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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

The latest entry in the long-running Fire Emblem franchise and the first to make its appearance on the Switch, Three Houses also introduces several new gameplay elements to the format.  But do these changes make the sixteenth Fire Emblem game a strategy RPG to remember, or is this just a letdown to long-time fans?

Fire Emblem for a franchise has been around for a long time, with its first entry appearing on the Famicom in 1990, but it remained a relatively unknown franchise outside of Japan for a long while.  Like many in the west, my first exposure to the Fire Emblem franchise was through the Super Smash Brothers series, most notably its second entry (Melee) which featured Marth and Roy from the first and sixth Fire Emblem games, respectively.  Fan interest led Intelligent Systems to localize Fire Emblem games for the first time, and from that, the series quickly developed a following in the west.  Sales for later entries steadily declined, though, and the series faced the threat of being cancelled entirely.  However, the unexpected success of Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS (selling 2.1 million copies worldwide - nearly four times as many as the previous international release) brought it back from the brink, driving Nintendo and Intelligent Systems to give the franchise a new lease and an opportunity to make it a mainstay for a new generation of RPG fans.

The most recent result of that and a collaboration with Koei Tecmo (who also developed the Fire Emblem Warriors spinoff game) was Three Houses; a game which worked in some elements of a school sim (not unlike the popular Persona franchise) and allowed the player to build more personal relationships with characters in a variety of ways.  The game also surprisingly did away with a couple of the series' trademark elements - the Weapon Triangle and Magic Triangle mechanics are discarded, allowing for a wider variety of spells and weapons to be utilized.  Similarly, Magic now falls under one of two schools, with healing and supportive magic governed by the Faith stat and offensive magic being based on Reason.

While Three Houses does retain the series' trademark of having no "generic" characters, it does utilize a class system somewhat similar to games like Final Fantasy Tactics.  Each character begins as a generic class (Noble or Commoner) that can use low level magic and weapons, but as their skills with weapon types, Reason, Faith, Riding, etc. are boosted, more classes become available to them.  From Monks (spellcasters) to Fortress Knights (slow but heavily-armored and powerful fighters) to series mainstays like Paladins and Pegasus Knights, there are quite a few to see and use, each with their own skills to learn to bolster one's combat abilities.  One small roadblock, however, is that one requires a Seal item to unlock anything beyond basic classes, and they must take an exam at a specific point of the week with a significant chance of failure, though this decreases as the classes' prerequisite skills go up.

A new feature of Three Houses is the Battalion mechanic, where a character can be "equipped" with a type of Battalion; doing so bolsters their stats based on the character's Charm stat and and allows for special attacks called "Gambits" with a variety of effects - healing all allies in a small area, stunning enemies and preventing them from moving for a turn, or knocking them back a space to allow other units to move in, to name a few.  More powerful Battalions become available to units with a higher Authority skill, making it a very worthwhile investment for some characters.

As mentioned, the game works in elements of school sims to develop its characters and train their abilities.  In a twist on the norm, though, the player actually takes the role of a professor at Garreg Mach Monastery, granting them a very active role in shaping their unit's classes and abilities.  The player is at first given the choice of which of the titular Three Houses to teach for (each with their own set of students and a unique storyline twist later on), and after that they can hold lessons to train students' stats, have them enter tournaments, take promotion exams, or just invite them to mundane activities like cooking or having tea together.  The latter two are necessary in part to keep students' Motivation up, which is required to maximize the number of training sessions they will have in a given week.  One can also help them build bonds with the player character and other students via correct dialog choices, gifts or finding and returning lost items, which in turn helps them synergize better on the battlefield.  One can also recruit students from other houses into their own by boosting the protagonist's stats high enough, which gives them more available characters to use during battles.  As one engages with their students and completes optional objectives throughout the academy, they will earn experience to boost their Professor Level, which in turn will earn them extra funds at the start of each month and more free time to spend on activities.

Combat, despite losing a couple of long-time staples of its design, remains unmistakably Fire Emblem, with lengthy but engaging skirmishes against large groups of foes and just enough of a random element to keep the player focused.  Keeping one's team in a close formation and moving characters to the back of the pack after they take a hit or two is still recommended, lest enemies gang up on individual units and eliminate them (particularly problematic on the Classic setting, where character death is permanent).  Weapons still break after a set number of uses, with special attacks generally doing more damage than a standard blow but depleting Weapon HP much more quickly (and eliminating any chance of follow-up attacks).  Spells operate slightly differently than previous games, not being tied to Spellbook items but only being usable a set number of times per battle.  And of course, knowing the ins and outs of all the units is highly recommended, such as attacking tougher foes with magic to soften them up or knowing to use archers against flying units.

As with many modern games, Three Houses does work in an online feature of sorts - while the game is solely a single-player experience, connecting to the Internet will cause "event squares" to appear on the field where other players' characters fell, usually granting a dropped item or some extra experience points when a character stops on them.  One can also get training or temporary assistance from other players' characters at the academy that appear after talking to a specific NPC.  While neither is ultimately not a big change to the overall experience, they can be handy for getting a little bit of extra aid in a pinch.

In short, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a triumph, maintaining a lot of the series' trademark appeal in its detailed setting, complex characters and turn-based tactical gameplay while branching its gameplay out into new territory and incorporating all of it into the overall design quite well.  I'd never really gotten into the Fire Emblem series before, but Three Houses won me over; I quickly found myself captivated by the school elements, wanting to train up my characters as much as possible for the next mission and trying to bolster my own characters' stats to recruit others to my team so I could see more of their backstories and interactions.  That, plus plenty of replay value due to the multiple story paths, character-specific scenes and high degree of customizability its design affords, make Fire Emblem: Three Houses a treat for tactical RPG fans.  Very much worth a look whether you're a long-time Fire Emblem fan or a newcomer to the series.

Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Released: 2019
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Mechanical Minigames, Crafting System, Multiple Story Paths, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Long Campaign, Downloadable Content (meh), Cinematic Experience, New Game Plus