Fire Emblem: Three Houses perfectly balances tactics-based combat with an anime high school simulator. I’m fifteen hours in, and I can already tell it is going to break my heart.
This Fire Emblem game reminds me a lot of classic otome games like Princess Maker 2, or even their more modern antecedents like Long Live The Queen. In some regards, it is a raising sim. Just as those games asked you to raise a young woman into a princess or queen (or in Princess Maker 2’s case, the Queen of Hell), Three Houses places you in the role of a teacher at Garegg Mach Monastery, which is a school for young knights.
After you pick one of the titular three houses—I went with the Golden Deer—you devote time to training and raising students in the ways of knighthood, as a teacher would. The game also still has the tricky tactical battles for which Fire Emblem is known, but creating bonds between characters and raising their skill, takes place as much off the battlefield as it does on it.
At this point, Fire Emblem as a series can be broken up into two eras. There’s the era of older games from before 2012, many of them taking place in the same world and tending to be centered around the combat. These early games, for the most part, forced you to play with permadeath on, meaning that once a character falls in battle, they’re gone forever. The series took a radical shift with Awakening, which introduced American audiences to casual mode. In that mode, allies that fell on the battlefield wouldn’t literally die, and also, the game was much, much hornier than the previous games. So much of Awakening, and also the next game in the series, Fates, was centered around love, marriage, and your babies from the future. As a result, fans who wanted more of the same thing from the earlier era of Fire Emblem didn’t particularly love the newer games. That tactics element was still there in Awakening and Fates, certainly, but some fans felt the series lost the thing that had drawn them in: really tough combat.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses does a much better job at balancing the horny anime wife simulator of Fates and Awakening with the serious, puzzle-y tactical combat that drew in fans of the early games. There are a lot of things to do in Three Houses, but also a lot of ways to avoid the things you don’t particularly feel like doing.
Take teaching your students, for instance. You can instruct them manually, choosing each student and then picking which areas to instruct them in. I like to do this whenever I decide to change up my characters’ classes a bit. My student Lorenz started out with a lance, but then I gave him some points in Reason and realized that he could be a powerhouse mage. I’ve recently gained the character Cyril, and while he normally uses an axe, I’m trying to see if I can make him into a sword user, since I don’t have a ton of them. Teaching your students can also be done automatically, but I like to check in on them and progress certain characters one by one.
Three Houses still has some similar elements to Fates and Awakening, like the weapons triangle—a rock/paper/scissors system that made certain kinds of weapons more powerful than others—and breakable weapons. In Three Houses, your weapons still break, and users of certain weapons will eventually earn abilities that give them an advantage over other weapons. Both these elements are both much less important than Combat Arts, which are new to this game. Combat Arts are special moves that degrade your weapon quality. Regular attacks won’t contribute to how busted your weapon is, just Combat Arts. Some Combat Arts are particularly powerful against certain enemies. Knightkneeler, which is a Combat Art for Lance users, is more powerful against mounted units. Meanwhile Helm Splitter, a Combat Art for Axe users, will straight up destroy units wearing heavy armor.
The biggest change to combat is the addition of the Divine Pulse, which is a special ability that allows you to rewind time during battle. You can only use it a couple of times per battle, but on normal difficulty, I haven’t had to use it much. I’m not currently playing on the harder difficulty because I just wanted to get to know everyone my first go around. On a later playthrough, where I’ll be playing Classic mode, I’ll probably spam that pulse like a motherfucker.
Three Houses excels at connecting you with the characters, and it’s all because you are their teacher, so you’ll spend a lot of time teaching them and getting to know them. These characters mostly fall into familiar anime archetypes—a shrinking violet with pale blue hair, a cocky womanizer, a pink-haired girl who pretends to be stupid to get other people to do things for her—but by exploring the monastery, teaching them, and talking to them, you learn new unexpected facets that underly these archetypal personalities.
Marianne, the shrinking violet, has become one of my favorite characters. Usually, these kinds of nature-loving women of few words irritate me a little, but she’s got hidden depths that I’ve discovered after talking to her more and completing quests for her, such as returning her lost items that can be found around the monastery. (Apparently, none of the kids at Garreg Mach can keep their hands on their shit; she’s not the only character that I got to know better by picking up after them.)
If two units spend time on the battlefield next to each other, or supporting each other by healing, they’ll also become emotionally closer to each other. Once they get close enough, you’ll have the option to watch a little skit between the two characters in question, which is called a Support Conversation. The end result is that these characters will then be stronger when they fight together, but these skits also help you get to know the characters in question.
Recently in my play-through, Marianne made it to the lowest tier of a support conversation with Leonie, a girl from a poor village who idolizes a knight who once studied at Garreg Mach. Watching that scene, I realized that I learned a lot about both those characters. Leonie wanted Marianne’s help picking out some supplies for the women at the monastery, but Marianne declined, assuming she would just be a bother. It isn’t just that Marianne is shy. She has debilitatingly low self-esteem, to the point that you can tell that there is some deeper trauma bubbling under the surface. For example, she sometimes mentions that her father wouldn’t want her straying from the monastery. In fact, she mentions her father’s expectations for her a lot, usually when she’s declining offers of friendship from her classmates. You really have to wonder what happened to her, to make her so afraid of other people.
I thought Leonie would react with the same empathy that I was feeling, but instead, she was furious. Her reaction still made sense to me, though. Leonie doesn’t come from nobility, like the other characters, and she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She’s resourceful and frugal. She makes her own towels from fabric scraps, and she makes her own soap from used cooking oil. Marianne’s adopted father is a well-known noble. For Leonie, Marianne’s rejection felt like snobbery.
The depth of these character relationships, which flourish in a school setting, is ultimately what’s drawing me into Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I love the tactical aspects of the game, and Three Houses manages to keep the same level of polish in combat as the series has always had, while also changing things up a little. Best of all, Three Houses also does a better job than Awakening or Fates of connecting you to the characters and their interactions because it gives you the job of caretaker, the person helping these students reach their full potential. I’m not just shoving pieces around a board. I’m their teacher, and I want to guide my students through whatever troubles they may face in the future. Based on the sketchy goings-on at Garreg Mach, well, I would say that trouble is soon to be afoot.