Fire Emblem: Three Houses is striking in its ambition. For long-time fans of the series, Fire Emblem is synonymous with a few different features: the tragic deaths of characters they've spent hours building a meaningful relationship with, the torturous decisions that come with combat positioning and tactical planning, and the breadth of options available to those looking to customize their play experience. What they won't mention - at least, before Three Houses changes the game - is how long that planning has been enacted, and how they've watched and molded their characters into the adults they are today.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is unlike anything the series has ever seen before, and that's a good thing. For a long time, Fire Emblem has comfortably slotted into the role of a niche hit, a tactically brilliant title with a passionate fan base and little desire to reach beyond that. The inspired Nintendo 3DS versions of the game all sold well and reviewed even better, but never really launched the franchise into the sort of Western recognition that made it appealing to those who weren't already familiar with it. With Fire Emblem: Three Houses, everything will change. It's a refined version of what fans loved combined with the kind of innovation and ambition that revitalizes franchises, and we can't wait to see what the finished product looks like.
Recently, Screen Rant was able to attend a private demo of the game that spanned nearly an hour, including around 15 minutes of hands-on gameplay time. During that experience, we had several takeaways, and nearly all of them were positive. While we never got a glimpse of what the end-game might look like, we've got a strong grasp of what fans can expect out of the title's early hours, and the systems in place make it seem all but inevitable that Fire Emblem: Three Houses catapults the franchise into greater recognition in the west and, if the rest of the game is as fun and engaging as the preview, as a serious dark horse contender for some end-0f-year awards.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Two Games
Fire Emblem: Three Houses begins with a school phase, where players will be able to nurture the characters around them into the kinds of people - and fighters - they want them to be. It sounds like a tacked on feature at first glance, but in practice, it's anything but, offering a deeper level of customization than any game before it while also making it enjoyable. Sure, it's the same thing we've come to expect from JRPG-style stat training, with an Excel spreadsheet quietly humming in the background as players make choices, but the coat of paint over that constantly-running calculation is appealing. Players are a professor at the school, uniquely suited to training the future because they're part of it as a young wunderkind. Players will make choices that affect relationships, stat growth, and class choices for students, quietly building up the perfect squadron years in advance of the game's actual fighting...
...which takes place after a currently unannounced event that leads to a time skip and the game's three nations warring. Players will then find themselves in charge of an army for the house they chose at the beginning of the game, potentially fighting students they had trained years earlier. Here, tactical combat will take a much larger priority and long-time fans will find all the bells and whistles they're familiar with alongside some additional innovations.
Essentially, though, Fire Emblem: Three Houses feels like two games crammed into one, but done pretty-well seamlessly. There's a lot to like about that approach, and better still, fans who want nothing to do with the social sim aspect don't need to engage with it - there's a skip function that will let them jump right into the warring parts of the game with pre-built Fire Emblem characters and relationships.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses' Story Will Grip You
Still, we'd strongly recommend avoiding that skip if possible. While other Fire Emblem games have moved in a gameplay loop that looks something like a story event and cutscene, a battle, and then another cutscene before the next chapter, Three Houses bypasses that to start. Instead, players are given a calendar of potential events, lessons, and skirmishes. The game will mostly simulate through the week regardless of whether or not players want to skip it, but will let them tutor their students to evoke growth in specific stats. On the player's day off, the professor can explore the school grounds, pick up quests, and raise their own level, which is vital in molding their students into the gloriously powerful and savvy fighters they can be.
Beyond that, though, we were struck by just how easy it is to get invested in the characters within the game. In our brief time with it, we were shown a scene where the professor can invite two students to eat with him at the cafeteria, improving their morale and giving glimpses into their personalities. The characters can interact with each other, too, which is an added bonus. The most intriguing part of the story, though, is that players have the ability to recruit students from a different house than theirs into their retinue. That's done by having a stat build that agrees with them - for instance, in our demo, Lysithea was interested in Magic and Faith, and the demo protagonist didn't have enough to attempt to recruit her.
Had she joined up, though, the Fire Emblem: Three Houses rep running the demo indicated that there would be some developments later in the game that were generated because of this. Eventually, Lysithea might be forced to fight against her former house, where she might even have to kill family or friends. The game would indicate this and acknowledge it in the story, creating another gripping layer to the story. These aren't just a rag-tag bunch of students that you'll get to raise and protect - some of them are going to kill others. It seems largely unavoidable, and that added weight makes the character interactions all the more fascinating. Of course, there will still be light-hearted elements too, and romance - everything players love about Fire Emblem. But the capacity for sorrow is a huge draw to the social sim element, something that not only plays out like a great imitation of the Persona series' school-life elements but also adds layers to an already great franchise.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses Combat is Finally Innovating
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is also making some significant changes to the series' combat system, and they all feel quite welcome. The biggest change comes with battalions, which are groups of hired mercenaries who will fight alongside each character in a player's army. The health of the character will be tied to their battalion, and battalions can be customized to great tactical effect: a group of heavily armored mercenaries can surround the party's mage, for instance, insulating him from physical attacks close-up. Battalions also level up just like characters and can help increase the characters they're associated with's battle stats.
The other big change is a departure from the weapon triangle system that essentially mimicked rock, paper, scissors, only with much more lethal options. In its place will be a system that features weapon abilities that give characters an edge against unit types rather than the weapons themselves deciding advantage. Of course, certain weapons will still be given an edge in combat, but it'll mostly be about weapon abilities and planning, which gives players even more options when planning out battle and avoids the sometimes monotonous weapons checks that could take over battles in an unproductive way.
Battle also features a Gambit Skill that will allow players to enact powerful abilities from their characters. Gambit skills can be used a finite number of times depending on the character and also have different effects. Some of them boost the party's stats, others are effective against specific enemies, and still others operate more defensively. Gambits can also be "boosted" by nearby characters who are fond of each other, so positioning remains key.
Finally, and perhaps most divisively, Fire Emblem: Three Hours will also gift players with the ability to rewind battle when a character dies or something goes wrong. It's limited use and only available on a player's turn, but it's a welcome option to those of us who enjoy the higher difficulty levels but lose sleep over the potential death of our favorite heroes. While it's likely some hardcore fans will feel it is making the game too easy, it's an entirely optional feature that no one needs engage with, meaning it's entirely up to the player to see how it plays out.
That's really the major takeaway from Fire Emblem: Three Houses - players will have an incredible amount of choice available to them, through both in-game systems and mechanics to the ability to skip over the more innovative and genre-bending elements for those who aren't interested. Everything about the game is designed from the ground-up with an emphasis on customization and player choice. If the rest of the game is executed as well as the hour-long preview we saw, Fire Emblem: Three Houses isn't just a contender for best game in the franchise - it's a contender for one of the best games released on Switch, and we're excited to find out if that holds true on July 26 this summer.