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Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch) artwork

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch) review

"Four paths, three houses, two minds, one review."

So, I was walking down the street in Rome the other day, when I happened to come across three kids getting mugged. So naturally, I saved them. Turns out they were the children of the prime ministers of the UK, France, and Germany! The Pope was so grateful for my assistance that he immediately made me a professor in a prestigious university, pontificating on stuff I know nothing about. And he even let me choose one of the three kids to sedu... uh, teach. Pretty cool, huh? At least, the 10 year old girl I talk to inside my head seemed to think so.

OK, that's bizarre, but then again, that's Fire Emblem. Yes, that is essentially the start of the plot (just in a fantasy world, of course), and you have to simply roll with the silliness like all anime plots. Because Fire Emblem balances on the edge of silly and serious, brilliant but dumb, frustrating and inspiring. I could nitpick this game to death (and yeah, there will be a lot of that here), but the reality is the game is fun at its core, and is just at the right balance of "pick up and play" vs "must play strategically" for a tactical RPG. So while I can mock and criticize practically every facet of the game, note that I do it with love.

Well, or exasperation. One of the two.

So yes, the plot is sounds absurd. But it also makes sense in context (explaining why the central character is important as opposed to just happening to be a Mary Sue). And while it has some of the typical absurdities of RPG plots, I'll grant them that they tried to push the concept in a new direction. Those three students? The one you choose to lead determines who are the "good guys" and "bad guys" in the inevitable conflict; there's no typical evil overlord here. While the central conflict is the same, the focus changes entirely based on which house you choose, and in fact one of the houses allows you to reject that path and choose a fourth option if you like. So you can see a war (seriously, not a spoiler, there's always a war) from the perspective of all different sides, and try to choose for yourself who is right. I won't say that they completely pulled it off; as much as they tried to go the "well-intentioned extremist" route, they couldn't quite explain away everything. But I'll give them props, the four separate route approach is quite ambitious.

Perhaps too ambitious though. You see, the first half of the game is very similar regardless of which path you choose. It's supposed to be setting up the ultimate confrontation, but honestly, it's a very slow burner. This means that by the time the conflict starts, everything is rushed. In FE: Path of Radiance, the final act felt like a long, dreary march in a war. Here? It's just a hop, skip, and a jump to victory. I understand the challenge in trying to draw out a conflict through four separate storylines, but perhaps that was a sign that they bit off more than they can chew? How epic can a story be when you go from barely standing to conquering a continent in the course of a few months (literally)?

In short: cool idea, flawed execution. But hey, I'll give props for the idea.

The other big change out of this newest iteration of Fire Emblem is the professor idea. In previous games, a character's class was essentially static, but here you can customize and micromanage what everyone can learn. There's a lot of depth there for optimization of your time and the character's time, but let's face it, how many people are going to try to turn their squishy mages into tanks? The reality is that each character is "supposed" to lean a certain way, and you are going to stick within one or two paths. Still, it's a different idea, and there's still some planning to do. Just as an example, mastering a new class can grant you a new ability, and leveling up one of your skills also grants you an ability. Deciding which abilities to equip, which skills to focus on to gain new abilities, and (most importantly) choosing whether or not to go with a better class (making your character stronger) or staying with a lower class until you gain that awesome Death Blow skill. So in general, the customization works pretty well.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch) image
Now class, I know there's a war going on outside your window, but turn to page 172 in your textbooks...

What isn't that great is the monastery/scheduling mechanic itself. Each chapter is a month. Every Saturday, you can choose how to spend your time: fighting extra battles, sleeping, giving a lecture, or exploring the monastery. This last one is obviously meant to increase immersion by interacting with your army in a more realistic environment than selecting them on a menu, but it doesn't quite succeed. For one, supports between characters are still generated via a menu; you don't get to see them in the monastery itself. Only supports with the main character can show up there. Two, everyone just stands around and gives a one liner if you talk to them just like an old SNES game. Sure, you can give gifts or find lost items for them, but you generally just get a standard response from them and a happiness meter increase. Nothing immersive.

Besides, the support skits are the same as always. Characters have one or two personality quirks, and it gets reinforced over and over in them. Bernadetta has severe anxiety, Sylvain is a flirt, etc. Sure, you occasionally get something deeper (Sylvain's a flirt because he's jaded that everyone is only interested in him because of his noble crest, so he fights shallowness with shallowness), but they are still quite repetitive.

The result, between the endless customization that can sometimes feel like a chore and the massive monastery that does not live up to expectations is that the time in between battles quickly loses its lustre. During the final few chapters I was trying to rush through them as fast as possible. Fortunately, by then my fellow soldiers had learned enough that I didn't care much about the teaching or supports, so rushing through didn't hurt me. But methinks the developers need to go back to the drawing board here and get a proper balance between immersion, customization, and fun. They tried, and again, cool idea but flawed execution.

And yet, I have a hard time caring because the core Fire Emblem combat is still so good!

I mean, it's just your basic tactical RPG. You get 10-12 units on the grid, the enemy gets 40-50 (ouch!). You move, then attack, with each of your characters, 1 by 1. Then the enemy moves. When you attack, the enemy counterattacks, assuming it's not dead. Simple, but effective. You can see how much damage both sides will take, along with the likelihood of landing a hit and the likelihood of a critical hit. Speedsters can hit twice. There's magic vs melee vs arrows; pegasi vs horses vs infantry. Melee weapons include the hard hitting but inaccurate axes, the soft hitting but accurate spears, and the mid-range but high crit swords. So lots of choices available.

And it honestly feels better than other Fire Emblem games. For one, my main character was not an unstoppable powerhouse like Ike in Path of Radiance, meaning battles were actually challenging at times. Eliminating the rock-paper-scissors combat approach of the previous Fire Emblem games means you don't just go where the obvious advantage is; there may not be any clear advantages for you. Limiting your team to only 10-12 rather than 15-16 focuses you more on tactics; you can't simply form a secure formation and waltz through the enemy lines anymore. I was finding myself breaking up my team more and more, letting a few characters run out solo, taking some risks and hoping my long distance healers could back them up. The giant monsters provide a new twist, acting as minibosses and soaking up a lot of your actions when you need to focus on other units as well. And the gambits and combat arts - new to this game - expand the list of options available to you. Some of the maps were tough. Some required a little luck and some careful timing. But ultimately, I found the vast majority of the maps satisfying to play.

And that supersedes the silliness of the plot and the awkwardness of the monastery and customization. I play Fire Emblem for the maps and combat, and I still found this one fun. At least in this aspect, the game shines. Sure, it isn't perfect (the generic practice battles you could play on your off-days of the month were all the same and all simplistic), much like the rest of the game. Many of the maps could still be finished without requiring much thinking (even on Hard difficulty!) But I have come to accept these things, because the maps are still satisfying to clear and the variety of characters and options keeps me entertained.

It's just the two faces of Fire Emblem. Three Houses pushed the series in new directions, succeeding in several ways but falling short in others. Heck, just look at the graphics! The battle animations were snappy, unique, and well done, but then you see flat textures that look straight out of the N64. It's a perfect metaphor for this game's dichotomy. Hopefully, the frustrations and errors are all just due to Intelligent System's first attempt at pushing Fire Emblem in a bold new direction, and they will fix all their mistakes in the next game. But still, I don't expect to ever see some of the sillier aspects to go away entirely, nor some of the simplicity. And I don't really care either, as long as they can keep the combat fun. And that, at least, has remained constant.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (November 04, 2020)

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