Three Houses is not bigger solely due to hardware power or a greater money influx; it swallows the installments that preceded it because it is more ambitious than them
From the very start, the installments of the Fire Emblem franchise have always felt pretty big, and two are the core reasons that explain such inherent grandeur. First of all, there is their habit of putting, on the same field of battle, the units of warring armies that are rather inclined to spill blood (whether their own or the enemy’s) in the fight for a cause. Alone, however, this natural spirit of urgency and grandiosity is simply not enough to completely clarify the magnitude of the quests the property has produced over the years; after all, within the strategy genre itself, numerous are the games that follow that exact recipe. And that is why it is in the second central component of the saga that the most important element of its success can be found.
That ingredient, in particular, is that under the shields, spears, swords, magic tomes, and soaring arrows that come to the spotlight once combat is afoot, the Fire Emblem games have always been quite dedicated to setting up a thick layer of character and plot development that greatly amplifies what happens on the battlefield. As such, their gameplay has never been about heartlessly moving faceless units around a grid like a chess player coldly sacrificing a pawn in the hopes of unleashing a marvelous strategic move; they have, instead, been concerned with virtual folks that feel very much alive struggling for something that counts, and the responsibility of both keeping them safe and leading them to their goal has always rested in the hands of players.
Even with such a rich and long history of meaningful stories and battles behind it, though, it will likely not take very long for even the most devoted fans of the Fire Emblem franchise to come to the conclusion that Three Houses feels somewhat bigger than everything that came before it. Part of the credit for that can, of course, be attributed to the fact that the game is the first entry of the series to reach a home console since 2007, when Radiant Dawn hit the GameCube; therefore, there is an organic growth that comes attached with that considerable technological leap. Meanwhile, another slice of the laurels can certainly be placed at the feet of a much larger budget, a prize the property deservingly earned following the major success of its trio of 3DS outings – Awakening, Fates, and Echoes – and that allows the game to boast plenty of hand-drawn custcenes of undeniable beauty and excellent voice acting that covers the entirety of its gargantuan pile of dialogues.
Three Houses, however, is not bigger solely due to hardware power and money influx. It swallows the installments that preceded it because it is more ambitious than them. The game’s social component, which involves the development of the relationships between characters, is expanded to unforeseen heights. The branching gameplay routes, a concept that was quite well-explored in Fates, gains even more significant contours thanks to how deeply the critical choice players make affects the events of the storyline. The usually considerable content carried by titles of the franchise becomes larger thanks to a mind-boggling amount of alternatives. And the battles, which are the ultimate element all other pieces exist to serve, receive nice little tweaks that work towards enhancing them. Truthfully, Three Houses does not really totally nail any of those parts; it, nevertheless, presents them with a quality and weight that put it in a pretty notable position within the Switch’s impressive library.
The game’s story begins when Byleth, the player-controlled main character, steps in to save three nobles – called Claude, Dimitri, and Edelgard – from a gang of bandits. Alongside Jeralt, a father-figure of sorts, Byleth has spent a good portion of life working as a mercenary. Following their good deed, though, the pair is summoned to Garreg Mach, a large monastery that works both as the headquarters of the region’s church and as a school, where Rhea – the head of the religion as well as the academy’s overseer – offers to reinstate Jeralt to his former position as a knight of the church and to appoint Byleth as a professor at the academy. Somewhat suspicious of such generosity, Jeralt warns Byleth to be careful; the two, nonetheless, accept the proposal.
The continent of Fódlan, where the game takes place, is divided into three independent regions that coexist in relative peace despite a troubled past: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. Lying at the very center of these realms, the Garreg Mach Monastery receives nobles and commoners from these regions, assigns them into one of three houses according to their place of origin, and, during the course of an year, trains them in the arts of diplomacy and of the battlefield. As Byleth, players will have to choose to be the professor of one of these houses, a decision that – made at very beginning of the adventure’s first part – will determine how its second act will play out, and since the plot and the missions from that latter half are completely different according to the road that is taken, Three Houses is almost the equivalent of three games disguised as one.
In structure alone, the two portions of Three Houses are not that different, as both of them have Byleth acting as a mentor to those that are part of the selected house and – at the end of each month – taking them to the battlefield to perform some mission. In plot and overall spirit, though, distinctions abound, for while in the first half the monastery is a generally fun school that, much like Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series, is frequently attacked by an enemy that lurks in the dark with a sinister purpose; in the second, which unfolds after a five-year leap, Garreg Mach serves as a base of operations for the faction Byleth is leading in a war that is tearing the kingdom apart.
