videogame reviews

Fire Emblem: Three Houses


When I’m getting to know someone, I have this habit of asking them an arbitrary question: “What is more important to you, loyalty or justice?” Their answer is never as enlightening to me as the justifications that come afterward. In my experience, most people choose loyalty, and then add some variation of “but I’d always try to do the right thing”. Last time I got this answer, it was a lie, and it came from Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Not that I’m surprised. At the end of the day, that’s Fire Emblem for you. In these games, you don’t fight for something, you fight for someone. Justice just so happens to be by your side, but the characters are the real selling point here. That’s why Fire Emblem prides itself in its permadeath mechanic: once a unit dies, it dies for good. It doesn’t come back after the battle, you can’t use an item to revive it. Getting your friends killed is the upmost punishment the series has to offer, all because your only reason to fight is the people who fight with you. Gameplay-wise, you can fail these people by letting them get killed, but you can’t fail to live up to your ideological standards. You can’t deviate from your current path, spare, massacre, or anything that would move the spotlight from your allies to the abstract concept of “doing the right thing”. Who gives a damn about that, it’s not like you can S-Support it.

But there’s an ironic setback to all of this. Units become disposable, and if you care little about them and they get killed...well, restarting the level is too much of a hassle. And it’s not like Fire Emblem is battle after battle with no dialogue in between, so this quickly became a problem. This unit is dead, but they have a line in the next cutscene. What about that? In pre-3DS entries, they didn’t care much. But right now they do, and they don’t know how to handle it. Permadeath has become an absolute mess.

In the first part of Three Houses, you’re a teacher and the units you deploy in battle are your students. Fights take place in a safe, academic context most of the time, so if an enemy defeats them, they’ll say “Ah, I got tired. See you later, guys.” Sometimes, that means it was a mock battle and you would, indeed, see them later. But most of the time, it means they’re effectively dead. And you don’t know that, you don’t get any clue until you’ve saved you progress and they stop being there (Whatever happened to poor Ignatz?) And yes, there’s a disclaimer before a mock battle saying the units won’t die, but the problem is it doesn’t make sense for them to die in that battle, anyway. It’s even more outrageous in the second part, the actual war. When a character dies, time slows down and corny music starts playing to signify they’re dead-dead. Oh, unless they’re a special character but not so special as to be included in the defeat conditions. In that case, a huge demonic beast can beat the hell out of them and they’ll just be tired. See you in the next cutscene, pal.

So why keeping permadeath when it doesn’t work? You can’t mourn any dead student if they’re just tired. Or if time slows down, but then the character you “killed” appears again two chapters later. Or if you learn they’re dead when the credits start rolling. Hardcore fans will tell you disabling permadeath makes deaths meaningless, but they’re meaningless either way, so why not accepting it doesn’t have much place as it currently is in Fire Emblem?

Even so, I get why it’s not so easy. Three Houses lives and dies by its characters. They need to be there, they’re the point. They can’t die and then appear in the cutscenes, because losing them should feel affecting and persistent. Fire Emblem is no longer the struggle of leaders and the soldiers who follow them, but the story of the soldiers as they relate to their leaders. In Fire Emblem: Fates, factions are a pack—a family and their allies—; a homogeneous group that aligns with certain ideas: ideas of family, tactics, and aesthetics. Biological or adoptive. Attack or defense. Western or eastern. Their emotional connection to these ideas is what glues them together, and the reason why you can’t make allies of your enemies, as you sometimes could in previous entries.

In Three Houses, each house is full of individual students, each one with their own set of experiences, hobbies, and friends. What do any of the members of a house have in common, besides their current place of residence? You’d say the Blue Lions value chivalry, but most of them don’t care as much about it, or even despise it. The Golden Deer fancy themselves the people’s house, with the highest amount of commoners in their ranks. Yet, they uphold a protocapitalist system in which only nobles have the right to vote. Long story short, every student is unique and independent, and their affinities very malleable. No matter the path you follow, they’ll stay by your side and sing praises of that political project without a single trace of conflict or hesitancy. The fact that the main source of dramatic tension in the second part is having to kill the students you didn’t recruit before the war speaks volumes to how much the game cherishes its characters over anything else. So much so that it changes the series’ structure for their sake.

Conventionally, Fire Emblem has been a journey, a spatial quest at heart. You travel through a continent and meet new allies along the way. Sometimes, you’d even have to sway them to your cause during the battle while dodging a lethal encounter for either party. In those scenarios, even making peace—the opposite of fighting—demanded careful control of the space.

In Three Houses, the importance given to space and travel is shunned in favor of time and change. Even the battles have undergone subtle, albeit radical changes. The ability to rewind time to undo mistakes through the divine pulse isn’t there just to help players. It breaks with the philosophy of battles as an all-or-nothing situation—no save scumming allowed: if you’ve made mistakes, you’ll have to restart the whole level or to live with them.

With the divine pulse, you don’t have to be careful anymore. You don’t have to restrain yourself or sacrifice anything. You can pull the riskiest moves without any drawbacks. I mean, I’ve found myself rewinding over not getting an unnecessary critical attack! The significance of probability-driven attack systems is risk management, so I don’t love the divine pulse, no. And you could say “Well, don’t use it, then”, but the thing is, the game does want me to use it. From the inclusion of gambits to reinforcement units that appear and move in the same turn, it gives room to more aggressive enemy strategies that would seem unfair without rewinding. Just look at the death knight: he’s a beast, strong as no other opponent, and most crucially, has a high chance of getting critical attacks. That means certain death, in case I didn’t make myself clear.

