After a long, long wait, Fire Emblem: Three Houses finally came out last weekend, and I spent the whole three days (well, two and a half) indulging in it like the whore that I am. I still haven’t beaten the game yet – apparently it takes 80 hours to pull that off -- let alone experienced the other two houses (I started with Blue Lions), so I wouldn’t call this a proper review by any stretch of the imagination. But there are things I just really enjoy about the game and I want to talk about, so, just like I did with The Last Remnant, here are some things I just really like about Fire Emblem: Three Houses, especially compared to other Fire Emblem games.
At the best of times, Nintendo’s ability to create narrative and characters has been limited. They struggle to craft compelling narratives in the traditional way, and have found success – deservedly so – utilizing the “less is more” approach. For as much narrative and world-building is in The Legend of Zelda or the Metroid series, for example, it’s the ambiguities that make Link and Samus, respectively, compelling and interesting characters. And traditionally the best parts of both those worlds are the ‘blank spaces’ that players have filled with their own imaginations. This rift in their ability has always come most blatant in games like Fire Emblem, where characters are typically only likeable because they represent a broad trope and has a pretty face. The series has struggled, in the past, having anything remotely like “complex” or “challenging” characters (I think Takumi was pretty much the only interesting character in Fates, for example): most of them are noble self-sacrificing do-gooders, stoic badasses, comedic wise-crackers… the works.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses represents a genuine evolution in Nintendo’s ability to put together a story. On the surface, all the tropes are there – the womanizer, the stoic do-gooder, the pious nice girl, the big eater, the resourceful peasant, the loyal knight, the diva… but each and every one of them has a way deeper level just below the surface that either complements those tropes in interesting ways, or defies them in sometimes unexpected ways. More important than that, however, is that the characters actually have a tension and chemistry to them that you don’t typically see in Fire Emblem games. Childhood friends have rifts that divide them that they hide beneath polite smiles. People don’t trust each other. They have arguments and actually fight. Some of your units genuinely despise each other, and I can’t remember the last time a Fire Emblem game had that level of emotional complexity between their characters.
That even extends to your character. Typically, the main protagonist of the Fire Emblem games is beloved and trusted by all. At the point I’m at in the story, that’s still largely true – there isn’t yet a “Takumi” who actively hates you. But the students don’t just blindly admire you, or at least, they don’t all do that. Some are intimidated, some are wary, and a few (to my delight) even call your character out for sort of being a blank slate who doesn’t show much emotion. Which reads to me like a subtle nod to the almost psychopathic way your character has to decide how to react to everything going around him or her.
The game goes out of its way to ensure you engage with your students and get to know who they are. Everything from helping return lost items to finding the right gift to give them to picking topics of conversation over tea… this game works overtime to ensure you know who these people and characters are… probably to break your heart when you’re forced to either fight them or sacrifice them later on. It’s blatant manipulation and I love it.
Because of this, the cast of Three Houses is by far the most iconic and beloved characters I’ve seen in the entire series. Which is good, because the strong cast of names and faces is what really separates Fire Emblem from other strategy games of its type.
Fire Emblem games have a reputation, not unfarily, for being pretty brutal affairs. One mistake, or one bad critical hit, and you can lose yoru best unit, a necessary healer, or a favorite character, and be forced to either trudge on without it (if you’re really iron-man about it) or re-start the battle from the very beginning.
Much has already been said of the Divine Pulse system – where you can press a button a certain number of times in a fight (you start with about two, but I’ve worked my way into having six) and go back in time as far as you want: either to un-do a single bad move or to start the whole damn battle from scratch. It really is a great system that basically does everything it sets out to do, but there are a few other nuances to battle that I think really do improve the formula.
For example, with Divine Pulses, one nice (but occasionally annoying) detail is that they are set in stone: the minute one attack hits, misses, or crits, that’s the way it’s going to be. If your enemy hits and kills you on a freak 35% hit chance, it doesn’t matter how many times you go back and re-do that turn, the enemy will always hit you. That predictability forces you to use the Divine Pulse intelligently to re-evaluate your actual strategy, rather than trying to save-scum your way into winning. Kind of like what Xcom does when it soft-saves the results of each shot.
But combat improvements aren’t just limited to the Divine Pulse. One of the biggest frustrations in Fire Emblem (and a lot of strategy games, really), is the element of unpredictability. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, however, mitigates that unpredictability by showing you exactly who each enemy is going to attack whenever you move your units. It’s a game changer, because it gives you a lot more information about the consequences of your actions before you commit your character to a move or an action, but it’s not broken either. You may know who is going to be attacked, but you don’t know how strong the enemy will be, what kind of attack they’ll do, or if they’re going to move and not attack on their turn. It’s just enough information that you can make informed decisions, and you’ll never once be able to call BS on an enemy’s turn when it turns out they can move a lot further than you might think.
Another nice change is that you have more combat options. Weapon Arts can give you that last-second boost to damage or range you need to take out a troubling foe, which is way more reliable than just hoping for a critical hit. Gambits can do everything from defend your allies to ensure your enemies can’t move, preventing them from repositioning to attack a more vulnerable nearby ally. You can change your allies class in-between battles if you need them to change their role. There’s a lot more you control, which means you’ve almost always got a solution to try before you resort to the Divine Pulse.
So far, I’ve done quite a few battles, but I only ever needed to use the Divine Pulse to undo a catastrophic mistake three times: twice to save a valuable character, I went back one turn to re-do some things, and only once I had to go back several turns when I realized I was in an unwinnable position. Every other time, I only ever used the pulse to un-do stupid mistakes, like forgetting to rally someone for that sweet, sweet support bonus.
But then, these games tend to escalate in difficulty quite hard near the end. I’m sure I’ll be bashing my head against the wall soon enough.
…look, there’s no two ways about it, the soundtrack in this game absolutely slaps. Right now Nintendo is doing a pretty good job of keeping people from uploading sounds from the game on YouTube, but sooner or later they’re going to lose patience or stop caring and then this game will pretty much be running on my laptop 24/7. The last time I heard a soundtrack this good and catchy was back in the Undertale days… years and years ago. Thank god the game has an in-game music library so I can pump up the jams even during the few painful hours every day I don’t get to play the damn thing.
Anyway. There’s a lot – and I mean a lot – I like about this game, and I’d be willing to bet good money that next week I’ll have even more to say, assuming I’m not ready with some kind of proper (albeit extremely unnecessary review). But this, ladies and gentlemen, is the real deal. It’s without a doubt the best Fire Emblem game I’ve ever played, and I personally can’t wait to see what the next chapter has in store for me.