Fire Emblem used to just be that really tough strategy RPG with perma-death. It absolutely still can be, but the day-to-day storytelling of Fire Emblem: Three Houses not only elevates the series once considered too niche for Western audiences, but also sets up the franchise to be one of Nintendo's all-time greats.
You play as Byleth (or whatever you want to name your player character), the newest professor to join the Garegg Mach Monastery, a school that's the culmination of three nations joined in harmony. You and your assumed father are whisked away to the school after a mercenary mission, and Byleth is given the choice between the school's three houses to which to pledge allegiance and tutelage. There are the Black Eagles, led by Edelgard, the heir to the throne; The Golden Deer, fronted by Claude and his ragtag group; and the Blue Lions, headed by Prince Dmitri. You select your house as Byleth and get to teaching a class of students.
The differences between students are seen mostly in conversation, as each can take up certain classes and specialties, filling gaps others may leave open. If you're worried about missing out on specific students' talents from other classes, fret not. The game has a built-in recruitment process for you to house all of your favorite heroes in one place. It's a bit more difficult than merely selecting a group, as you'll need to give them gifts and earn their trust, but it adds a level of challenge.
The vast certification and class-modding system allows you to constantly switch up your students' focal points, which means plenty of experimentation. Students will come to you with dynamic hopes and dreams, and it's up to you to put them on the right path, at least in the first half of the game. That's where Fire Emblem: Three Houses succeeds -- as a slice-of-life story.
Not only do you go on missions and lead your students into battle, but you spend time with them throughout your week. Three Houses has player time divided into days on a calendar, and you'll spend that lecturing your students. You're given agency to decide what happens on off-days. You can opt for a seminar with a more seasoned professor, go fishing, plant and harvest crops and herbs, or have lunch with a couple of your students. There is even a tea-time dialogue mini game, a highlight in the many side stories.
It's clear the influence visual novels and series like Persona have on Three Houses, but there is a clear Fire Emblem flare to every bit of it. The game never feels clunky or boring, as each conversation and dialogue choice adds depth to the many characters.
This "busy work" is made even more engaging by the addition of an explorable hub world. Previous Fire Emblem games have dabbled with this, from Awakening's point-and-click-style structure to the third-person dungeon exploration of 2017's Echoes. You can fast travel, of course, but walking around the monastery and learning where students spend their time adds another bit of depth to an already deeply engaging game.
Of course, the day-to-day goings-on of Three Houses helps to bookend the core of the game -- combat. The fine-tuned, grid-based strategy of Fire Emblem is here in top-form, with a few changes of course. Gone is the weapon triangle of past releases (similar to Echoes), having been replaced by, well, a more obvious set up stat match-ups. If your avatar character is powerful, why shouldn't they win a duel just because they're using a different weapon? These match-ups are made even more interesting by Combat Arts, special abilities and talents that can be learned by each student.
Also, the line between moving your units and going into battle are more blurred than ever. Rather than fading to a different screen for battling, the battles occur right when and where you set them, with a quick zoom-in to show you the action. And the battlefields are more alive than ever, with different bits of environment having specific effects in-game. Want to be stealthy? Stay in the taller grass.
Troop buffs are also back in Three Houses, and are influenced by the relationships that occur outside of combat. Are two characters getting along at school? Well, they'll get a buff in battle to help tip the scales. It's little things like this from past Fire Emblem games that are front-and-center here and make for a much more engaging experience. Across the board, this kind of stuff is in top form throughout the game. Three Houses is like a really good milkshake in that it's great all the way through.
If you're looking for a character-driven tactical RPG to pour your time into, it'd be difficult to recommend something more capable of that than Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It's not only iterative of the past five years of success in Fire Emblem, but an entirely new experience in its own right. It's part Harry Potter, part Persona and packed to the brim with intrigue, betrayal, excitement and incredible characters. Consider this another win for the Nintendo Switch's first-party catalog.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is now available on Nintendo Switch. A review copy was provided by the publisher.