Fire Emblem: The Three Houses
Developed by: Intelligent Systems
Published by: Nintendo
Available on: Nintendo Switch
“Lament your weakness,” says my wyvern-rider after lancing a knight to death. His words capture a great deal of my feelings toward both “Fire Emblem: The Three Houses” and the Fire Emblem series in general. I am indifferent to the fantasy/anime tropes the games revels in — the Great Swords, the amnesiac hero, the flamboyant sidekicks, etc. But I am easily roped in by their turn-based gameplay. Imagine a “Sword & Sorcery” virtual board game where the pieces evolve over time and develop and destroy relationships among themselves. Then imagine that the tiled boards on which they confront their opponents change over battles requiring different approaches to various scenarios. (For example, dealing with archers stationed along the battlements of a fortified town is a snap compared with fighting in an open area against foes on winged steads that love to zero in on your healers.) If ever there was a series that I like despite myself, it’s this one.
In the “Three Houses,” players take on the role of Byleth — or whatever name a player may wish to substitute — a young mercenary who works alongside his father, Jeralt. (The game also allows you to select the hero’s gender at the start.) On the eve of departing on an assignment, two young men and a young woman turn up at their door requesting help. The strangers tell them that their camp was attacked by bandits who are now pursuing them. Jeralt agrees to assist and appears to recognize the uniforms that the young people are wearing, but before he can confirm his suspicions his attention is diverted by the imminent threat posed by the bandits.
After the battle, Alois, a knight who arrives late to the fray, recognizes Jeralt as his old Captain. Alois then jovially insists that Jeralt head back with them to Garreg Mach, the monastery where the Knights of Seiros serve at the behest of the Church of Seiros. At Garreg Mach, the three young strangers are enrolled in the Officer’s Academy, an incubator for future leaders.
Upon arrival, they are received by the archbishop Lady Rhea who oversees the church. Jeralt is nudged back into the fold of the Knights of Seiros and, in a head-turning career elevation which may depress post-grads struggling on the job market, Byleth is made a professor at the Academy on Alois’s recommendation.
Byleth’s first order of business as a newly minted prof is to select from the Academy’s three different houses one to lead. Each of the houses is composed of students from the three separate territories that divide up the continent. Coincidently, the three students that Byleth and his father helped are a princess, a prince, and the grandson of a duke — the student leaders of the houses. I chose the princess’s group, the Black Eagle House, because it seemed keen on magic. I guess I still subscribe to the old RPG myth that mages tend to make for the most formidable party members at the higher levels.
Events in the game follow a calendar. You’ll regularly be directed to take your students into battle on the orders of Lady Rhea to suppress enemies of the church. On other days you can level up your students’ skills provided they are motivated enough to learn on that day. Winning on the battlefield or dining with a pair of students are two ways to increase motivation. So is giving everyone a day off. Students will come to you with individual questions that, if you answer to their liking, will also increase their motivation. From time to time, they’ll ask you to change the concentration of their studies so as to move into a different character class. I hope that in the next Fire Emblem some of the side activities are fleshed out more: that the dinners, for instance, aren’t just one-note affairs where you hear a couple of banal lines of dialogue before a screen shows your stat boost.
At first, I wondered why I shouldn’t just say yes to all of students’ requests. As I got further into “The Three Houses,” though, I found that I had very strong objections to some of their proposals which could alter combat strategies I’d grown comfortable using. In these ways and in others, the game tries to give personality to its tactical combat. It’s easy to grow attached to the powerhouse characters in your command — the ones that level up quickly and can take some punishment — but it’s better to try to use your weaker characters whenever possible to close the performance gap.
The “Three Houses” is the longest Fire Emblem game I've played. Encompassing three different campaigns, the game boasts somewhere around 200 hours of content. “Content” is the key word. Although I am sympathetic to people who relish the idea of playing one game over several weeks or months, I think the game would have been better with some trimming. Some of the side activities struck me as onerous, like delivering lost items to the monastery’s residents. And story-wise, things take a while to develop. (I guessed the identity of a mysterious adversary long before it was revealed.) The characters change significantly at a certain point in the adventure but that happens more than a few dozen hours into the game.
Yet, for all the little ways I can nitpick “Fire Emblem: The Three Houses,” there is no denying the elegance with which so many of the gameplay systems are intertwined. I enjoyed micromanaging the progression of my students on and off the battlefield. I just wish I was able to think of them as more than colorful pawns.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: