Spoilers for Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is exactly as I feared, a game that puts as big an emphasis, if not more, into building relationships, teaching classes, and walking around Garreg Mach Monastery as it does the actual turn-based tactical combat the series has been known for. Yet by deftly weaving these relationships and seminars into gaining new skills, new class recruits, and new story opportunities, Three Houses has proven that not only are the non-combat sections enjoyable, but are now integral to the series.
Fire Emblem has been one of my favorite RPG series, despite not even hitting the US until the early 2000s (in fact many US gamers were introduced to Fire Emblem via the inclusion of characters Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee in 2001). The series features fantasy warfare, larger-than-life anime heroes and villains, and meaningful tactical combat.
In Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012) we began to see a shift, putting a bigger emphasis on the characters. More importantly, we could build relationships between our characters by having them fight near each other on the battlefield. These relationships would upgrade their Support ranking, granting additional bonuses when fielded together, as well as resulting in special mini-cutscenes between the two characters. By maximizing the support ranks for certain pairs of characters, they would fall in love, and a child from the future would unlock as a new recruit thanks to the timey-whimey plot.
This concept was so fun and successful that it continued into Fire Emblem Fates (2015), although the future-child thing didn’t make a lot of sense in that narrative, and I began to grow worried that the focus on socializing was taking away from the tactical combat I fell in love with.
Hot for Teacher
Three Houses takes socializing even further by rolling character advancement and recruitment into building these relationships, knowing your students, and teaching the right classes.
In Three Houses the main character, Byleth, becomes a professor at a military prep school for the all major noble houses of the land. The story is divided into months, weeks, and days. Each week I can choose to walk around the monastery, talking to students, completing fetch quests, and hosting meals and tea parties, engage in weekly seminars and lessons where I (or another faculty member) imparts my battlefield skills like sword, lance, or riding onto my students, or I can participate in side missions to see my well-molded team in action. Only at the end of each month do we engage in the next big story battle.
I expected to roll my eyes during these lengthy non-combat sections, but I was pleasantly surprised. The monastery is large enough to make exploring fun, but small enough to never get tedious (near-instant fast travel helps as well). Activities include planting crops, fishing, cooking meals, and sparring in duels. I wish that some of these events were full mini-games rather than little cutscenes (cooking and planting particularity), but all of them create a fun and regular checklist of things to do, not unlike a farm sim game.
The main focus is on interacting with the students of the monastery, both inside and outside my chosen house. For the students inside my house, I work to increase their motivation by bringing them the right lost items and gifts, based on their personalities and likes. Higher motivation means a more eager willingness to improve their skills when class is in session.
For students outside of my house, it’s all about recruitment. Regardless of which house you choose, nearly every character in the game can be recruited – and there are a ton of characters.
In previous Fire Emblem games characters would typically join as part of the story, but here it’s entirely up to me to devote the time into courting my favorite characters by showering them with gifts, hosting tea parties and selecting the right topics, cooking their favorite meals, and taking them on temporary battles to build our support, leading to fun dialogue scenes and eventually, hopefully, joining my roster. It’s an incredibly rewarding system.
It helps that Three Houses is the best-looking Fire Emblem game to date, especially considering the last three games were released on the Nintendo 3DS. The voice work and character design are phenomenal, lending memorable personalities for the 30-odd characters that are present around the Monastery right from the beginning of the game. Dorothea the singer looking for a man to settle down with. Bernadetta the adorable misfit suffering from social anxiety. Silvain the unrepentant ladies man who’s far more interesting once you get to know him. Each character has their own set of skills and class goals, though I can ultimately shape how I want them to grow to build my perfect army.
Around the time of Fire Emblem Fates I was worried about the direction the series was going, shoe-horning character supports and romantic pairings in order to gain their powerful time-traveling children. I couldn’t be more pleased with how Fire Emblem: Three Houses handles the social aspects, presenting a Harry Potter-like fantasy school that’s fun, rewarding, and meaningful. The only downside is I can never play with permadeath on again – I can’t bear to lose any of these wonderful characters.