One of the Fire Emblem franchise’s primary strengths is that it moves you via story and gameplay to become emotionally attached to every single character in your party. Fire Emblem: Three Houses ups the ante by putting you in the role of a professor, tasked with teaching and mentoring the young women and men in your class as well as taking them out on the battlefield, where, thanks to the classic mode’s permadeath mechanic, their lives truly hang in the balance.
The story revolves around Garreg Mach monastery, a school divided into three houses: the Black Eagles, Golden Deer and Blue Lions. You play as a mercenary who’s invited to be a professor in the house of your choice, each offering a different cast of characters, quests, and storylines. The first act is tinged with mystery, involving a slew of kidnappings, conspiracies, and shady individuals. But as the larger story unfolds, it evolves into a fantasy epic with huge battles and some serious character development that sees most of your party go through drastic changes as they develop and age. The campaign is LONG—over 80 hours—and while I wasn’t able to complete the entire game for this review, what I can say confidently is that the story and gameplay are more than compelling enough to make those dozens of hours fun all the way through.
The emotional stakes run high throughout, which not only enriches the narrative but makes combat doubly engaging. This is a deep title, with several, equally important pillars of gameplay supporting the experience. Those include tactical RPG battles, relationship sim mechanics, and complex-but-streamlined progression systems. Developer Intelligent Systems strike the perfect balance in this respect, with a gameplay loop that becomes dangerously addictive, to the point where I was desperately fighting off sleep to teach just one last lesson to my eager in-game students.
If you’re familiar with Fire Emblem’s combat, you’ll be able to dive into battle right away without issue. It’s essentially the same turn-based, tactical formula, but with a few new wrinkles added in to keep things spicy.
In addition to normal attacks, each of the five main weapon types offers different Combat Arts to employ: special attacks that reduce weapon durability rapidly but generally deal more damage and come with boosts like extra damage against flying units or a higher crit rate. Each unit can also equip a handful of “Abilities,” which grant them buffs like extra HP, weapon mastery, faster skill progression, and more.
One of the major updates to gameplay is the addition of battalions, which you can assign to any character if their leadership stat is high enough. They’re represented (adorably) as a gang of little soldiers (or pirates, or ninjas, etc.) that stand behind the unit during attack animations, providing various passive buffs as well as a new type of attack called Gambits. When utilized, the battalion charges the target (again, adorable) for damage and a chance to stagger (which prohibits movement and has a chance of spreading to other nearby enemy units). If an ally is close by, the Gambit may be bolstered and deal far more damage.
As is always the case with Fire Emblem, classic mode, which introduces permadeath into combat, is the best way to play. It makes the stakes feel real, both in battle and in the larger narrative. But a new feature called Divine Pulse mitigates the brutal nature of classic mode by allowing you to jump backward in time by as many turns as you like. So, if one of your units died, you can go back to the point where you think you made a fatal tactical error and alter your approach. It’s a limited-use ability, but as you level up you can increase the number of pulses at your disposal.
As you master the primary mechanics of combat, the nuances of movement on the battlefield start to become a bigger concern. Certain terrain can hinder movement or cause damage, so planning ahead and positioning your unit deliberately is key to their survival. Later levels in the game have branching paths and brutal environmental obstacles that force you to make tough decisions and add tons of depth to the gameplay.
Aside from combat, the rest of the game sees you creating lesson plans and mapping out goals for your students. You progress through the school year via a cute little calendar menu. Each week, you can focus on improving your students’ skills in different areas depending on what character class you want them to work their way up to (there are four class tiers, each with several unique class options).
Sundays are your free days, and you can use this time in several ways. You can choose to rest, which will raise your students’ motivation for Monday’s lessons and maximize their potential for growth, or you can arrange for seminars that can raise the motivation of select students. Heading out to battle is always a good option if you’re into the levelling grind (or just love battles, obviously). But the most fruitful way of spending your Sunday off is exploring the monastery, where you can you find the students on campus and talk to them one-on-one, play mini-games that earn you special items, enter your students in combat tournaments, or even have tea parties that tighten the bond between you and your students on the battlefield.
The beauty of these gameplay loops is that they all feed into the concept of you mentoring your students and building relationships with them. As you spend more time with them, you become more invested, and the game truly becomes an obsession. The game could use some extra polish in a few areas, like the stilted character animations in dialogue scenes and a lack of compelling romantic storyline options. But as a package, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a can’t-miss title that’s call-in-sick addictive.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is out now for Nintendo Switch. And if you’re looking for some other top-notch titles, check out our list of 2019’s must-play games.