Saturday, September 14, 2019

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (NSW) Review

Before we conclude this week here at SuperPhillip Central, let's talk about one of the better games of the summer so far--and it's been a pretty good summer, especially for the Switch! Fire Emblem: Three Houses is one such game, and it gets reviewed on your Saturday night here at SuperPhillip Central.

Class is now in oh-so-satisfying session.

For a lot of Western Nintendo fans, Fire Emblem wasn't on their radars until Roy and Marth's inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Though several releases of the Fire Emblem franchise launched after that fact, it wasn't until Fire Emblem: Awakening that the series truly climbed into the upper echelon of Nintendo franchises. In fact, Awakening historically saved the franchise from a nasty fate of being shelved indefinitely if it hadn't reached Nintendo's sales goals and far surpassed them.

Regardless, while Fire Emblem has mostly stuck to handhelds since its Western arrival, now the series returns to a home console after over a decade and this time for its first appearance in HD. It's Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and unlike what the setting might suggest, this game is no schoolyard scuffle. It's one of the bleakest stories in the series to date, and moreover, one of the best overall games in the franchise yet.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses has you in the role of silent protagonist Byleth, giving you the choice of a male or female version, similar to more recent Fire Emblem games, Awakening and Fates. Your avatar plays the role of a new professor for Gurreg Mach monastery, home to the Church of Seiros and its knights. There, you choose one of the three houses: the Black Eagles led by Edelgard, the Blue Lions led by Dimitri, or the Golden Deer led by Claude. Each house has its own set of students each with their own defining personalities and character traits.

No matter which house leader is your favorite, you're wrong if you didn't choose Dimitri.
Though you don't get a lot of information to assist you in choosing which house you wish to join, other than basically a short introduction of each house leader, the repercussions of the story are greatly affected by your choice. While the first half or so of Three Houses plays out similarly regardless of the house you choose, the second half is where the story greatly differs, and the mission types and story scenarios change greatly. It truly is worthwhile to play through all of the routes in the game in order to get a full idea of all characters' motivations. War certainly isn't as black or white as it can seem, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses' tale hammers that point home quite well, even if it requires several 40+ hour play-throughs to get the complete gist.

Three Houses is structured significantly differently from past Fire Emblem games. There's a lot more downtime in the game instead of rushing from battle to battle with short breathers here and there like past games. A lot of your time will be as professor of your house, and that involves all of the teaching duties one would expect in such a role. The game plays out in a monthly structure with each month containing one major battle while each week has you choosing from one of four actions to do for that week: Explore, Battle, Seminar, or Rest.

If you opt to Explore, you'll venture around the Gurreg Mach monastery--the hub of Three Houses--a fully three-dimensional campus where you can chat with students of the eponymous three houses, participate in various activities like gardening, entering suitable students into mock battle tournaments for prizes, cooking as well as sharing a meal with some of your students, among other options. A helpful fast travel option makes getting to each section of the monastery extremely easy as the loading times are negligible between traveling. You only have a limited number of activity points to use on days you opt to explore the monastery, and these are of course used up when performing a given activity. You gain more points to participate in more activities by leveling up your professor rating.

Bond with your students over a freshly prepared meal. This obviously wasn't like the school I went to...
At the start of each week, you begin teaching your students. Depending on a student's motivation, you can level up multiple skills at once. As these skills, such as lance, axe, Faith (magic), heavy armor, etc, are leveled up, new skills are learned. Teaching can be done manually (assigning skill points to your own satisfaction) or automatically (where the skill points are handed out in an automated fashion without your call). It can be a slow process to manually teach students, and even slower of a process to motivate your students to allow them to be taught--which is prompted by spending time with them via activities and giving them gifts sprinkled about Gurreg Mach and dropped in battles.

Develop a lesson plan and tutor your students to magnificence.
As stated, major story-related battles happen once per month, but you can also opt to perform special Paralogue battles which are side-missions that flesh out your characters more, as well as simple auxiliary missions for experience and level gains. Battling in Fire Emblem: Three Houses is much improved with some much desired and welcomed new features to make for the most engaging tactical battles in the series yet. Although the primary foundation and structure of Fire Emblem is still here--what, with its grid-based battlefields where different unit types can move a set amount of spaces, its combat forecast that tells you when you are in range of an opponent, and the likelihood of a successful attack in addition to how much damage you or your opponent will do.

