Fire Emblem: Three Houses on Nintendo Switch has received the warmest welcome in the franchise’s long and storied history. Not only did it break sales records in Japan, but it also became the largest launch for the series in the US – already selling the most total physical copies in its short lifetime than any other entry except for Fire Emblem Awakening, which it is all but ensured to overtake if its current trajectory continues. Outside of its financial success, Three Houses has also been a critical smash with professional reviewers and customers alike. Indeed, on all sites that aggregate reviews, the newest member of the Fire Emblem family has maintained high marks across the board. This is a major accomplishment for a tactical role-playing series that was on the brink of obscurity less than a decade ago.
You can add my voice to the choir singing its praises, too. Fire Emblem: Three Houses will consume every fiber of your being. It’s just that good. No matter how hard you try to resist, it will sink it claws into you, pull you in, and keep its vice-grip on you locked in until the very end.
A large part of its ability to do so is through its social simulation aspects. The title takes place on a European-influenced fictional continent called Fódlan, which is divided into three nations (aka Three Houses… get it? *insert meme of guy tapping his head*) that used to be at odds with one another but have entered an era of peace. Needless to say, there is a lot of political Game of Thrones style tomfoolery afoot.
Amidst the aforementioned toomfoolery, you play the role of Byleth (who you can choose to play as male or female), a mercenary who is hounded by visions of Sothis, a green-haired woman with a bad case of amnesia. (Not that there’s such a thing as a good case of amnesia… unless it entails forgetting all those embarrassing high school memories – those I could do without. But I digress.)
Her memory loss isn’t as severe as other fictional figures, like Dory of Finding Nemo fame, but it is just mysterious enough to keep you invested in her story. Eventually, Byleth and his/her father make their way to a monastery that’s not too different from what I imagine the Church of England might have been like at the height of its power. Long story short, the lady running the monastery quickly takes a liking to Byleth and gives him a position as a professor at the church. Remember, this is old-school religion where there is no separation of church and state, so the monastery also functions as a school. As a professor at the school, you’re going to have to decide which clique, or “House”, you want to be responsible for mentoring. You can choose between the Blue Lions, Black Eagles, or Golden Deer. Otherwise known as The Overachievers Whose Parents Didn’t Love Them Enough, Rejects from a Tim Burton Film, and Mallrats.
You may be wondering how all of this fits in with the whole “tactical strategy RPG” genre that Fire Emblem occupies. I can’t blame you if you think this sounds more like The Sims: Freshman Year than the traditional turn-based shenanigans Fire Emblem is known for and helped pioneer. If you’ve played any other Fire Emblem installment before Three Houses, it will be hard to ignore the dramatic change of pace from previous titles. I won’t lie either, you might not fall in love with it right away. You might shake your head as you humor the developers and play along with this new direction they’re taking the series, but before long you will be invested in many of the lives of students and faculty alike at the monastery. You’re going to be ashamed of yourself for trying to rack up professor points, enlist students from other classes, figure out how to adjust a student’s goals to prepare them for the battlefield, eat cafeteria food, and yes – think of the perfect witty remarks to say during tea time to boost your bonds with other characters.
You have control over your schedule though, and soon enough you will be back on the battlefield where you can crush your enemies from atop a flying Pegasus (is there any other kind?) to your heart’s content. And all of the previously mentioned social sim fluff actually does end up enhancing the traditional strategy RPG elements when they come into play. You feel way more invested in the characters if they fall on the battlefield – and you’ll find yourself mentally taking notes on where each member of your team can improve so you can switch up your approach in the classroom.
Speaking of the classroom, it opens up all kinds of customization possibilities. You can lecture students in areas where they’re weak, and de-emphasize areas where they’re already strong, or do a mixture for a well-balanced fighter. From magic, to riding dragons, to axe-wielding warriors – there’s no shortage of classes for each student to qualify for. And again, all of the thought the game allows you to invest in your students on an individual level, also allows you to kind of emotionally connect with them in ways that you don’t usually experience with video games. Which in turn affects you more than most video games when you see where life ultimately takes each character.
Perhaps the biggest punch in the gut comes roughly midway through any of the three paths you could’ve chosen at the beginning of the game, known among players as “the timeskip”. The part of the game where the story jumps ahead five years when the students have grown into adulthood and you see how their experiences have shaped them for better or worse over the years.
Narratively, this is where the game gets most interesting, but also most disappointing. It threw the pacing of the game off more than I expected, and some of the personality changes didn’t quite seem justified or fully earned. In some ways, it makes sense. You haven’t seen these characters in half a decade and a lot has happened in that timespan. Learning what transpired throughout the years to transform some of them into who they are is fascinating and often bittersweet, but in some cases is unfulfilling. If you think I just can’t handle the story, I assure you that’s not the issue. I’ve invested in far more emotionally wrenching plots than Three Houses. I just disagree with some of the character portrayals after the timeskip. Mostly, I just felt it was a bit anti-climactic after the buildup.
Once some of the fantasies of the story wore off post-timeskip, I started judging some other aspects of the game a bit harsher. For example, the graphics. I realize this is the first time developer Intelligent Systems has developed a Fire Emblem game for a console after years of exclusively focusing on the handheld market, and that they even enlisted the aid of Koei Tecmo to help them finish the game on time (and the game was still delayed), but there’s really no excuse for some of the lack of polish here. The character models and overall visual style are appealing, but pixels stick out on clothing and backgrounds often look barebones. Fire Emblem is one of Nintendo’s biggest IPs, it deserves better.
The somewhat weak climax also calls into question just why the developers decided to so radically change the formula if the pay-off wasn’t there in the end.
But you know what? That same experimentation is what makes Fire Emblem so great. It’s what saved the franchise so many years ago. That same experimentation gave me hours of entertainment in Three Houses where I genuinely immersed myself in another world and felt real empathy for pixels on a screen. I haven’t felt so impressed by a game since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And before that, since I don’t even know when.
The fact I was able to overlook some of the cosmetic drawbacks of Fire Emblem: Three Houses for so long, in this age of 4K displays no less, is actually a testament to just how good it really is.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the amazing soundtrack, too. And the fact that nearly the entire game is fully voice-acted, for characters and interactions both big and small. The sheer scope and ambition of this game is difficult to quantify when you sit down and think about it.
So, while I wasn’t ultimately impressed by all of the directions the story took (which was initially a big driver of the game’s appeal for me), I realized by the end that, as with many things in life, the journey is often more beautiful than the destination. While it’s not my favorite in the Fire Emblem series (you can check out this list to see which title earns that distinction), Three Houses comes pretty darn close to the top and is still a must-play for franchise newcomers and veterans alike.
Even with its longer-than-average playtime and underwhelming ending, Fire Emblem: Three Houses still managed to leave me wanting an encore. So, who’s ready for the inevitable follow-up, Fire Emblem: Four Houses?