I don’t dislike Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but I don’t feel challenged by it — and that’s weird.
Since 1990, the Fire Emblem series has been putting out notoriously difficult turn-based strategy games as Nintendo exclusives, though they only began being officially released outside Japan in 2003. The games are meant to replicate the feel of grid-based tactical combat in a tabletop fantasy RPG, with a focus on individual characters as your units rather than armies or battalions.
Made as a collaboration between Intelligent Systems and the third-party studio Koei Tecmo, Three Houses for the Nintendo Switch is the biggest Fire Emblem yet, with better graphics, a broader scope, and an initially lighter tone than most of what came before it. In a series of dark, low-fantasy war dramas, the first 20 hours of Three Houses are a high school comedy with fight scenes. (If a lot of Japanese fantasy games are Tolkien by way of Gary Gygax, Fire Emblem is Joe Abercrombie.) It’s bright, colorful, absorbing, and, to my surprise, shockingly easy.
If you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before, or if you’ve been avoiding the series due to its hardcore reputation, then Three Houses might be perfect for you. In fact, I wonder if the game was made as a casual-friendly introduction to a potential new audience on the Switch.
If you’re a veteran of past games in the series, however, or even of turn-based strategy games in general, don’t play Three Houses on anything but Hard difficulty, in Classic Mode. Otherwise, you’ll sleepwalk through it.
What got Fire Emblem its reputation is that, unlike most of its competitors, it features permanent death. If one of your characters is defeated in battle, they’re gone for good. Even a small mistake — overextending your lines, leaving a soft target unprotected at the end of your turn, not checking the map before you deploy — can cost you a valuable asset for the rest of the game.
For the last few releases, however, Fire Emblem’s primary creator, the Japanese studio Intelligent Systems, has gradually scaled back the series’s trademark challenge. 2005’s Path of Radiance for the GameCube introduced adjustable combat difficulty, and starting with 2010’s New Mystery of the Emblem, permanent death became an option (“Classic Mode”), rather than an unchangeable default setting.
The latter move was controversial both among fans and the development staff, but it’s also marked the start of a commercial upswing for the series, with 2012’s Awakening enjoying the highest sales of any Fire Emblem to date. When Three Houses was announced back in January 2017, it quickly became one of the most anticipated releases for the Switch, especially since it would mark the first time a Fire Emblem game appeared on a home console since 2007’s Radiant Dawn.
Initial sales of Fire Emblem are promising, with the game topping U.K. charts two weeks in a row.
Three Houses is set on the continent of Fódlan, in and around the monastery of Garreg Mach, which serves as a military academy for primarily noble-born students. The current class at Garreg Mach is split into three houses, each one led by the heir to one of the three nations that share Fódlan.
Your point-of-view character in Three Houses is a young mercenary, named Byleth by default, and whose gender is up to you. One day, you encounter and rescue the three houses’ head students from a (suspiciously well-coordinated) bandit attack.
Upon returning them to the monastery, you learn that your father, Jeralt, the leader of your mercenary troop, never told you about his history with Garreg Mach’s leaders. Due to his connections, you’re unexpectedly offered a position on the monastery’s faculty, as an advisor and commander to one of the three houses.
From there, Three Houses goes on a slow boil. At the start of the game, you pick one of the three titular houses to take under your wing. From there, you can develop your team of students gradually over the course of an in-game year, taking them on training exercises, sending them into combat, building their skills, and determining what character classes they’ll take. On your days off, you can explore Garreg Mach at your leisure, to play fishing minigames, attend lectures from the other professors, carry out quick fetch quests, and get to know the NPCs that populate the monastery.
One of the strengths of Fire Emblem has traditionally been its strong character work, and that’s where Three Houses gets most of its impact. You can gradually build relationships, or “Supports,” among your students and allies, by having them work, fight, and hang out together. Supports give slight combat advantages, but also provide extra missions and optional conversations, which do a lot to flesh each one out. Even the most one-note characters on the roster (he’s a notorious flirt! she’s painfully introverted! he loves to eat!) eventually get some depth as you get to know them.
There’s a weird appeal in grinding Support points between your characters, as it turns the downtime sections of Three Houses into a matchmaking simulator. There’s an insane amount of fully-voiced dialogue packed into the game, even between characters that would never ordinarily interact, and there are a lot of worldbuilding details, character beats, laughs, and touching moments locked behind Support conversations. If you get two characters to high Support with one another, you may open up new endings after the game where they build lives together, as friends, partners, or spouses. You can pursue an even higher level of Support between Byleth and a number of characters, which can eventually develop into a post-game romance.
Your choice of house also determines how the last half of the game plays out, which follows the abrupt outbreak of a war between the nations of Fódlan. (That’s a slight spoiler, but frankly, if you can watch Three Houses’s introduction movie and not see a war coming, you’re just getting your hopes up.) At this point, Three Houses turns into a more traditional Fire Emblem game, as your students become the core of an army of hardened soldiers, thrust into the middle of a war they’d rather not be fighting, with friends on the other side. The story changes a lot between houses, and there’s a fourth “secret” campaign hidden behind a major choice, so you haven’t seen all Three Houses has to offer unless you play through it more than once.
