The biggest games of the year are still about a month or so away, so there will be plenty more time and titles to consider, but I think Nintendo has already released its candidate for 2019 Game of the Year and it is Fire Emblem: Three Houses for Nintendo Switch.
Mario Maker 2 is fun, I have high hopes for Astral Chain, and there is little doubt Pokémon Sword and Shield won’t live up to hype (despite a ticked off fan base), but Three Houses has swooped in riding a wyvern and already captured my heart as one of the best Nintendo games I’ve ever played.
For those not in the know, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a tactical fantasy RPG that takes place in the land of Fodlan, which is split evenly into three separate nations. The story takes place in a very Hogwarts-esque school where your player character, a professor, steers the ship of one house’s education, with each house being a representative of each nation. Every individual student is special and many of them of noble rank and important to their respective nations, so the future of these countries will be in your hands as you will literally be shaping the leaders of tomorrow. This particular title is also the first home console release for the Fire Emblem series in over ten years.
Each house has a 70+ hour long story with branching paths, making a full playthrough of this game easily 250+ hours that I will enjoy no matter how many times it will break my heart. Maybe it’s the anime art style. Maybe it’s the wonderful, vibrant characters. Maybe it’s the fact that I fall head over heels for anything with any semblance to Three Kingdoms. In any case, the game is phenomenal and is loaded with depth and detail.
Since there are so many details, there will be many things players won’t be expecting, especially if this is their first foray into the Fire Emblem series. So before you plug in and head to Garreg Mach Monastery on full scholarship, I have assembled a small cheat sheet about some things that might ambush you along the way. A warning, though, due to the nature of this list, there will be some spoilers from here on out.
1. Alliances Are Easily Changed (For Better or Worse)
Nintendo has kind of done things right with the way they’ve marketed Pokémon the past few years. Mainly, that the first new creatures unveiled with every new game are the starters. Three Houses attempts a shot at the same, with the three house leaders being all over the marketing and used as the pull to maybe align with one side over another. We have the enamouring but stoic Edelgard of the Black Eagles, the devout but troubled Dimitri of the Blue Lions, and the swanky but unpredictable Claude of the Yellow Deer. But also like most starter Pokémon, many don’t lock in their decision on which to choose before seeing their final forms. Three Houses, likewise, at least lets you meet every member of every house before giving you the “choose your destiny” prompt.
Ah, but what if Claude won you over, but you really wanted to spend some time with Dorthea of the Black Eagles? Worry not, Professor, because virtually every student in the game (and even some knights) can be recruited to your house. You can go the more difficult route and try to appease them by getting high stats in their particular area of study, but the best and easiest way is to simply raise their Support Rank to B. Getting support is also very easy and expedited, considering that as you rank up as a professor, the number of things you’re allowed to do per day increases. So not only can you invite a character to lunch, you can also have tea with them, shower them with gifts, and still have loads of time for other students.
Or, if you’d rather, other knights and professors. Not just the students can be swayed to your side, but also various adults around the monastery. Both other professors, Hanneman and Manuela, are recruitable no matter which house you choose to teach and most of the knights are as well. There is also a story event that gives you another student, the mysterious and adorable Flayn.
However, with all these, there are characters that are both impossible to recruit and some that may leave. You cannot recruit other house leaders nor their right-hand folk. This means that if you side with, say, Edelgard, you will be locked out of Claude and Dimitri, as well as Hilda and Dudoe respectively. As stated, some knights will also not align with you due to differences.
Finally, Flayn can also leave your ranks, as a critical choice occurs in the story where you must side with the church or be against it. If you choose the latter, off she goes. This is important to note because due to her favorable stat allocations, a few players gave Flayn access to the once-a-game specialty Dancer class. So if you don’t know if you like what’s to come, be wary of investing too much time and resources into the jade-haired, fish loving, wood sprite of a little girl. Who you have on your side is critical because of a teeny-weeny story event.
