Why don’t I play MMORPGs? It’s a question that’ll come up in conversation every now and then, and one worthy of asking considering my soft spot for games like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles, games which are essentially single-player MMORPGs. I know I’d love a game like Final Fantasy XIV, especially having watched my wife play it and witnessed firsthand the ludicrous amount of things to do and places to go. But that’s the thing. I know my completionist tendencies would require me to devote so much time to the game, time I’m sure I’d enjoy, but time that would be monopolized by a single game. I’d much rather experience a variety of diverse games. That’s the theory in my head, at least. And it sounds good, too, until a game like Fire Emblem: Three Houses comes along.
Developed by Intelligent Systems, in conjunction with Koei Tecmo, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running series of tactical role-playing games. Published worldwide for the Switch on July 26 of this year, it has consumed my game time since. The four-pronged storyline and the variations between each have kept the game a topic of discussion between my friend and I for months now, as we each selected a different route to play individually in addition to our joint playthrough. The grid-based battles were as engaging as they’ve ever been, despite the removal of the strategic Weapon Triangle and an easier difficulty, by default. What captivated me more than either of these elements though was the sheer amount of stats and relationships and every other little thing to micromanage.
With little more than scant introductions out of the way, Byleth, the silent mercenary I controlled was made a teacher at the Garreg Mach Monastery. Operated by the Church of Seiros, the sprawling facility served as training grounds for the elite and common folk of Fódlan, who hailed from the three disparately governed regions of the continent: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. I’m sure all manner of subjects were studied at Garreg Mach, but the emphasis was on combat. Makes sense considering the gameplay, and that the Church operated one of the strongest armies on the continent. Garreg Mach served as a military academy and meeting ground during the last thousand years of peace. Naturally, that was coming to an end.
Coincidentally, Byleth arrived at Garreg Mach the same time the future leaders of each nation were in attendance. Their personalities and objectives were vastly different, mostly informed by the ruling structure of where they hailed from. From the Adrestian Empire was Edelgard, the leader of the Black Eagle house, who desired to unify Fódlan under one banner and do away with the caste-like elements within society. The leader of the Blue Lions and prince of Faerghus was Dimitri. His nation was most closely associated with the Church and for all intents, wished to maintain the status quo. Lastly Claude, the fun-loving prankster in charge of the Golden Deer, called the democratically ruled Leicester Alliance home and wished for more interaction with those outside of Fódlan.
As one of the three primary teachers at the academy, Byleth served as commander for one of these houses. The students belonging to that house formed the fighting force I led, although through the improvement of Byleth’s stats, skills, and relationships, students from other houses could be recruited. In total, there were about forty individuals that could join Byleth’s forces, including members of the faculty. Like everyone we meet in life, they were wholly unique and had their own set of problems. Their issues were explored in support conversations, not only with Byleth but also with fellow students. It wasn’t difficult to improve support between characters to unlock these conversations (perform actions next to each other in battle, give them gifts, etc.) and oftentimes the character development or background information I gleaned caused me to think differently about someone. Sylvain, a knight within the Blue Lions was a perfect example. He appeared to be a careless womanizer from the outset before support conversations illuminated the reasoning behind his behavior.
A lot of my interactions with the students, especially those who didn’t belong to the house Byleth was affiliated with, were done on Sundays. Sundays were free days where I could choose what I wanted to do. Top of the list at the beginning of each new month was exploring the Monastery. Everyone had something to say, usually about the events of the previous month or an upcoming battle, so these interactions kept me up-to-date with everyone’s opinions, and presented an opportunity to butter up potential recruits with gifts, meals, or tea. Fishing, combat tournaments, and other extracurricular activities also availed themselves to me when I explored the Monastery. Besides recruiting new members, another major focus of Sundays was improving the motivation of my current students so they’d learn more the following week.
When Monday rolled around, it was back to the grindstone. The students were back in class and I was in charge of their instruction. There were a set number of students I could instruct each week based on Byleth’s teacher level, which increased through the activities performed while exploring the Monastery. With max motivation, I could teach each student up to five times, personally selecting which skill to upgrade. Unlike in most previous entries, characters weren’t limited to specific progressions. I was free to decide which areas each student would specialize in. Now, they had affinities for certain skills that nudged me towards particular classes, but if I wanted big bulky Raphael to be a healer instead of a brigand, I could. Additionally, I could assign two goals for each student, which caused those skills to improve at the end of the school week. That way, everyone improved somewhat. It was so, so satisfying to watch skills improve at the end of the week, particularly when the results meant a student may have reached a threshold to pass into another class.
As the week played out, visualized by passing days on the calendar, odd activities would pop up such as classmate’s birthdays. If I decided to celebrate with them, all in the hopes of furthering support or increasing motivation, we’d do so over tea. I was able to provide conversation topics and the other person responded positively or negatively. These weren’t too noteworthy, save for the slightly creepy photo shoot that followed, should I conduct a perfect tea time. When the week completed, I had another free day opportunity. It rarely made sense to explore the Monastery more than twice a month (unless I was just dying to recruit someone particular), so I generally opted for battles in the second week.