As a sort of bingeable, interactive animated miniseries, then, Three Houses is great. You could get a few seasons and a movie out of Garreg Mach; its neurotic, complicated student body; and the mysteries that surround both it and Byleth.
As a strategy game, though, Three Houses is often dull.
In the first half, you’re meant to be taking it easy on your 15- to 20-year-old students, which means the game takes it easy on you. Your early battles are against friendly soldiers in training exercises, poorly-equipped groups of bandits, and an occasional exhibition match against your fellow students. There are a few surprises, but most of the fights in the game’s first half are cakewalks. All you have to do to win is show up.
This comes down to how Three Houses features the same combat system that’s been a fixture of the Fire Emblem series for almost three decades, but has made several mechanical changes over time that end up trivializing the action. For example, Three Houses, like 2017’s Echoes, doesn’t have the rock-paper-scissors Weapon Triangle mechanic that’s been in most of the other games. You no longer have to worry about your troops suddenly getting vaporized by enemies exploiting their weak spots, which takes a lot of the random danger out of battles.
Three Houses also offers multiple methods to improve your units before you ever send them into a fight; this isn’t a first for the series, but it’s more elaborate and effective here than in anything before it. You can train your character’s weapon skills to unlock advanced techniques, put the students in charge of NPC battalions to give them special attacks and passive stat bonuses, and cook meals to give your team buffs that will last through every battle in that in-game month. Money is thrown at you by the truckload, so your crew can always be equipped with the best available equipment, and there’s at least one character in every house who quickly becomes a killing machine. By the time you hit the 10-hour mark, it’s rare to encounter enemies that you don’t have significantly outgunned.
Once your priests have access to the Warp spell and you get a battalion with Stride, the game might as well roll the closing credits. At that point, you can throw Byleth all the way across a map on your first turn to assassinate the enemy’s commander, which will wrap up a lot of story missions on the spot.
If disaster strikes, you have an ability called Divine Pulse that allows you to rewind the events of a battle as far back as you like so you can try something else. It starts with three uses per fight, with no additional cost, and can go up to five. You don’t have to use Divine Pulse, of course, but its presence feels like an already easy game came with permanent training wheels.
(At time of writing, the Lunatic difficulty DLC has not been released for Three Houses, which may address some of this. It’s entirely possible that these issues – that there are a dozen different combat advantages you can stack on top of one another, in a game where you don’t need any of them – will be remedied by playing on Lunatic.)
To be fair, the action does perk up in Three Houses’ second half, once Fódlan goes to war. Enemies get individually stronger and show up in larger groups, with access to some of the advanced unit types. Pegasus riders in particular are vicious in this Fire Emblem, and have a knack for suddenly destroying all your back-row support characters.
Those enemies, however, are still rock stupid, which leads me to another issue. Your opponents in Three Houses don’t react in opposition to your squad, but instead, are set up as if they’re a series of obstacles. Most hostile characters won’t act at all unless you’ve got a unit in their movement range, at which point they’ll make an immediate suicide charge at their first available target, aiming to cause as much damage as possible before you take them out. Even glass cannons like archers and mages will throw themselves into an obvious no-win situation if it means getting a single attack off before they die.
Most of the actual tactical challenge in Three Houses ends up coming from how the maps are designed. A few fights have siege weapons, which allow an enemy to whittle down your characters from downrange, or fortified tiles that turn a single unit into a brick wall. You’ll often start at a terrain disadvantage, be forced to assault an entrenched position through narrow choke points, or have to deal with reinforcements that are scripted to appear behind your lines.
It’s all very simplistic, which wasn’t a real problem before now. In earlier Fire Emblem games, when you have few opportunities to improve your characters outside of combat and limited ability to recover from your losses, the enemy AI doesn’t have to be clever to be dangerous. In Three Houses, however, the AI doesn’t have the intelligence or the firepower to really threaten you.
To be clear, despite this laundry list of complaints, Three Houses is not a bad game. It’s well-made, sharply imagined, and deftly written, with a lot of replay value and player customization. Newcomers will find a lot to like here, and Three Houses is a good gateway into the series or the genre. At least one character will likely become an instant favorite, and while the game’s plot skews closer to pure fantasy escapism than Fire Emblem usually does, it still tells a smarter, more complex story than most of its competitors. I already know several people for whom the game’s lack of challenge is a value add, because they’re far more invested in the characters and storytelling than the tactical combat.
However, Three Houses also suffers from serious balance issues, which serve to highlight problems that, in retrospect, the Fire Emblem series has been grappling with for a while. For years, it’s been moving away from its roots as a brutally unforgiving tabletop simulator, in order to evolve in a more casual-friendly direction, and Three Houses marks a breaking point thereof. It’s badly in need of a systems overhaul if it intends to stay relevant as a strategy franchise, rather than as a vestigial strategy-RPG clinging to the edges of a 60-hour visual novel.