Review: Fire Emblem - Three Condos
Fire Emblem: Three Houses for the Nintendo Switch is one of Nintendo’s biggest in-house releases of 2019, and if my Twitter feed is anything to go by, one of the best releases as well. While previous Fire Emblem games have seen commercial and critical success in the United States, the series’ more recent titles (Awakening and Fates) have been mostly restricted to Nintendo’s handheld devices, so Three Houses was meant to be seen as the franchise’s grand return to mainstream consoles, starting with the Switch. While Fire Emblem is an established franchise with plenty of veterans, the Switch release means that there was likely going to be a lot of newcomers to the series that may have never played any of the games prior, me included. My exposure to Fire Emblem prior to Three Houses was only through Smash, so it was due time for me to actually experience the actual games they represent. On a more general note, I decided to give the games “ratings” as an attempt to quantify my thoughts, but rather than use a number scale, I’ll give my personal opinion on whether a game is worth buying at retail price or whether it’s only really worth it if one can get it on sale; after all I’m only writing pieces on games I believe are worthy enough to be played, so it’s just a matter of how good the game is (will be retroactively giving ratings to previously reviewed games).
The game takes place in the fictional land of Fódlan, a land divided generally into three large regions, forming the basis for the background of the story. The setting is more or less medieval fantasy, a familiar if somewhat overused environment (that poses an unrelated question of why such fantasy worlds are permanently stuck in the medieval ages when you would expect the existence of magic to greatly speed up the rate of human advancement). A large part of the game takes place in the Garreg Mach Monastery, a sort of “neutrality center” that also acts as a school, and the (future) leaders of the three regions just so happen to be students there. You start out as the son/daughter (you can choose your character’s name and sex) of a mercenary who’s hired by the church and you become a professor at the monastery as a result of nepotism. From there you will eventually pick one of the three houses to lead as their teacher, with the lord of each house being future leaders of the respective regions they hail from.
The gameplay of Three Houses boils down to essentially two parts: the turn-based, strategic combat system that is synonymous with the franchise, and a slice-of-life portion where you explore the monastery, teach your students and build up rapport (not unlike the Persona games). The combat system is somewhat reminiscent of the XCOM franchise, where you control a group of units against enemies and need to strategically manage them in a way to outmaneuver enemies. You have various different units that can do different things, from close-quarters combat to magic, and even horse/dragon-riding; each unit has their own strengths and weaknesses. To master the combat, you have to know how to exploit weaknesses in your opponents while mitigating your own through good positioning and planning. The game also features different modes to cater to different players; aside from the standard difficulty modes you can pick between casual/classic, which determines whether unit deaths are permanent or not. This isn’t actually that big of a deal as you basically have the ability to re-wind time mid-battle which more or less acts as a save-state, but nevertheless the feature is there (also if you really want to you can just force-quit the game and reboot it to start over). I started out on Normal/Casual, though I intend to play the other routes in Hard/Classic now that I actually know how the game works.
The combat is definitely a fun system that provides enough depth to make the turn-based nature interesting (I don’t generally have a preference for turn-based games and I personally think they’re difficult to get right). There are a few personal gripes I have with the combat though, especially when compared to a franchise like XCOM. One is that the map isn’t three-dimensional, so factors like elevation (high/low ground) and cover don’t play a role which makes the map feel flat (literally). Another is the weapon durability system; I think weapon durability systems in games are almost never good and only serve as artificial ways to pose limits on players using powerful gear, which sort of goes against the point of progression in an RPG. That, combined with the expense of repairing the more powerful weapons, means that I’m using the standard equipment 99.9% of the time and only using a powerful weapon when I really need to one-shot a difficult enemy (also with the way combat mechanics work with stats it is actually optimal to use the lower-tier weapons a lot of the time). Perhaps that’s the intention of the developers, but it’s something I personally disagree with as I enjoy the feeling of progression in replacing weak weapons with stronger ones. Finally, I’m not a fan of the random stat increases that happen with each level up, which means that certain characters can either become really overpowered with good luck or really weak with bad luck; I would rather have consistent stat increases that match character affinities or be able to choose how I can distribute level up points. Classes having minimum base stats and permanent stat boosters sort of remedy that, but they seem more like band-aids rather than an actual fix. Continuing off classes, I also disagree with gender-locked classes, which don’t have strong enough lore reasons to justify them, and all it does is lock certain characters out of powerful classes for basically an arbitrary reason. My biggest gameplay criticism becomes more apparent after multiple play-throughs so it’s not something one’s going to see after playing through a single route, but the gameplay across all four routes is not very unique and sort of repetitive. There aren’t too many unique maps, and all four routes sharing the same first half can make repeated play-throughs tedious for those who want to experience the other parts of the narrative.
If the gameplay of Three Houses was just the combat, I would honestly think the game isn’t worth it and just recommend something like XCOM 2 or Divinity: Original Sin 2 instead. However as much as a turn-based strategy game Three Houses is, it is also a “life simulator” outside of combat, and I actually thoroughly enjoyed that, as it’s a great way to to get to know the characters. Planning out lectures and setting goals for your students, trying to figure out what class you want them to eventually become is a fun exercise, though it can be a bit punishing in the sense that in order to actually optimize your characters, you need to do a bit of research ahead of time and decide what you want their end-game classes to be, though some say that’s part of the charm (I can definitely see the fun in planning out min-maxing). Other miscellaneous activities you can do to build relationships with your students include eating with them, cooking with them, and hell even inviting them to tea. Aside from learning more about their character arcs, these sorts of activities can also help you recruit students from other houses as well if your relationship with them is good enough, though recruiting outside students isn’t a particularly big deal on your first play-through, and can be difficult to do anyways unless you’re on NG+. These activities all add flavor to what could be initially seen as a boring component of the game, though a large reason why such activities are fun is the quality of the game’s character writing.
Obviously as I’ve only played a single route of the 3/4 total routes in the game I am only able to really speak about that particular play-through, though based on the overall character interactions I can probably assume that the storytelling is roughly on par with each route with each one’s favorite coming down to personal preference. That said, for the Black Eagles Crimson Flower route (the details of how to actually play this route is spoiler territory so I won’t elaborate more), I found the story to be enjoyable and good at maintaining my interest through the course of my play-through, with a few unpredictable elements to keep me on my toes. The fact that the story is split into months with each major, story-progressing mission happening at the end of the month (before that you engage in the various monastery activities) definitely can be distracting from the main narrative; in some parts of the story where I’m constantly at war, yet here I am in the monastery fishing and planting herbs. The world-building is great though, and the writers were able to create a complex universe with interesting mechanics, political systems, and ideological clashes. My main criticism of the writing is that a lot of the side villains are extremely uninteresting and feel like stereotypical evil-just-to-be-evil characters. It’s made less severe by the fact the main antagonists are great, but for all the effort they put into developing the main cast it feels really lacking in comparison. At the end of the day, the writing certainly holds up to keep the play-through interesting and intriguing enough to make me want to re-visit it from the perspectives of the other houses.
Where the writing’s greatest strengths are, in my opinion, is in the game’s characters. Building support/rapport between characters is so enjoyable in this game largely because the character interactions are all excellently done, and the way each of your students grows throughout the story is honestly amazing. A lot of the characters start off as rather one-note stereotype templates, but as the story unfolds and you take the time to build up relationships between them and learn about their backgrounds, they each start developing into very three-dimensional characters that are very easy to get attached to. Each character’s relationship with other characters come in levels (from C to S), and as each character’s bond levels up their interactions also improve, and I find it super satisfying to see characters that once despised each other grow to respect each other (bonus points if it’s a character you had a bad initial impression of). Perhaps this is partly due to my own experiences as somebody who has taught before, but who doesn’t like seeing your students go from little shits into complex, respectable individuals? This can go the other way as well; from the start of the game you are required to pick a single house to join which means there are going to be characters that you cannot add to your team, and (POTENTIAL/DEBATABLE MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) due to the nature of the three different houses clashing with each other you’re going to eventually run into situations where students from the other houses end up as your enemies. This would feel even worse in subsequent play-throughs, being forced to fight against characters whom you’ve grown to love from playing the previous routes, though you could avoid that by recruiting the other students. What’s even better? Some of these character interactions even change depending on which route you’re playing, which makes sense since they’re factions have changed and thus their situations have changed as well. Some characters in particular change significantly depending on what route you’re playing, which is an excellent attention to detail on behalf of the writers.
The characters are also greatly enhanced by their voice actors, and for the most part I think the voice acting in this game is excellent, though I wished there was actual spoken dialogue from your player character whenever you interact with others (your character does speak, but only in battle with generic battle-oriented quotes), because a silent protagonist in a game where all of the characters are lively is pretty jarring; imagine a character with whom you’ve spent a long time bonding pours his/her heart out to you and all you do is nod. Obviously you’re still picking a dialogue option, but it does take you out of the moment for a bit since a lot of the player character’s interactions feel one-sided. The characters are also integrated in the story pretty well, with different characters reacting in different ways to current events in the story as well as having different interactions depending on who has been recruited, which goes to show the amount of effort put into making the world feel organic and less video game-y.
Aside from the writing and the gameplay which are the meat and potatoes, another great thing I appreciated about the game was the soundtrack. The theme that plays before the start screen, the various ambient music, and fight music are all excellent to listen to (any soundtrack that properly appreciates the cello is A+ in my book), which is pretty important considering this is a game you’re going to be spending a lot of time on, so having bad music playing in the background will definitely detract from the experience. Also, while I would say each route is a fun experience standalone, at least from a narrative perspective, the game really needs all of its major routes to be played through in order to fully understand the world and the characterizations/motivations of the central characters as each route is intentionally structured to favor its specific protagonist (similar to the Fate: Stay/Night visual novel’s narrative structure), and NG+ makes each subsequent route easier, and arguably more fun as you have more freedom to recruit and customize your roster. With that being said, overall, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a solid turn-based game, that is greatly enhanced by its excellent character writing, so I would highly recommend this to anybody who can tolerate turn-based games and enjoys good character development in a story.
Rating: Absolutely worth at retail price, even for people who weren’t a fan of the franchise initially.