Intelligent Systems’ RPG series has been a niche effort for much of its history, with releases outside of Japan quickly falling into obscurity as rare copies sold for ludicrous prices online in a matter of months. It never quite found its footing – that is, until the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening in 2012.
The Nintendo DS exclusive kicked open the floodgates, welcoming millions of fans into a strange, wonderful world of political espionage and adorable anime boyfriends (or girlfriends; Fire Emblem isn’t picky). The rest is history, with the franchise now cemented as one of Nintendo’s flagship names alongside Zelda, Mario and Metroid.
Fast-forward seven years and we have Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the series’ first entry to debut on Nintendo Switch with the exception of a Musou spin-off. It’s a brave evolution of an established formula, moving the series forward while never forgetting what made it so special in the first place. That, and I got to fulfil my dreams of going to war with a bunch of gay warriors. What’s not to love?
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As is the series’ tradition, Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place in a world of political and religious turmoil. Throughout the continent of Fodlan, regal families communicate through peaceful diplomacy or all-out war, seldom finding compromise in a spitefully unpredictable society. You act as a mercenary in these lands, exploring them with your father and taking on odd jobs to make ends meet.
However, this all changes when you come across Garreg Mach Monastery. Acting as the stomping ground for an ancient order known as The Church of Seiros, it also houses a number of young students across three distinct houses: The Black Eagles, Blue Lions and Golden Deer. Despite being a similar age to all the students, you’re quickly drafted in to act as their professor at this prestigious academy. Think of it like Anime Harry Potter and you’re 80% of the way there.
Upon creating my character and taking her through the first few battles, I was asked to pick from three of the aforementioned houses. All of them follow a unique cast of characters, each with their own intertwining relationship and narrative threads. It’s engrossing; you grow closer to each student, learning what makes them tick far beyond the initial archetypes they seem to embody. Like past games, you’ll grow to care about everyone, fearing for their safety in battle.
You can select from difficulty settings that dictate whether characters will respawn after falling in battle or are gone for good once killed. The latter is far more dramatic, lending each encounter a sense of dread as you try desperately to keep everyone alive. The combat system remains largely unchanged compared to previous iterations, although it’s been both refined and expanded with new avenues of progression and mechanics.
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Previously presented as sprites prior to executing attacks, each character is now a three-dimensional model you can move freely across the battlefield. It’s presented in real-time and exudes a formidable sense of scale as you skirmish with colossal armies. I’m not sure my parents would let me attend a school where the syllabus involved going to war – but different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Every member of your party can specialise in unique classes – whether you want to craft them into an unstoppable mage, or a sniper who attacks with arrows from a distance. Disciplines can be upgraded throughout the campaign, changing both the student’s outfit and skills in battle. They all look fantastic, contributing to the stylish flair that oozes from every facet of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
There’s great depth to combat, with each mission providing options to tackle it in different ways. Things are rather simplistic for the first 10 hours or so, but after delving deeper into the campaign, I found myself embarking on optional escapades to learn more about the students I cared for. Obviously, you could avoid these entirely and still squeeze 50+ hours from each House playthrough.
One such quest saw me thwarting a student’s arranged marriage to a dodgy band of bandits. After doing so, it’s clear that feelings are developed between two female students, whether it be a friendship or something more. It’s adorable, and Three Houses is packed with such moments that left me beaming and/or distraught. It’s also one of the first major exclusives in Nintendo’s library to feature same-sex relationships in which the player can engage.
These aren’t marvellously fleshed out, and I would have loved to go on dates with Edelgard or Claude outside of classes and bouts of warfare. But it’s a commendable start, and as a queer woman this is something I’d love to see more of going forward. Relationships have always sat at the core of Fire Emblem, and Three Houses delivers them in spades. Each one is layered in a succinct way, revealing more about each class member as your bond grows stronger.
Other new additions to combat include the separation of some commands into their own options and the addition of “Gambits”. This involves sending a battalion of soldiers after a line of consecutive enemies. Nail the positioning and you can deal excessive damage to foes while forbidding them from moving in the turns to come. Each battalion has a range of skills and its own aesthetic, meaning it benefits to shop around Garreg Mach.
Writing is equally stellar thanks to excellent localisation by Nintendo. If you’re a purist, then you’ll appreciate that Japanese language options are available too. Every dialogue decision and bustling relationship contributes to increased effectiveness in battle, meaning that when in the vicinity of one another, close friends will do more damage and take even less. All of Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ mechanics intertwine into a beautiful bow of well-paced cohesion. It made it hard to tear myself away, and even harder to accept some of the plot’s more dramatic moments.
I won’t dare spoil where the narrative goes, but it packs plenty of surprises while subverting what I’ve come to expect from melodramatic anime-esque thrillers such as this. It’s still drenched in tradition, but almost seems aware of the fact and perfectly happy to toy with the player’s mindset in each lengthy playthrough. Also, Edelgard is my wife and I’ll accept no other reality.
When I’m not sending my students to war or chatting with them in the dorms, I’m teaching them in the classroom. Three Houses operates on a calendar system, with each week containing a class you’ll need to teach. I found myself assigning the cleaning of stables and other menial tasks with the students with whom I wanted to get along while lecturing specific faces on skills I hoped to see improved in battle.
It isn’t all about me, though. If someone fears they’re being steered in the wrong direction, they’ll approach and ask if their main skills can be adjusted, essentially targeting a different class in the hours to come. Much like the rest of the game, classroom sessions are wonderfully paced and feel right at home with everything else. It simply just works.
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One of my only qualms is the exploration of Garreg Mach Monastery itself, where a number of performance issues tend to surface. Mediocre frame rates, unusual screen-tearing and lacklustre textures are aplenty, tearing me away from an otherwise fantastical world. I quickly grew used to it, bounding across the academy to have lunch with friends, participate in tournaments and even enjoy a spot of fishing, but it’s hard to ignore.
Having to trek across the monastery or fast-travel constantly simply to converse with specific people can also be a bit of a chore, but things around the hub area change up enough that it was always fun. You’ll find objects that friends have lost or even gifts to woo them scattered about the place, and seeing their reactions is genuinely delightful.
At a major point in the campaign, things are shaken up dramatically from all perspectives, but mentioning what that entails and how it changes the game would be a massive spoiler. So, I’ll leave that for you to discover. I’ll just say that there are plenty of surprises awaiting in Three Houses, many of them I’m sure people won’t be expecting.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a triumphant RPG experience and one of the greatest games you can play on Nintendo Switch right now. It takes the series’ formula and propels it forward with some fascinating new changes, and every single system works in tandem to create something rather stunning. Technical blemishes aside, Intelligent Systems has really outdone itself here.
Each house is a unique campaign in itself with characters, locations and relationships to discover, and I’ve had a blast with everything I’ve seen thus far and plan to experience even more. While the romance options and visuals leave a little to be desired, Switch owners can’t go wrong with this one. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a class to teach…