NOTICE: While there’s nothing definitive elaborated here, slight spoilers exist throughout the review. If you haven’t already played Fire Emblem: Three Houses, hop to it!
As we approach 2020, let us, for a moment, look back upon this past decade, and observe the miraculous resurgence of Fire Emblem. Through the passion Intelligent Systems poured into 2012’s Fire Emblem Awakening, what was once a niche strategy series on the verge of death rapidly developed into a flagship Nintendo franchise — well over twenty years since its 1990 debut. Casting aside the heated concerns over the series selling out to “waifu wars”, it was nothing less than cathartic vindication for long-time fans that powered through Japan-only releases long before Marth and Roy made their international debut in Super Smash Bros. Melee and the curious newcomers who forged unforgettable memories with Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector in 2003’s Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword. (Not the least in how a mobile Fire Emblem outsold its Mario cousin; seriously, chew on that.)
And now here we are coming full circle in 2019 with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the series’ first home console release in twelve years. Naturally, Three Houses celebrates the occasion in juggling nearly every one of Fire Emblem‘s modern advances, be they player avatars imbuing themselves into deadly battlegrounds and passionate romances, an optional Casual Mode doing away with the series’ infamous “permadeath” penalty, three-pronged (or would that be four?) routes offering endless replay value, and full voice-acting stitching what’s already the series’ most engaging, lovable cast hitherto onto our hearts. To pretend all of Three Houses‘ ambitions bear fruit would be folly — the inconsistent production values are a dispiriting downgrade from the 3DS entries’ squeaky-clean presentation, and much as I adored cultivating my students (enough to essentially play through the game four times, even!), I’m not about to pretend the ghastly visuals don’t threaten to undermine what should otherwise be a prosperous homecoming.
Seriously: I rag on it, but it’s still great.
Mind you, Three Houses ticks off enough boxes as a satisfying entry; if anything, in spite of clumsy gameplay balance and handicapped aesthetics, I find it fascinating on how different it is. I say this despite the obvious parallels to Fire Emblem Fates‘ divergent story paths with us choosing between three student houses to lecture and lead — that would be the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer, for those keeping track — yet Fates‘s black-and-white kingdoms were ill-equipped for a gripping scenario; here, the prestigious military academy of Garreg Mach is a much-needed chance of scenery. Life-and-death politics loom overhead naive students rather than sheltered princes or backwoods mercenaries, micro-management pervades everything from lectures to tea parties, and yes, fine dining can be the key for winning the next battle. This is no mere iteration; nay, Three Houses is dead-set on evolution, and the player will commit to it.
Look no further than Garreg Mach itself — we’ve seen hints of the monastery’s hub design before in the likes of Fates‘ My Castle and Echoes‘ town side-quests, but never to the extent of Fodlan’s famous monastery. The deluge of facilities can overwhelm the series newcomer and perhaps frustrate those who’d rather get down to swords and sorcery, yet further engagement provides a compelling synergy with the series’ core strategy — there’s a collective economy of item-gathering and monastery events that tie into forging relationships and instruction, feeding into how we recruit students and coach them alongside their career paths. By each campaign’s end, I may’ve grown weary of playing fetch for the school faculty, but that hardly ceased my meticulous tutoring.
Of course, whether this synergy actually applies to Three Houses‘s benefit is another matter– as other outlets like Vice have long since pointed out, wile the innate addiction of leveling up one’s units and careful strategy remain — directing a fragile mage into an enemy mob remains ill-advised as ever, for instance — the game’s easily exploited in how many options dilute its difficulty. Putting it this way: while Three Houses carefully tinkers balance around weapon degradation and fragile unit-accompanying Battalions, Divine Pulse’s clock-turning reversals often trivializes our fatal strategies, and it’s not hard to connect the dots with the boons granted by the academy; why, multiple units were hardly lacking in abilities and skills not even halfway through thanks to my avatar’s immaculate instruction.
This isn’t to say the game can’t provide heart-pounding stress when necessary — Divine Beasts, grotesque abominations requiring Battalions to fell, are hulking monkey wrenches with their spongy HP — but most immersion stems from further micro-management out in the field. For instance, if I want scholarly archer Ignatz to be the best horse-riding bowman he can be, it’s enough to raise necessary lance points in the classroom; nay, he has to work for it by tossing Javelins at helpless bandits. If I think rude swordsman Felix and compulsive steak-singer Annette make a cute couple, you better believe I’ll have them stick together like glue to build support points. I may not be challenged, but I can certainly be engaged.
