james debate
james debate

Saturday 31 August 2019

Developed by Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Genre Tactical role-playing
Platform Switch

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The Fire Emblem series of games has enjoyed something of a checkered history. Some thirteen games have been made since the early 1990s, only half of which have seen release outside of Japan. Other than a few cameo appearances in the hugely popular Smash Bros franchise, Fire Emblem had barely made an impact in the worldwide markets, and as recently as the early 2010s it was rumoured that developer Intelligent Systems was on the verge of shutting down.

That all changed in 2012 with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS. The success of that title pretty much single-handedly revitalised the series. Now with Fire Emblem: Three Houses the franchise is making its return to home consoles, and continues the upwards trajectory of recent years with what is by far the biggest release that Fire Emblem has seen, and probably the best game.

Concept and Setting
As with most entries in the series, Three Houses establishes an entirely new setting with new characters, locations and lore. This entry takes place in the world of Fódlan, a continent divided into three nations united by a common religion. Players take the role of a professor at a prestigious academy on neutral ground, where they must choose from one of three Houses (each of which is affiliated with a particular nation) to lead. Later on the game war breaks out, pitting the three Houses against one another, and you against whichever former students were not in your House.

What ensues feels a bit like a JRPG version of Harry Potter. Everything, from House colours, to the school uniforms, and various inter-House games and competitions, effectively captures that winning blend of English public school tradition and magical fantasy.

The quality of the storytelling jumps out right from the start. Fire Emblem has always been a story-focused series, but the quality of the writing is considerably higher in Three Houses than it has been in the past. The dialogue in particular shows far greater maturity than in any previous game, with fewer trope characters and much more realistic personal interaction. These characters are actually shockingly well written. Even the ones who initially seem one dimensional turn out to be fully fleshed out and worthwhile. I struggle to think of a recent game where I have liked a cast of characters this much.

The core story itself is also more compelling than the standard Fire Emblem fare. The usual tropes are here, cruel empires, noble lords, secret bad-guys, but it's all layered on a surprisingly competent commentary on the insanity of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour. The fact that the game's second act sees you forced to take to the battlefield against your former friends and students highlights this fact to often devastating effect.

But it is the world-building and attention to the small details here that impressed me the most. Usually in Fire Emblem (and most games really) you have your kingdoms, you have your characters, and then you have some story, with basically no further context. In Three Houses there has been such a great effort put into fleshing out the world itself, with continents and nations all of whom have fully thought out histories and cultures. Each month is bookended with a documentary-style cutscene (accompanied by wonderful medieval-style artwork) that provides background on the cultural context of the month, including how the changing climate affects flora, fauna and the people of Fódlan, as well as the traditions that emerge from this context. These kinds of small details on the minutia of life in Fódlan might seem superfluous in what is essentially a turn-based battle simulator, but it's the kind of detail that adds richness to a setting. It all adds up to make Fódlan feel like a fully realised world, and one that is all the more immersive for their efforts. If anything, I came away from this game wishing I could have seen even more of this world.

At its core, the Fire Emblem franchise is a series of tactical roleplaying games. Turn-based battles from a top-down view, with RPG style items and special abilities. This remains the meat of the gameplay here, but with Three Houses the developers have added so much more to the formula.

The core gameplay loop is essentially as follows. The game proceeds through a month of the calendar. At the start of each week you set a lesson programme for your students, and on the last day of each week you get a choice between engaging in battle, delivering a seminar to students (to help them level up a skill), or exploring the academy. Sidequests generally take one of two forms: battles or fetch quests that you complete in exploration mode.

The battles are your standard Fire Emblem fare. But for the most part, and particularly during the early game, you will be choosing the explore option. This is the first time that a Fire Emblem game has featured a fully explorable open map, and they have managed to pack an impressive amount of content in there. Exploring the academy allows you to participate in various House games and academy activities such as gardening and fishing. It also enables you to bond with your students, or engage in some extra training. The caveat is that you only have a certain number of activity points that you can use each week, meaning that you will need to prioritise how you spend your time.

One of the unique features of the Fire Emblem series is the social aspect, where players develop the bonds between characters. This can unlock additional story scenes and side quests, but here it is also a mechanic for recruiting students from other Houses. While each House begins with a handful of students, it is technically possible to develop your relationship with the other Houses' students to the point where you can recruit them to your House, and this can be done with any student other than the House heads and deputies. It is technically possible to recruit everyone in a single playthrough (as I did), but it can require a lot of grinding.

While the natural instinct is to try and recruit as many as possible, it is also arguable whether this is even a good idea. After all, you can only deploy 8-12 units per battle, and splitting your training efforts between more units inevitably means that none will reach as high a level as they would otherwise if you had focused on just a small core team. Additionally, I can imagine that recruiting everyone also takes something away from the emotional impact of the main story. One of the crucial themes of this game is the pointlessness of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the idea of having to fight and kill your own students to whom you have become emotionally attached forms a key part of that emotional gut-punch. Personally I found the characters all so loveable that I felt compelled to recruit as many as possible to get the maximum amount of story, but in hindsight I can see that this may have detracted from the experience, turning the story from something weighty and impactful, to something resembling more of a traditional good vs evil videogame story.

This all works well at first, but the core gameplay loop somewhat falls apart later on. For all the content and storytelling in this game, there are surprisingly few sidequests. Given that your core reason for exploration (recruiting students) dries up about half way through the game, there comes a point where really there is not all that much to do between missions. More than 80% of my playing time was spent on the first half of the game, where I would often spend hours between missions developing the bonds between characters, leveling up skills, completing sidequests and searching for the various hidden items around the Academy. About three quarters of the way through the game I hit a point where there was no more recruiting, no more sidequests, and my characters were already so overpowered that I didn't even really need to worry about leveling up. I ended up pretty much just skipping through the last few months of the game because there really wasn't all that much to do.

This speaks to the game's second act weakness in general. That first act, teaching the students in the academy, is magical, memorable, and bursting with interesting things to do. The second act (the war), by comparison, just feels dry and monotonous by comparison (which I guess is kind of the point). One has to question whether it really made sense to continue the same gameplay loop in this second act, which really doesn't have the content for it and never quite feels right.

I also have to say, I am generally not a fan of these types of games which make you pick a path for the entire game, cutting off significant amounts of content and forcing you to do multiple play-throughs to see everything. I don't like the feeling of having to retread stuff that I've already done, and particularly for a game of this length, one good play-through is probably all I'm going to have time for. It is a shame that there is so much interesting content here that you can't see without playing the same story multiple times. Of course, this is only a half criticism, as the reason this is even a problem to begin with is because all the content is so compelling and well done.

Despite these minor criticisms, the game is a joy to play. The new features mark a bold new direction for the series, one that substantively adds to the experience.

Despite some second act weakness, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a delight, and one of the Switch's best games. The world of Fódlan is one of the best examples of world-building I've seen in a videogame for a long time, and the characters comprise one of the most compelling casts of characters in recent years. Three Houses represents a significant step up for the series in just about every regard, one which for the first time establishes Fire Emblem as a bona fide blockbuster home videogame franchise right up there with Mario and Zelda.

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