developed by Koei Tecmo’s Shibusawa Kou brand team, which has had decades of experience working on war simulation/strategy games such as the Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. The game also does an extremely good job of depicting the individual characters, due to the addition of the exploration elements, which result in players spending more time with characters than they usually would in the series, and the characters themselves being well-defined and written. The sheer volume of the game is also noteworthy, with a playthrough of just one of the four routes being at 40-50 hours.
The game however is of course not without its issues. The story is presented in a manner where not everything is revealed on any one route, requiring multiple playthroughs for the player to get the whole story, and the end result is that most routes ultimately feeling unsatisfying in the end: The true enemy is only fully revealed on two of the routes, and dealt with off-screen on another. Important details regarding the protagonist’s parents are only revealed on one route, and one of the antagonists only gets story relevancy in one route and completely vanishes from the game entirely in another. And even when the player has experienced all of the routes and had everything explained, there are still many aspects of the story that are not given enough explanation or attention, and the motives of the main antagonist of three of the four routes remain questionable at best.
The gameplay too is not irreproachable: While the addition of simulation elements allows for the player to get to know the characters better, it ruins the tempo for subsequent playthroughs, especially given how the first part of the game, which in every route accounts for more than half the game’s length, remains almost entirely the same regardless of which route is chosen.
The changes to the job class system and how it requires levels in specific skills is also problematic due to the skewed lineup in the final tier of jobs and how the game does not initially reveal the jobs and their requirements to the player, meaning that a combination of skills that a character may start with may not even be building toward any specific class. Only one of the nine jobs in the final tier specialises in swords (and requires high proficiency in magic), and the only class that specialises in hand-to-hand is only available to male characters. Meanwhile, four of the nine jobs require proficiency in spears, and four require proficiency in horse riding. Additionally, even though it is ideal for all spellcasters to get levels in both reason (offensive magic) and faith (support magic) as they are able to cast both when in a spellcasting class, the one class that specialises in both types of magic is locked to female characters, meaning the male spellcasters get the short end of the stick. These problems are thankfully mostly mitigated in subsequent playthroughs where the player has prior knowledge of what to build characters towards, but the lack of freedom in builds due to the limited selection of highest tier job classes still withstands.
Despite what flaws it has, however, Fire Emblem: Three Houses still manages to deliver a solid Fire Emblem experience, with unique and likeable characters and solid strategic gameplay. With a standalone story and the return of the option to turn off permadeath and a new rewind mechanic, making the game accessible to new players unfamiliar with the genre. On the other hand, classic (permadeath) mode and hard difficulty options are available for more dedicated fans, and Intelligent Systems has announced that lunatic difficulty will be added in a free future update. Three Houses is without a doubt one of the best entries in the Fire Emblem series, and is a must-play for anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.
The Good: A completely revamped version of Fire Emblem’s classic strategic gameplay that remains as satisfying as ever, and the player has more opportunities than usual to get to know the great characters.
The Bad: Despite multiple playthroughs being encouraged due to there being multiple routes, replayability can be a slog due to the new systems. The story, especially surrounding one of the main villain’s motives, can be perplexing at times.
Conclusion: Three Houses is the single most ambitious title in the Fire Emblem series yet, making countless drastic changes to the classic formula and expanding the scale of the title many times over. The end result is nothing short of a rousing success.