War is hell, even in video games. Sure they’re fun to play, but wartime games are often dark, brooding, and gravely serious. The immersion is easier with such a heavy setting, but war doesn’t always need to be so bleak. There needs to be room for hope. Aren’t there any games where war is tempered with something upbeat? Like love? Or friendship? Or a monastery full of attractive coeds?
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is such a game. The most recent entry in the vaunted Nintendo franchise (though not for long), Three Houses puts players in the role of Byleth, a professor/soldier/hero of time caught in the middle of an epic conflict that threatens the people they care about most.
Three Houses is a complex game. There’s the story, which involves quite a bit of dialogue and cutscenes as it plays out over the many years spanning the war. Players get to align with one of three houses (clever title!): the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer. Each of these has its own pros and cons in terms of battlefield tactics, but more importantly, each one is its own storyline full of unique characters. This all but guarantees that after this game hooks you, and it will almost certainly hook you, you’ll be back for at least one more run to see what things were like from a different perspective.
The Fire Emblem franchise is known for its tactical combat and delivers here once again. This is usually the biggest sticking point for new players. If you’ve never done a tactical, turn-based RPG before you might find things a little slow to start. But there’s a well-balanced learning curve and adjustable difficulty settings so even if you were just here for the story you can find your way through.
Conversely, fans of hardcore tactical combat may come away a bit underwhelmed. Even on the harder difficulties, Fire Emblem doesn’t deliver the same level of challenge as your XCOMs or Advance Wars. It’s certainly fun, but this isn’t a game about nonstop white-knuckle action. It's a game about humanity, and what war does to things like honor, loyalty, and love.
This brings us to the next, arguably most popular ingredient in the Three Houses formula: relationships. There are endless characters, conversations, and consequences to uncover in this game. Develop stronger relationships (up to the coveted S rank) and you’ll have stronger allies on the battlefield. You need a well-balanced team to succeed in battle, so building bonds with your students is essential.
This means having lots of conversations, collecting gifts, making food, and much more. This may sound tedious, but it works thanks to a well-crafted story and some charming and lovable characters. Jeralt. Claude. Sothis. You’ll be thinking about your favorites in between gaming sessions, and depending on your level of obsession may start dabbling in fanfics and fanart too.
Three Houses was a critical and commercial success because of the way it hooks you into making real emotional investments in your characters. It also devastates you when the war (remember this is a war game) comes calling and some of your beloved friends don’t make it home.
The deeper your investment in the characters, the more impactful the story becomes. Choices become agonizing and every cutscene is a riveting drama where you wait with bated breath to see who comes out OK. Battles get harder too because no one feels expendable. Very few games can make you care about the outcomes more than this one. Play it ASAP.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is available for Nintendo Switch. The physical edition is currently on sale in the Nintendo eShop.