Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an inspired innovation of a time-tested franchise, providing the same tactics fans love in a much more inviting package.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ opening hour, it's apparent that franchise fans will be experiencing a more emotionally raw affair than they're accustomed to on the continent of Fódlan. That's saying something, given the fact that Fire Emblem has developed a reputation for inviting fans to fall in love with characters before a particularly difficult fight sees them cruelly removed from the narrative for good. How does the team behind a series that has already become adept at tugging on the heartstrings continue to push those boundaries?
The answer is a simple one - give players a taste of peace, and demonstrate just how fleeting it is. Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, the series’ 1996 entry, put its best foot forward with the same premise. The Fire Emblem games are ostensibly about war and the way that it divides us; more importantly, they're also games that allow players to explore the depths of their companions’ feelings and to discover how to celebrate humanity during distinctly inhumane events.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, war doesn't loom over the heads of the cast for nearly a year of in-game time - sure, there’s the usual political tension bubbling underneath the sterling sheen blanketing Fódlan, but that's for the adults to worry about. What ends up unfolding is a narrative journey across two distinct time periods. The duality of these environments, coupled with a brilliant rendition of the series' tactical prowess, makes Fire Emblem: Three Houses at once the most complex yet accessible game that the series has ever produced.
At the Garegg Mach monastery where the first distinct portion of the game takes place, the Church of Seiros is introduced. This institution steels the country's youth so that they remain sharp, physically and mentally, while also serving a secondary function: bringing together key members of each nation to learn from each other and to foster friendship. Experiencing the latter is one of the things that makes the game so emotionally resonant. The player grows up with the cast and crew of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, watching them struggle through changes in career goals and relationships, and the result is an investment into the game's story that feels powerful and compelling.
The students are divided into three houses, each of which is led by one who will one day hold the reins of their respective nations. There's Claude, the savvy and charismatic leader of the nobles' alliance; Edelgard, calculating and pragmatic, future leader of the Empire; and Dmitri, the most outwardly naive of the three but someone who harbors great potential for both good and ill, something that's concerning given his monarchic destiny.
Accompanying the chosen three are a group of different students sworn to the service of each house that the player will befriend and instruct as their professor, despite being of a similar age. It's a novel spin on the usual Persona formula that sees players control a student who’s honing their own various strengths. While that's still very much in play thanks to how leveling the protagonist works, the player is also given a clear reason why they're shaping the stats and strengths of their soon-to-be soldiers. Completing various tasks like quests, exploration, fishing, gardening, and relationship building will reward the player character with Professor levels, which in turn allow them to accomplish more during their free time. Raising stats then allows the recruitment of students from other houses into their own, meaning that it's hard to miss out on any characters that the player really wants on their squad - they just have to be willing to dedicate time to the endeavor.
Time is of the essence, too, because just like Persona, as the game begins to hurtle toward its big mid-point moment, players will have to start making tough choices about which classes their crew will employ on the field of battle and what relationships they want to prioritize. Things hit a boiling point and suddenly the game skips five years into the future. On the other side, the player is spat out into a land that’s vastly different than the one before. The students have all lived through war now, and the Fire Emblem formula’s familiarity with tales of conflict takes the driver’s seat as the game segues into a narrative more familiar to fans than the Harry Potter-esque first half.
While there are skirmishes that begin the game, they're mostly there to introduce mechanics. In fact, battles feel like they take a major backseat to the story and social sim elements in Fire Emblem: Three Houses until a few months before the timeskip occurs. Normally, that would be a big issue in a game that wears its tactical strategy heart on its sleeve, but the social sim elements feel like an equal to the battles rather than a stop-gap. Even if the stakes feel relatively low - like a Hogwarts-style competition to determine which is the superior house that year - the character design keeps it light-hearted but makes it more than worthwhile.
The treatment of tactical combat itself is the other evolution that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has prompted despite that element of the franchise not needing a new coat of paint quite yet. Fire Emblem games have never wanted for depth in combat, and this entry is no exception. Fans won’t have complaints about level design or difficulty; both aspects scale within expectation for what series veterans have grown accustomed to. There are also plenty of unique battlegrounds that offer terrain-based decision-making, and party composition is still a life-or-death endeavor.
However,instead of simplifying the game to appeal to a broader audience, Fire Emblem: Three Houses leans away from the old rock-paper-scissors triangle of weapon advantages. Those are still present, but they can now be mitigated by skills. Additionally, revamped, more specialized skill sets and abilities for units allow for a level of customization that makes it feel as though the player can realistically achieve whatever unit composition they desire. Somehow, these additions don’t make the game any more difficult to learn than previous entries. Most of what Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces is still intuitive, including the introduction of the new Battalion system.
Battalions can use gambits, which tend to hit a little softer than normal attacks or abilities but offer protection from getting attacked back, helping to mitigate bad weapons match-ups. Battalions also level up and get increasingly powerful the more Authority a character has, giving fans another stat to track and prioritize for specific party compositions. It's complex but in a fun way, giving the satisfying feedback loop of leveling a player's own character, their squad, and their squad's squad. It's JRPG Inception and it's a lot of fun.
The reason Fire Emblem: Three Houses feels so accessible, though, is because of the introduction of Divine Pulse, inspired by Mila's Turnwheel from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Previously, most Fire Emblem games had modes that insulated the player from losing their beloved squad members to untimely deaths. Without that mode selected, an unfortunate crit or an accidental placement could spell disaster for a player's hopes of ending the game with their favorite side character intact. Now, Divine Pulse allows players to rewind time in battle to a previous point before an action had occurred. This is only doable on the player’s turn, but it offers a lot of flexibility and allows fans who were hesitant to play Fire Emblem with permadeath enabled to explore the series’ original mode with a bit of a safety net. It's entirely optional to use, but it adds even more strategic depth, too - planning out an ambitious and risky turn, seeing how it plays out, and rewinding to a safer one if it fails is a blast.
If there's one complaint to be had about Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it's that the game doesn't necessarily manage its two periods of time as well as we'd like. The second section of the story is beautiful and doubles down on the character relationships that make this game so great - but it's also a lot shorter than the first. That's likely by necessity, since the divergent paths of having allied with a specific house and having made several impactful story decisions means there's a lot more variation to the second section than the first.
Still, it feels just enough off-balance - with just enough plot threads not getting picked up - that it's mildly disappointing, even though the story beats and character growth are still incredibly impactful, and the battles significantly more difficult. Having played through two campaigns - one in New Game+, which makes recruiting favorite characters from a past campaign with a different house much easier - we're confident in saying that those who want to can experience the whole story by sinking in the 200 hours of gameplay that are supposedly required. We just wish there was a little more pay-off in the second half given to us for those who aren't able to dedicate that much time to the campaign.
Everything else, though? Fire Emblem: Three Houses absolutely gets it right. For a franchise that's had a bit of difficulty expanding into the West outside of its core demographic, Three Houses represents the best opportunity it’s ever had to attain more widespread appeal. Tactical games can be a bit of a hard sell, but when they're this deep - and wrapped so nicely in all of the social sim trappings that make games like Persona so popular when compared to their Shin Megami Tensei counterparts - it's not that difficult to convince people to give them a try. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the best modern release in the series yet, and it's exactly the sort of blend between old- and new-school that makes for a strong game of the year contender.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is out now for Nintendo Switch. Screen Rant was provided with a digital download code for the purposes of this review.