Like with Monastery activities and class instruction, I was limited on the number of battles I could participate in per week. There were ample skirmishes available, including ones that didn’t count towards my allotment, which was great if I wanted to grind out levels or skills. Sidequests and paralogue battles were the most desirable since they’d reward me with more than just experience and money, and occasionally featured unique objectives beyond simply routing the enemy. Like support conversations, paralogue battles dealt with particular classmates’ intimate issues and wound up revealing much about them and Fódlan. Sidequests on the other hand generally awarded new battalions.
New to this entry were battalions, which equipped to characters just like a weapon, pursuant to their Authority skill grade. Besides providing slight improvements to particular stats, most granted powerful attacks. They only had one or two uses but struck multiple spaces and usually inflicted negative status conditions. Combat Arts were similarly powerful although they weren’t restricted to a set number of uses. Instead, they used more of a weapon’s durability; whereas as a normal swing of the sword would reduce usage by one, a Combat Art may reduce the weapon’s durability by up to five uses. Truthfully, I never really used these.
Like many, I’m the type of person who hoards items and weapons in games, saving them in case I really need them later on. Heck, there were certain super powerful weapons that were used a thousand years ago, and I only ever used them once, maybe twice. The training and iron weapons (the two lowest classes) were my go-to weapons, and even then the only difficulty I had was in the final few battles. To be fair, I played on normal without permadeath, which in retrospect was a mistake. This combination resulted in an experience that was a far cry from the utter ruthlessness of Radiant Dawn. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t have to rely on strategy as much, since I usually just rolled over any opposition. Then again, I obsessed over every little detail and maximized my time with whatever I was doing; for instance, my use of Knowledge Gems.
When equipped to a character, a Knowledge Gem doubled the skill experience and class mastery gained from combat. These two facets were interlinked in the sense that they dictated the class progression a character would undergo. Of course, improving a character’s skill with a type of weapon or class-related skill (think horse riding) occurred naturally, but being able to expedite it made for extremely diverse warriors, because I could throw them into another class sooner. My fixation with character improvement sometimes tripled the amount of time I spent in skirmishes. I’d intentionally attack foes with weak, sometimes broken weaponry, just so I could have another ally sidle up beside them, trade for the Knowledge Gem and do the same thing. I willingly let enemy mages exhaust their spells attacking my soldiers. Their targets gained skill experience and class mastery, in addition to my healers! It was a win-win! Well, until the enemy ran out of magic. Then they lost.
If you don’t want to go HAM on character optimization like I did, you could have the game battle for you. In fact, just about every activity could be skipped or supplanted with another that got you to the part of the game you really wanted to play. Honestly, I was a little apprehensive in the lead up to the game’s release since it seemed like the game’s focus was going to be on everything else but the combat. As it turns out, I ate up every bit of gameplay and left my plate spotless! Although I could’ve opted to participate in a seminar instead of battling or exploring the monastery on my free days, or just let the computer instruct my pupils, I rarely did. Through my hand-picked mechanical improvements and the hours of support conversations, I felt invested in my students and didn’t want to leave anything up to the computer.
Taking this into consideration, the game’s major turning point, where the peace that cradled Fódlan for the last millennium came to an end and classmates became foes, was heartbreaking. Whereas the first two-thirds of the game were largely the same depending on whose house Byleth affiliated with, the last third was vastly different. As mentioned previously each house leader had starkly different goals for the world and they were achieved in the endgame. I allied with Edelgard and the Black Eagles in my playthrough and this path actually had multiple outcomes, all of which were distressing to some extent, especially considering Byleth’s true nature. Yeah, Byleth’s unexpected appointment as a teacher at Garreg Mach wasn’t just some fluke… Of course, it was always tragic striking down former classmates, unable to reach an understanding other than life or death.
In regards to the other routes, my friend chose the Blue Lions path, while we’re still partway through with the Golden Deer together, so it’s interesting to hear and see firsthand how the storyline differs. The events that transpire during the final third of the game follow similar story beats but play out completely differently. And there are certain encounters or further exploration of side plots unique to each playthrough. For instance, I felt like there was unfinished business when my playthrough concluded, but it sounds like that “stuff” gets taken care of elsewhere. I’m curious to see the other paths firsthand, and with a new game plus mode that seems to accelerate many things, I’m tempted to do it. But, I’ve got other games to play.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is astounding. Without hesitation, it’s become one of my favorite RPGs and my favorite entry in the series. The degree of control I had in customizing my students was unparalleled with previous entries. Micromanaging each character’s skill, class, and support growth was practically catered to me specifically. It would’ve all been for naught if the combat was lackluster, however, but it was rock solid. The removal of the Weapon Triangle and my unfortunate combination of difficulty options made for a decidedly less strategic experience than what I’ve encountered in previous games, but it’s still top of the heap when it comes to the genre. The school setting added enjoyable new gameplay elements and accentuated the character support system, and by proxy my connection to the characters and understanding of Fódlan, to a remarkable degree. In tandem with entertaining storylines on the micro and macro scale and legitimate surprises, it’s a game worth playing. So long as you have the time.