This grid-based system is no stranger to Fire Emblem fans.
For one, the rock-paper-scissors-like weapon triangle system has less prominence in battle. Weapon durability makes its return. The system stills works where using weapons will lower its durability, and overusing it without repairing it between battles will result in it breaking on you, significantly weakening it. Using special attacks in the form of Combat Arts will cause the durability to go down faster. For example, a normal attack costs 1 point while using a Combat Art such as Helmbreaker costs 5 points of durability to use.

While the Iron Gauntlet isn't the strongest of gauntlet-type weapons,
it has a higher durability than those gauntlets that have a higher attack.
Essentially, having the best weapons available to you (i.e. the most expensive ones) will result in an easier go of battles, but the catch here is that unlike past Fire Emblem games, you don't have a constant influx of money to purchase new weapons at a steady rate and this time around, materials to forge and repair weapons as often as you might need. Fortunately, your units are more freely able to mix and match weapon types as their roles and classes change. This freedom to explore and be more creative with your units' abilities and roles in battles in a great inclusion in Three Houses.

Finally, another worthwhile inclusion to battles in Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that of gambits. These allow you to equip mercenary groups and battalions to a given character to use in battle. When used, these will allow you to attack your opponent with the gambit without having to worry of a counterattack, and in many cases, will result in the foe being unable to move on their next turn. Gambits have limited uses per character, but they're terrific in their effects. Some gambits call upon a brigade of characters to charge directly into the enemy--stampede-style--while others have a defensive purpose such as a giant circle of mages that summon a healing circle for surrounding characters. These gambits are paramount to tackling fierce 2x2 grid space-sized monsters and beasts that regularly show up in later maps of the game.

The cavalry has arrived with Edelgard's equipped Gambit. 
While a lot has changed in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, some aspects do, in fact, carry over. A lot of this comes from Awakening. Casual mode is available for beginning strategists and those of us (yep, myself included) who want a less intense Fire Emblem experience where downed units return after battle instead of being gone for good like in Classic mode. Various difficulty options are available, but you can only go down difficulties and never up. For me, I enjoyed playing on Casual/Hard mode, and I feel that is the best way of playing the game. Of course, future play-throughs are Casual/Normal, just so I can enjoy the story at a faster pace.

Also, like Awakening, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has romance and support options, granting boosts in how your units interact with one another. The amount of support conversations can be quite overwhelming if you unlock a grand number at one time. I got to the point late in the game that I just skipped the conversations (I know, how dare I!) so I could rake in the rewards of having a class of students that got along well and did better in combat together.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses has certainly upped the presentation as the very first high definition mainline entry in the series. That said, the visuals apart from the character models and occasional cutscenes (which both do look ace, to be fair) do little to amaze. That said, the budget must have gone into the voice acting and music, because both are phenomenal. Every bit of dialogue within Three Houses is fully voiced--all major conversations, all support conversations, all minor characters, and so forth). My only issue with the music, particularly as it pertains to the battle music, is that a lot of it is repeated way too much throughout the game.

Though I didn't care for the slower structure and pace of the game or having to tread through a ton of familiar ground story-wise just to get to wholly new content in my second (and eventually third and fourth) play-throughs either, Fire Emblem: Three Houses managed to rekindle my long, lost interest in this tactical RPG series anyway. Just the fact that I wish to continue playing to see all the sides of Three Houses' involved story says a lot about how much I enjoyed the game. (For those that don't know, I have a habit of quitting a game as soon as I review it, but this certainly won't be the case with Three Houses.) Fire Emblem: Three Houses schools other games of its genre and is a master class of engaging and enthralling tactical grid-based battles. The amount of freedom to customize your units based on your particular play style and overall whims as well as the aforementioned various houses to play as make for a game with so much content and for me, so little time to take it all in.

[SPC Says: A-]

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