The trajectory of Fire Emblem from a niche tactical RPG to an evergreen Nintendo franchise has been exciting to follow. The series owes some of this recent success to the prominent appearance of its sellswords and mages in Smash Brothers, which no doubt kindled interest in past titles. Nintendo and Intelligent Systems parlayed this curiosity into two (arguably five) successful Fire Emblem games on the 3DS by expanding on the game’s core tactics gameplay with secret ingredients borrowed from slice-of-life anime and, yes, dating simulators. The inclusion of mechanics such as gifting and conversation tree rapport-building has proven novel in a series where you can get your would-be bestie or significant other killed in just a few ill-advised turns on the battlefield.
That’s not to say all of these relationship edifices successfully add gravitas to the game’s core gameplay. The Japanese release of Fire Emblem Fates infamously included a screen petting minigame for those hoping to get intimate with their squad. The feature was removed for the Western version, much to the chagrin of a shall-not-be-named subculture. A breeding simulation in Fire Emblem Fates added a lot to do in the strategic layer, but at best it felt weird, and at its worst, it felt eugenics-adjacent. Neither feature particularly added significant stakes to the tactical combat portions of the series. Thankfully, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest game in the series and the first on Nintendo Switch, refocuses its relationship management and the strategic layer as a whole, simplifying the bonds between the protagonist and their warriors.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, players assume the role of a mercenary-turned-professor at Garreg Mach Monastery. The monastery is home to the game’s titular three houses: The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer. Each is led by a charismatic student-leader and heir to a political dynasty. This reviewer chose to lead The Golden Deer because the other two house leaders (Edlegard and Dimitri) seemed like squares. I recommend spending some time getting to know the initial party members of each house, however, because this will set you up for prime student poaching, regardless of which faction you ultimately choose.
For better or worse, personalities are often a bit flat—characters are drawn in the broad strokes typical of the series. For instance, Rafael’s defining trait is that he’s always hungry. Still, I reset the game twice when I got the affable lug killed in battle, proving that the series’ getting-to-know-you formula works. It helps that there’s more to do in Three Houses than ever before. When you’re away from the battlefield, you’ll be eating dinner with your cohort in the dining hall, cooking group meals, attending choir practice, or having a tea party.
Perhaps the most significant emotional hook, however, stems from the fact that you are meant to serve as your party’s professor. In fact, the entire strategic layer of Three Houses is built around this concept. The game introduces a Persona 5-esque time management system that plays out over a month. Each free day grants the opportunity to instruct your students, explore Garreg Mach Monastery, and spend time developing your students and faculty. You will have to shrewd, however, as the amount of activities you can do in a day is limited. Ignore individual students for too long, and they will become unmotivated. You will also have to weigh managing your own students with wanting to woo promising pupils away from the other houses. As time progresses, students will ask you to help them refocus their goals, which will spec them into specialty classes, such as the game’s flying cavalry units.
You are eventually able to romance characters in Three Houses, but only after the story jumps five years into the future. Not entirely new, but certainly more open, is the ability to form same-sex relationships with characters. In Fates, same-sex relationships with characters were gated by which copy you decided to pick up, sort of like how you could only get Vulpix in the Pokemon Blue. It wasn’t exactly the simulacrum of fated coupling some players were looking for.
Students will also ask you for life advice from time to time, furthering your bond with them as an instructor. The whole conceit is astonishingly successful, especially since this school’s version of a field trip might include crushing a disobedient lord, which puts all of your students in significant peril. It’s a novel and fresh addition, as the game’s overall narrative draws a lot of comparison to Fates‘ rival faction epic.
This is the most immersive and expansive Fire Emblem ever been. Garreg Mach Monastery’s size puts the games’ former headquarters to shame. It’s populated with students, faculty, and staff—not to mention cats and dogs (though you can’t seem to pet any of them). I’ve found myself getting lost a few times seeking out a particular person. I’ve come to relish the opportunity to explore the grounds of the campus, even if I really should commit to a monthly seminar or practice battle.
The game does suffer a bit from its own ambition at times. While the monastery is a welcome addition, it can feel a bit spartan at times. Why can’t I pet the cats and dogs? [Ed. note: this is the real travesty] Why is it that the fishing minigame feels serviceable, punchy even, but at the end of it, you can’t even see the fish I’ve caught. Why even include it in the first place? Battlefields are as drab as ever; they have never been Fire Emblem‘s strong suit, to begin with. It’s especially noticeable, however, in high-definition. Returning lost items students and faculty is a fun Guess Who-style diversion, but it can be a chore chasing someone down. After more than a few sprints across the grounds, I can’t help but think that I’m in a theme park rather than a generations-old monastery.
Of course, these additions to the strategic layer would suffer under greater scrutiny if Three Houses‘ tactical gameplay weren’t so reliable. The game retains its grid-based, rock-paper-scissors battle triangle at its core. There are a couple of new tricks, however. Combat Arts allow units to do things they usually wouldn’t be able to at the cost of weapon durability. The result can be particularly satisfying if you’re just out of range with an archer and really want to hit your opponent.
Perhaps the most meaningful upgrade is the addition of battalions. Battalions are attached to units, bolstering their combat strength or support abilities. Additionally, battalions unlock the ability to use gambits, powerful moves that often can defeat an enemy in one turn or even knock them out of position. The mechanic also makes battles look and feel more dynamic. You can see battalions running around the battlefield even when you’re not deploying them, adding a sense of scale to Fire Emblem‘s often sparsely populated engagements.
By giving the player the responsibility of caretaker and teacher, the series adds significant stakes to frontline encounters. The series’ animation, character design, and music shine brighter than ever, even if the battlefields themselves could use a little love (after Total War: Three Kingdoms, strategy games have got to try harder). It’s a perfect starting point for Switch owners who have yet to take the plunge. Sure, it’s not a blemish-free transition to the Nintendo Switch, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is easily the best game in the series, setting a new benchmark by which to judge future entries.
This review is based on the Switch version of the game, which was provided by Nintendo.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses brings the tactical and emotional goods to the Nintendo Switch; despite some rough spots, this entry is a series best.