The Genre Blend In 'Fire Emblem: Three Houses' Shouldn't Work This Well
When I find a graduation badge on the floor of the training grounds, I know immediately who it must belong to: Catherine, one of the most powerful of the Knights of Seiros, the order that protects the archbishop, the Garreg Mach Monastery, and all of the continent of Fódlan. She's one of the teachers at Monastery and so one of only a few graduates, and she's normally found in the training grounds, so it's most likely the badge belongs to her.
This is good news for two reasons, one I can get a little experience for returning the item, and two if I give it back to her Catherine might be my friend.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a bizarre concoction of an RPG. It has the grand story of a continent of uneasily allied factions, a brewing holy war, and a long history of demonic beasts being put down by magical heroes. But those grand narratives are simply the backdrop for a game about building relationships with students and teachers, schooling pupils, and scheduling your week to focus on developing your hero. Oh, and lets not forget the XCOM-like turn-based tactical battles, where you lead your students into fights against bandits, excommunicated knights, and demons.
And, yet, somehow it all comes together and works.
Three Houses starts with you on the outskirts of Fódlan society, you and your father are mercenaries fighting bandits outside of the eye of the Church of Seiros. That all changes when you come to the aid of three students being attacked by thieves. The students are all in line to be the next rulers of their respective kingdoms, and they're all the heads of different houses at the Officers Academy of Garreg Mach Monastery. After saving their lives, you're brought on to become a tutor at the academy and you have to choose one of the houses to lead.
The monastery is full of students who are assigned to different houses. There are 24 pupils in all, each with a different background, special ability, and set of skills. Some are strong melee fighters, others are more proficient archers, and the rest are better with magic than melee and ranged weapons. And, despite how many of them there are, within a few hours, you'll know them all. Some will be close friends, others just acquaintances, but it's a sign of how well drawn they are that this many students stick in the mind.
Soon after joining the monastery you need to choose a house to lead. That choice - between the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, and Golden Deer - decides which students you'll teach and they're also the people who will make up your squad in battle. Like picking your starting pokémon, it's a tough choice. Each of the house leaders is principled and seems to be a good person, but they have their flaws.
Edelgard of the Black Eagles is heir to the Adrestian Empire, one of the oldest kingdoms in Fódlan. She's serious-minded and comes across as icy, but dedicated. Dimitri of the Blue Lions is a prince of the kingdom of Faerghus. He's chivalrous and seems honorable, but also seems a little insincere. Claude of the Golden Deer is all charm and good humour, but he's also using that to hide his plans.
It's up to you to choose who you want to spend the next hundred hours aligned to.
Life in the monastery is set around a calendar, much like in the Persona games. You spend the weekdays teaching, and the weekend is your own. However, there are always more activities than you have time for. So, for instance, you can spend your free time exploring the monastery, talking to students, finding and returning lost times, but activities like dining with other characters, taking part in a fighting tournament, or singing in the cathedral all take up action points. Once you've run through those you won't get more until the next weekend of free time. And you can choose to bump your free time exploring completely, in favour of putting on an extra seminar or going into town.
Written down, this might seem like a lot of busywork but the different students and teachers around campus make all these activities genuinely engaging. Identifying students you think will enjoy having dinner together and finding a food they both like is a small puzzle but a satisfying one to solve. And, as you progress through the game more of the monastery opens up, revealing more activities and fleshing out your toy box.
It's also through these activities that you get to know the other characters and learn about the world outside of the monastery walls. Some of this will be useful when it comes to make decisions in the game, but it's also simply an absorbing story.
If Three Houses has taught me anything it's that teaching's easy (though, I'm not going to tell my English teacher flatmate this). It's simply a matter of focusing on the most motivated students and leaving the others to look after themselves. The way it works is that at the start of each week you choose which students you want to spend your limited time giving one-to-one tuition. This lets you train their specific skills. How much experience they receive depends on your level in the skill, their motivation, their interest in it, and other buffs that you can receive from upgrades you make in the monastery.
Each student comes to you with ideas of who they want to be when they're older. A student who's naturally already talented with a lance might want to become a paladin, this is their goal. Goals determine where students focus their studies, so if they're aiming to become a paladin, week to week you'll see their sword, lance, and riding stats progress faster than their other skills. Goals aren't set in stone, though, you can talk to students and give them a totally different goal to the one they have already, steering them into becoming a different class of hero altogether.
However, if you don't want to take such a hands-on approach, you're free to automate the teaching section and your character will divvy up the private lessons and define character goals without you.
Each in-game month you need to take your students out into battle - both as a means of training them and teaching them their responsibilities to the realms that make up the continent. Early in the game that means putting down bandit uprisings, but in time it shifts to enemies of the Church of Seiros.
Judging Three Kingdoms by its cover, you might not expect its combat to be more like XCOM than Final Fantasy but it works surprisingly well. Battles take place on maps divided into grids, each student appears as a unit, and you move them as an individual piece. Each character has a set number of movement points each round, and can perform one action. So, for instance, you might want to move a fighter next to an enemy soldier and have them attack, or you might want to move them closer to a priest and skip their action, so that the priest is able to move within range to heal them on their turn.
Different terrain provides buffs such as cover, so you're forever making small choices, like who from your party should stay in the trees where they have more cover from attack, and who can go on the plain where they may receive the heaviest assault. These small considerations add to the richness of the battles.
Another consideration is weapon durability. Every attack in Three Houses weakens a character's weapon. If it reaches zero then they can still use it but it's significantly less powerful. Where it really matters, though, is with combat arts.
As your students level up they become more proficient in their skills and gain access to new abilities called combat arts. These super moves to a tons of damage, have a much higher chance to hit, and give the enemy a lower chance to counter attack. However, they use up more of a weapon's durability and you can't use them at all if your weapon is broken.
One way the tactical battles are tied to the other parts of the game is with support levels. If you've been spending time with the students in your house and you've hosted activities that have raised your support levels then on the in battle you can perform linked attacks. Characters that like each other and stay near each other in combat can attack together against enemies to pull off more powerful, accurate attacks.
One of the challenges in Three Houses' tactical campaign is your squad's inflexibility. Your troops are made up of the students in your house and they can't be swapped out quickly. So as you progress through the campaign you can't quickly adapt to try different strategies on the battlefield. If most of your students are archers then you can't turn them into melee fighters between battles. However, there are ways around this. You can borrow students from other houses, they won't gain experience while fighting for you, but they bring their skillset to bear against your enemies.
Long-term, though, you're given a lot of tools to change the strengths and weaknesses of your house. Students can be trained in multiple disciplines, opening up new tactical choices in battle. For instance, one of my students, Petra, started as a proficient sword fighter, but through one to one training and a lesson plan that put a focus on archery, she was able to mutli-skill becoming a threat in close combat and at range.
Students from other houses can also be recruited into your house. Though, to do that you need to have both a strong relationship with the student you want to join you and also skill in the abilities they're interested in. For instance, if you want to recruit Ashe from the Blue Lions you'll need to work on your lance skills and your charm stat (which means hosting a lot of tea parties).
Between training, borrowing, and recruiting, over the course of the campaign you can dramatically change the abilities of your house. It's a rich part of the game, and one that informs your time on and off the battlefield and in and out of the classroom. It's something that ties the whole game together.
On paper, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a bizarre cocktail of systems. One part turn-based tactical game where you lead a party of differently-skilled fighters in battle, like XCOM but with more anime; one part school simulator where you make lesson plans for your students and guide them through exams; and one part social RPG in which you explore the grounds of a gothic school, sharing meals and tea with characters to improve your relationships with them. In practice, though, it all ties together to make a wonderful, engaging game. The bonds you form with characters and the way you teach your pupils plays out on the battlefield, and the outcomes of those battles have knock on effects in the school, too.
It's one of the best games out this year and easily one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo