Fire Emblem: Three Houses Review
An interesting but increasingly dull adventure
Video games are one of the few mediums that allow players to walk every mile of a journey, listen to every word of a conversation, and kill every enemy during a battle. Often, I like those things; there’s a lot of beauty in the small slice-of-life moments. We learn a lot about characters not only by what they do in times of triumph or despair but also in the daily routine of their lives.
The trick when trying to accomplish slice-of-life gameplay is how to keep it consistently engaging and fun. Some games, like Persona, try to bombard you with style and atmosphere while introducing engaging side-characters. Other games, like Stardew Valley, lure you into a sense of monotony, but then break it up with unexpected life events like celebrations and changing seasons. In both of the aforementioned approaches, the real trick is an obsession with pacing. How long you allow the player to explore and go about their daily business is extremely important, and carefully crafted around game-flow that keeps the player engaged. That’s where Three Houses struggles. While my first 25 hours were a lot of fun, the game slowly churned to a slog as I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the day-to-day management of the house. It all works well enough but fails to be as captivating as similar games largely because of pacing.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses tells the story of Byleth (you can customize the name, but this is the one pre-assigned to you) a character whose gender you can choose when you begin the game. Byleth works as a mercenary with their father, Jeralt. During the opening battle of the game, Jeralt is recognized by an old companion as the previous Captain of the Knights of Seiros, a church-affiliated military organization. Mildly against his will, Jeralt finds himself pulled back into the Church of Seiros and his child, Byleth, along with him.
Byleth, in particular, is favored and offered a professor position at the church’s officer academy. It’s here that players choose which house they would like to join, that in turn will largely decide their army, classes, and later parts of the narrative. The students from your house will become your units on the battlefield, and you’ll have to improve their skills in the classroom to get results in war. Said war takes places against multiple foes, sometimes it’s lowly bandits, sometimes it’s a mysterious and evil force - to describe it in detail would be to give away one of the bigger twists in the story.
There’s a lot of potential in the story Three Houses is telling. It’s often hinted that the church’s motivations are maybe not on the up-and-up, and Jeralt had some reasons for leaving. But any sort of complexity is really left on the cutting room floor. For the most part, the intrigue and political machinations fall away and we’re left with a bog-standard hero narrative. It’s a particular bummer because there’s a lot of work done to establish the politics within the setting of Fodlan. While students of all backgrounds attend the officer academy, there’s still a class divide between the nobility and commoners; each nation uses a different form of government, and the fact that a religious organization is funding military training is a fascinating aspect of its own. I kept waiting for Three Houses to do something with all of these details, but any chance to explore these juicy bits of world-building is largely missed.
It doesn’t help that the game suffers from the classic JRPG problem of being over-written. I found myself editing the dialogue as I read it, cutting out sentences here, words there; the game just bogs itself down by constantly writing paragraphs where only sentences are needed.
Three Houses oscillates between being beautiful and being ugly. There are moments that are truly gorgeous and times when the monastery of Garreg Mach is absolutely stunning, like the church interior. There are some nice animations in the cutscenes, especially the hand-drawn ones. The rub is that the battlefields have a tendency to get re-used and other places in the monastery appear cheaply designed. This feels like a self-inflicted problem as Fire Emblem tries to stretch itself out to fill that 50-hour quota that is a minimum for JRPGs these days. Music, settings, and animations, end up being cut or recycled because the game is stretching beyond its means.
This also becomes a problem with the gameplay. The game is split into two different phases; combat and school life, where you have two options. First, you can explore by walking around the school, interacting with the students and events that are available. Interaction might be a bit of a stretch, as most students will recite a line and then you can either give them a gift or possibly return one of the lost items to them that you constantly find around the world. Rarely, there will be in-game events like a fishing tournament that you can compete in. Second, you can also host choir practice, eat dinner with students, or participate in a rotating tournament schedule, but there’s little actual gameplay to these moments. These activities can improve your relationship with students and theirs with each other. At first, these are kind of fun. You’re getting the learn who the characters are through dialogue and the found items you return to them. This offers a nice amount of character building during some harmless downtime; though it becomes monotonous as you get deeper into the game.
While you’ll likely focus mainly on the students in your house, you can also interact with other students in the world. While they will mostly just feed you a line or accept back a lost item, you can try to recruit them to your house. However, you’ll need to be proficient in the areas important to the student to successfully win them over.
