With the final wave of the Fire Emblem (FE): Three Houses Expansion Pass having been released last February 20, it feels fitting to revisit the 2019 base game and examine whether this Nintendo Switch-exclusive title still holds up months after its initial release.
In Three Houses, the latest and fully voice-acted title in the FE franchise, players venture into the fantasy land of Fodlan as Byleth—a mercenary-turned-professor—who will serve as the player’s Avatar throughout the game. Interacting with in-game characters who could become future heirs and monarchs of the land, players now decide whose fate they will preside over as they slowly uncover the mysteries of the past and decide the best path toward the future.
Chess with extra steps
At first glance, those unfamiliar with the franchise might be overwhelmed with the complexity of FE’s combat system. However, upon closer inspection, the game is similar to the format of chess. The main objective may vary from battle to battle, but like chess, players must think of a strategy to defeat the opponent by utilizing and maximizing the unique skills offered by each unit under their command. Done through a grid-based combat system, players control the placement of units and decide who gets to engage in battle, while also exercising an element of care to avoid depleting health points and losing units. A player’s “Avatar” serves the role of a king in chess; even if other units are still alive, as long as the player’s Avatar falls, their side automatically loses the battle.
One thing that has always been a staple in any FE title is the permadeath system—where fallen units remain unusable for the remainder of one’s playthrough—and in Three Houses, the infamous system returns. Whereas some strategies in chess involve sacrificing certain pieces to secure a win, FE discourages this by breathing so much life into every unit, who each have their own personalities and background stories, letting out heart-wrenching dialogue should they meet their end. This makes every loss carry weight, both gameplay-wise and story-wise.
Every skirmish will leave one playing with bated breath, especially since the game offers higher difficulty modes. For those seeking an easier run, however, Three Houses does provide an option for more casual players to turn off permadeath, allowing their fallen units to be revived in the next chapter.
Train every last one of them
The tried and tested formula that the franchise has followed may have barely changed over the years, but what sets each title apart is their respective distinct cast of characters. Though every unit can be tied to a certain character trope, the game manages to subvert them by providing sensible backstories that add depth to the seemingly shallow representation of these stereotypes. Furthermore, these tropes even come into play during combat sequences; for example, Sylvain—a well-known philanderer—deals more damage and sustains less damage if adjacent to a female ally. Much like Sylvain, every unit has their own personal skill that reflects who their character is; such nuances give FE a distinct place among games of the same genre.
This attentive and detailed character-building amps up the distress brought by the game’s permadeath system. With roughly 34 playable characters—though the roster size varies depending on the player’s chosen House—getting emotionally attached to at least one is quite inevitable. In one instance, I found myself restarting a chapter countless times just to save my favorite mage from getting sniped by an enemy archer. This prospect may seem intimidating to some, but restarting chapters forces players to rethink their strategies in order to successfully win with minimal losses.
The game also forgoes the common role-playing element of a Job Class System—where specific categories of characters, such as Mages and Warriors, would each have their own set of possible upgrades and are limited to promote into classes of the same type.. Three Houses, instead, opts to focus on weapon proficiency as the basis for a unit’s eligibility for promotion. This allows the player to reassign each character’s class according to one’s desired strategy for the current chapter.
This flexibility, however, comes with a price. While some will appreciate the highly customizable aspect of the game—like designating roles and training specific stats for each unit based on personal preferences—this may overwhelm and frustrate players new to the plethora of options. Nevertheless, the game still allows the player to play at their own pace, with their own unique strategy. Three Houses strikes a balance as it rewards those who like experimenting with optimizing character builds and taking on difficult challenges, yet does not discourage those who prefer to play more casually and those who just want to enjoy the story.
Show, don’t tell
Lore-building in a FE game has never been this extensive as it introduces an all-new traversable area—the Garreg Mach Monastery, which houses the Officer’s Academy. While wandering the monastery, players get to talk to non-playable characters (NPCs) that have varying dialogue for every chapter, with one’s chosen House even altering the NPCs present in the story. The books in the library about Fodlan’s history, the lost items that have to be returned to various characters depending on their preferences, the monthly events and festivals—all of these contribute to the game’s rich lore. By utilizing this new mode of enhanced storytelling, Three Houses has opened a new outlet of world-building that previous titles have yet to utilize.
Three Houses has also succeeded in portraying the morally gray areas of war by shedding light to the motivations of behind every faction by allowing the player to choose different routes that you can unlock in the game. Each route can be considered a different timeline, revealing bits of the overarching story. This requires players to go through multiple playthroughs to experience the complex narrative in its entirety.
However, the first 12 chapters of every route are close to identical, which may repel some players from going through more than one playthrough. Furthermore, two of the four routes revolve around a similar plot reveal and will only start to vary near the end of the game. Despite that, Three Houses’ new class system and robust character roster is enough to redeem the game from the redundancy of some chapters.
A radiant dawn
Featuring a memorable cast and a story with never-ending twists and turns, Three Houses has unsurprisingly surpassed fans’ expectations, placing Fire Emblem once again on the mainstream gaming radar. The game is far from perfect, but that should not dissuade you from experiencing one of the best Nintendo Switch titles of 2019.