2. Know That/When The Time Skip is Coming
Once the time skip hits, you won’t be able to recruit anyone and everyone you didn’t recruit will become your enemy.
Not sure if the time skip itself is too much of a spoiler since Nintendo themselves unveiled it at E3, but if you didn’t know it was happening, it is infinitely better that you do. I went into this game trying to be as blind as humanly possible, but things like a) the time skip and b) losing Flayn have been invaluable nuggets of knowledge that I wish to pass on to anyone. It does suck a little because it comes at the cost of some of the twists in the story, but getting who you want and not having to kill them is a better trade off.
There is a five-year time skip that occurs on the calendar on 3/31, so you have virtually an entire year to squad up. The game conspicuously tells you that some missions are only available until 2/22 but doesn’t say much beyond that. So while the skp does happen a month later, you only really have until 2/22 to recruit anyone you want since the last month is entirely story driven.
Again – and I cannot stress this enough – anyone you don’t recruit, you will have to fight and kill five years later. I’m not quite sure I know of a bigger player punch in any game I’ve played than this. For me, there were some characters I knew I wouldn’t use too much if at all in battle, but the thought of having to cut them down later on was just too much to bear so I had to get them on my side. If you even have the slightest interest in a character or if you really want to screw over the other houses, take all the kids you can, which in any other context is a horrible sentence.
3. For The Love of God, Please Play Casual Mode
I’m sure I’ve said this in previous articles, but I don’t play video games that are deliberately hard or difficult. I like having fun with games and if I’m not having fun, what the hell am I doing? Fire Emblem has been notorious for years for having a permadeath system, where once a unit dies on the battlefield, that’s it. They’re done. End of. More recent games, Three Houses included, have thankfully given you the option to play in Classic or Casual mode. Classic mode means permadeath engaged, but Casual means units whose health gets reduced to zero just means they’re KO’d and will be ready again by the next battle.
So, like, these are kids. The ages of most of the youths attending the school are between 15-18. Permadeath means killing children. I know it is something that doesn’t mean something to everyone – in fact, I know of very vocal crowds who swear by FE’s Classic mode – but I for one would never be able to forgive myself if I let these kids die before they even have a chance to know what the world is.
Hell, if you do your support conversations, you learn that so many of them come from harsh, sometimes abusive or parentless upbringings and this school is their hope for a different future. This isn’t even mentioning what some of their noble class, very powerful parents might do. Sure, said parents know exactly what they’re sending their kids to school for and you may have to fight them later and it still sucks and rips your heart out, but it’s so much different when they’re still just students
So, uh, let’s not carelessly kill kids, yeah?
4. Make Use of The Very Meta “Divine Pulse”
And if you do happen to let any of those tots die, one of the coolest new mechanics is the ability to turn back time. Should you do something foolish on the battlefield (and in some cutscenes), you have an ability called Divine Pulse that allows you to turn the clock back to a certain point in time.
During battle, this is insanely valuable as there is no actual limit to how far back you can go – hell, if you lose a battle, the game forces you to use this to find a good point to restart at, which can even be the beginning of the duel if you so choose. As you win battles and gain renown, you earn more Divine Pulses, giving you the chance to time travel a dozen or so times each battle.
I can’t help but think this is the franchise leaning into the sort of practices players would use in the game anyway and that’s simply soft resetting if any of their characters died. This was probably more prevalent in the older games where there was no option to play without permadeath, but even in Awakening and Fates, this was an insanely common tactic. Now that this game has integrated that very idea and essentially weaponized it, use it and abuse it to keep all those kids alive. Or just have flawless victories. Wherever your priorities lie.
5. Prepare For No Real Student/Teacher Boundaries
Keeping on the topic of the kids, they say the darnedest things.
