I recently finished playing the latest game in the tactical JRPG powerhouse series Fire Emblem and, genuinely, went through a whirlwind of emotions. The game consists of two parts, split by a five-year time skip, as is the usual format followed by each and every Fire Emblem game. In the first half of the game I was truly engrossed and unable to put it down. I would rush home from work, shove some food down my gullet and instantly get that Switch going. At the weekend? As often as was humanly possible I would sit on my sofa, wrapped in my blanket burrito of shame, and play Three Houses for too long than is healthy to admit on the internet.
But part two? Well, that was a different story. By the time the second half of Three Houses rolled around, the formula of teaching students and conducting chess-style battles in four week cycles began to grow slightly tiresome. I was looking forward to what I assumed would be a change of pace and slightly revised mechanics in this second half, in order to keep the game as fresh and interesting as the initial half. What I was instead welcomed with was a game completely identical to its first half, but with a storyline full of intense battles, conflicts and brutal betrayals that were still spread out in a story that took nine months of in-game time and seemed pieced together completely at random.
Telling a tale of urgency and peril just doesn’t work when characters are exclaiming how we must immediately head onwards to the next battle, to then take a break for a month to head back to base and hold some more lectures on bow maintenance and horse riding, before being swept back into another battle that was due to happen four weeks prior. This might be a symptom of me being entirely new to the series, but the second half of the game became incredibly ill-structured, which ruined the impact of the story and my enjoyment overall.
That being said, the game was still very enjoyable as a whole and I will no doubt purchase the next game in the series. It is just a big disappointment, compared to how I felt about the series back when I was playing part one and expecting that I would finish it and instantly head back to replay another storyline. I now feel a mix of poignant joy when thinking about my time with Three Houses, but also frustration that it held some issues that could have been easily rectified.
So here, I would like to highlight some of the key points I noticed from playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a total Fire Emblem noob.
I think one particular strength of the game was its accessibility. When you are one of the humble uninitiated, as I was not so long ago, looking up Three Houses gameplay is a truly daunting experience. The game does not look easy to learn and there is so much cracking off in each battle menu that you don’t know where to turn.
Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised to find the game mechanics remarkably easy to master. I had no problems with any aspects of the battle systems and found every aspect very rewarding- and there was plenty of them too, ranging from gambits, class strengths/weaknesses and weapon durability, to name but a few.
Characters were definitely also a massive strength of the game, and I gather that this is also one of the key reasons why people love the Fire Emblem series. Just in the core game alone, there are 33 available characters to add to your roster (39 if you count DLC characters) and each one is instantly established with their own unique identity that intrigues and exceeds expectations.
On my first playthrough I was pretty proud of myself to be able to recruit everyone onto my side who could be swayed to claim allegiance, with just the exception of Linhardt and Ferdinand. One might think that with my roster of 30+ characters I would struggle to keep track of who is who, but each character was so very distinctive and memorable that it was a pleasure to learn more about them and witness them interacting with each other on a daily basis.
Adding to this the fact that every single solitary line of dialogue in the game was brilliantly voice acted by a very talented cast, even the smallest of dialogue exchanges was interesting and not once did I ever skip through dialogue, which is a sin even the most dedicated of JRPG nerds are forced to commit usually with the oh so typical walls upon walls of uninspired text so common in games of this kind.
I do, however, wish that the romantic subplots had more substance to them. I chose to romance the fabulous flirt Sylvain. It was a battle between Sylvain and Claude, and I didn’t like Claude’s post-timeskip look, so Sylvain became the man for me, thanks to his snazzy hair and dashing good looks. Although I enjoyed finding out more about his own struggles with the crest he bears and discovering that a surprisingly intelligent man lies underneath all that mindless flirting, it was disappointing that you basically go from a strictly platonic friendship with your partner, straight into a marriage proposal at the end of the game. I feel like a proper love confession somewhere earlier into part two of the game, perhaps as the final battle was looming, might have given the romantic subplot more substance, as it seemed to be somewhat hastily tacked on upon the story’s conclusion and didn’t serve as much of a reward, considering the sheer amount of weapon upgrades I had sacrificed in favour of buying Sylvain those damned Dapper Hankerchiefs he just loved so much.
