Review: Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch)

I joked on Twitter recently that Fire Emblem is basically Adventure Time‘s “now kiss” moment—it may be a tactical RPG first and foremost, but for a lot of people, much of the appeal lies in the characters, their relationships, and the chance to play matchmaker. It seems Nintendo and Intelligent Systems noticed that trend, too, because Fire Emblem: Three Houses centres those relationships even more than Fire Emblem Fates did.

This is mostly achieved through a new hub system that sees players spending a lot of between-battle downtime hanging out with their companions. Three Houses sees the player character—a mercenary named Byleth—roped into becoming a teacher at the Garreg Mach Monastery’s Officers Academy. You’re prompted to choose which of the school’s three houses to teach (hence the title), and from then on, you’ll spend a lot of your time getting to know your students as you train them in the art of war. 

In practice, this means battles are fewer and farther between than in past Fire Emblem games—particularly during the first half. The rest of your time is spent on a variety of different social elements: sharing meals, drinking tea, preparing lesson plans, aiding students with their scholarly pursuits, offering life advice, exchanging gifts, and sometimes just shooting the breeze. 

The result is a game that quickly and effortlessly gets you to care about its cast. Fire Emblem games have always put an emphasis on making your party more than just soldiers on a battlefield, but it usually takes at least a little while before you start to figure out who you like, who you don’t, and for whom you’ll instantly reset the game should they fall in battle. In Three Houses, I already had favourites by the time the second battle rolled around.

That’s just the starting point, though; the more time you spend with your students, the more you get to understand their complexities. There’s more to each and every character in Fire Emblem: Three Houses than meets the eye, and so this process of bonding and understanding everyone only gets more and more rewarding as time moves on.

And this brings us back to the whole “now kiss” thing. Three Houses actually takes a bit of a step back from past Fire Emblem games when it comes to romance, in that the only fully-fledged romantic storylines involve Byleth (in previous games, most characters had numerous other potential suitors to seduce, marry, and have kids with). But even so, for many characters, the scenes that mark new thresholds of friendship have a hint of romance (or just out-and-out flirting). I’d probably still have preferred the old approach of letting everyone have a range of possible S-supports, but you can’t say that Three Houses doesn’t still let you play matchmaker.

(As an aside, if you’re concerned about the idea of a teacher developing romantic relationships with their students, don’t worry—Three Houses does a good job of bypassing that whole quagmire, though to say more would be to spoil a significant part of the story.)

But Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn’t just about getting your best boys and girls to flirt with you and/or each other. There’s a grander story at play, and in true Fire Emblem fashion, it’s one of warring factions, suspicious religious factions, moral quandaries, and people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. There aren’t really “good guys” and “bad guys” so much as conflicting ideals, and depending on which house you chose at the start, you’ll see things play out from very different perspectives. 

Regardless of who you align with, one of the most fascinating things about Fire Emblem: Three Houses‘ story is how it approaches religious dogma. It takes place on a continent that’s mostly united—if somewhat tenuously—under the Church of Seiros. Said church is headquartered at none other than Garreg Mach Monastery, placing Byleth and all the rest of the students and teachers of the Officers Academy in direct service to the church and its archbishop, Rhea. But this theocratic rule doesn’t go unchallenged; the leaders of each of the three houses have their own disagreements with the status quo, and through them, Three Houses confronts the problems that come with such dogma. As you can probably guess, there’s a sinister side to the church, too…

Between all this political maneuvering and schoolyard slice-of-life fun, Fire Emblem: Three Houses sees you taking to various battlefields in turn-based, tactical battles. Fundamentally, these work like any other Fire Emblem game: you move your squad of soldiers, one by one, around a grid-based map, trying to outmanoeuvre enemies and use positional advantages to give yourself the upper hand when two units eventually clash. This much hasn’t changed, though Three Houses expands on the tools available to each character in a variety of ways.

As each character improves their proficiency with various weapons, they learn new weapon skills that can turn the tide of battle. Typically, they’ll just do more damage than a regular attack with the same weapon would, but you also get those that have other useful effects, like targeting more than one tile on the battlefield or having longer than usual range. Passive abilities, learnt in the same way, also help strengthen your characters or provide handy effects like auto-healing. The old weapon triangle is gone, though some passive abilities replicate its effects—the lance skill “Swordbreaker”, for instance, gives a lance wielder increased hit and avoidance stats when fighting a sword-wielding foe. It’s a nice way of opening up earlier games’ sometimes rigid reliance on the weapon triangle when it comes to party composition, while still allowing for all the tactical depth that such interactions enforce.

But the bigger and more impressive change in Three Houses is what happens off the battlefield—which brings us right back to the relationship-building game elements I talked about right at the start of the review. As well as influencing how characters’ relationships develop from a narrative perspective, most of those activities also have a direct effect on how each individual grows and performs in battle. As a teacher, you get to guide where each student puts their effort, which in turn results in far more experience with particular weapons than they’d get just from using said weapon in battle. Other activities help improve students’ motivation, making the results of their training more effective, while Byleth can take lessons from other teachers to develop their own skills, in turn making them a more effective teacher.

Everything you do off the battlefield has an impact, be it direct or indirect, on your party’s capability in combat. By the same token, your actions in battle affect the relationships outside it; characters that fight alongside one another often will deepen their bonds. There’s a medley of different systems that play, but they all work perfectly in tandem, creating an endlessly satisfying game loop.

In short, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an essential game for anyone with a Switch. The school system is a welcome new direction that puts more emphasis on the relationship management side of Fire Emblem, but rather than being a compartmentalised sort of thing, it’s integrated flawlessly into the tactical RPG combat at the series’ core. Top that off with a delightful cast of characters and captivating story that juggles tension, drama, humour, and heart, and you have a game that you don’t want to miss.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.