Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review (After One Play through)
Note: I was hesitant to call this a review for multiple reasons. First of all, I’ve only played through the game once. While you can play through a game once and write a sufficient review most of the time, this game has multiple paths and endings. This certainly clouds my overall view, and my view is subject to change once I play through it multiple times. Second, I’d probably describe this more as my thoughts going in, my thoughts while playing it, and my thoughts after finishing. That doesn’t fit into a title, so “review” will have to do. Lastly, I often feel like reviews have a certain implied intent. For example, a lot of reviews are written with the intent of informing the reader what to expect. I’m not sure if this can qualify as such.
Also, I avoid spoilers in this review, besides a very minor spoiler about Bernadette’s backstory.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest installment in the Fire Emblem series that began in 1990 for the NES, with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. My beginning with this series was the first Fire Emblem officially released in the US, which was Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword, released in 2003 for the Gameboy Advance. To rewind a bit though, what got me interested into the series in the first place was an entirely different series. Specifically, Shining Force, released for the Sega Genesis in 1992.
Like Fire Emblem, Shining Force is a grid-based Strategy RPG where each unit (think of a unit as a chess piece in a chess game) has their own personality and strengths. I played it and was hooked. After I completed this game, I wanted something similar to it, so I played Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword and I absolutely loved it. Before we move on to talk about Three Houses, I’d like to talk about why I love the older games in the series in the first place.
One of my favorite things about series in general was having all these characters that you command and raise, each with unique personalities. Not only that, but if a character dies, they die forever. It makes sacrificing units — a common strategy in grid-based games, even board games like chess — a costly strategy. Especially when you spend so much time getting to know and investing in your characters.
Another aspect I loved was the way characters grow. In Fire Emblem games, each time a character levels up, their stat increases are left to chance. Each character has different odds for each stat. Lyn in the above screenshot for example, every time she levels up, there’s a 40% chance her Strength stat increases. Seeing a good level up feels good, and of course, seeing a level up where barely anything increases feels bad. This makes replaying and discussing your play-through with friends interesting, as you can complain about your poor luck with your Lyn’s stats or brag about how she absolutely ended up unstoppable from good stat increases.
One last important aspect I’ll mention is in classic-style Fire Emblem games, the amount of fights you can engage in are limited. This makes not only winning each stage important, but making sure your entire team gets involved a priority. If you don’t let all of the characters you plan to use to the end get experience, they’ll be too weak to be useful by the end of the game.
Anyway, After Blazing Sword came Sacred Stones, which was a step back in the series that I won’t get into right now, then after Sacred Stones came one of my favorite games of all time, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, which came out for the Gamecube in 2005.
I LOVE Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. While some of the other Fire Emblem games are about heroic nobles fighting against an objectively evil force, Path of Radiance is about Ike, who hates nobles and thinks they are all snooty unsympathetic pieces of shit. Not only that, he’s one of the biggest allies of all time.
While Path of Radiance keeps the typical “good guys vs bad guys” cliche in stories, it added a lot of nuance. For example, Ike and company have to wage war on the mad King Ashnard, but they need the help of various countries to do it. When he learns one of the countries he’ll need help from engages in slavery, he’s absolutely disgusted and sees to it that they end it immediately before considering them as allies.
After Path of Radiance comes Radiant Dawn, released for the Nintendo Wii in 2007. It’s a direct sequel to Path of Radiance, and one of the more ambitious sequels you’ll ever seen in video games, in my opinion. One of the things that make me describe it as such is the fact that it puts you in the shoes of the inhabitants of the country that Ike liberated in the previous game. Because their country is now ran by a new oppressive regime, many of them view Ike as a villain.
In fact, Ike isn’t even present for the first 2/3rds of the game. Once the refugees finally meet him, they realize that their hatred of Ike was a product of propaganda and he takes over as the main character again and joins forces and cleans up after the mess he left behind. It was really cool to see this other perspective, and it showed all of the characters you fell in love with in the previous game now older and more matured. I loved Radiant Dawn, and I thought this was a really interesting twist on storytelling that made me excited about the future of the Fire Emblem series.
Which brings me…to why I didn’t have much faith Fire Emblem: Three Houses would be a good game.
Fire Emblem: Awakening. Let me make my feelings clear from the jump: this game fucking sucks. Awakening took everything I loved about the series and ruined it. Oh, you liked the stat randomization aspect? Well, we kept that, but now characters can level up infinite times, so that doesn’t matter anymore. Also, battles are infinitely re-playable, so making sure every character gets experience doesn’t really matter.
Also, none of the characters have depth anymore. At all. Every character is some type of slice of life harem anime trope. Oh, also there’s a character who looks and acts like a little girl, but she’s actually a dragon and she’s 1000 years old. It felt like the game was saying “PLEASE PLAY OUR GAME PEDOPHILES.”
What the fuck. Did I mention you can marry her? And have kids with her? Well, you can marry any straight character with your player avatar and have kids, but it doesn’t matter, cause every single character is shallow with the personality of an anime trope.
I hated it! And the battles were awful too! The pair up system made your character overpowered and the strategy aspect of this strategy game…was gone.
Sorry. I’ll calm down now.
Anyway, I thought maybe this was a one-time thing. They DID say Awakening would be their last game and its popularity made them change their mind.
