Ever since I can remember, I have wished that I'd grown up in a fantasy world filled with magic and fantastical creatures. More than any other game out there, Fire Emblem: Three Houses satisfies this craving for me, but it also does much more. In addition to the fantastic tactical strategy combat scenarios these games are best known for, this game offers several mini-games, allows you to pursue a romantic relationship, and gives you the ability to focus on the specific fighting skills you want to employ. Plus, it lets you make choices that shape not only your future but also your relationships with those around you.
You start the game playing as Byleth, a young male or female mercenary who gets hired on as a professor at a local academy. At the school, you'll choose from one of three houses and become closely acquainted with the noble house leader and the other unique students in that group. Sounds a bit like medieval Hogwarts, huh? As a professor, you dedicate your time to training your pupils and helping them progress in everything from magical arts to sword fighting, to dragon-riding. Building political tensions eventually send you and your comrades into a full-on war. But what makes this game truly engaging is that your ability or inability to lead others in battle can have permanent consequences.
The Fire Emblem games are relatively new to the United States. The first six tactical RPGs in this franchise released in Japan, but it wasn't until the 7th game released in 2003 that they found their way to North America. Without including remakes, Three Houses is the 13th game in the series, and it does well in keeping true to previous games while updating enough elements to create a brand new masterpiece. If you love thinking strategically, love previous Fire Emblem games, have a hankering for RPGs, or have ever wished you could get sucked into a Harry Potter book, then this is the perfect game for you. Just keep in mind that it has a steep learning curve.
Choose your house and fight
Bottom line: There is a lot to this game, so much so that it can feel incredibly overwhelming when learning how to play. However, after you learn the basics, this game doesn't feel so daunting. Everything comes together to create a fun strategy game that not only has a fun plot but allows you to influence the outcomes with your decisions.
- Engaging combat
- Choices with consequences
- Explore mode
- Replay value
- Unique characters
- Voice acting
- Romance system
- Gorgeous imagery
- Steep learning curve
- Some menus aren't intuitive
- Not good for young children
Fire Emblem: Three Houses: What I like
Anyone familiar with the Fire Emblem series knows that these games have traditionally revolved heavily around complex combat systems and permadeath. In previous games, you often go from one battlefield to the next with only a cut-scene or a brief moment to purchase items between encounters. Three Houses changes up the traditional dynamic a little bit by allowing you to freely explore the academy between battles and by giving you plenty of other activities to engage in. It all comes together to make the perfect console game.
Various Modes: Choose your difficulty
In addition to being able to choose the difficulty level, the game allows you to choose between Classic and Casual mode. That way, you can choose to either challenge yourself or give yourself a more relaxed gaming experience.
When playing in Classic mode, characters under your command who perish in battle perish in the game altogether. Both the work you put into making characters stronger and the bond created between you and your students make it that much more important to think strategically, so you can come out victorious with as little damage as possible. If that's a bit too stressful for you, you can also play in Casual mode, which simply causes characters to faint until battles are over. It wasn't long ago that Classic mode was the only option in these games, so it's nice that there's now an option.
Turn-Based Combat System: Feel like an expert strategist
More so than any other fantasy video game, this one makes you feel clever. You'll find yourself in a risky scenario. However, with a combination of quick thinking, utilizing character skills, and using the layout of the battlefield to your advantage, you can come up with some pretty awesome tactics. Longtime fans will find that a few combat mechanics have changed, but in my opinion, it's for the better.
Whether you loved it or hated it, the traditional weapon triangle (sword beats ax, ax beats lance, lance beats sword) is mostly nonexistent in this game. To be fair, elements of it can still be seen in battle when one type of weapon has an advantage over another. However, it's nothing like what it was in the past. When talking to GameSpot about combat changes, Three Houses' director, Toshiyuki Kusakihara, had this to say:
In my opinion, they definitely succeeded in making combat feel more organic and make more sense. I honestly enjoyed combat in this game far more than I have in previous Fire Emblem games because of it. Another thing I love is that instead of having characters holed into a few basic skills, you can give them different areas of focus. They can evolve into just about any fighting class you want. You earn experience points by attacking and defending on the battlefield. Once you level up, the amount of points awarded to your various skills is random. Sometimes leveling up will increase your stats significantly, and other times, it will hardly make a difference. The thing is, you'll also need to participate in several of the open-world activities in addition to using your characters on the battlefield. That is if you want your students to become more powerful.
Explore Mode: Run around the academy
While it isn't as big as something you'd find in say Skyrim, you can choose to explore the large academy on your days off. The map is big enough to fast travel from one section to another, like from the dormitory to the cathedral, as long as you've discovered that location before. You can also use the map to locate specific individuals, making it easier to complete tasks.
Something I love is that you can use the right joystick to move the camera around freely to get a better view of what you want to see. As with many games, there's a map in the upper right-hand corner. You switch between four different map sizes to help you better navigate your way through the academy. The best part about exploration mode is that you are rewarded for looking around and interacting with people.
Free exploration is key to finding useful items, leveling up, and improving support stats between characters. For example, as you run around, you might find an item that a character has dropped. If you return it to them, you'll raise their happiness level. A student's capacity to learn is dependent on the level of motivation they have. You'll be able to get farther in the game if you do small things like this.
Talking with characters sometimes unlocks quests and gives you a chance to earn items. You can also eat lunch or share tea with other characters to improve your support stats in battle or to improve their feelings towards you. You can also cook a meal, do some gardening, go fishing, or participate in the choir, among other activities. The number of things you can do on a given day is limited, so you'll have to spend your time wisely
Important Choices: Plenty of replay value
Each house has its own subplots and storylines for you to follow. You could end up playing Three Houses over and over and experience different results each time. A good chunk of this is due to the decision you make. At the start of the game, you get to choose between a male or female version of Byleth, and you can name yourself whatever you'd like. I decided to play as a male Byleth and joined the Blue Lions, mainly because my favorite color is blue and because Dimitri, the team leader, has a royal flag that features a griffin on it. Yes, awesome reasoning, I know.
I also forced my husband to play at the same time as me so that I could see as many differences between our choices as possible. He aligned with the Black Eagles under the house leader Edelgard and played as a female Byleth. We experienced several different cut scenes in the course of our time spent playing the game. I was happy to find that the level of detail found in either house's subplots was equally engaging. I'm guessing it's the same amount of depth with the Golden Deer house, but I haven't gotten to play that yet.
Romance simulator: Choose a character to woo
Your personal skills and the way you interact with other characters determine whether or not they like you. If you return a lost item or have an engaging tea party conversation with them, their opinion of you will go up. But, you can only get romantically close to certain characters.
I noticed early on that specific characters treat you differently based on whether you chose to be male or female. For instance, at the start of my game, my male Byleth got hit on by a female professor. However, my husband's female Byleth got no such reaction from that character but was later hit on by one of the male students. When the romance simulator part of the game comes into play later in the story, the characters you can choose to woo are different depending on your gender. Something to note here is that same-sex couples are possible. However, there is only one same-sex male option, whereas there are a few same-sex female options. It's ridiculous that there aren't more options, but that's the way it is.
Dialogue Log: Remember what was said
This is small and might seem a little silly to some people, but I hate it when I'm playing a game and accidentally skip over dialogue. The game allows you to bring up the most recent conversation and look back at what characters have said up to that point. That way if you missed something important, you can go back and read it. Since this game relies heavily on you making decisions, it's good to be able to go back and review your conversation before giving answers. Just remember that the dialogue box goes away once the scene ends.
Roster of Characters: Unique personalities and stellar voice acting
I was delighted with how much effort the developers put into creating a truly unique cast of characters. Though the game focuses on strategy, you spend your non-battling moments learning about each character: their likes, dislikes, combat strengths, and the political and social environment that makes them who they are. Some of the plot elements even get downright philosophical and tackle some heavy social issues.
Part of what makes this game work so well is the incredible voice acting. Aside from a couple of strange casting calls, each character has a fitting voice and is portrayed by talented actors and actresses. I felt like it made certain stretches feel more like I was watching an anime movie.
Art Style: Gorgeous cut scenes and character designs
The graphics themselves aren't the most impressive thing I've seen, but the art style lends itself to the Nintendo Switch's capabilities. The buildings are gorgeous, the landscapes are beautiful, and the characters are represented well. For this reason, I absolutely loved watching the 2-D animated cut scenes and gameplay in general.
A bit too complex
Fire Emblem: Three Houses What I Don't Like
Three Houses has an incredibly steep learning curve due to the complex fighting and leveling up mechanics as well as the multitude of options available to you. I'm already familiar with the series, but I was starting to get overwhelmed when so many tutorial screens kept popping up within my first few hours of play. I'm not sure how they could have gone about it differently, but being bombarded that much truly feels daunting.
That being said, the game leaves a lot unexplained. Some menus, especially the items menus, are confusing to navigate. You'll likely need to read the available tutorials a few times and play around just to figure things out.
The good news is that if you simply explore the academy and talk to as many people as you can, you'll be able to figure out the Explore mode options pretty easily. However, the class system, how you get experience, and combat options will take more work.
Although it takes place in a school and has several elements that make you think of the Harry Potter books, this is not a children's game. Obviously, we've already covered how complex the game is, so it isn't something that a young child could easily play on their own. Additionally, some of the cut scenes can be pretty violent, characters swear periodically, and some characters even allude to sexual things. Unless you're OK with your kid experiencing these things, you might not want them to play.
One of the best games on Nintendo Switch so far
Fire Emblem: Three Houses The Bottom Line
This is the perfect game for anyone who enjoys complex RPGs, strategic gameplay, and Harry Potter. There is more freedom than many previous Fire Emblem games, and all of the choices given to you makes this game extremely replayable. There will be a steep learning curve if you've never played a Fire Emblem game before. But the interesting plot, unique cast of characters, and fun combat makes it a rewarding game to play.
Align with a house and fight
Bottom line: This strategic RPG has a steep learning curve, but the excellent combat mechanics, the ability to make your own decisions, and the unique characters all work together to make an engaging plot with plenty of replay value.
WARNING!!! Some images may include spoilers!
Gaming aficionado Rebecca Spear is iMore's dedicated gaming editor with a focus on Nintendo Switch and iOS gaming. You’ll never catch her without her Switch or her iPad Air handy. If you’ve got a question about Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, or just about any other Nintendo series check out her guides to help you out. Rebecca has written thousands of articles in the last six years including hundreds of extensive gaming guides, previews, and reviews for both Switch and Apple Arcade. She also loves checking out new gaming accessories like iPhone controllers and has her ear to the ground when it comes to covering the next big trend.