I also thought the variety of character classes in the game were particularly impressive. In the final few chapters it became a true battle of wits to decide for myself which characters to develop, in favour of producing a truly balanced team. I did find that the Wyvern Rider and Pegasus Rider classes were a bit OP compared to the others, and by the end about half of my team were all posited on dragons or unicorns of some kind, because simply nothing seemed to kill my characters the second they were in the air. Hilda, axe in hand and riding upon her wyvern, was a force to be reckoned with and practically completed the final few story missions all on her own!
One class I do wish was available was a healing class that also provided healers with some mode of transport. My primary healers were Mercedes and Marianne, but every match they would inevitably fall behind the rest of the pack and were only rarely in range to actually heal my team. Sure, I was able to get by through teaching other characters basic healing spells, but two whole characters were rendered mostly useless, which was a difficult issue to deal with as the game ramped up its difficulty.
Features of Fire Emblem: Three Houses which I didn’t enjoy as much were, as stated above, the repetitive gameplay. The mix between a character-driven JRPG and a highly tactical strategy game was a confusing one, and I think producers Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo struggled to achieve the perfect balance here.
In the first half of the game, the characters are still students at Garreg Mach monastery and it was understandable that they required time to study and develop their fledgling skills, only engaging in real combat on rare occasions due to their youth and inexperience. Post-timeskip, these four week intervals between battles that involved me teaching fully experienced veterans how to use a sword just seemed like unnecessary filler that served little to no purpose. You couldn’t even use this time to try and recruit new characters from rival houses, as they had all left Garreg Mach to join their respective factions, so there was little point to exploring the monastery as there were minimal relationships that needed establishing.
To also add to the monotony, in the second half of the story you were given no monthly allowance to fund your adventures. On the surface, this makes sense, as the protagonist Byleth is no longer a professor at the school and the monastery is now a front for a struggling rebellion, but one must understand: this means that for the entire second half of the game, your character cannot obtain money with which to fund anything in the game.
Need money to buy items to boost your friendship levels with characters? Nope.
Need money to buy potions, shields and power-ups? Nope.
Need money to repair and enhance your weapons, after they are rendered essentially useless once they break in every battle? Nope.
I am guessing that I was expected to save the money given to me in the first half of the game which I spent, again, on a million Dapper Handkerchiefs to keep my beloved Sylvain happy, as well as to encourage every other student to join the Golden Deer House, but this was not clearly communicated at any point in the game that I noticed. I became so desperate for cash that, every in-game month, I had to sit and buy every morsel of bait available and spam the fishing mini game for what felt like miserable hours on end, like some kind of savage, and this still provided me with barely enough funds to keep my arsenal of weapons suitably maintained.
There was no respite from this. If you were lucky, on your travels you might find some bullions, which at the most would provide you with £5000 if you found a large one, but by the end of the game this would only fix you up one, maybe two weapons max, in a team that was 10-12 members per mission! And to get bullions, you would need to fight in side quests which would just lower your weapon durability more than what the money could fix.
Do you see the problem?
Despite me researching, I found no other easy method of obtaining money in the game’s second half, which made the whole repetitive school format in this section all the more troublesome as I simply couldn’t skip these parts and return to the next battle with half of my team possessing broken equipment.
This monotony is also what has (so far, anyway) prevented me from instantly replaying the game and trying out either the Black Eagles or the Blue Lions storylines. I would certainly like to experience these storylines one day, but I need to mentally recover from the torture of those fishing mini games before I even step foot near this game again.
Despite these issues, the game was still incredibly enjoyable and these problems only frustrate me so as they prevent me from calling the game a true masterpiece. I would still highly recommend Fire Emblem: Three Houses to pretty much anyone who likes gaming and doesn’t mind story-heavy games with quite complex tactical elements to them.
Earlier in January it was announced that a new side story will also be making its way to the game in the form of another DLC, telling the tale of the Ashen Wolves House. Whilst I doubt I will be buying this, I am only furthermore impressed by this games’ dedication to further exploring this expansive world and providing players with even more content. In only one play through I clocked in over 90 hours to the game and I am sure over time I will only invest even more.