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Ever since the release of Awakening and its surprise surge in popularity, the Fire Emblem series has gone from a dying, niche franchise for Nintendo to one of their biggest names (if Smash Bros. representation is anything to go by). As a huge Fire Emblem fan though I'm not complaining! With the latest release in the series, Nintendo had the challenge of maintaining that momentum by delivering the trademark strategy gameplay of the series, alongside fresh new features, in a format that would be just as engaging on-the-go as it is on a TV screen. Considering Fire Emblem hasn't had a home console release in over ten years, there were some high expectations here. But with its wealth of characters to love and updated gameplay mechanics, Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes the grade. The game gets its subtitle from the three school houses at the prestigious Officers Academy at Garreg Mach, a monastery where nobles and other warriors from the three main regions of the continent are trained in the art of war. As the game begins, our protagonist is a wandering mercenary who is somewhat pressed into becoming a professor at Garreg Mach after rescuing three students from bandits. The school setting might seem just a tiny bit silly compared to past Fire Emblem games that focus on epic wars, but as you might expect there are some nefarious goings-on at Garreg Mach and you'll eventually be steeped in a much more dramatic conflict. The real benefit of the school setting is immediately giving you a large roster of characters to get to know, each of which has their own charming quirks as well as much more depth than they may seem at first. It feels like support conversations have become increasingly a focus of Fire Emblem games, and Three Houses is no exception. Although the central conflicts of the game are really only based around a handful of characters, there's something addictive about uncovering each character's story through their support conversations. It's easy to get invested in these characters, even if it's initially somewhat overwhelming to interact with so many, and the mysterious aspects of the plot keep you well engaged, culminating in the second half of the game when the stakes are much higher. You're also given the choice of leading one of the three houses, which impacts the story via branching paths. The downside is that completing one path may not answer all of your questions about what is really going on at Garreg Mach, but in the end that's just a good excuse to replay the game and focus on a different path and different group of students. The gameplay of Three Houses is more or less divided into two halves. In one, you have the familiar strategy RPG battles that involve moving units around a grid-based battlefield. The other half of the game is being a professor at the monastery—you tutor your students individually to level up their weapon skills, chat with them between battles, and interact via various events such as sharing a meal together to boost their motivation in class. Early on, this monastery business can seem overwhelming. There's actually quite a lot you can do at the monastery, though your time to do it is limited at first (you'll gradually unlock more activity points), and most of all it is incredibly time consuming to walk around Garreg Mach, talking to students and just generally investing in their individual stories. The balance between battles and monastery business gets better as you progress—you'll also learn how best to spend your time, perhaps focusing only on specific students—but Three Houses still does feel a little bloated by content that is mostly secondary to the core strategy gameplay. Fire Emblem Fates had a somewhat similiar (though far simpler) version of this with My Castle, and between the two, Three Houses feels a bit overboard. The good news though is that if you're truly not enjoying your time at the monastery you can choose to skip through it pretty quickly. Obviously you'll miss out on features that do actually impact battles—not experience points but other bonuses like weapon proficiency—but sometimes it helps to just speed things along. Much of the combat system feels like a natural evolution of the Fire Emblem franchise's progression since Awakening. Not surprisingly there is once again a big focus on abilities which characters can learn to grant helpful boosts, though this time abilities don't feel quite as overwhelmingly powerful. That's a good thing, though—you won't feel as bad for skipping over certain abilities or just letting your characters grow naturally without fastidiously tracking their progress. Three Houses also introduces a few new combat tools in your arsenal. First are combat arts which were actually first seen in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia and return as a more accessible option in battle. Instead of being tied to a specific weapon, characters learn arts as they increase proficiency with a weapon type (swords, lances, axes, bows, and gauntlets), and learned arts can be used in battle. Arts provide some sort of attack bonuses—increased damage, increased accuracy, increased damage against flying units, etc.