On the bright side, the plot of Three Houses has got to be commended for how it nicely uses that five-year interval for emotional and devastating purposes. Meeting Byleth’s former students as adults, after having developed strong bonds with them through the game’s first act, is a delight, even if it comes under dire circumstances; moreover, standing opposite in battle to acquaintances of the past and having to cut them down is equally powerful, only in a much sinister way. Likewise, the three possible paths (actually four, if one counts a slight deviation in one of the branches) present nicely developed sides of the same story, a quality that is bound to make many gamers feel like going through the quest more than once.
However, on a sour note, it is also worth pointing out that Three Houses sometimes relies on overused storytelling vices to create tension, such as presenting a starring hero that cannot remember much of its past; having major conversations be interrupted when big reveals are about to be made; and featuring a couple of moments when it seems characters are holding back information for no reason whatsoever.
Other than thriving on a script and branching paths that feel more ambitious than ever, Three Houses is also highlighted by a social layer that is visibly thicker than that of its predecessors, and that newfound value stems from both the monastery itself and Byleth’s role as a teacher. On the first day of almost every week, players will get to instruct – by simply going through straightforward menus – a certain number of students from their house in the skills that they wish to excel in; and during the remaining weekdays, via a brief cutscene, they will minister a general lecture that will also slightly boost the target abilities of those that are a part of their faction.
As their mentor, though, it is possible to – either at any time or by being prompted by the characters themselves – alter their focus of studies so that they take a different path through the vast tree of classes the game boasts, which includes archer, paladin, dark mage, pegasus knight, wyvern rider, assassin, hero, and many other ones that Fire Emblem fans should be familiar with. Consequently, even though all units – on the heels of the stats they have – are better suited for a specific military career, they can be trained to become whatever players want them to.
At the end of every week of hard work, meanwhile, the monastery gives both its professors and its students an off day, and on those, gamers have the freedom to tackle one of four activities: letting the entire class rest so that their motivation is restored, which subsequently allows Byleth to mentor them more intensely during the coming week; taking them into battles that are not part of the main story; selecting a few students to participate in a seminar dedicated to a group of skills; or simply exploring the monastery. Among all of those choices, it is in the last one that the freshest component of Three House resides and where the largest slice of its social spirit comes in.
Garreg Mach is a decently large place with a handful of distinct environments, and while walking around it, gamers will find plenty to do, from fishing and growing crops, to visiting merchants that sell armor, weapons, assist items, and all sorts of other assets. More importantly, still, is the fact that Byleth will also come across students from each of the three houses, members of the church, as well as other minor characters hanging around the place, and there are numerous ways in which the professor can interact with them. It is possible to: talk to them to learn what they have to say about the latest developments; invite them over to sit either at the dining hall table to grab a meal or by the garden for a one-on-one tea party; pick up and return lost items to their respective owner by linking a clue that is in the object’s description to a major personality trait of the character; give them gifts; accept quests; answer letters in which they talk about what’s troubling them; make them participate in monthly tournaments dedicated to a specific kind of weapon; and even sing or cook alongside them.
As those activities are performed, Byleth’s level as a teacher grows. As consequence of that, the character can perform more of those actions during the course of the same month, and numerous are the benefits of dedicating oneself to such tasks. Firstly, there is the simple fact that doing so allows players to get to know students better, something that is interesting not just for world-building purposes, but also for how it strengthens the bonds between Byleth and members of her house, and that link can come quite in handy during battle. Secondly, it boosts the motivation of the characters that are Byleth’s students, which makes the coming week be more productive in terms of learning. Finally, and most interestingly of all, if paired up with the training of some of Byleth’s stats (which vary from character to character) it makes it possible for the professor to recruit members of the other factions to the chosen house, hence making them available for battle.
Combined, these features make up a very intriguing web of possibilities, customization, character development, and lore; one that is so considerable that almost half of the forty hours it should take for gamers to see the ending of one of the routes of Three Houses will be spent doing them. Yet, truth be told, many of those activities start out as interesting and eventually degenerate into chores.
