The Fire Emblem franchise celebrated its 30th anniversary this April. I have always been a fan of the series and how it goes all-out with its weird dating sim-chess hybrid in a medieval fantasy setting.
My very first Fire Emblem game was the seventh one in canon – The Blazing Sword on Game Boy Advance. It’s the game where Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector are the protagonists of, if you’re still stuck on which game it is (dear God, there’s so many of these games). The GBA games were a golden standard. I enjoyed how the game was cruel to the player with its layering of different mechanics. The tactical strategy genre wasn’t new to me, but the minimal tutorial, weapon durability management, and permadeath system gave it depth which I enjoyed as a kid and still enjoy today.
The game that started it all for me.
Most of all, I loved the unfolding cast of characters and the drama they add to the story. Whenever a new character came up with a particularly different personality, skill set, and a design that screamed ‘I AM A PLAYER CHARACTER’. You would have to figure out how to get them to join your side and not get killed by the enemy, or recruit them before they kill your units. I enjoyed being rewarded with special conversations when I spoke or attacked characters with the correct unit. I’m still so sorry, Lucius!
I was always impressed by how Fire Emblem juggled its huge cast of characters although to varying degrees of success. Their “support system”, involves brief conversations between two characters unveiling their individual stories and relationships to each other and to you, the player. This lends to the mechanics and the world-building of the game as characters that are paired together in combat receive stat bonuses and even take hits for their paired unit. You will always find a character you admire, hate, can relate to, a pair that you love to death, a pair you don’t understand, and the list goes on. This is probably the killer feature for the longstanding series, and to Intelligent Systems’ credit, has steadily improved over time. Their character writing has become more nuanced, as with the quality of character design and voice acting. It transcends the cookie cutter tropes somewhat narrowly the series has been known for, while capturing its players’ hearts.
A Bit of Background
The series waned in popularity after the GameCube and Wii era. The release of FE13:Awakening on the 3DS leased a new life on the franchise. It featured a great story, a dynamic cast, and brought back FE4: Genealogy of the Holy War’s fan-favorite marriage and children gimmick to add even more charming characters to its story.
My love for the series kind of died down after FE14: Fates. It had a clunkier story and worse mechanics compared to its predecessor. It didn’t even have the bare bones charm that the GBA titles had. As a result, despite owning a Nintendo Switch since launch. The announcement for Three Houses completely flew over my head!
I didn’t look at any trailers or screenshots, news, guides, or spoilers after it launched. I borrowed this game from a friend as it was recommended to me by several people, telling me to give this game a chance. In fact, I was even tentative on starting the game. Everything I knew about the game I learned from looking at the cover and making a few intelligent guesses – 3 color-coded lords, a player avatar, and probably a dragon inhabiting the form of a little girl somewhere in there. Okay, let’s go.
The Blue Lions are all bright-eyed, future-forward youngsters… right?
Out of the three routes, it was obvious to me that the Blue Lions route was going to be the most vanilla Three Houses experience as the characters’ weapon specialties were primarily swords and lances. That was all I wanted as a callback to the GBA era. Little did I know I was getting more than that.
Just to preface, I did NOT know there was a timeskip in this game. I got attached to my Blue Lions cubs and built them to be the best units I believed they could be. I was shocked that leading my fantasy high school class to graduation wasn’t the endgame.
I love medieval high school hijinks.
I did NOT bother learning the recruitment mechanic when I first played. Which left me stuck with the base team as I played through the timeskip portion. I suffered from a shortage of mages that left my combat options limited, and was forced to kill everyone I didn’t invite into Blue Lions. I also skipped some paralogues because I just wanted to get the story going… Ouch!
I found myself back in the gritty, black-grey-white world of eternal war the Fire Emblem series is known for, now with the baggage of history between all these characters. I was floored. What a 180 degree turn.
Um, Dimitri? You okay there, buddy?
Golden boy Dimitri became cold, cruel, distant, and single-minded in his quest to kill Edelgard with his own hands. This point is driven hard in that for the first few fights after you arrive in present day Fódlan and side with the Holy Kingdom of Fargus. He doesn’t pay any attention to you, his most admired professor. He doesn’t join any classes, and can’t develop support with anyone. I found myself trying every single free day to talk to him, so I could understand what had happened in the last 5 years I was AWOL.
