“Fire Emblem: Three Houses” found the right balance between letting the player host tea parties and letting them absolutely decimate entire armies on a battlefield.
Traditionally, “Fire Emblem” games have focused mostly on going from one difficult grid-based tactical battle to another, and while the battles are still here and still difficult, the content between the battles is really where the game shines.
The core concept behind “Three Houses” is not very impressive: the player, a nameless protagonist, is tasked with leading one of three classes at a monastery into battle and deciding how they will grow their skills.
At nearly the very beginning of the game, the player is given a choice between three Hogwarts-esque houses — the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions or the Golden Deer — with each house having their own roster of 15 to 18 year olds to order around on the battlefield.
In between the required monthly battles within the player’s chosen class, the game gives the option to explore the monastery and visit students from other classes alongside the other teachers and staff living there, and the exploration is where the game really shines.
Not only does the player get to deepen their bond with their students, they can also form bonds with the other classes’ students by sharing meals with them, giving them gifts or treating them to a cup of tea.
If the player does a good enough job impressing them with their skills or the depth of the two character’s bond, the students can even be recruited to join the player’s team – an important characteristic for the latter half of the game.
The exploration mechanics aren’t especially deep or complicated, but the writing makes it worth visiting the monastery at least once a month just to see what everyone has to say about the events happening in the story. Each character is filled to the brim with personality and even though some of the students’ personalities aren’t pleasant, they’re always interesting at the very least.
Even characters I wasn’t a fan of at the start of the game, like the recluse Bernadetta, get a chance to show major growth and often touch on topics like the lingering effects of serious abuse and trauma or the expectations placed on these children's’ shoulders.
Each of the three houses’ stories starts off mostly the same, with a few minor differences. About midway through the game, each class’ story branches into its own storyline, adding a high amount of replayability with options to change the player’s character’s trajectory.
However, once a path is chosen, the player will have to confront the possibility of fighting classmates they failed to recruit before the game went into full force.
Despite its strengths, there are a few things the game could really work on. Most notably is the battery drain — this game absolutely kills the Switch. I was lucky to get three to four hours out of my battery, even with reasonably low brightness and on airplane mode.
Additionally, while the three houses have very different stories after the halfway point of each story, the missions are the same for the first half. The roster changes kept me going through my second playthrough, but 10-20 hours of repetition might be too much to ask for some players.
It’s also important to note this isn’t a short game — I’m almost at 100 hours after nearly completing my second run and I think I’m going back for at least a third round.
All in all, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” walks a nearly perfect tightrope between a visual novel and a hardcore tactics simulator and works great nearly exclusively on either end of the spectrum.
If the player wants to hang out in the monastery and talk to people, they can use an auto-battle feature to skip most of the combat. Likewise, if they don’t want to deal with managing the class whatsoever, they can go straight from fight to fight and let the game take care of the rest.
If you’re looking for a good tactics game to kill time with this semester, “Three Houses” is one of the best options out there.
“Fire Emblem: Three Houses” was released July 26 for the Nintendo Switch, and retails for $59.99 for both physical and digital copies.