Some become dull because of their shallowness: fishing is done via a mini-game that lacks depth; growing crops is a matter of going through menus; the clues of lost items are mostly too vague, forcing players to frequently offer what they have found to all characters to see if they locate the object’s owner; eating, having tea, cooking, or singing with students are too scripted; and both quests and talking to everyone, though appealing in relation to knowing how monastery-dwellers react to what has happened, involve a whole lot of walking that feels like padding. Meanwhile, others become boring because, when the game’s second half kicks in, not only is it impossible to recruit new units, but the skills of nearly every member of Byleth’s house will also be close to the maximum, meaning that teaching, increasing the motivation of characters, and trying to construct bonds – which unlock nice one-on-one conversations between units – lose importance.
Inside battles, on the other hand, Three Houses is far more solid, perhaps because it does not take any major leaps when compared to the property’s most recent outings. The over twenty battles that make up the routes through the game are preceded and followed by dialogues that, respectively, set up what is about to happen and look at the ramifications of what took place during combat, therefore making each feel like a standalone chapter from a much larger story. When the fighting kicks in, players are allowed to take somewhere between eight and twelve characters from their current roster onto the field, and their goal is to – depending on the mission at hand – obliterate the opposing army, defeat the rival commander, survive an incoming onslaught while protecting terrain or a certain unit, or move a character to a certain point on the map.
As usual, the armies involved take turns moving their units and triggering duels when rivals come within attack range, a concept that is pretty easy to grasp; under it, though, Three Houses – like all Fire Emblem games – presents a nice strategic component. Terrain can affect movement, defense, range, and sometimes even cause damage; characters have special skills that can turn the tide of battle; spots from which enemy reinforcements may emerge can be disabled or blocked; units have different strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered when moving them around, such as the fact that fliers are very vulnerable to arrows, armored characters take quite a beating from magic users, and healers are ridiculously fragile; among others.
Additionally, Three Houses also brings a few changes to the formula when compared to its recent predecessors. The traditional weapon triangle (a rock-paper-scissors relationship between axes, lances, and swords) is eliminated, which makes battles be more balanced. The ability to pair up characters in the midst of combat is equally erased; bonds between units are, instead, constructed by making them either fight on adjacent spots or aid one another during battle, and if their link is strong enough, a neighboring unit may step into the duel to help their friend. At last, battalions appear as a totally new feature, and these squads – recruited from a guild – can be attached to characters according to their level of authority; in doing so, the unit they are linked to will not only gain boosts in certain stats or earn skills, but also have the opportunity to execute gambits, bold attacks that have a myriad of different effects on enemies.
More critical than all of those traits, though, is the fact that the missions of Three Houses are nicely varied, always bringing new strategic scenarios through the way the maps are constructed and enemies are placed. Such quality is especially true when it comes to those that are part of the main quest or the paralogues, which are sidequests centered around one or two units that have the game diving more deeply into their backstory. In addition to those, Three Houses also offers a nearly endless amount of optional missions that are either random combats or related to quests found in the monastery; these, however, are not quite as interesting, for besides lacking plot, they merely reuse maps from other chapters.
There are a few other issues that hold Three Houses back from being a better game. Its graphics, differently from many other areas of its production values, do not showcase the gains expected from a larger budget: the in-battle textures as well as those seen around the monastery are poor; moreover, the scenarios and character models displayed on the field of battle are not very polished. Furthermore, going through the quest on the normal difficulty and in the casual mode, where units that die in the war are not gone for good, makes the challenge be rather tame, especially when one considers players have access – a few times during each month – to a rewind functionality that allows them to roll back time and undo strategic mistakes. Finally, although playing through all of the routes is certainly appealing, the time spent in the monastery segments (which include teaching and exploring) erodes part of the game’s replay value.
Consequently, the main problems Fire Emblem: Three Houses carries are certainly those that come forward due to its expanded focus on the franchise’s extremely valuable social component, a move that, on one hand, greatly increases its size and the impact of its plot, but that, on the other, turns a big slice of its gameplay hours into a chore. Regardless of that partial misstep, the title is nothing short of a major achievement in content and storytelling goodness; in those two areas, whether through three branches that display vastly different perspectives on the same general tale or via borderline infinite options of character growth, Three Houses offers more than anyone could have possibly expected, and it does so with the confidence of a property that knows – more than any other – how to mix heart and strategy into a stunningly uniform fabric.