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Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an ambitious masterpiece : review


Turn-based strategy games have generally found a home on the PC or portable consoles these days, resigned to smaller screens and less robust visuals. But what happens when a quality turn-based strategy game makes it to the big screen?

You get something special, which is exactly what you have in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The latest Fire Emblem game -- and the first such game on a home console since Radiant Dawn back in Wii times -- is a masterpiece with deep ambitions to push the genre forward. It does this exceptionally well, too, packing its titular Three Houses with so much more goodness than the mere turn-based battling that you’re expecting.

Three Houses may be the best-paced turn-based strategy game you’ve ever played, overflowing with layers of gameplay beyond the battlefield. It’s equal parts satisfying and overwhelming, with so many NPCs to speak to and so much to explore that at times, fighting feels like just a fragment of the action.

Let’s start off the battlefield, because this is where Three Houses feels absolutely massive. When you’re not fighting, you’re in the Garreg Mach Monastery, and it’s here that you’re meeting other characters (and learning some incredibly deep back stories), holding tea parties, playing minigames, and bolstering the status of your troops through training and other means. It’s a vast and rich experience that depicts the slowness of medieval war.

You’ll stay here for a month, making decisions that impact your troops, assigning them to different tasks each day. Your assignments determine their development in terms of everything from their battling stats to their motivation to their ability to learn more the next day. At times, this feels like a game in and of itself, robust enough to require its own strategy.

It’s a massive change of turn-based strategy pace. Most strategy games, like Disgaea, for example, have small hubs that separate you from key battles, but this hub is practically its own game. It’s a massive undertaking to explore the monastery at the outset, and the place feels living and breathing; it’ll see additional minigames and sections as the months wear on in Three Houses. Soon you get into a habit of exploring the monastery whenever you return, unsure what you may find.

Impressively, characters seem fully fleshed out, and Three Houses evolves Fire Emblems romantic relationships too, making them more limited and less potentially random. It’s worth talking to NPCs over and over again, especially between battles, because you never know how things might change.

When you do take the battlefield, Three Houses feels familiar -- but not as familiar as you may think. Fights are absolutely breathtaking to watch thanks to the graphical potency of the Nintendo Switch, so inspecting the battlefield is a rare joy.

But you can’t simply rely on the weapon triangle of old to win in Three Houses; greater emphasis is now placed on character weapon stats and other abilities, such as breakers and arts. This is refreshing, really, adding a new layer of depth to combat and forcing you to think beyond rote battling basics. It also colors how you plan things at the monastery, insuring that you’re upgrading your troops to handle battle better.

You need to do that, too, because permadeath still exists in Three Houses, at least if you handle the settings that way. So too does a feature that lets you rewind the game, redoing your turn. This continues to be hit-or-miss for me, wrecking the permanence of my decisions, but the workaround is simple: I just don’t use the rewind feature.

If there’s a flaw to Three Houses, it’s the lack of battling objective variety. For all the variety throughout the game, a few more intriguing missions would have helped things: Say, save this character in a certain amount of terms, kill that one while killing nobody else, etc. There are enough battles for Three Houses to do that, because the game stretches over years (with a time jump midway through too).

Still, the battles play out well, and so does the off-battling gameplay, and a strong story completes the package. Three Houses doesn’t tell a binary tale, attempting instead to show the murkiness of good and bad throughout war. That’s even more noticeable during a second playthrough, if you choose a different house, because each of the three houses (Black Eagles, Blue Lions and Golden Deer) has a different narrative.

Depending on your pace of play, there could be more than 100 hours of gaming locked in Three Houses, all of which is completely worth it. This is turn-based strategy gaming heaven.

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch