Game review: Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Harry Potter meets Game Of Thrones
Nintendo’s beloved tactical role-playing series makes the leap from 3DS to Switch, but has it chosen the right strategy?
Most people probably still only know about Fire Emblem through all the character cameos in Super Smash Bros. The role-playing strategy series dates back all the way to 1990 on the NES and yet it wasn’t until 2003 that any of them were released in the West. But even with the tie-in to Smash Bros. they were still never major hits until Awakening and Fates on the 3DS. You really don’t expect that after more than two decades in the wilderness, but a lot of it can be put down to how well the series suited the 3DS console. But we’re not sure the same can be said of the Switch.
Fire Emblem is the sister series to Advance Wars and has a similar style of turn-based strategy combat. However, there’s also a thick layer of role-playing elements on top of that, in terms of not just the stats of your characters but the melodrama of their lives and interactions with each other.
New entries have appeared on the GameCube and Wii but they were low budget affairs, before the success of Awakening raised the series’ profile. As such, there had been some speculation that Three Houses might be used as an opportunity to radically rework the formula, but it’s immediately obvious that’s not the case. The combat is largely the same and while the role-playing has been expanded somewhat it rarely feels like something that couldn’t have been done on the 3DS.
There’s usually very little connection between one Fire Emblem game and the next and certainly Three Houses requires no previous knowledge of the series. It’s set in a Tolkien-esque medieval fantasy world, on a Westeros-like continent divided between three nations that are kept at peace by an overbearing church. Following a hastily sketched introduction your mercenary character is, for no immediately apparent reason, offered a professorship at the church’s main monastery – which also doubles as an officer’s academy for military-minded nobles from each of the three nations.
You’re given the choice of which house you want to tutor (long before you’ve had any real chance to weigh them up) at which point you realise that the game’s going for a Harry Potter vibe in terms of the setting, from the owls flying around everywhere to the teachers’ constant willingness to put students in mortal danger. As a teacher yourself you have to organise students’ timetables on a weekly basis, picking what subjects they study and dealing with their interpersonal issues.
There’s also an obvious influence from Persona, as you try to build up your personal bond with students (which gets worryingly creepy when you start trying to date them) and encourage each of them to get on which each other. Your bonding takes place primarily at the monastery, as you buy people gifts, run fetch quests for them, and return lost items. Which is just about as dull as it sounds.
Bonds between students are primarily formed on the battlefield though, by having them fight together in close proximity, which in turn increases the bonus they get when ganging up on an enemy and activating special moves.
Combat works largely the same as always and, despite what you might think of a strategy game, is very fast-paced and accessible. At a basic level all you have to do is point and click where you want a character to move to and then either initiate combat or some other action, such as healing, when you get there.
Surprisingly, the usual rock, paper, scissors relationship between different weapons is severely underplayed in Three Houses and makes almost no difference outside certain special moves. Whether that’s an attempt to make the game more accessible or just less regimented is unclear but it does simplify most encounters to a surprising degree.
What isn’t simplified though is the interface, which is an absolute nightmare to navigate in a hurry. It’s not that it’s particularly illogical but that it makes absolutely no attempt to be helpful in any way. Related options are often kept completely separate and you can frequently spend more time farting about with the inventory screens before a battle than you do actually playing it. Going backwards and forwards between different menus just to check on equipment and stats is not only a chore but it’s mindless busywork.
The interface is such a pain you begin to curse the fact that there’s not just a simple optimise button, that can default to all the most logical loadouts and top up your store/repair your weapons. But if there were half the game would instantly disappear, especially if the same logic were applied to battle decisions. Three Houses is full of options for almost every situation but too few of them are meaningful and often all you’re really looking for is the most powerful weapon, attack, or character.
Fire Emblem is still a fundamentally entertaining concept but the problem with Three Houses is that it takes no advantage of the Switch and has no important new ideas. Each character now has a battalion of soldiers they can take into battle with them, that offer limited-use special moves, and there are a few other new wrinkles but none of it changes anything substantial. Even the magic crests that the noble-born characters have are more important to the story than they are the gameplay.
There’s also the fact that the graphics are terrible, and everything feels so low budget. The 2D backdrops that cut scenes take place in front of are especially embarrassing, but the battle animations are also very poorly choreographed, as battalion soldiers fade in and out with an ugly dithering effect or otherwise just stand around waving their arms. Even the basic character models are very stiff and simplistic, with a disappointingly bland art style. It all looks very much like an upscaled 3DS title, to the point where we now wonder if that’s how the game started life.
Where Three Houses is saved, is that regardless of the other issues the battles are still entertaining – especially the monsters with their multi-stage health meters – and despite its lack of sophistication the storytelling is surprisingly ambitious. You’re constantly being asked to make extremely important choices based on little or no information – and the dry, humourless dialogue is mostly awful – but everyone gets a semblance of a character arc and those that seemed to be one note anime tropes at the start (one is pathologically shy, one is interested solely in sleeping, etc.) do have quite touching backstories that occasionally touch on fairly serious subject matter.
The obvious intention is that you get to know your students as well as possible at the monastery so that you feel much more for them on the battlefield, and don’t treat them as just interchangeable units. And that’s a great idea, but the poor writing, weak graphics, and sheer amount of faffing around needed to play the game all get in the way. The 3DS titles were much more consistent packages and while the basic idea behind Three Houses is sound the execution is way off. Not enough to dissuade existing fans of the series but unfortunately this is unlikely to earn very many new ones.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
In Short: A disappointingly clumsy attempt to evolve the Fire Emblem formula, that takes little advantage of being on the Switch, but the anime melodrama and fun combat still entertains.
Pros: Despite a weak script the storytelling is surprisingly good, with some unexpected twists. Core combat is as entertaining as ever. A mountain of content and lots of replay value.
Cons: A horrible user interface that makes battle preparation in particular a complete chore. Bland, low tech graphics and banal dialogue. Tedious fetch quests and creepy dating element.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo Games
Release Date: 26th July 2019
Age Rating: 12
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