—at the cost of wearing down your weapon's durability more quickly. Early on, combat arts are a valuable bonus, since even another point of damage can make a huge difference. They get somewhat less useful as the game progresses, since your characters eventually become strong enough with their standard attacks that combat arts can be less effective since you generally can't double attack with them. Still, they're another handy tool when plotting your next attack. Another significant addition is the battalion system, which allows you to assign a group of generic allies to each unit in your party. Battalions add passive stat boosts which can be huge, plus they allow units to use Gambits which, much like combat arts, are another attack option. Depending on which Gambit you're using they can be incredibly powerful, especially because many inflict special effects, such as stunning an enemy so it can't move, and Gambits never trigger a counter attack. Gambits are quite limited in use, and should your battalion fall in combat you'll have to replenish them between battles, but even so battalions are far too useful to ignore (and also quite obnoxious when enemies use them—no one likes to be denied a counter attack!). On the other hand, if battalions seem to be making the game too easy for you, you can always ignore them. In many ways Three Houses lets you customize the difficulty of the action by either using or ignoring certain features. And Fire Emblem veterans may want to take that advice to heart, since Three Houses is, overall, fairly easy for a strategy RPG. It's not just the new, powerful attacks at your disposal in the forms of combat arts and Gambits. Part of it may be due to the lack of a weapons triangle, the rock-paper-scissors system that has defined most titles in the Fire Emblem franchise. It's a shame to lose that element of strategy, since now it really doesn't matter too much if a unit only carries one type of weapon, nor do you have to be too worried about sending an axe user against a group of swordsmen (though some abilities will still affect your accuracy and chance to dodge depending on your weapon type). There's a layer of strategy lost without the weapons triangle, which makes it much easier to somewhat brute force your way through the game. On the other hand though, not worrying about weapon advantages does give you more freedom in how you build your characters and your army as a whole. You can truly use whichever characters you like regardless of the situation, which is convenient in its own way. And finally, Three Houses brings back Mila's Turnwheel from Shadows of Valentia—this time it's called Divine Pulse—which allows you to rewind time to correct mistakes in battle. Divine Pulse is, perhaps, a little too forgiving on the player, especially since you get so many uses per battle, but it does make the game much more accessible to inexperienced tacticians, and occasionally deaths in battle come down to truly bad luck rather than poor planning, and in those instances Divine Pulse is a godsend. Like most Fire Emblem games, Three Houses is by no means short. Playing through the game just once can last a good 45 hours or more, though potentially less if you really ignore monastery features. Most of all though the game truly is a time sink—in a good way. There are so many little things to fiddle with between battles: monitoring characters' study growths, monastery tasks, just chatting with students. 45 hours may seem like a lot but it really does fly by. And since there are three paths, there's inherently plenty of replay value, even for a Fire Emblem game. Three Houses also features a New Game Plus which allows you to carry over certain bonuses from one playthrough to the next, which can be hugely helpful for alleviating some of the early game grind at the monastery. Of course, even with the help of those bonuses, Three Houses is a lengthy, addictive experience. For its return to the TV screen, the developers have given this Fire Emblem game a cel-shaded art style, which is pretty snazzy when paired with the sort of anime character design that basically makes everyone pretty. Really though, there are a lot of charming character designs (and a few questionable ones), and besides, battles don't really need anything more than fairly basic graphics. It is a little disappointing that the framerate doesn't always seem up the task of keeping up with the game, but this never actually interferes with the gameplay, it's just a small visual annoyance. The soundtrack, meanwhile, has a lot of great, epic-sounding tracks, though overall there isn't as much variety as I'd like, and few songs truly stand out. The voice acting is particularly well done though, which is impressive given the huge amount of dialogue that has been recorded for the game. With so many conversations it's tempting to fast-forward through them as quickly as possible by simply reading the text on screen, but it'd be a shame to miss out on the personality of the voice work. With Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the franchise continues down a more character-driven story path, as well as a gameplay system that seems to get more and more lenient with each new release. Fire Emblem purists may sniff at the balance between monastery gameplay and actual battles, but once you're in the thick of things—teaching your students, bonding with them, raising their skills as well as your own, and of course actually battling—it's easy to become completely addicted to the cyclical nature of the game's structure. After taking so long to return to a home console instead of a handheld, Fire Emblem: Three Houses feels suitably massive, engaging, and charming. Rating: 9 out of 10 Students