When you play a Nintendo game, you pretty much always know what you're going to get. Sometimes you get a surprise mechanic thanks to some weird new gimmick controller. For the most part, however, the core gameplay of any given Nintendo series stays the same. Super Mario games will have you jump around various colorful stages to eventually jump on Bowser. The Legend Of Zelda games will give you a collection of items to explore a diverse world. And the Fire Emblem series has you meet a cast of anime-style characters, get attached to them, and then lose them tragically in difficult turn-based battles.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn't stray from this concept. What it does is deepen the relationship-building part of the game, as well as the lore, so that you feel more invested than ever.
School Of Duty: Medieval Warfare
The continent of Fódlan is a fairly typical medieval-style realm. It's neatly divided between three nations, with the church literally and figuratively in the middle. Naturally, there are political and racial tensions brewing under the surface of this balance. Into this game-of-thrones-in-the-making walks your player character. He/She is a stone-faced person of few words, because silent protagonist. After a display of tactical skill (i.e. a tutorial level), the church decides to hire you as a professor at its officer's academy. You are given the choice to teach one of the school's three houses, all of which just happen to be home to the future leader of one of the three nations. Your choice decides who you stand with in the inevitable war. But really, it's all about which of the characters you want to get busy with.
The Fire Emblem series has become rather famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) for being a dating sim in recent installments. The games have always had a "support" system where two soldiers can interact on the battlefield. Some form fast friendships, others become rivals, and there are several cases where a battlefield romance blossoms. These relationships give the characters depth, and are a fan-favorite element of Fire Emblem. However, a more recent emphasis on player-controlled avatars as main characters makes these supports personal. Now, it's not just your knight and mage falling in love. It's you and your mage falling in love, if you want to roleplay that.
Three Houses somehow manages to both double down on this aspect and address its biggest flaws. As a teacher at the officer's academy, you live on the grounds and are responsible for maintaining a lesson plan of sorts. This consists of choosing which skills you want students to study, assigning group projects, and even privately tutoring your favorites. You also get days off to wander the grounds doing side-quests and dining with students to build your bond. All of this is an exemplary execution of a hub world. It captures that delightful routine of seeing your friends every morning and chatting before class begins. Fódlan has its own calendar, too, with narrations describing how life around you moves with the seasons. You are part of this world, and your students become trusted friends because you live through the good and the bad together.
No doubt there are those reading this and thinking, "You can date your students? Gross!" Fire Emblem has an unfortunate history with letting the player character romance any character of the opposite gender. This includes having your adult avatar date a teenager. Or even worse, a child-sized person who is "just a 1,000 year old dragon that only looks like she's ten!" Three Houses does its best to tackle these issues. The students are mostly in the range of 17-19. Those who are 17 have birthdays over the course of the story to age them up. It's also stated, quite often, that your character is around their age. Most importantly, the game includes story-based roadblocks to your support building. Relationships can't actually get to the romantic level until the late game, where (SPOILERS) your students are five years older and no longer your students. It doesn't totally erase the taboo of student/teacher dating, but it at least shows an awareness of its inherent problems.
It's also worth noting that the Three Houses includes some older romance options in fellow faculty, as well as same-sex couplings. More options is always a good thing.
Oh Yeah, There's Combat
Fire Emblem is classified as a strategy RPG game, and yet I spent the bulk of this review talking about the relationship elements. That's because I feel like I spent the bulk of the game fostering those relationships. There was plenty of war waged, however, and some notable changes made on that front.
The most talked-about change is that the weapons triangle is gone. Fire Emblem often has a rock-paper-scissors weapon relationship between its core of swords, lances, and axes. Recent games have shown a desire to break away from that. Fates introduced shuriken, a weapon class outside of the triangle. Shadows of Valentia didn't have the triangle either. So, Three Houses feels like an extension of this developer decision to cast off a simplistic Pokémon-style typing system. Instead, they want to let us create the team of our dreams and challenge us with plain old strong foes.
Since you're the teacher, you control how the students fight. Everyone has a preference, sure, but you have the final say on which weapons they wield. You want a carefully-balanced brigade? Sure. You want to go yolo with all archers? Why not! Those private tutoring sessions I mentioned before don't just build up affection, they allow you to directly tell your students what to study. This will raise their proficiency in a given weapon, unlocking skills. This skill system is what allows you to really micromanage just what your army can do. It can also all be automated if you just want to go out and fight.
There's just one downside to all this customization: it makes the game too easy. Some students are clearly stronger than others, and I was able to create a monster simply by giving my mage one staff that enhanced her attack range. Even the Death Knight, a mysterious villain whose whole job is standing there menacingly, fell in one shot. To be fair, I played on Normal mode in order to get this review out. Maybe Hard mode is sufficiently challenging, and data mining suggests a higher difficulty coming soon. It better be, because I think players will want something more substantial to throw their highly-customized force... uh, I mean beloved students at.
Change Is Good, But Just A Little
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a Nintendo game. That means you know what you're getting: a highly-polished experience that plays a lot like the last highly-polished experience. Yet while Three Houses is indeed another solid strategy RPG with lovable characters, it may surprise you with its writing. The world feels like a place worth fighting for, as do its people. You'll fall in love, and micromanage the crap out of your sweet so they don't die in battle. That will make the battles a little too easy, but you probably won't mind. You'll be more concerned with what to say during your next tea party date.
4.5 Out Of 5 Stars
TheGamer purchased a copy of the game for this review. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is now available exclusively for Nintendo Switch.