Fire Emblem battles abide by two basic units of meaning: tiles and turns. One related to space, the other to time. The divine pulse, however, gives a new layer of complexity to time, dividing each turn into as many parts as divine uses you have. It adds a ton of granularity to the whole battle. And most of the new elements ensure time overshadows space as well. Fighting the death knight, or even demonic beasts, seeing how poor the odds are for you, becomes a task of time management: how can I approach this attack so I don’t receive a counterattack in the next turn? Both the death knight and demonic beasts have a high range of movement and attack, so escaping is not an option. What then? Killing them in one turn or leaving them unable to attack in the next one, that’s what. Turns dictate your strategy here, not tiles. Same with gambits. They have a lot of fancy effects, like setting an area on fire or changing your and/or your enemy’s position on the map. However, this swap can make a two tile difference at best. Again, it won’t get you out of the enemy’s range. The real deal here is the fact that they will paralyze the enemy, making them unable to move during the next turn. These new mechanics administer time more than anything else.

And that’s only the start. The whole game takes place in Garreg Mach Monastery, a cradle of faith and conciliation for the region of Fódlan. To further establish its political neutrality, the monastery was built in the exact center of the continent. What does this mean for the adventure? Well, there’s never a journey to speak of. Every location is within reach. The stops between points A and B are minimal. Besides, all your allies are always with you, from beginning to end. With no new additions to your side after the five year time skip that chops the game in two, Three Houses prioritizes trust and development over expansion and excitement. You are back to the monastery only to find your old students, now in their warfare attires instead of their school uniforms. But everything else is still the same.

This is indignant. A story about the flow of time, about history repeating itself, about ideals, about the future. And people are having nonchalant talks about something they did “the other day”? A lot of conversations can take place before and after the time skip alike, so their characters aren’t allowed to develop as human beings. Keeping these teens who are transitioning into adulthood during times of war hostage to growth, trauma, and change of beliefs is even more heartless than it is unrealistic. It’s almost as if they were only allowed to be as long as the avatar was there to see it.

And that’s a huge problem, too. This avatar, a pure extension of the player, embodies a cult leader to a degree few others I know have reached (the irony of this happening in a narrative that calls into question that exact dynamic wasn’t lost on me). Whether a cause is just or not depends on the side the avatar defends. I mean, even the Black Eagles route, regarded as the most immoral of the three in general, makes a laughable attempt to antagonize the other side beyond the original frame of moral ambiguity. You always made the right choice, did the right thing. Any student you want on your side wants to be on your side. They aren’t loyal to anything, and you’ll find them expressing polar opposite opinions on different routes. They’re sunflowers to the sun.

This videogame bends over backward to offer the player the utmost degree of flexibility, the least amount of friction. The weapon triangle system is no longer a thing, so the distinction between one weapon and another flattens; anyone can be any class they want, and any unit can use any weapon. I’m not calling for an essentialist system of fighting roles but, once again, some of these elements are, at best, dead weight from a rusting legacy. I’m a bit conflicted here because I love how tutoring and certifications work, but since a lot of the skills are weaker compared to previous games, the potential stat growths alone aren’t attractive to me anymore.

Right now, it might seem like I want Fire Emblem to go back to its roots, but that’s far from the truth. When I first heard about this game, I was thrilled about the concept of teaching, charmed by the characters’ design, and overall excited by the step away from the Fire Emblem tradition it represented. Awakening and Fates branched out from their predecessors in some ways, but they didn’t commit to it. They wanted to introduce dating sim elements but had to pass the “how can they relate to battle” filter first. Supports haven’t always been present in Fire Emblem, but when they first were, you had to spend a whole in-battle turn to have those conversations. With the 3DS entries, those conversations were moved into a leisurely base of operations.

Now, in Three Houses, it goes even further. You can still see a heart when one unit fights close to another, but relationships are, in essence, developed in the monastery. Giving your students gifts, sharing meals with them, sending them in pairs to a school assignment; these are the things that draw them together, no matter what’s going on in the outside world. Garreg Mach is a bubble, a safe space where students can figure themselves out, goof around, discover different cultures, and make ever-lasting friendships.

To me, it’s more and more obvious that Fire Emblem wants to be two different videogames in one. On the one hand, honoring its tradition, a tactical role-playing game, and on the other hand, appealing to a newer audience, a visual novel with dating sim elements. It could be both, sure, but as it stands, it doesn’t succeed as any. It shies away from committing to a visual novel format due to battle-related mechanics such as permadeath and their immense transformative power over the cast, and it tames strategy by trivializing weapons, classes, and skills for the sake of allowing the player to just use their favorite characters however they want. Each new entry makes a new milquetoast attempt at untangling these two dispositions, but they all fall midway.

Three Houses’ themes revolve around time, but its whole world is timeless, stubbornly infantile. The avatar doesn’t have a past, since it’s all behind a smoke curtain, and doesn’t have a future because of their lack of any resemblance of ideals or ambitions. They accommodate to their leader’s wishes. As the students accommodate to the teacher. As the game accommodates to the player.

All things considered, I can’t deny the ridiculous amount of hours I’ve spent playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I might even spend more, and I believe that must mean something. This game coddles you, it imbues you with a certain warmth. There’s also Mercedes. But the more I think about it, the more I understand I don’t want to be coddled. Not like this. I don’t want to be patronized, to be catered to from every flank. I want franchises like this to be brave for real or move on. But then again, my answer to the question is justice.

— calei2copi0