30th Apr2020

‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Chris Thomas

The Nintendo Switch may be a little console, but it has big ideas. Being able to play a huge RPG on the go is fantastic and honestly, the Switch is my favourite games console since the Dreamcast.

With Fire Emblem: Three Houses we are in classic, turn-based JRPG territory here. In terms of gameplay think Valkyria Chronicles, Vandal Hearts or Final Fantasy Tactics. In terms of world building… think Manga school kids go to Hogwarts. The plot is epic and sprawling but also, for the most part entirely nonsensical and predictable. Silly legends, age old baddies called “Nemesis” … it all feels very well worn and skippable (to be fair there is a button for this). Our character quickly goes from child of mercenary to teacher at a prestigious military academy that serves the children of both the elite and some of those without the right family name. Quickly we must pick a house to become the Head of, we then spend our time running around the rambling castle, taking to people, gardening, fishing, buying stuff and finding random items.

A big part of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is getting to know the students, the fellow teachers and using the classroom to boost their skills and in battle abilities and strengths. We spend a lot of time with simple dialog decisions with our students, hosting tea parties for them and randomly guessing which question they might enjoy answering. There is a huge amount of content here and, as might be expected some of it works better than others. For better or for worse, classic JRPG conventions are followed here so semi pointless busy work in mini games sits right next to scrolling down a huge list of lost and found items we’ve come across to eventually find out which of the random items we’ve come across belongs to which character. Managing our degrading weapons, our items, our skills, our training will all involve spending a lot of time in menus doing admin.

Ultimately our currency here is “time” and the opportunity cost that comes with it. If we spend time to cook a dish with a character and boost our friendship, we might not have time to join a sword fighting tournament that will boost the fighting stats of one of our aspiring swordsmen. As the game progresses, we start to level up our characters and assign them more advanced classes (e.g. Wyvern rider, Sword Master, Sniper, dark knight…) which may or may not see them ride a horse or even mythical beast.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses massively encourages you to recruit as many people into your house as possible (for reasons that become apparent later) but I only ever bothered to recruit a few as trying to charm these sniffy kids who complain they need your sword skills to level up, before they deign to get on the winning team quickly led me to just crack on with the massive challenge at hand, without spending hours running around the castle talking to random kids to get them to join my club. I never had any issues with lack of bodies, my core team of about 4 super elite characters buffed with an increased movement spell in the first round often meant that I could murder my way across the board with reckless abandon while my less able students chuffed along behind opening chests. The game was rarely challenging enough, meaning for large chunks of it I could largely ignore the rock paper scissors style combat because Hilda on her Wyvern would simply dodge the arrows that should have stopped her in her tracks. I could send her out, kill someone in one hit and then just let the enemy bleed out by sending unit after unit into her, getting counter attacked and one shotted while doing little to no damage to Hilda in return. It was the lack of challenge that slowed me down ironically, over the course of the game I have finished over a hundred levels, most of them in a couple of turns. A lot of the maps were also reused, which seemed a bit strange.

One thing to note, the character Lorenz is played for laughs but honestly, he’s a skeevy creep. The combat is fun (which is handy, because you are going to be spending a LOT of time fighting the same enemies across grid based levels) and the interpersonal relationships between your characters, so patiently nurtured through hours of voice acted dialog give little buffs to your heroes.

I have now finished Fire Emblem: Three Houses with one of the three houses after 44 hours of playing (“The Golden Deer”). I am now, gently encouraged to start over and experience the game from the perspective of the other 2 houses. I have only experienced, what might be one third of the sprawling epic, but given how busy my life is, I doubt I will start this over again. Some people might be unhappy I have not experienced everything the game has to offer before reviewing it, so I caveat the review with that.

Graphically, Fire Emblem: Three Houses looks fine but some of the textures in the castle can look a bit ugly and basic. For more, the trade off of the Switch probably not being more powerful graphically than my iPhone is easily worth it for the quality of the games that are available for the console. The last, similar RPG I can remember playing on a handheld was Persona 4 Golden. The issue with that game was the dungeon crawling but honestly P4 Golden will stick with me far longer than Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it was funny and sad and scary and intriguing in a way that Hogwarts Gakkö never quite reaches the heights of. The use of time to achieve things, to me also felt more meaningful.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses does not join Suikoden 2 or Resident Evil 2 or Persona 4 Golden as games that somehow felt they were made, purely for me, personally to experience and enjoy. Something that comes close to shaping my identity as a human.

There are a good deal of “nits to pick” here but, like the Switch console itself the positive aspects magically outweigh the negatives. A game that is made from many, many parts, many of which are mediocre manages to become something pretty darn special. The game is, in many regards mediocre and generic, but in a few of the characters (Claude) and in a few of the many, many stories that this game tells, it is an experience that is worth having. Despite all my “buts” listed in this review, I am still [positively] comparing Fire Emblem: Three Houses to the games that have meant the most to me in my lifetime, which makes this rarefied air.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is available on the Nintendo Switch now.

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