Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a near-perfect blend of strategy and life-sim

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Nintendo’s long-running Fire Emblem series is known primarily for two things: deeply engaging strategy combat and suitably epic fantasy stories. But for the most part, one of those halves has always been much more involved than the other. Players spend hours making minute decisions covering practically every facet of battle, but when it comes to the story, they just sit back and enjoy some very long cutscenes and dialogue sequences.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which launches tomorrow on the Switch, changes that approach. It still has ridiculously deep and thrilling strategic battles, but it balances them out with a new story structure that makes forming relationships as important as a well-placed sword strike. The result is one of the best Fire Emblem games to date, and it’s an experience that breathes new life into the series without getting away from what makes it so great.

Three Houses puts you in the role of a mercenary-turned-professor at a military academy run by a powerful church. You can choose your gender, but otherwise the character is already pretty well-defined. The school is divided into three houses, each tied to a specific territory in the region. Early on, you have to pick one to help run in your role as professor. This is a big decision: each house has its own unique characters and storylines, and the events of the game play out very differently depending on where you pledge your allegiance early on. (This also makes the game ideal for multiple playthroughs.)

The first thing that longtime Fire Emblem fans will notice about Three Houses is its new structure. In keeping with the school theme, virtually everything is regimented, with specific events happening on specific days. As a member of the faculty, most weeks, you teach class Monday through Saturday. You start out by laying out a lesson plan, teaching specific students the finer points of swordplay or flying horses, and then there are regular occurrences like choir practice or trips to clean the stables. Sometimes, students will come to you for advice on everything from their future career to tips on fishing. Basically, you’ll be spending a surprising amount of time looking at a calendar, and on Sundays, you have free time to do whatever you want: wander the school grounds completing side quests, doing some optional battles, or just resting.

This is all building to the next major story mission, which happens at the end of each month. Initially, they’re all pretty basic. You might test out your students in a battle with some local ruffians who have been causing trouble, and then later put them up against the other houses in combat for bragging rights. The game gets more tense later on as various factions in the world, including the church, start the inevitable march toward all-out war. (The monthly structure makes less narrative sense once the missions have nothing to do with school activities.) This creates a pleasing rhythm, as you spend the early portion of the month in preparation before heading out on a new mission.

What’s particularly great about this structure is how, much like the Persona series, it intimately connects the story and gameplay. I’ve never felt as close to Fire Emblem characters as I did in Three Houses, and it’s because I spent so much time with them. That time had real, tangible benefits. Having lunch with my star archer made her feel motivated to learn, which, in turn, meant she gained more skill points in class. This, naturally, made her more adept in battle. Some of the connections are very clever. Before a student can move to a new character class, they have to take a test. It also becomes a challenge, as you have to make tough choices about how to spend your limited free time and who to spend it with. (Yes, there is a romance option in the game, though it doesn’t really become clear-cut until near the end.)

There are a few uncomfortable situations, however, particularly the option to invite students over for tea. It starts out harmless, with you having to guess what they want to talk about over snacks. But if you’re successful, you’re “rewarded” — not just with a more motivated pupil, but also the option to essentially leer at them for an extended period of time. It’s the kind of “fan service” that often appears in Japanese games, though it feels particularly out of place here given the power dynamic between you and the students. It’s also strange because there isn’t even much of a romantic association with the mini-game, as all you can do is stare.

One of the real standouts of Three Houses is the school itself. It’s a sprawling place, reminiscent of Hogwarts, with everything from a greenhouse and fishing hole to a massive library and dining hall. It’s a place with a rich history and plenty of mysteries to uncover. It’s easy to lose hours just wandering around and talking to people, particularly early on when you’re just getting to know the world and its characters. I especially enjoyed exploring after a major story event when everyone would have their own experiences to talk about.

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This structure is also very flexible. If you want to play Three Houses like a Persona game, and max out your relationships with your favorite characters, you can do that. You can focus on the minute details of your lesson plan or try to grow every variety of local herb. But you can also automate much of the process if you want to play it more like a traditional Fire Emblem game. In fact, I found myself doing both. For most of the game, I was very detail-oriented, trying to shape my squad exactly how I wanted it and learn more about my students. But as the game approached its climax, this became less important, and I sped through these scenes in order to head into battle and see the next major twist or turn in the story.

Of course, you can’t talk about Fire Emblem with talking about its turn-based combat. And while there’s a newfound focus on the narrative side of the experience, it thankfully isn’t at the expense of the battles. It’s still the same grid-based strategy the series is known for, with a variety of unit types to choose from. The goal in most battles is simply to destroy all of your opponents, but the campaign is also full of really interesting mission designs. One has you saving a village where half of inhabitants have turned into deranged killers, while another has you capturing thieves before they escape. There’s also a big focus on monsters this time around, with new massive beasts that have multiple health bars and require unique strategies to take down.

For newcomers, the combat is a lot to take in. Even on casual mode, Three Houses requires you to pay attention to many different things at once. You have to keep an eye on all of your weapons, which degrade over time, and deal with systems like the battalions that can aid in battle and the relationships between characters that can influence how well they work together. This is all on top of the standard strategy RPG gameplay that’s already pretty demanding. Even as a series veteran, it took me many hours before I felt like I fully understood all of the various battle mechanics and character customization options. Luckily, there’s at least one feature designed for new players: a magical device lets you rewind battles when you make a poor decision, giving you another chance without having to start over again.

Some of the battles can be long and exhausting — a few took me upwards of an hour to complete — but the calendar structure makes this much more palatable. After a stressful mission, you have a chance to unwind and focus on other, lighter aspects of the game. It took me just over 40 hours to get through the campaign (Nintendo says it can take as long as 80, depending on how you play), but the remarkable thing is thaat Three Houses never lost its momentum over that lengthy runtime, thanks largely to its more balanced structure.

Three Houses is a game that smartly updates the Fire Emblem formula to create an experience that offers what fans expect, but in a way that’s much more resonant. It’s also incredibly epic: the story spans several years, and seeing your students grow and mature over time, due largely to your guidance, is very satisfying. Three Houses doesn’t get away from strategy gameplay — it just makes lesson plans and lunch dates feel equally important.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses launches on July 26th on the Nintendo Switch.

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