Nintendo / Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo
There are two genres of console game that strike fear in the heart of reviewers: RPGs and turn-based strategy.
Both tend to take many tens of hours to beat, and given that this inevitably results in a need to ‘take our work home’ with us and commit a large chunk of time to them, the thought of reviewing one fills many with dread.
Yer man Scullion received review code for Fire Emblem: Three Houses about a week ago. Considering it’s not only the latest game in a much-loved turn-based strategy series but also has new features that make it more like an RPG than ever, it’s a lethal cocktail of free time devastation.
The reality, dear reader, is that this game can’t be beaten in a week. Not if you want to play it properly, and also have an adult life with a family and a job. As such, this isn’t a completed review.
After asking my lovely Twitter followers whether I should keep playing and turn in a review late, or just review what I’ve played so far, they showed their commitment to the cause by turning in a reliable 228/228 vote. So I’ve just decided to do the latter.
To make it categorically clear, then: this is not a full review. I have not completed this game. And from what I’ve been told by some peers, there’s a moment something like 40-50 hours in (that I have yet to reach) where shit goes down and everything properly kicks off, so this isn’t even a review of the meat of it.
What it should be, though, is enough to reassure you that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is bloody good, and well worth getting if you’re even slightly interested in the genre.
This one’s riddled with plot, so I’ll keep it deliberately vague to avoid spoilers. You play as Byleth (who you can rename and make either male or female), who finds themselves teaching at a monastery because reasons.
This monastery consists of three different houses (in the same way Hogwarts has four), with each house containing students from a certain country. The three countries used to be at war, you see, but now they’re at peace and their kids are at the same school. No need for a backstop or anything: take notes, Boris.
Near the start of the game you’ll be asked to choose one of the three countries to commit your loyalty to: this affects the conversations you have in the game and the units you’ll have in your squad.
To say anymore would spoil the living piss out of it. My advice is this: pay particular attention to Edelgard, Dimitri and Claude from the beginning. These are the ‘leaders’ of each of the three houses and therefore the ones you’ll be talking to most depending on which house you choose.
Pick a favourite, then, and pay close attention to which house they represent. When you’re then asked to pick a house, choose theirs (but bear in mind that when the choice appears you aren’t reminded who’s associated with each one).
The main meat of Three Houses is obviously still the turn-based strategic combat the series is famous for. Your initial party consists of the students of the house you’ve selected, and at first they’re a fairly standard bunch armed with swords, lances, axes, bows and magic.
As ever, the more your party fights the more they’ll level up and the more their stats will grow. Anyone delivering a lethal blow to an enemy gets a chunk of XP, helping them level up a lot quicker. All this goes towards their eventual promotion to a different class, although this time that’s a little more literal than usual.
You see, because this time you’re a teacher and the rest of your party are your students, instead of them just hitting a certain level and ‘evolving’ to a different class you have to instead enter them into an exam.
The chances of them passing depends on how well they meet the qualifications, but once they pass they’ll graduate into a fighter, Pegasus knight, dark mage or what have you. There are more than 40 different classes, with better ones becoming available as they level up.
That’s how upgrading class has changed, but there are plenty of new features on the battlefield too. Most notable of these is battalions, which can be assigned to each of your characters and consist of armies fighting alongside them.
It isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds: you generally just see them running around you like headless chickens, and all they really do (other than boost your stats a bit) is let you use a special move called a gambit. Apparently Intelligent Systems enlisted the help of Koei Tecmo to make these battalions look the part: they really needn’t have bothered.
Other features are more useful, especially for beginners who may find it tricky getting into the world of turn-based strategy. Enemies now have a red line coming from them showing which of your heroes they plan to attack next, meaning you can get them out of their range (don’t worry, you can turn this off).
You can also enable online features. This doesn’t mean head-to-head battles with other players: rather the game will add little pink and yellow glows to the battle map to mark where other players’ heroes and enemies most commonly die. Stand on those spots and you’ll get items, gain experience or repair your weapon’s durability a bit.
Speaking of weapon durability, that’s returned after being absent for the past couple of games. Each of your weapons has a number of hit points, and every time you attack an enemy you lose one.
Don’t worry too much if you’re emotionally attached to a specific weapon, though: one it runs out of hit points you can still use it. It’ll just be weaker than alcohol-free beer until you can take it to a shop and get it repaired.
By and large, though, its new and returning features aside, the battles are generally similar to those in recent Fire Emblem games. This is by no means a bad thing: it’s still immensely satisfying and downright whoop-inducing when your hero is down to a fraction of health but manages to dodge an attack then counter with a critical.
And yes, just for those who are wondering, there’s still the option to choose between Classic and Casual mode. The former has the permadeath the Fire Emblem series was once notable for – once one of your party members dies in the game you’ll never get them back – while the latter takes them out of the battle when they ‘die’ but adds them to the squad again when the battle ends.
You can argue about which is better until you’re blue in the face, but at least if you play in Casual your face will only be blue for a while. For what it’s worth, I play Casual: fuck all the dudebro hardcore stuff: I want everyone around so I can see all the possible stories and character relationships. Too many people are dying in real life to worry about loss in games too.
That’s battling, then: the same, compelling squad-based system that Fire Emblem fans loved, but tweaked with some welcome new features. And battalions.
This time, though, fighting is only part of the gig. Since you’re teaching at a school, Intelligent Systems has decided to go all Harry Potter (or Grange Hill, if you’d rather) and give you a bunch of non-battle stuff to do, all set to a big calendar of events.
This calendar features your main missions and any practice missions you may want to take on for levelling up purposes, but it also grants access to other activities, from giving lectures (which improves students’ skills) to fishing, to planting food in a greenhouse to generally improving your relationships with a bit of a chinwag and a basic gift-giving mechanic.
Best of all though is the option to just explore the sizeable monastery grounds, looking for side-missions and boosting your bonds with other characters in that way.
It’s a new means that contributes to a familiar end: these relationships are still designed to improve your teamwork in battle, build morale and maybe even lead to marriage – hang on, marrying a student? – but the variety you get to enjoy while nurturing them is compelling.
The only issue some may have is that it’s potentially cajoling those who are purely turn-based strategy fans into taking on RPG elements they don’t particularly care about, just so they don’t miss out on developing and improving their characters. It’s a little difficult to get into a “have a battle, then another battle, then another battle” rhythm with all the non-battle interruptions getting in the way.
Still, from what I’ve gathered – and again, I can’t vouch for this – the back half of the game is very much battle-focused, meaning it seems if you only care about the turn-based elements but put the effort in you’ll eventually get your reward.
So there we go, that’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses so far. It’s worth stressing once again that the above is based on something like 20 hours, I’m still nowhere near finished it and from what I’ve gathered (again, no spoilers) there’s a big massive shift later on that gets all serious plot-wise and is by all accounts brilliant.
Because of that, I can’t definitely give this a final verdict or anything like that. All I can say is that what I’ve played so far has been absolutely fantastic, and failing some catastrophic and sudden collapse in quality without warning later on, I’m confident it’ll be money well spent.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is out on Switch. You can buy a physical version from Amazon UK for £42.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a digital copy of the game from the publisher. The content of my review was in no way influenced by this (other than the fact it isn’t a review because it turned up a wee bit late).
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