Not the least in how Three Houses abandons Fire Emblem‘s penchant for fairy-tale endings for a more sobering depiction of war. Our only trade-off is our new protagonist — a stoned-faced mercenary of famed renown — being void of any character whatsoever, but while the professor may disappoint those frustrated with Fire Emblem‘s modern trend of Mary Sue avatars, our vessel in propping up the dreams and ambitions of Edelgard, Dimitiri, Claude, and Lady Rhea is a far cry from Robin and Corrin’s cut-and-dry altruism. The trademark ancient dragons and legendary swords remain, but not once do they suppress fiery politics nor supersede cliched tyrants; nay, Fodlan’s war is a clash of ideals and principles. With the possible exception of Claude’s philanthropist dreams of a unified Fodlan, it’s difficult to label these leaders as wholeheartedly good people; for instance, much as I may’ve been roused by Edelgard’s ambitions to do away with an information-suppressing church, the truths and character developments unveiled in other routes had me deeply questioning the despair and chaos I unleashed.
There exist fumblings along the way — the game’s more overt villains in the Death Knight and Those Who Slither In The Dark are woefully underdeveloped, with the former being an especially poor nod to Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn‘s mystery-shrouded Black Knight. (And seriously, whose bright idea was it to unveil his identity in a side-quest?). But in considering the character arcs involved, Fates‘ similar attempts at a morally-grey narrative comes across as all the more pitiful. There are any one examples I could elaborate upon, but the apt symbolism surrounding Dimitri’s redemption arc — the Blue Lions prince who devolves into a nihilistic, vengeance-hungry husk, motivated only by seeking a certain someone’s head — is the one and only time Fire Emblem‘s ever left me teary-eyed. By virtue of its own themes, Three Houses cannot, and will not succumb to the hackneyed perfect ending demanded by a good vs. real ending, rendering it more human than any previous entry.
And this is to say nothing of our students! For far too long, Fire Emblem’s supporting cast’s were rapidly relegated to irrelevance, often never intruding upon the story past their initial introduction; here, they’re living, breathing members of the Garreg Mach student body, openly wrestling with the consequences of each route. Not in one single route are we spared from killing old friends and former students, and even if the careful professor recruits other students to mitigate the pain, that won’t stop certain aspiring students from acting out on their own. (Thought drafting the sweet aspiring knight Ashe would keep him safe? Think again.) Peppering our affection are familiar support conversations bringing our child soldiers together — some merely wholesome exchanges, and others innate personality clashes showcasing Fire Emblem world-building at its finest: irresistible antagonism prodding us further into their psyches, unveiling deep-seated insecurities imposed by Fodlan’s eugenics and religious strife.
(Let’s not neglect to mention the top-class voice-acting propping that all up; needless to say, the series’ gradual shift into full-on vocalization has been an astonishing boon for Fire Emblem, and what better example than Erica Mendez’s jittery mess in Bernadetta? Her adorable antics made it a top priority to recruit her on any non-Black Eagles route, as the mere thought of laying a hand on the abused recluse made my skin crawl. As her Numero Uno fan, I trust my readers have done the same, for Bernie is truly a treasure to be protected.)
With the genuine strides Three Houses conducts to change the series for the better, I can look over enough gameplay flaws to grant a healthy 4.5 score, but alas, this game’s fluctuation in production values render that an unjust reward. Whereas the anime cutscenes and music score are up there with the series’ best, Koei-Tecmo’s grunt-work in graphical presentation are simply inexcusable for a 2019 product. As observed below, the common cutscene backgrounds take the hardest hit — floors are randomly warped and depressed, bending straight out of a third-rate surrealist work; meanwhile, stitched steams and grainy, blurred texture work obscure any sense of placement (why is furniture melded into the floor?!?), and it’s quite obvious actual photos were superimposed upon certain geographies. When occupied by bland, expressionless character models, it’s as if we stumbled upon a botched 3D Max animation project rather than a polished, squeaky-clean Nintendo product.
What matter of antiquated black magic is this?
Truth be told, this doesn’t come as a total surprise — while I know little of the production value standards Koei-Tecmo applies for their products, the Fire Emblem Warriors spin-off was already a downgrade from Hyrule Warriors‘ lush look, what with the familiar shortcuts we witness here. Regardless, for a cheap mess resembling, say, an early licensed Nickelodeon title for GameCube, to cripple a high-profile Nintendo release is nothing less than embarrassing. There were days where fans of the niche Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn — games with similar low-end graphics back in the GameCube/Wii Era — dreamed of what HD could do for the series. This ain’t it, folks, and for it to stifle Fire Emblem at its most thematically ambitious calls the standards of everyone involved — Nintendo and Intelligent Systems most of all — into serious question. Surely this won’t be the the status quo for the future?
Yet said thematics are too good to be left wasted. The balance might not all be there, and the graphics don’t do this justice, but that trademark addiction still sparks that familiar strategy-rousing fire. With four playthroughs under my belt, the announcement of further DLC begs the question of burnout, but can I really say no to cat-petting? At the very least, all this and more shows Intelligent Systems is listening — if I must trek through the mud to unfetter Bernie from Crest-arranged marriages and realize her dreams of being the very best archer in all of Fodlan, so be it.
(One last observation: in the event “Metodey” was a localization invention, whoever came up with that name deserves a raise. That had me cackling for five minutes straight.)
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Intelligent Systems; Players: 1; Released: July 26, 2019; ESRB: T; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses