Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the sixteenth game in the tactical RPG franchise, and as with most things as they grow older, things change. Three Houses has some of the largest numbers of departures in Fire Emblem’s history, to the point where it can actually be hard to understand what’s different for both long-time fans and newcomers alike. This particular piece is to help you understand what Fire Emblem: Three Houses is, what systems it has that may suck away dozens of hours of your life, and how they differ from the rest of the series. Whether you’ve tried one or two entries in the series and aren’t sure this game is for you, or you’ve been wondering where that Marth guy is from in Smash Bros., this article is for you.
Of course we reviewed Fire Emblem: Three Houses as soon as it was released. It earned a perfect 5 GiN Gems from Neal Sayatovich, who I believe has played every game in the series more than once, so that score is probably saying something. Check out his review!
Older Fire Emblem games were known for moderate difficulty, perma-death (where if a unit falls in combat, it’s gone for good), randomized level growth mechanics, and more. Awakening introduced a new way to play with Casual mode that turns off perma-death, and Three Houses has this feature as well. Players first booting up the game can choose to play Normal or Hard difficulty, and can also select Casual or Classic mode, with Hard/Classic being closer to older Fire Emblem titles, though it’s definitely nice that players can adjust the difficulty to their liking. Lunatic difficulty is apparently coming to the game in a future patch, but isn’t available as of the time of this writing.
Fire Emblem Fates toyed around with the idea of a story that features branches based upon your choices, but since the games were split into three and sold a la Pokemon, that idea didn’t really catch on with a majority of the public, as only the people who managed to snag the absurdly rare special edition copy of Fates got to “choose” which story path they went down. Three Houses is the natural evolution of that idea, and is done even better in this particular entry. At the beginning of the game, your mercenary-turned-professor player character called Byleth is presented with three separate classes you can teach (referred to in-game as houses), and which house you select will determine the playable characters you begin with as well as the story path you follow for the rest of the game.
The Black Eagles, Blue Lion, and Golden Deer each have their own unique story paths with some important characters acting differently on other paths because Byleth isn’t there to guide them along the right path. The first 10 chapters of the game are largely the same no matter the route, but once you hit chapter 10 a war breaks out and you wind up siding with your house to turn the tide of battle (with the exception of the Black Eagles, which has a hidden route inside of it). The story is better written than the usual Fire Emblem fare, with some characters seeming irreparably evil or broken on one route, but a hero of justice on another. Each story path also gives different information about the various moving forces throughout the world of Three Houses, so playing through just once only gets you a small chunk of the story.
One thing that Three Houses does differently from most FE titles is that it lets you walk through the school and manually speak to students, letting more of their individual personalities shine through as each get a substantial amount more dialogue than they would have in any previous Fire Emblem game. Being able to move around is similar to the dungeons from Fire Emblem Echoes on the 3DS, but now it’s done in a way that gives the player more to do. In many previous FE titles, characters would come in specific classes and only promote to one or two other classes and be done with it- Three Houses is considerably different in this regard. As the professor, you teach your students to improve upon their various skills so they can be promoted to different fighter classes in the game- so if you wanted a character who has a strength in axes to be a Wyvern Master (like Wyvern Rider from previous Fire Emblem games), then you need to train the strength and axe skills to certain minimum thresholds to even have a chance to promote into that class. Three Houses is actually more flexible in customization than any previous game- a character with strengths in swords and brawling doesn’t just have to use swords and gauntlet weapons, you could train them to a rank A in bows and horse riding so they can become a Bow Knight just because that’s what you want. You don’t have to let Sylvain become a Paladin if you don’t want to- he’s not Kent or Cain, you can let him grow up to be anything he wants to be (or that you want him to be- he even has a budding talent in reason magic).
Each character still has their own innate growths, weapon proficiencies, and weaknesses, so some characters may take more time to get into a specific class than others as a weakness in a skill means you learn it more slowly. Some characters may have weaknesses that, once leveled enough, become strengths- possible budding talents are visible on the menu, so there’s no wiki guesswork to do here, thankfully. Essentially, though, in Fire Emblem Three Houses the world is your oyster. Felix clearly presents as a swordsman, but that didn’t prevent me from throwing away his swords for gauntlets in the Grappler class to get sweet 4x attacks on literally every enemy in the game.
Weapon durability makes its return in this entry after being missing from Fates, and combat arts have been introduced that, in exchange for more power, range, or additional effects, consume more durability of your weapon of choice. Magic spells, instead of requiring tomes that eventually break after so many uses, are limited to a certain number of uses per map, and each character learns spells from their own unique spell list when leveling up their faith or reason skills. Combat arts are similar to magic in that various characters may learn different arts at differing weapon levels, such as only two characters being able to learn the bow art Deadeye, which lets you fire one powerful arrow up to 5 spaces away at the cost of 5 durability for that one shot.
So outside of the changes to battle mechanics and character progression, what else has changed? Well, you already know that you can walk your character around the monastery and talk to recruitable characters and non-story NPCs alike, but the monastery section actually makes up a ton of the new addictive gameplay in Three Houses. It’s often compared to the later Persona games (3-5) or Atelier in this regard. Each Sunday you get to either Explore the monastery, partake in Seminars, Battle, or Rest. Exploration is when you’re placed in free movement to wander about the monastery, and you can partake in a variety of activities like eating meals with students to raise their affection and motivation, go fishing, gardening, invite characters to have some tea, find various items throughout the monastery, and more. Several activities consume activity points, which are dependent upon your professor level, so initially you may only be able to do 2-3 activities, but by the end of the game you can do up to 10.
Keeping your recruits motivated is important as that increases the number of times you can instruct them in one-on-one tutoring sessions to increase their skills, and sometimes instructing can increase a student’s affection for you, which can increase support rank, which gives various benefits in combat too, such as added damage on attacks or a higher chance to hit when the units are near your character. Gardening can net you food you can use to cook for your students to increase motivation and affection, as well as items that can permanently boost your stats. Everything in the game loops back into one another, as things done in exploration will improve your combat experience.
You can recruit characters from other houses as well- learning specific skills the student is skilled or has interest in can have them join you if you ask. You can also try increasing support with the student or faculty member in question can get them into your fold of usable units by having meals with them, giving them gifts, finding lost items for them, etc.. The higher your support rank with them, the lower the skill requirements are to recruit the student in question. If you don’t want a mess of random skills on your Byleth, though, you can focus on having meals and giving gifts to the various characters instead, as that may cause them to approach you to join your house.
Seminars can be used to spend your free day learning from another instructor at the academy, which can raise motivation for your students that attend (so you can instruct them better yourself) as well as improve their competency with a couple of skills in which the instructor specializes. Battling, on the other hand, is extremely important- for Normal difficulty, you can battle as much as you want as there are battles that don’t take up activity points so you can grind to your heart’s content. Hard difficulty, however, only allows you to partake in battles that consume activity points, so it’s important to note you start off with 1 battle per free day, up to a maximum of 3 by the end of the game. So those wishing for an experience more like traditional Fire Emblem would likely want to select Hard/Classic mode, where you can’t endlessly grind and perma-death still applies. Resting just raises student motivation and restores 5 points of durability to an equipped hero’s relic, which essentially means it just shouldn’t be used unless you just want to skip a free day- motivation can be raised via meals and gifts on exploration days, and materials that let you repair relic weaponry are abundant.
So Fire Emblem: Three Houses is quite different than those games that came before it, but I think you will agree that makes it quite unique. Give it a try. I don’t think you could be disappointed with the final results.