I’ve already expressed my feelings about the contradictory aspects of this game and how my admiration for it stopped me from challenging myself around it. Ultimately though, it was my feelings of wanting to see this game out that led to an experience of duality in more than one aspect of the game. Which makes sense considering the nature of the story.
The latest entry in Intelligent System and Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, and the series first foray onto the Switch. Like the previous games in the franchise, Three Houses is a tactical RPG with heavy character development aspects. So much so that many flock to the game as a dating sim rather than a turn based combat game.
I really do see the appeal of this side of the game, and one I spoke about in depth during my last post regarding the game. After a brief familiarisation with the combat mechanics, the player is asked to chose one of the game’s three houses almost right away. That choice will determine the direction the game will take and how players will spend the next 50 to 80 hours with it.
Each house is made of eight distinct students, all with their own personalities, backstories and wants for the future. The player’s time is split between roaming around this giant school, getting to know these kids and going out and risking their lives fighting bandits and monsters.
You’re not necessarily limited to just your own house though, as other teachers, knights and even the students of other houses are all free to be poached and recruited to your own. This early parts of the game feel like a vast sea of opportunity, as you mould the keen young minds in your class. There is so much potential in each of them, both in terms of their growth as a combat unit, but also their relationships to the player character and one another.
I didn’t realise it until I started my second play-through, but the game scratches many of the same itches that Pokemon does for me. The idea of building this well oiled combat machine and growing these units in different ways to cover all my bases in combat. The added benefit being that the more they fight together, the closer they get. Rewarding the player with the hundreds of social link conversations between the characters.
It’s executed so well, and the kids are all so affable, that you don’t really notice how basic the cut and paste nature of this game’s visual representation actually is. Conducting a series of interchangeable puppet shows with the characters, there are actually very few animated cut scenes.
This approach allows for them to fill the game with the the pretty extensive story, social links and the number of story paths available within the game. And this aspect is certainly the thing I arrive at the game for, and still continue to play it for after nearly 100 hours. The combat is fine, but incidental to what I actually get out of the game.
Approaching Three Houses with this mentality though leads me into what might be my biggest complaint about the game.
At the game’s mid-point there is a time skip. I was going to give a spoiler warning, but the time skip was all over the marketing material for the game before it even game came out. Which makes me wonder why people are crying about it being a spoiler at all.
Anyway, after this time skip, these three houses find themselves at odds with one another. As a result, the monastery sections of the game, where you normally roam around, chat with student and cook with them, drink tea and tend your garden all feels much less significant. Partially because you’re in the middle of war, but also because the monastery is quite literally empty of significant people.
The only people still around during this section are your students and whoever you recruited during part one. It makes part one feel like a building phase, in which you’ve created your army in preparation for this second, more difficult part of the game. Of course, that’s the role you were always supposed to fill as their teacher.
However, as I mentioned in my last post. The difficulty just wasn’t there for me. By this point, I has exhausted all but a few of the social links between the units at my disposal. Everyone has achieved their final combat class, or were very close to doing so, and exploring the halls of the monastery suddenly felt like a very hollow experience. Becoming an exercise of min-maxing rather than enjoying my time in this bustling school setting.
The second half of the game became almost entirely focused on the combat aspect of the game. Which, as I said before, is fine, but not what was really drawing me into the game. As a result, I found myself speeding through the final few months of the game’s story simply to see how it ended.
It was a little disappointing to end the game in such a way, which is why I immediately made use of the new game plus and started again to see another route through the game. And low and behold, I am already deep in enjoying playing through the Black Eagles house for my second play through. (The Blue Lion kids are still my favourite so far though)
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a deeply mechanics driven game that cleverly disguises all of its unit management and combat efficiency behind a collection of fantastic character stories and building relationships between not only the player character and their students, but between all of the characters.
While there is an overarching “animeness” to many aspects of the characters and how they behave. It does a good job of showing that most of them are much deeper than their one note character trope might first imply. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Three Houses, in fact, I am still enjoying my time with it. The question really is, how much I’m going to be bogged down by the time I come to part 2 again and whether the promise of seeing these dumb, earnest kid’s stories through to the end will keep me going.