At its best, combat in Fire Emblem games is like an elegant game of chess. At its worst, it’s a morass of numbers that don’t feel like they mean anything. Three Houses leans more closely to the former than the latter, though it’s also easy to get lost in statistics and variables. Allow me to explain the building blocks of this game’s combat, an understanding that will take you pretty far once the game comes out next week.
In general, what you will need to pay attention to are your characters’ abilities and their Combat Arts. Abilities for particular kinds of weapons can be learned through weapon mastery, which is done either by teaching a particular character about that weapon during the teaching phase of the game, or through just using it. You can also learn abilities for a particular character class as your characters master that class. That class-based mastery can only be achieved through combat.
Abilities are passive, meaning you won’t have to do anything special to trigger them. Marianne, who I’d been using as a healer, recently learned the ability Miracle, which allows her to sometimes be able to survive otherwise lethal attacks, albeit with only one hit point remaining. This is pretty nifty, but in order to make sure that will actually happen, you have to equip that particular ability, and you only have five slots for equipped abilities. Through both teaching and combat, your characters will quickly learn more than five abilities, so it’s best to take a look at what your characters have every once in a while and change it up according to your preferences. You will also always have the option to adjust your character’s loadout right before a battle, which includes their equipped abilities.
It is within abilities that you’ll find the familiar Fire Emblem concept of the weapons triangle, which is a rock/paper/scissors-esque delineation of which weapons are strong or weak against others. As characters gain mastery at certain types of weapons, they’ll sometimes earn abilities that make them stronger against particular weapons. If your axe-wielding character has learned the ability Lancebreaker, it’s probably a good idea to equip that before any battle where you know there will be a lot of enemy lance users.
Combat Arts also have to be equipped to be used, but instead of being passive abilities, these are special moves to break out during combat. The move Curved Shot, for instance, allows bow users to hit targets that are farther away. Some moves are effective against particular enemy types, like Helm Splitter, a move your axe-using characters can learn that has a bonus against armored units. The thing about using Combat Arts is that it leads to your weapons breaking faster.
Weapons in Three Houses have a limited amount of uses before they break. Cheaper weapons have about thirty uses, while more expensive ones have much more. If you’re not using Combat Arts, you can make it through a lot of battles with a regular old Iron Sword, but if you are, you need to keep a close eye on each weapon’s durability.
Combat Arts use up more of the weapon’s durability—anywhere from three to five points—which adds up if you’re not keeping track. You can attack with a broken weapon, but your attacks will be much weaker, and it could also result in an enemy counterattack. Later in the game, you’ll unlock a blacksmith who can repair your weapons, but until then, you should keep a close eye on how many more uses they have until they break, and buy more weapons as needed.
On top of all that, the game’s main character also has the ability to use Relics, which are super powerful weapons. Most of the time, hitting an enemy with a Relic kills them in one hit. These weapons also have a durability stat and will still break when they run out, though this can be reset by resting during the school phase of the game. That only works for Relic weapons, though. Other weapons’ durability can’t be recharged through resting.
Your characters can also bring Battalions into battle. Think of these as being like an extra attack you have in your back pocket. When you have a Battalion, you can use an ability called a Gambit to attack an enemy. (Gambits aren’t always attacks, but most Battalions will have offensive rather than defensive Gambits.) Pairing Battalion abilities with characters can give those characters an extra option to attack or support your other units. The kind of attack that is available to you will depend on the Battalion. Some have ranged magic attacks, while other types of attacks will need you to be up close. Sometimes attacks will even affect the environment, like Battalions that have the attack Blaze, which sets the surrounding environment on fire. Some Battalions can be used to heal adjacent characters. Battalions also have a limited number of uses, but that number can be replenished between battles.
If all else fails, you have the Divine Pulse, which allows you to turn back time during a battle. People who plan to play on casual mode might think they won’t need it, because it’s not as necessary in the early game, but it’s worth your time in the long run to learn how to use the Divine Pulse. There are extra missions you can do to earn more Relics and Battalions that will require you to keep certain characters alive, and using the Divine Pulse tool makes that a lot easier to pull off. On top of that, getting everyone out of a battle unscathed will result in more weapon and class mastery boosts, as well as more experience and support between characters.
The Divine Pulse is mapped to the left trigger. You can use it to turn back time as far as you want, but you can only use the Pulse for a limited number of times per battle. Later in the game, you can earn more Divine Pulse uses, but you’ll have played dozens of battles before you get to that point. Using the Pulse can teach you a lot about strategy, as you’ll learn how and why characters die, and then immediately get the chance to correct whatever mistake you made. Often I would send out a character who I thought could handle it into a situation with too many enemies, and that character then died. I’ve since learned to be more cautious, and I’m glad I didn’t have to save scum just to get better outcomes in my battles.
Combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a lot of moving parts, but the game also does a very good job of introducing concepts one by one and giving you enough time to master them before moving on to another new concept. Once you wrap your head around everything that you have to keep track of during battle, you’ll feel like a strategic genius. Or at least that’s what Claude, my house leader, calls me.