Fire Emblem: Three Houses review: school ties

It’s easy to care about the protagonist of a game. That’s your hero. You’re with them through everything, and you want them to succeed. But what about the side characters? What about the third healer in your army? Or that archer who’s not as good as your main archer? The Fire Emblem series is built on getting you to care about everyone, even down to the smallest peon.

But with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it goes even further. Every death is brutal because everyone who dies was once your student. You worked with them as youngsters, guiding their growth, applauding their accomplishments. And then, suddenly, they’re dead. And it’s all your fault.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is many things. It’s an epic war story on a Game of Thrones scale. It’s a relationship simulator, with flirting, romance, and gift giving. Oh, and it’s a tactical strategy game. What’s so bizarre is that none of these elements play second fiddle. The story, the relationships, the tactical gameplay — they’re all treated as equally important, building to an even greater crescendo as they collide.

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Back to school

The story begins by leaning on some traditional JRPG tropes: a silent protagonist with amnesia, a mysterious girl with pointy ears, and a gruff dad type acting as a mentor on the field of battle. I’ve certainly been here before. But Three Houses takes a sharp left turn with the introduction of the Officers Academy.

The Academy acts as the central hub for all of Three Houses, and early on I’m given the most important decision I’ll make in this game: I have to pick my house. Each of the three has their own leaders, classmates, and specialties. The game handles this sequence marvelously, allowing me to talk to every inhabitant of each house to learn about their strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. Oftentimes, these sorts of hard-path decisions demand taking a wild stab in the dark, but here, I feel like I know who I’m getting into bed with. I decide to join Claude and the Golden Deer house. The students in his house seem like they have interesting motivations, solid voice acting, and a preference for archery, which I gravitate toward in Fire Emblem games.

My choice in house determines my starting batch of students. (I’m bizarrely given the title of “professor” after fighting well in literally one battle, and despite being essentially the same age as these teens.) But the choice of house also has major implications down the road. While the first part of the story will play out similarly no matter which house I pick, the second half of the game varies dramatically, with different maps, story beats, and final battles, giving me a completely different perspective on the conflict.

Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo

Just starting out, though, my Golden Deer clan is a humble, puny bunch, and I’m tasked with bringing them up to snuff. Classroom sequences let me focus students into different skill sets, training one kid for archery and another in white magic. While specific students have strengths and weaknesses, the system is flexible, allowing for variety in how my units develop. Hilda, an ax wielder with a lazy streak, begins the game with a major deficiency in heavy armor, but with perseverance I eventually turn that into a strength for her, making her an unbreakable force on the battlefield.

The classroom system is useful to enhance my army, developing skills outside of combat, but it doesn’t feel as deep as it could have been for story development. During each classroom session, I select which students I want to train, and in which skills, from a long list. These sequences generally have me watching as bars go up, which is less engaging than, say, actually speaking to the students. There are occasionally moments where students will ask questions or look for advice (“what’s the best way to study?”), but these moments are rare and don’t offer much in the way of character development.

The rest of the school’s activities do offer more room for personalities to shine through, though. On a weekly day off, I explore the school and spend time with various students, taking them to lunch, sending them to compete in a tournament, or going to choir practice with them. While all of these activities also help to raise various meters, they also improve the relationships with these characters. Better relationships result in combat boosts when the students are standing next to each other. They also unlock “support” conversations, where two characters will slowly become friends.

Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo

Support conversations have long been a staple of the Fire Emblem franchise, and they work similarly in Three Houses, providing a deeper understanding of the units in my charge. Marianne, my dedicated healer, is shy, opting instead to talk to animals. (No, she can’t actually talk to animals. It’s more like a horse whisperer situation.) Meanwhile, Raphael, my boisterous knight, is gregarious and frequently hungry. Seeing these two personalities clash is interesting, and results in me caring more about them when they’re placed into risky situations on the battlefield. That said, the writing for these scenes is fine but far from amazing, feeling a bit stilted and more archetypal than naturalistic. Thankfully, the voice actors do a solid job of differentiating the dozens of members of the cast, and having thousands of lines of dialogue fully voiced is a nice touch.

The relationship portion does feel like it has taken a step backward for the franchise, though. Past games, specifically Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates, introduced the idea of kids being born of couples in the game, and then those kids joining your army through some time-warping fantasy bullshit. While not profoundly logical, it did give a more tangible benefit to developing relationships between characters, as you could literally play as their progeny. In Three Houses, maximizing a relationship with someone merely offers stat boosts and a coda to their story, and it feels underwhelming in comparison to past games.

Despite all this, I find myself fully obsessing over how I spend my time around the Academy, as it all has direct gameplay implications on the growth of my units. It’s extremely easy to skip these school sequences, letting the computer decide who gets trained and how, but the ability to micromanage their development is too enticing to pass up. I want to be the master of my army, rather than have an arbitrary algorithm decide which skills my friends excel in. There are times I spend more than an hour between missions, shifting gear around, training up skills, and reforging weapons for my crew.

Obsessing over the nitty-gritty like this is far from mandatory. Most people can cruise through the game on Normal without any difficulty, and features like the ability to rewind time take the sting out of permadeath. But I guess I’m just that sort of weirdo who has to go the extra mile for my students.

Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo

Into the fight

Whether I spend an hour poring over menus and cutscenes or I skip past all of them, eventually I have to kill some folks. Combat is where Fire Emblem: Three Houses feels like a classic Fire Emblem game. Many of the turn-based mechanics at play here feel familiar, with archers and casters attacking at range, cavalry having increased mobility, and armored units holding down the front lines. But the designers made some major changes to established systems.

For one thing, the maps feel much larger than they’ve been in previous games, with mobility becoming key. While these big maps do contribute to the scale of the battles, they also have a drawback: Unmounted units, especially in the late game, feel at a distinct disadvantage, often lagging far behind the rest of the gang. While there are a few smaller, indoor maps, they are in the minority, with map design opting more for open fields. This can make maps feel redundant, and they sometimes literally are, with some appearing two or three times in the same campaign (with slight variations).

The lack of map diversity doesn’t take away from the visual splendor of the game, though. While much of Three Houses is seen from an overhead perspective, initiating combat zooms the camera in, showing off gorgeously animated soldiers in combat. During a particularly tense battle, Claude, the house leader of the Golden Deer, tosses an arrow into the sky before catching it and firing off a critical hit to take out a pesky enemy pegasus moving in on my healer. These flashy moments happen all the time and are unique to the two dozen classes in the game, so there’s always some new animation to get pumped over.

Another major change: These units are not alone. Unlike previous games, Three Houses has hero units fighting in battalions, giving the sense that it’s not just a 12-person skirmish, but really an all-out war. Battlations come with their own abilities and add new strategic elements (like area attacks) that would otherwise be impossible in previous games.

Facing off against these battalions are enormous monsters, another first for Fire Emblem. Rather than occupying just one space on the map, these monsters can take up four or even nine map spaces. Taking them out requires a major shift in tactics, surrounding them with multiple units while focusing attacks on weak points. Having to battle large and small units all at once, while maintaining control of the field, offers the sort of variety I find lacking in the map designs.

Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo

There are other changes, like the removal of the triangle weapons system in favor of more skill-based combat. Whether these are good or bad will come down to preference. As someone who has played seven Fire Emblem games at this point, I didn’t mind the changes, but I could see others being put off by them. The new system relies on increased menu management, as units are limited to five equippable skills at a time. Having to micromanage what’s equipped and when is cumbersome and easy to ignore, to the detriment of your squad.

What doesn’t change is how much I care about these folks. Sure, I may not be emotionally moved by every support conversation, but damn if I don’t want Ignatz, my bashful thief/painter, to be OK. Seeing him fall in battle is bone-crushingly sad, even if I know that I can just rewind time to get him back. It’s here that the point of all the Academy sequences becomes clear. I spend time with these people as humans, learn about their faults and hopes and peccadilloes. And then they take an arrow to the heart, and I’m just shattered.

Now consider: This is just one playthrough. What happens when I’m playing as another house, and I’m forced to fire that same arrow into Ignatz’s weak little chest cavity, now that he’s on the other side of the war? These are the sorts of brutal scenarios that Fire Emblem: Three Houses forces upon me, personifying death that was previously without personality or emotional impact.

Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo

You’d think all these elements would never work together. One minute I’m giving flowers to a friend and chatting about their love of horses, and the next I’m buried in stat pages and inventory screens so complex they could be blueprints. It’s as if someone who pens romance novels and someone who writes stereo instructions decided to co-author a 9,000-page war epic.

And yet, goddamn it, it works. I was so captivated when I finished my first 52-hour campaign with Claude, Ignatz, and the crew of the Golden Deer that I immediately went ahead and started a new one, desperate to see what the differences would be, what new friends I’d make, and which old friends I’d have to stab in the heart. I’m just that sort of weirdo.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses will be released July 26 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Switch download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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