There is also the ability to have tea with characters, which starts a mini-game where you are given conversation topics to pick for the small talk. If the topics are interesting to the character, you’ll improve your relationship with them. This is actually one of the more fun events because you have control over it. Trying to guess topics based on what you know about a character is an interesting challenge. Another option, if you don’t want to explore, is to attend a seminar that can be hosted by a professor or a visiting Knight of Seiros; this can give a small boost to the skills of a few students at once and improve their motivation.
The motivation is needed for when students head to the classroom, as the amount of motivation a student has determines how many lessons you can give them. Lessons improve a student's ability is a specific area of expertise. Students will each have their own goals and desires for advancement, and if you play to those areas of interest, they will be extra successful. For instance, a student might be skilled with a sword, but they want to also work on their skills as an archer so that they can upgrade to the Assassin class. Again, watching your characters grow is fun at first and you’ll feel like a proud teacher whose students are learning new skills. But the progress slows later in the game, and you’re spending weeks and weeks going over the same lessons.
Most students will start out as nobles or commoners, then as they earn experience and study, they can take an exam to move into a new class based on the skills they learned, like an Assassin, Falcon Knight, Mage, or Sniper. These classes will give characters new attacks and gambits. Another consideration is your Professor level, which is upgraded with each lesson given, item returned, choir practiced held, and meals shared. As your level improves, you’ll be able to take more actions while exploring, getting better results from students, and receive bonuses to certain actions.
Students will also need to be equipped before heading out on the battlefield. You can buy weapons and armor for them, or find it during battles. You’ll also be able to bring materials to a blacksmith to have them craft items or perform repairs. Lastly, you’ll also need to purchase battalions for your students, as the budding officers will need something to command.
After you’ve explored the monastery, given lessons to the students, and attended seminars, you’ll be ready to finally battle the enemy. There are two kinds of battles, the story battles and side quests that you can do for your students. The tactical combat is a lot of fun, though it does tend to be a little on the easy side. The player will take turns, positioning their troops and attacking. However, any attack has the chance for a counterattack, assuming the enemy isn’t defeated. There are some fun ripples to combat. First, you’ll have an opportunity to use “Combat Arts”, which are special attacks that will do more damage but also degrade your weapon, something you’ll have to keep an eye on to make sure the weapon doesn’t break. If you have the enemy surrounded, you’ll likely want to use a “Gambit” which are special military maneuvers based on the battalion assigned to a unit. Gambits not only do significant damage but can also knock enemies around the battlefields and stun them.
The interface for combat is nice and simple. The menus might be a little extensive, but generally, I found it was easy to navigate and I usually knew what consequences my actions would have right away. Again, the only problem I had was that things were a little too easy. Even playing in “Classic” mode, where characters lost on the battlefield would be dead forever, I still found myself waltzing through battles in the mid-game, which made combat feel more like a chore than a tense situation.
I always give credit to games that are filled with busy-work, because it proves how any aspect of life can be turned into a game, and how our lizard brains tend to analytically approach every situation within our control. The only problem when so much of your game is busy-work is to make sure that it remains engaging, and that’s the problem for Fire Emblem. There’s so much time spent exploring, teaching, equipping, and evolving all the characters in your house that these elements need to be fully engrossing. And while they were at first, they quickly turned to chores that needed to be done. It makes the game a bore on the back-half and when your back-half is 25 hours long, that’s a lot of boredom.
I also found the technical performance to be uneven at times. I had it crash on me once, and while exploring Garreg Mach, I had consistent frame rate issues. Luckily, such a casual experience wasn’t affected by these problems, but it was still annoying. I played the game both docked and handheld. The docked version is obviously going to look better, but the performance was comparable in both modes.
There are many mechanics in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, many tutorials, and so much to learn. Bringing all these elements together is impressive in its own right. I liked learning about students through their favorite meals or by helping them with side quests (fetch quests and some extra battles). What I didn’t like was spending 45-minutes running around the monastery trying to figure out who lost their weightlifting rocks, or watching tournaments auto-play in front of me. The massive amount of content in Three House is admittedly a mixed bag, and in a game as long as this, the boring stuff can end up taking hours and hours of your time. If anything, Three Houses will help you realize why so many other games leave the day-to-day lives of their heroes on the cutting room floor.