Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an excellent tactics game wrapped in a middling life sim
This is a review in progress based on 20+ hours of gameplay. Check back later for final impressions and a review score.
The more I play Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the more I enjoy my time with it. It’s a game that asks a great deal up front with its mountain of tutorials, character introductions, and housekeeping chores, but eventually rewards players for surrendering to its idiosyncratic pacing.
In the opening hours, the story unfolds glacially, but the main conceit is that a young mercenary named Byleth, who is the child of a renowned knight commander, is recruited as a new professor at the Garreg Mach Monastery Officer’s Academy, where the future leaders of three allied regions of the continent of Fódlan train to be effective heads of state and military tacticians. Despite his or her youth (which is emphasized, I assume, to make the prospect of romancing students later on in the game slightly less creepy), the Archbishop of the monastery sees something in Byleth, and appoints him or her to a position of authority.
Early on, Byleth is asked to choose which of the three houses at the school to lead, and by extension, which leader-in-training and group of students to most closely associate with. In my playthrough I made the only logical choice (fight me) and aligned Byleth with the Golden Deer house, which is the group led by the sarcastic former commoner Claude, hailing from an association of nobles called the Leicester Alliance.
Having a team of students to befriend and cultivate sounds like an appealing process, and, for the most part, it is, but don’t expect too much depth from any individual character. Each member of the Golden Deer, from the shy girl with a traumatic past to the kindhearted meathead who loves to eat and train, is an anime trope bordering somewhere between two and three dimensional. The writing of the character interactions is fun enough, but certainly not revelatory for anyone who has ever watched an anime or played a JRPG.
The more engrossing part of the student-teacher dynamic is determining pupils’ strengths and weaknesses and catering their individual lesson plans to help them be the most effective they can be on the battlefield. Characters will have preferences about what subjects to study, and each begins with certain proclivities, but any student can be made to train in any subject and upgrade to a number of available classes. My Hilda may end up as a heavily armored but relatively stationary Fortress Knight, while another player could ask her to focus on flying skills to become a highly mobile Wyvern Rider.
The number of systems involved in managing every character’s weaponry, combat abilities, accompanying battalions, support bonds, learning goals and more is daunting. But the granularity of customization for your team is worth the laundry list of activities required to make the most of it. Each month of in-game time is broken down into several weeks, each of which includes an opportunity for individual student instruction and a class lecture, and a choice of free-day activity. Free day activities include exploring the monastery to talk to students, improve relationships and Byleth’s professor level, and complete various fetch quests; scheduling an additional seminar that students can attend to improve certain skills; or participating in practice battles to level up students and earn rewards. Each month culminates with a mission that advances the game’s main plot.
Combat itself feels like a treat, especially given how much time goes into the preparations. Seeing all the study sessions, choir practices and teatimes at Garreg Mach bear fruit on the battlefield makes all the slower sections feel like they’ve payed off. Battle arenas are well designed to make use of different classes and tactics, and determining which students are best to traverse the terrain and carry out particular tasks requires an ideal amount of strategy.
Despite some notable pacing issues in the first half of the game, now that I’m hooked, I’m eager to continue with Three Houses. Like any good teacher, I want the best for my little group of students, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their stories and abilities continue to develop.