I was wrong. They later released Fire Emblem: Fates. I won’t get too much into that game, but just know it’s very similar to Awakening and that it contains a very huge titty sister character who constantly hints that she wants to fuck you.
I’m not joking. At all!
Look, I love titties as much as the next straight guy but — Ok, we don’t have to do this — you get the point. Anyway, at this point, I had zero hope for this damn series. It was over. Consumers rewarded this shallow and boring development, and who the hell am I to tell them to abandon this awful formula?
Here’s the thing though: I hate myself and often do things that I know will go wrong. So I bought Fire Emblem: Three Houses. And for once, hating myself worked out.
I love Three Houses.
With a really random partnership with Koei-Tecmo — creators of the Dynasty Warriors series that I think gets a bad rep at times — Intelligent Systems went back to the aspects of the series that I loved.
Three Houses, if you didn’t get the hint from the title, allows you to play as one of the Three Houses of the Garreg Mach Monastery Academy. Your character is a professor, and your job is to well…teach. I had my doubts about this system, but it works well.
Every week or so, so you help yours students (aka your army) master different weapons and talents to help them be the type of combat unit you want them to be. Certain ones have different things they learn easier, but if you wanted every single unit to use magic including the ones who hate magic and don’t learn it very quickly, you potentially could.
Each house has a house leader, these are usually really powerful, charming, and intelligent characters that the story revolves around. My first play-through, I chose the Black Eagles, led by Edelgard. Without going too deep into the story here, they appealed to me the most because they didn’t seem connected to the game’s church much, and also Edelgard is voiced by a voice actress whose characters I usually like. Dumb reason, but sue me. She voices Mitsuru in Persona 3 and Wang Yuanji in Dynasty Warriors. What can I say!
Anyway, the characters this time around have more depth than ever. While some of them seem like the same old shallow and boring stereotypes from the post-Radiant Dawn games, when you get to know them, you find a surprising amount of detail to their backstories. For example, Bernadetta is a member of the Black Eagles who has really bad anxiety, can’t make friends, and wants to stay in her dorm all the time. This is often used for laughs and funny cringe moments, but after conversations with her, she reveals she was abused by her misogynistic father, which led to her not wanting to leave her room much.
This was a really fresh breath of air from vapid characters of Awakening and the Incest Simulator 2015 characters of Fates. The relationship aspect of the game, like previous Fire Emblem games, does matter. The higher the support level of characters with each other, the more they help each other during combat. It’s fun to watch all the different personalities clash and mesh, and the conversations are written pretty well.
The battle system has quite a few changes from the old games, but a lot of the changes I agree with. Bow-users are less useless now, as a lot of them can retaliate to melee attacks, and they also have skills and bows that increase their range beyond the regular 2 spaces.
The Pair Up system from the previous games that I hated is gone and replaced with something somewhat similar, but far less game-breaking or mandatory. Experience and fights are somewhat limited again, allowing the game to retain the strategy aspect.
One thing I noticed before I even realized Koei teamed with Intelligent Systems was the game’s influence from the Dynasty Warriors series. The whole “Three different houses/countries clash” idea is borrowed from the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdom novel, which the Dynasty Warriors games are based off of.
While playing through Claude’s story, Claude plans a deadly fire attack, which is a go-to strategic move in the Dynasty Warriors series that I felt was clearly borrowed. The partnership between Koei-Tecmo was a bit weird, but it worked out really well. In fact, I kinda hope they team up again for the next game.
One last thing I’d like to touch on is the time skip. At a certain point, a time skip of 5 years occurs and I thought it was a really nice touch. All of the students you taught at the academy have matured, some more than others, some only in their appearance, and it was nice to see the different changes. It was satisfying to see some characters with awful haircuts look far better years later, or just seeing ones with personality flaws seem to move past them.
The time skip also puts you in the war period, where the respective countries associated with each house have engaged in war. It was sad having to kill certain students in opposing factions, and was a reminder that this isn’t simply “good vs. evil” but violence for the sake of political beliefs that everyone gets caught up in. Some of the characters even lament about having to fight people they used to know. This aspect again reminded me of the Dynasty Warriors series, which encourages you to explore and play as each side in various battles.
What’s really well-done about the plot is I have yet to see a consensus for the best path to take, and I’ve seen some players call certain sides “the evil side” and some swear their side is the only “good” one. The way the game was able to split people up about the various ways to achieve a revolution and ousting of a corruption was commendable.
As I gush about the game, the game does have flaws. For example, the academy is huge, but there’s little to do in it. Sure you can go fishing or gardening, but those mini-games have no depth and lost my interest rather quickly. The menus can be a headache sometimes. Where the hell is anything?
Tracking down trainers later in the game when you choose the “Explore” option gets tedious and plain annoying. Would rather just do that from a list or from a system similar to when you tutor your students.
While I understand they wanted you to make decisions that affect the story, I actually wish they made each house have a different pre-war story rather than each one be relatively the same due to the presence of your character. This would have made replaying even more enjoyable, as the academy era of the game is relatively the same no matter what side you choose.
While the game is already pretty long if you play each route, I do wish the war era was a bit longer. You get all these matured and powerful characters, but you only get to spend so much time with them before the game abruptly ends.
There’s a few things I could go on and on about, but overall, I’m really satisfied with this game. When I finished Radiant Dawn, this is what I envisioned to come after.
Just wish it didn’t take a whole decade.