A JRPG Hogwarts - Fire Emblem: Three Houses (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Maybe I'm in the minority here, but as a fan of JRPGs and especially a fan of tactical role-playing games, I have not enjoyed the Fire Emblem games as of late. Both Awakening (2012) and Fates (2015) never grabbed me, it wasn't until I played Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE that I came to enjoy the game again, and that was more so a spin-off rather than a full-fledged Fire Emblem title. That all changed with Fire Emblem Three Houses, I can now say that once again I am enthralled by this series.
The core setting of Fire Emblem Three Houses is an academy located in the religious center of this world, Garreg Mach Monastery. You and your father are mercenaries who just happen to save the skin of Edelgard, Claude, and Demitri... three high-ranking students at the academy and also the heads of the schools three respective houses. Each house collects students from one of the three main regions of this world, consisting of nobles and commoners alike. After learning that your father was once a legendary Captain of the Knights of Seiros, the military force stationed at Garreg Mach, you are dragged into a world of intrigue and a quest for answers behind the guise of the academy's new Professor. It's here that you make your first big decision, which house you will align with.
Each house is distinct, and after progressing part way into new game plus, that is clearly evident from the get-go. My first playthrough I went with Edelgard's house, with my current playthrough swapping genders and pledging my alliance behind Claude's Golden Deer house. As you uncover the secrets behind your personal connection to Garreg Mach and the secrets your father kept from you, the world opens up in ways I did not expect. This is a game you should first go in to without knowing anything about. The big twist at mid game would fall flat if you go in knowing already what to expect.
Gameplay plays out almost entirely from menus. The only area you can freely explore is Garreg Mach Monastery. Each month plays out with you teaching classes during the week, and being given one free day to either explore the monastery, partake in battles, attend seminars, or rest. Each month also has a mission at the end of it, putting the responsibility to prepare for the mission on you during the earlier weeks. Taking control of a class tasks you with managing each student's progression. Through hands-on instruction you can bolster a student's stats, also setting goals for each individual student to progress. In battles, each student represents a battalion unit, acting as its leader. Battles play out on an open map, if you are familiar with tactical RPGs the learning curve won't be bad at all... but even if you are new to the genre these battles aren't terribly difficult, even on hard mode. Weapons have a finite number of uses before they require repair while magic spells have a set number of uses but recharge after the battle ends. New to the series are battalions that can be equipped to your units. These battalions can be hired or earned after completing certain story sequences. Battalions rely on the character's authority stat and charm stat, authority determines the rank of battalion while charm factors into the battalion's strength. These battalions give you access to useful Gambit attacks, powerful battalion specific attacks that offer a variety of special effects, from luring enemies to you or inflicting status ailments. While typically tactical RPGs do require a strong understanding of tactics to be successful, the combat here is rarely crippling in its difficult, some battles are more challenging than others but overall I found myself rarely frustrated. Certain terrain does affect your units, some terrain like tree cover make it easier to dodge attacks while some tiles allow you to heal or teleport.
While the battles were very exciting, I found many of the other activities grew tiresome for me far too soon. On free days while you explore the monastery, your activities mostly serve to better improve your support with other students (whether they be from your house or not), raise your professor level, participate in stupidly simple fetch quests, or pick up random belongings from random students. These activities grew tiresome by the second month and I found myself just auto-piloting through them solely to bolster the stats of my students.
One activity that did sometimes break up the monotony was fishing, not only does fishing help raise my professor level but also allows me to cook dishes with students or share a meal by using the ingredients. While typically you'd think that battles would be the most stressful aspects to participate in... just wait until you unlock tea parties; yes you heard that right... tea parties. Eventually you unlock the ability to invite one of your students or fellow faculty members to tea, this requires you to pick a conversation topic from a vague list of topics. Unfortunately there isn't much of a variety to the topics, and more often than not I found myself boring my tea companion more than achieving a perfect tea time. Ideally, you want to get to know your students and staff and generally that knowledge does help get by, I still felt like it wasn't enough. These distractions are once again meant to increase support levels of the various characters.
Support is more than just a random stat, much of the game's side stories are locked behind these support levels. Es specially the romantic options which require you to not just secure a high support rank with your party members, but to max it out to S rank. Fostering a strong connection between your fellow party members can also unlock interesting side stories to further flesh out the narrative.
At it's core, the narrative of Fire Emblem Three Houses involves a mysterious group hell bent on laying waste to the church. Led by the mysterious Flame Emperor, you and your students face often times insurmountable challenges while you as the player character discovers the truth about who you really are. To make matters more confusing, you possess a long forgotten crest that allows you to wield a legendary relic weapon. In it's most base level, the story progresses each month during the monthly mission. In the weeks between you can unlock various aspects of the story that, while not major pieces to the core narrative, serve to further flesh out our cast. One complaint I had was how these side missions had no bearing on the core narrative itself. One such mission has us discovering the true relationship between two of the story's major characters, but then outside that side story the narrative moves along as if that never happened. At times it felt uneven and even at its best, the story did have issues with pacing. While there's an element of player choice in how you respond to other characters and what you say, rarely does it really affect the narrative. Aside from a very MAJOR choice made, depending on the house you picked, there really wasn't much to crafting YOUR character's arc. All in all, on a positive note I can say that despite its shortcomings I truly enjoyed the narrative of Three Houses more than any previous Fire Emblem titles to date.
There is a problem with scale here, in the sense that Three Houses felt like it lacked scale. The only place you could ever really explore was Garreg Mach. Every battle was handled from a menu, there was no big world to explore. Essentially the gameplay was distilled down to centering solely around Garreg Mach with everything that normally would have you venturing off, relegated to a menu. This wouldn't bee too much of an issue if the UI was good. For example, as you level your students, they can begin to take proficiency tests to unlock specialist classes. You need to have reached a minimum rank in one or more of the game's skills to even be able to take the test. These requirements are only ever found on the same screen you'd use to take the proficiency test. There is no section to see these requirements when lecturing your students or exploring the monastery. This proved to be frustrating when I wanted to select what skills to set for an individual's goals. Navigating the UI was more of a chore than it should have been, a shame really because much of the way you interacted with the world was through these menus.
Despite the grandiose scale of it, Fire Emblem Three Houses lacked any semblance of a grander scope. While the narrative did have me interested from the opening scene up until the final credits, I wish I could have had more in this world. Thankfully, a robust role-playing system and pitch perfect combat system made up for much of the game's core shortcomings. At the end of it all, I found that I had a grand old time with Three Houses and I'm glad that I can once again say I enjoyed a Fire Emblem title. While not perfect, it does hit a sweet spot that easily makes it a joy to play.
4 out of 5
fantastical despite lacking scope