Sometimes, there’s no better thrill than that of being lost. It’s why I love those moments at the start of a
big open world adventure when you set your first feet out in the wilds and see how far they stretch. After about a dozen hours with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there’s much that same sensation, only this time it’s a giddiness that comes when you see how far its systems spread, how deep it runs and how bloody much of it there is. It’s apt that much of Three Houses takes place within the classrooms and courtyards of an academy; running around its labyrinth corridors and getting up to speed with everything that makes this particular Fire Emblem tick feels as dizzying and exciting as the first day at a new school.
It’s easy to think of the new framing and backdrop for this new Fire Emblem – you’re a mercenary who finds themselves teaching at an academy, choosing one of three houses and raising your own small army of students – as a straight lift from Persona and some influence from the series’ 2016 crossover with Shin Megami Tensei, though developer Intelligent Systems themselves would point you towards 1996’s Genealogy of the Holy War which employed a similar set-up. The rhythm is certainly familiar; your time in-game is marked out by a calendar, with the weekdays filled with lectures and activities as you work to bolster your team’s abilities and work on their all-important bonds, as well as exploring the sizable campus itself.
If you’ve been concerned about Fire Emblem’s move towards wordiness over the years, be warned. There’s a lot of dialogue, of talking to your students and offering counsel and micro-managing your calendar in order to push the right progression bars up. But there’s refinement here, as well as some welcome change; a lot of the anime excesses of Fates appear to have been toned down, and while it’s not exactly clear of moments of shrieking hysteria and the occasional questionable outfit, it feels like 2017’s remake of the 1992 Famicom entry Gaiden helped put Intelligent Systems back in touch with the foundations of the series. There’s a greater sense of agency as you explore the academy and fulfill requests, and a good sense of character too thanks to some delightful writing that injects some spark into student interactions.
You can sense the influence of Gaiden out on the battlefield, too, as Three Houses is the first entry since then to do away with Fire Emblem’s long-standing weapon triangle. It’s a brave cut, and I’m sure the weapon degradation that’s now also a staple of battle will prove divisive, but after some initial doubts I think it’s a smart one, as Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ battles feel like a revolution from what’s gone before. A new class-based system means there’s a less rigid feel to skirmishes, and going hand-in-hand with that more organic edge is a new sense of scale. You can now zoom in on individual units and see the battalions that surround them – another element with its own myriad systems, with the ability to recruit and enhance battalions back at the campus – as well as panning your camera through what is, when inspected close-up, a dense battlefield. Viewed from that level, it almost feels like you’re playing a turn-based Warriors game – and again, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as Fire Emblem Warriors studio Koei Tecmo has stepped in to help with development of Three Houses.
For all that it carries influences from the series’ past – and it carries them well – Fire Emblem: Three Houses emerges as its own thing. From these first dozen hours, it feels like Intelligent Systems has brought the balance you so often find in its more granular systems to the bigger picture, and the dialogue-driven RPG moments now sit more comfortably with the turn-based, large-scale battles. It feels like they’re the measure of each other now, with both feeding wonderfully into one another with myriad systems working on each side. I’m still stumbling through the depths of Three Houses, and finding myself frequently lost in the campus corridors, but after this initial taste I’m an eager student who can’t wait to learn more.