Here’s a confession: I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before now. I have been vaguely aware of their existence. I knew that people who had played them liked them, even. But not really being a Nintendo person they’ve never before crossed my path in any meaningful way. In fact, the Switch is the first Nintendo console I’ve ever owned.1
Even with now owning a Switch, buying Fire Emblem: Three Houses wasn’t really something I’d planned on. I’d not crossed paths with any of the advertising materials or E3 releases about it. It was only through frequent expressions of excitement from others, particularly on Twitter, that I even started to consider it.
And… Well, here we are.
I did consider bumping the difficulty to hard and allowing permadeath — I’m familiar playing this way in the XCOM series after all. XCOM 2 perhaps being my favourite TBS of all.
But I’m glad I didn’t.
There is… A lot going on here. And much of it different from what I was expecting.
What do you mean they get to ‘counterattack’? It’s my turn!
The first time I saw and recognised a counterattack in action for what it was, it was with an enemy attacking me. My character wasn’t having a bar of that and gave them a mighty wallop in return. Naturally I was all, ‘F- Yeah! Woo! Beat his ass!‘
Then, with sinking heart I noted that enemies could counterattack too. That just isn’t cricket. Boo.
Combat in in Fire Emblem: Three Houses has put me in the mind of Chess and Magic the Gathering (or other CCG of choice) having offspring. You can see elements of the parents throughout. Positioning matters, attack order matters and there are skills and modifiers to consider too. There is even a layer of strategy to consider over the top of the moment-to-moment tactics, too.
Unmodified by class, skill (or possibly hero items later on) the aggressor gets the CCG equivalent of ‘First Strike’. If your opponent happens to be… You know… Dead, after your attack happens then there is no fear of reprisal. Although if you have a sufficient ‘Speed’ stat advantage to attack twice, the counterattack will come between your swings.
Otherwise you can endeavour to manipulate the limitations of their attack patterns.
Melee by and large can only attack horizontally or vertically one square adjacent to their position. You can walk right up next to a hostile sword user — albeit in a diagonal position — and give them a really bad day with a light showering of acid2.
Or you can use an archer to attack that same sword-fellow with impunity from two squares away. Although if your archer is not in turn well protected and the enemy survives, on their turn they can come invade your personal space with a swift chop. Your archer cannot attack into immediately adjacent squares, and so no counter attack for you.
Then there are your attached battalion units. They can be used to attack (often with additional affects, depending on the unit type) without triggering a counterattack. Although your battalion’s can be exhausted and will flee the field if overused.
Then there is the longer term strategic elements that will carry on having an impact outside the current battle. Adjacent fighting units will build relationships and learn to support one another better. You also need to consider how best to provide opportunity for units falling behind in XP to catch-up without putting them at undue risk.
I mean, sure it’s great having a few super units.
But lose even one of these because your healers were one-shot and you’re going to be in a great deal of trouble. Especially if you’re playing the more traditional ‘intended’ experience with potential for permanent character loss.3
The teaching and social elements might just be my favourite parts though
Which is good, because outside an initial battle or two it’s what you’ll almost exclusively do for the first couple of hours.
Fire Emblem will throw a lot at you over this time. And at first, in combination with learning the layout of the monastery and all the ins and outs of where people might be hiding around the main areas highlighted on the map, it can feel a tad overwhelming.
You’re asked to make a choice between the three houses very early on as well. Which terrified me. Thankfully this wasn’t your ‘final answer’ so to speak. When you’re again asked shortly after this — you are given opportunity to better learn about each group.
The overwhelmed feeling comes back in short order though. Namely when you start looking at the skills you want to teach your students with respect to lining them up to particular classes. Classes that span across a range of tiers, no less. As someone completely unfamiliar with the Fire Emblem classes and what I might even need in the future, hoo boy.
Fortunately, your students will occasionally come to you with suggestions for their skill goals. You’re absolutely free to ignore them and shoehorn them down a path of your choosing ‘teacher knows best’ style — but if you’re floundering along like I was, this is very helpful.
But their needs extend beyond the purely academic. You need to ensure you’re caring for them as a whole person. Watching out for their motivation, ensuring they get along with not only you but their classmates too.
Fire Emblem offers any number of ways to approach this from Tea Parties (as above) to cooking, group meals, rest days and more. But each tends to have an opportunity cost. Often in expenditure of your rather limited ‘Professor Points’ which dictate how many facilities or major actions you can take.
Also? If you’re doing those things instead of bettering your own skills, how can you maintain top efficiency in teaching your own class?
I feel like with 10 hours in, I’m starting to get a firmer grasp on managing and balancing these aspects. I have no illusions as to being anywhere near close to complete mastery and being able to optimise the crap out of everything I’m doing. But I’m comfortable. There is no longer a need to second guess every action I’m taking as somehow potentially screwing up my game.
PSA: Avoid the official trailers if you don’t want to have a significant story spoiler.
I won’t spoil it again here if you’ve been so far free of it. I’m told it was even in a lot of the promotional material, but my spoiler for this came from the pre-edit version of the Kotaku review. Their defense (I guess somewhat understandably) was that clearly Nintendo didn’t intend it to be a major secret, having included it in their own promotional material.
Nonetheless, I would’ve preferred being shocked and amazed by it when it happened.
I feel that how I’m approaching the game has been at least minutely adjusted just by the knowledge of what is coming — even though I don’t know when or how far off it might yet be.
In any case, final thoughts?
Well, not final final. There is still a huge amount more to do and see in the game.
But I can tell you at the very least I intend to do and see those things. I am really enjoying my first Fire Emblem experience. I can’t wait to see what else the game has to throw at me. (*Chants* hero items, hero items, hero items). The overwhelmed feeling I spoke to was relatively fleeting and just something to push through initially.
It’s also a title that will certainly invite replay. Not only by way of choosing an entirely different choice in from the titular ‘three houses’. But even in how you approach training and class paths for your team. This is a bit of a mixed bag though. The core storyline is expected to run 35-50ish hours. At that sort of length I’m not sure I’d want to go through it all again from the beginning. At least not any time soon.
But that’s me — I’m very much a one and done style gamer with anything of this length. I’m the same way about books, too. Even the ones I really love tend to get only a single reading. And its for much the same reason as with games: There are too many more yet to explore!
Ultimately, If you love turn based battles with a side of Persona-esque time management, and already own a Switch? I think this title is certainly one to grab. Reviews elsewhere have been positive and my own experience so far would back this up.