Turn Based Strategy at its Finest Hour
Buying games. Renting games. Borrowing them. It didn’t matter what kind of game when I was younger, I wanted to play everything! But as you all know, I got into rpgs the most. During the Sega Genesis years, I saved up money and bought a game called Shining Force. I had little knowledge about it, other than it looked like your typical rpg. Roam around towns, go to dungeons, etc. When I found out you commanded a small group, and each one took their turn, then the enemy army had their turn, I was hooked. The way the story unfolded with each character involved. Not to mention the different class changes each character went through, adding different elements into who could deal melee, ranged and magic damage. That was my introduction into turn based strategy(tbs). I went on to play games like Ogre Battle(although not really turn based), Vandal Hearts, Front Mission, and so on.
There are tbs games that really stand out in my mind, such as the Disgaea series, for its quirky storytelling and taking tbs to the extreme. But when we are talking best, well, for me it has to be Final Fantasy Tactics. I have played through it so many times I lost count. I still think about the story and the characters, all being woven into this deep story of religion, politics, betrayals and cover-ups. But all this time there was a series that was only being whispered about here in the United States. I knew of it from magazines, but never sunk my teeth into it until I played fan translations and such. That series is Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem took a simple approach for tbs, but it still holds up to this day, and has been copied by many other games. Taking a trip all the way back to the Famicom, Fire Emblem is still going as strong as ever. I want to say it wasn’t until the Gameboy Advance that Fire Emblem finally made its way over here. While this simple rock-paper-scissors play style seemed simple enough, there is so much more to it that always made me stop and think about planning numerous moves ahead. Your units carrying swords would do more damage to the axe carrying units, but less damage to lance units. Axes dealt more damage to lances, but less to swords, while lances would crush sword units but have trouble with axe units. I think I got that right? You get the gist of it. What I couldn’t wrap my head around was that if one of your characters fell in battle, they were dead. Forever. And it was soul crushing. So many hard resets were done when I played Fire Emblem(FE) games, so much time spent playing battles over and over to go right. It was stressful, but so addictive. I would always try to describe it to friends, but they never got it until they played one, and either loved like I did or stopped playing due to their characters dropping like rocks.
Nintendo finally eased up a bit, allowing later FE games to have a mode where your characters wouldn’t die, but instead come back after the battle like most tbs games. Some of your hardcore griped about it, but I’m totally on board. It really opened the door for other people to experience Fire Emblem. With so many age old stories with certain heroes becoming legend in the series, I was curious how Fire Emblem: Three Houses would turn out on the Nintendo Switch. Without spoilers, you can read on as to why it might be the best in the series, and even more than that.
On my first play through, wanting to accomplish as much as possible, I clocked in just short of ninety-eight hours. Now, that was me trying to recruit everyone, power level my army, even those I would never use, get everyone to like each other, and so on. What am I talking about? I’m excited and getting ahead of myself. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is told around your character, named Byleth. Which you can choose to either be male or female at the start of the game. Byleth and his father Jeralt, are mercenaries who happen to be breaking camp to move on to the next battle. Not soon after, three kids about your age come running asking for help against some bandits. This is your tutorial to how most FE games work. Shortly after, you learn these kids are important, your father has one heck of a backstory, and you are lead to become a professor by the Church of Seiros at Garreg Mach Monastery. That’s right, a professor. Time to drop some knowledge on these kids- that are the same age as you- are the future leaders of the world- and everyone wonders how a strange kid landed a professor job at the academy. That includes you, the player. Not to mention the fact that you keep hearing a girl’s voice inside your head, or that you can manipulate time? More on that in a bit.
I had a lot of fun with the small amount of story given at first, leading you to forge your path ahead. Early FE tried to weave a story around a handful of characters, but more recently, especially with Fire Emblem: Fates/Birthright on the 3DS, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems really tried to have branching paths, and even two whole stories combined into one. I feel that it was a nice attempt, but Three Houses was able to perfect this dynamic. At the Garreg Mach Monastery Academy, there are three houses(yes, think Harry Potter) that are divided just like Fodlan, the land in which the game resides. Being the new professor and all, you get to choose which house you want to teach. This will also be your starting army.
The three kids you saved are at the head of each house. You have Prince Dimitri, who leads the Blue Lions, and is heir to the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus. The Black Eagles lead by Princess Edelgard, heir to the imperial Adestrian throne, and the Golden Deer lead by Claude, the son of the leader in the Alliance. While the beginning of the game starts off the same more or less, once you get invested in your house, the story becomes wildly different, giving you an actual reason to play through the game more than once. I have already started another file, and intend to play through each house. But, for my first play through here, I chose the Blue Lions and learned about Dimitri, the Kingdom, and those that grew up with him, and others that get woven into the story as well.
The story and characters will truly stick with me. Getting to choose how you manage your day off, whether to run around Garreg Mach and interact with the students and the church, or taking on assignments by going out and doing battle to level your army up. Each character has their own reasons for being here, and you can learn all about them, which is expanded on by giving gifts, inviting them to a meal, or just hearing them out sometimes. The voice acting was great here, and I actually kept it on English, which is rare for me. Small things like inviting the right two students to a meal can open up different dialogue, and how they interact with each other. You can also recruit most of the people from the other two houses as well, if you have the required skill leveled high enough for them to want to learn from you. The makes Three Houses stray some from the regular rock-paper-scissors formula. There are plenty of skills ranging from lances, swords, axes, white and black magic, bows, fists, mounted units, flying units, and more. All with certain strengths and weaknesses. And certain students excel at these skills, but often will want to set goals for themselves to learn more. This will open up a variety of classes which turns the game into creating the best of the best for your army. I wanted most characters to learn a different set of skills so they could flow with combat, and crush anything they were fighting.
As your army of usually ten deploys, battle happens on big maps, with plenty of different terrain for a nice bonus or a weakness. In the desert? Most units are restricted in moving only a couple of squares, unless you are a flying class or a magic user. Woods allow you to get hit less, but the same goes for your enemy. You can carry a small amount with each unit, but having different weapons is key here. In that regard, you can attack with whatever weapon or magic you want, as long as your skill is high enough. As your army progresses, you will also see them learn to trust each other, and their support rank will increase, and you will get cutscenes showing how they are getting along. This is a great touch for those that always wanted a bit more in tbs games. I really cared for almost everyone. I couldn’t get enough of the battles, or interacting with everyone, my interest was always there. Which is rare these days. But what about the story?
Without saying much, there is a lot to take in. Aside from learning about the three factions, you will also learn about nobles, Dukes, and other people all trying to see to their own agendas. Byleth is special. You feel it from the beginning, when you speak to a young girl and she turns back time to see that you survive a fatal blow. This mechanic, which is limited each battle, allows you to turn back time in case something goes horribly wrong. Which really keeps you from having to hard reset to start over. But why does Byleth get granted this power? That’s all wrapped up into the story. As the game plays out, events happen that are laid bare, and you are now going to forge a future together with your house. Seeing it play out was something I haven’t dived so deep into since Final Fantasy Tactics. There really is a lot to take in, and even more if you want to keep searching. Watching Dimitri go through it all, see friends become enemies, and enemies become friends, and wonder how some of the people you recruited want to fight former allies all works great here, and is very reminiscent of past FE games, and other tbs games. But since you have grown with them, you feel like it wasn’t forced just to keep everything moving. Now there is one battle that I thought would play out differently, and left me sort of scratching my head, but that was really the only complaint I had.