One of the most interesting wrinkles woven into the fiber of a story set in a magical school is that instead of being a student, you are a professor. One of the things that made me a little hesitant about the game in concept was I knew how integral romantic relationships have been to the most recent FE titles. Just reading all that together, you can sense the apprehension I had. Fortunately, while you can build bonds with your students, you cannot date any of them and you definitely cannot marry any of them until after the time skip, when everyone is of age anyway. Phew.
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was my students not seeming to care about my tiptoeing around some potentially uncomfortable conversations by dive bombing right into them. On occasion, some responses I gave my students in an attempt to spur them on or stay devoted to their current course made them all red in the face and a tad suggestive in response. This is even directly woven into the game, as certain students are considerably easier to recruit if you are the gender they are interested in. Even moreso, certain students will confide in you that they have not just thought about you in the biblical sense, but other professors as well. Other students are actively dating – and being sexually active – with some of the knights that patrol the school.
While this took me aback for a Nintendo game, it at least made a great deal more sense the more support conversations I had. Most of these kids are of noble descent with rough upbringings and many of them will never have the chance to actually marry for love, but rather, for political purposes. They are all cognizant of this, as well as being painfully aware that their respective nation’s governments rest on their shoulders. Mix all of that with the natural, uh, urges of high school age adolescents and lock them all up in a magical boarding school together, you can practically hear the hormones ricocheting off the walls.
6. Play It Docked
Sometimes I don’t even think of my Switch as a full-blown console because I’m so wrapped up with it as a handheld powerhouse. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is guilty of thinking this way. So sometimes I forget I can actually plug it up to my TV but some games truly deserve it. I did it for Pokémon Let’s Go for the simple fact to see what was normally a handheld game on my TV and I did it for Three Houses for the same reason.
I had no idea what Fire Emblem was back when it finally came to the west on the Gamecube and Wii, so seeing either of those on a big screen isn’t really a thing, especially since those damn things are collector’s items. Getting to see the beauty of the battlefields and the incredible characters on a widescreen and not just on a 3DS screen as it has been is truly a treat. Plus, if you’ve invested in any variant of the Switch Pro Controller, even a wired one, the tactical battles that play out on a grid system play so much more fluidly with a fully functional D-Pad.
In addition, loads of the text is incredibly small in handheld mode. If you’re interested in staying in the library and reading up on the lore of Fodlan or when you need to read up on tutorials, unless you’ve been eating your carrots, I recommend reading it on your television.
7. The Game Constantly Quizzes You On Everyone’s Personalities
Support conversations are very important beyond even just knowing your students, but to further continue your bonds with them. Every single month at the monastery, you will find Lost Items, things dropped by some other character in the school. The game gives you hints as to what kind of person would have dropped it and it is up to you to deliver it to the right person, who gets an enormous affinity and motivation boost. The game also has a sort of advice box that some characters can anonymously submit to. Armed with only a silhouette of the person who left it, you have to give a response that helps while also coinciding with the personality of that person. Furthermore, the aforementioned tea invitations can only go so well as you bringing up topics the other character finds interesting.
But the single biggest test of how well you know your students and colleagues will be when the game lets you know that your next decision will drastically impact the story. It won’t happen more than a few times, but when it does, it will involve your house leader and create forks in your narrative. You will have to decide whether you know your house leader enough to trust their decisions or if the opposition makes more sense. But that too is a test, because the individual who causes the rift in the story in opposition to your leader has been showing their true selves all through the narrative and it is up to you to piece it all together. Despite being a professor, you are the one who has to take the ultimate tests on the topic of one of the core concepts of Fire Emblem’s culture: character design and development.
8. When All Else Fails, You Can Soft Reset
If you still screw up, regret a big decision, fall flat on an affinity appropriate response to someone, accidentally kill a teenager, or find a brand new bombastic way to fail something in the game, all you have to do is hit L/R/-/+ simultaneously and it’ll take you right back to the game’s start screen.
Here’s to hoping all goes perfect in your first year of teaching (spoilers: it won’t).