His story was revealed to me by the other Blue Lions. I couldn’t believe the physical, emotional, and build-wise glow-up my students went through. It wasn’t the reunion we promised to each other 5 years ago, but it was so cool to see the kind of persons they had grown into. Dedue served his friend up to the end, Ingrid became the knight she always wanted to be, and Mercedes finally stood up to her father in order to support the kingdom and headed back to the Monastery. I took in all these developments framed by what I remember of them as children – complete with their own strengths and weaknesses, on the battlefield and in their personal life. It shook me as to how the Blue Lions felt incredibly human. It was incredible.
In the Academy Phase, I was so picky with their skills and classes, carefully conditioning them to be the best at their possible future Master Class.
Everyone’s look has matured – oops, the oldies don’t get the glow up, I guess.
But now that they have been called to war, they have chosen their own paths and are eager to share their progress with their prodigal teacher. I know that in another timeline (i.e. playthrough), these allies would have been my enemies, and vice versa. While these characters have their own strong personalities, I felt their resolve and reasons for fighting the war were a result of the hard work and the wisdom you provided them as a friend and mentor during their formative years.
I liked that message – who you are as a person is up to you, but there’s no denying that the people who support you will inform the path ahead. Our mentors don’t dictate where we should go, but their words help pave the road that we can follow.
Who would have thought I’d ever be a proud professor, soldier, and war mom?
If I had known about the timeskip beforehand, I would probably be annoyed by the cheap narrative device and given up on all future Fire Emblem installments. I’m glad that I gave in and gave Three Houses a chance.
As evidence for this, I can say I don’t have a route preference and I believe that the correct way to play the game is to experience all four routes— which admittedly, many people won’t do. But doing so presents all sides to the story, leaving you with four world powers ripped at the seams, and it is the player’s initiative to knit it all together for themselves.
The plot, while more interesting than other Fire Emblem story offerings, is not top tier. But I think the storytelling of this game is still stellar. Why? Because of the care and attention, the writers and developers gave to all the little details in the game.
Err… which one could yours be?
One of the most obvious ways the game does this is its “Lost and Found” minigame. The game challenges you to personally know each person in Garreg Mach Monastery by returning a lost item to its rightful owner. You had to pay attention to cutscenes, supports, optional conversations, report cards and more to know whose item is which. Given the 30+ characters in the whole cast, I applaud the game for making each personality so distinct and each relationship special. It’s an unbelievable scope and attention to detail that deserves high praise.
And more subtly, the storytelling is found in the mechanics. Ashe has a lockpick ability. Why? He used to be a thieving street rat before getting adopted by Lord Lonato. Felix is known as The Sword Guy, and by the war phase, his aggressive personality is completely subverted by the fact that he is the heir to the Hero’s Relic Aegis – a shield.
Lots and lots of little details to take note of – blink and you’ll miss them!
Bits and pieces of lore, like the Ten Elites, The Insurrection of the Seven, The Myth of Loog and Pan, all float up here and there in the story, but are never fully explained. There’s a “book” in the DLC called “Romance of the World’s Perdition,” and man, I would read that IRL. Three Houses has an incredibly realized world – and you’ll note that with the great map that your traverse in each route, as is Fire Emblem tradition – is only made better by the gaps it leaves for the players to fill. Truly, the gamers with the biggest imaginations have the most to enjoy in this title.
Any piece of fiction that starts off with a well thought-out map is usually epic
Three Houses isn’t a perfect game – the writing can be rather inconsistent per route. I wish they could have delved into the students of Almyra, Duscur, and Brigid, and their tenuous relationship with Fódlan more. I still feel weird that they chose to make Byleth a teacher and a romance option despite the student-teacher dynamic they have with a majority of the cast. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see the inclusion of more canon LGBT characters in the game.
With all that being said, I do like the direction that the Fire Emblem franchise is going with Three Houses. The level of ambition in its narrative design created a strong fanbase around the game and its characters, which will remain memorable for years to come. With the success of Three Houses, I can see Fire Emblem’s developers take steps towards a tighter, more informed narrative and a more diverse cast of characters. I’m glad to say I’m looking forward to playing the next one.