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Published on August 19th, 2019 | by voxx

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Fire Emblem Three Houses

‘Three Houses’ is the latest installment of the popular Japanese role-playing series, ‘Fire Emblem’, and it’s quite possibly the most complex and indulgent yet, with many more new and interesting characters to get to know and love. ‘Fire Emblem’ is first and foremost a war strategy game, where you train and send out your military units to battle against enemy armies in turn-based combat. But, it has also become so much more and the creators have once again put a heavy focus on relationships between the cast and what each of them has to offer.

In this Nintendo Switch debut you play as Byleth, a mercenary out on the road who ends up saving a group of students in the woods, before being invited back to the monastery where they are all studying. You then get thrown into the role of teaching one of three houses – Black Eagles, Blue Lions or Golden Deer – each with their own set of playable characters and class specialisms, before an ill-fated time jump after your first year when war has broken out and all hell has run loose. As time goes on during the first half of the game you do have the opportunity to recruit certain students from other houses to your own by befriending them and meeting a series of criteria, but for the most part which house you choose to mentor determines which characters you can utilise for the rest of the game.

One of the great things about ‘Fire Emblem’ though is that no expense is spared when it comes to character building. Each and every player in this universe has their own unique voice, opinions, personality and story arc, and while some are naturally more likeable or more complex than others, they all have their charms, meaning you can’t go too far wrong with your decision.

And yet that’s not all there is to consider. As well as determining your characters, your choice of house also alters the direction the story takes in its second half, meaning there is plenty of replay opportunity on the table. Once you finish the campaign with one house, you’ll find yourself wondering what would have happened had you made some different decisions, meaning you can give it another shot and be faced with an alternate storyline that your first run overlooked. It’s like in ‘Fire Emblem Fates’, except you don’t have to buy each game separately – it all comes in one single package.

The Blue Lions class is the most engaging when it comes to narrative, and it’s the most classic ‘Fire Emblem’ style route – not to mention it is totally emotional. However, play as Golden Deer and you can uncover more dark secrets about the gods and their role in the world, lying under the surface of the obligatory war zone you’re a large part of in the Blue Lions. Choosing the Black Eagles offers a bit of both worlds, but with a completely different tone altogether come the end of the first half. While they are all connected, no two routes offer all the same characters, story arcs and levels. And even within one house, the eventual “future” of your team may change too. If two units build a strong enough relationship you might find that after the war they marry or have children, or that they completely abandon their roles altogether. Everything is determined by the choices you make throughout, and there’s even a hidden fourth campaign option if you speak to the right people at the right time in the early stages of the game.

As well as your choices being more important than ever before, what really makes this installment especially unique in the series is the actual gameplay mechanics. 3D exploration is a relatively new innovation in ‘Fire Emblem’, and we first got a taste of it in ‘Shadows of Valentia’ for Nintendo 3DS, but never in this series have we had the opportunity to engage so freely within the world of the monastery. Between fights it’s all about building and crafting your perfect army, and as well as undertaking weekly lectures that train your students in new skills, you’re also free to sit down for a meal with them to improve your relationships, join a friendly tournament, or even simply do some fishing or gardening to acquire new cooking supplies. It’s in these phases that you can also complete additional quests and try and coax students from the other houses to transfer to yours instead.

The introduction of this style of play was a bold decision, and one that’s really quite hard to judge. In one respect, it can quickly become very tedious, especially if you just want to gun through the story without dedicating hours upon hours of your life to the campaign. However, the option to skip all of this and have it done automatically does exist, so at least you can make your own decision on how important it is to prepare your team and monitor their relationships in your own custom way, or if you’re happy to just let them run through default developments. But even if you get bored after several months, it’s advisable to at least play through some of the exploration stages as it helps to fill in gaps in the story and is great for getting to know and understand the characters on a deeper level.

Having a custom team also means you can play to your own advantages and preferences. You can reclass your units however you like as long as you train them in appropriate skills, which means that if you want you can turn your healer into a hard-hitting pegasus knight, or teach your assassin to use dark magic as well as their sword. The possibilities are far-reaching, which adds yet another layer to the way you play. If something doesn’t work first time round, reclass them with alternative skills in your next run and they’ll be like an entirely new unit. This class fluidity is great for creating versatile teams and even individuals. While some classes still can’t utilise some skills, being able to teach everyone to fire a bow as well as using their primary weapon, for example, could work to your advantage on the field when you’d rather attack at range and your sniper is already dead.

In terms of combat elements, you can choose to do practice battles instead of exploring the monastery once a week if you’d prefer, and at the end of each month the next big fight of the story will take place. And these fights are exactly how you’d expect them to be. We see a return to a classic formula here, with a bunch of units for you to control freely on a turn-based basis. Where you position certain units is important when considering potential counter attacks in danger zones, and it’s never a bad idea to have a healer nearby your most important units at all times, or a tank to cover your low-defence mage, just in case. The strategy element is as strong as ever, and some of the fights will see you having to reset and try again, using new methods or routes to secure your win.

However, again, there are noticeable differences to how things work on the battlefield this time round. Some of your enemies will have a lot of resilience, meaning that even once you kill them they will immediately respawn a designated amount of times before they’re gone for good. Some enemies can’t even be touched until you take out certain others, as this one particular mage, for example, could be casting a protective field around the boss that must first be broken. Arguably the biggest development though is your ability to turn back the clock if things aren’t going your way. If an important unit dies too early, you can reverse time to take your turn again and do things differently. This can be a godsend on classic mode with its ‘permadeath’ rule, which sees units lost in one battle gone forever, but on casual where everyone survives to fight another day, it’s possibly a little overkill. But still, this is again an option, and it’s entirely up to you whether you take advantage of such powerful sorcery or not. You play the game your way.

I’ll give you fair warning. If you do choose to pick up ‘Fire Emblem Three Houses’, be prepared to lose hours of your life, to invest everything you have into these adorable pixel people with whom you’ll fall hopelessly in love and be ridiculously protective over. Prepare to feel sadness and frustration, to feel shocked, betrayed and yet endeared. Because there’s something special about a ‘Fire Emblem’ game that not all RPGs can offer, and apart from becoming a little long-winded at times, especially come your third play through, this one is no exception.

- By Victoria Hydes


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