It's time to head back to school as the Fire Emblem series has some new tricks to teach us.
For many people, Nintendo is regarded as a solid rock in the surf, although the Japanese developer comes up with strange ideas from time to time, ideas that defy our expectations. For example, it is largely due to Nintendo that edition-specific features have become widely accepted, which is why players of Pokémon, Yo-kai Watch, and Fire Emblem must decide what content to opt-out of before buying. This was a major problem in Fire Emblem Fates, as Birthright and Conquest on the 3DS provided the same gameplay but were two very different games. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a response to that as it doesn't split its content up, rather it unites it together into one package. In fact, Intelligent Systems' new strategy-RPG contains no less than three games in one.
After you decide which faction you want to side with, you'll enjoy a 30-hour introduction to the new game mechanics and the vast world of Three Houses in general, before that initial decision comes to fruition in the second half of the game. This might be a simplified summary of an intricate and absurd anime story about a huge conflict on the fictitious continent of Fódlan, but it also describes an experience that has been holding us captive for almost three weeks now.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses builds upon two big gameplay pillars. On the one hand, there is the turn-based tactical combat which takes place on grid-based battlefields - something which has always been the main focus of the series. Dozens of different units fight under the banner of a complex rock-paper-scissors system, waging war on miniature battlefields while we watch things play out from our isometric perspective. Units gain experience through repeated use of their skills and can develop in many ways later on. Moreover, elements such as the nature of the terrain, our choice of class and equipment, or the fact that allies provide passive bonuses all play a major part in combat.
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Another thing that players can enjoy in the latest Fire Emblem is their role as a professor at an elite university called the Officer's Academy, which is based at the Garreg Mach monastery. Here we will prepare promising youngsters for their future and, in turn, help make a huge impact on the development of the continent, but before we go deeper into this new portion of the game, let's first look at what has happened to the combat because that's still at the heart of what Fire Emblem is all about.
As part of our role at the university, every month we get assigned a specific task that we have to complete with our students. With the exception of these story battles, we train in practice bouts or side missions during the weekends. The gameplay remained fairly defence-focused, but there are also some characters who quickly become powerful enough to obliterate enemy positions single-handedly. In the long run, however, it makes much more sense to support your weaker units - even the strongest hero can't be prepared for every eventuality.
One reason for this is the game itself, which is not always completely honest with you. Although it is indicated whether or not an attack hit its target, systems behind the scenes have already decided on things such as failures, critical hits, and so on. Even with Three House's rewind feature (which works similarly to Mila's Turnwheel from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia and can be used with ridiculous frequency), we cannot land an attack that missed its target in the first place. This is always annoying - all the more because the illusion implies that our errors can be undone - but that's just the nature of Fire Emblem. Incidentally, this predetermined system also affects class changes, which we'll come back to shortly, and it means we can't cheat our students through their exams by hitting restart as the game prevents such tricks.
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In any case, after the first third of the game, monsters are introduced in the form of combat units. These creatures occupy four (or more) spaces at once and have multiple life bars. Their devastating attacks and individual mechanics signal different stances, but by breaking their armour - which is represented by a visual indicator - the corresponding part of the monster is vulnerable and our units can inflict significantly more damage on it. Focused attacks are the key to victory over these nasty foes.
Another new mechanic is tied to our army's battalions, which we assign to the most experienced units. Each of our students can become the commander of their own small force, which grants so-called Gambits. These are special attacks with additional effects that can limit enemy movement, summon territorial effects, and even provoke monsters. If a beast is being hit by a Gambit, for example, it might attack the person responsible in the next round. All these things are relatively small adjustments that hardly affect the feeling of the game, however, Intelligent Systems was more courageous in the second pillar of the game. It's time to head back to school.
The everyday life of the university follows a given schedule, one which we're not allowed to shape freely. Normally, we train our students from Monday to Saturday, supervise them with group assignments, and let them work on specific topics independently, such as how to swing a sword or finding out more about the game's different kinds of magic. All of these things have an indirect impact on the effectiveness of our units during battle because, through intensive study, even a sorcerer can be transformed into a fine swordsman. Indeed, this is often necessary later in the game if you're to gain access to the powerful masterclasses.
Sunday can be arranged independently, at which point you decide whether you want to pursue training exercises or side missions, or even waste your time in the monastery. By exploring the Officer's Academy you can try out lots of different side activities - including fishing, gardening and fetch quests - and it usually makes sense to eat with your students to increase their motivation, because if they have had a bad day they might not improve in the one-to-one training sessions.
We can also use the time for ourselves, by training with the other professors of Garreg Mach, as we can better support our own students if we understand each subject ourselves. On Sundays, it's also possible to send our students to other lectures to give them new insights into specific topics. Or you can just sleep all day - your students will gladly take a break, too.
Technically, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is not the revelation we were expecting and the title disappoints from a visual point of view. Long loading times separate the tactical gameplay from the animated sequences and the expansive school routine, while ugly backgrounds and repetitive combat animations are just begging to be skipped and ignored (which, by the way, saves a lot of time). The stage on which Fire Emblem takes place is absolutely fantastic, but when it comes to the battlefields, very little has improved since Awakening - and that adventure came out in 2012 on the 3DS...
In Garreg Mach, however, the game looks really good, mainly because the academy has lots of interesting corners to explore. Unfortunately, the Switch often reaches its limit during free exploration, causing performance issues and noticeable loading times, and this is even more obvious if you play in handheld mode.
University living is a logical evolution for a series that over the years has succeeded in part thanks to its focus on character development. It wasn't always easy for us to make sense of the game's many systems, let alone build a relationship with the students, but that comes with time. The crazy and over-the-top story will surely appeal to anime fans, especially if you spend some of your time following the narratives of the other houses. If you want to experience the complete story with all its facets, however, you can expect to make three play-throughs. That will unlikely take you the reported 200 hours, but there would be considerable repetition involved in doing so. However, as replayability is very strong in the latter half of the game, it is a pity that the technical presentation and a lack of innovation around the combat hold back an otherwise beautiful game.
9 / 10
Rock-solid strategy element, Figures can be developed extensively, Garreg Mach is a cool place with many different characters.
Disappointing presentation and repetitive combat animations, Noticeable performance drops in handheld mode, some minor UI quirks.