Fire Emblem‘s Switch debut is a remarkable moment for the fantasy tactical RPG series. After more than a decade as a handheld-only series, developers Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo are able to leverage the power of Nintendo’s home and away hybrid to deliver the most visually and technically impressive entry in the franchise’s history, one with lengthy and beautifully animated cutscenes helping build a rich and engaging story, while skirmishes benefit from more complexity and new units.
The tale centres on Byleth, a young mercenary travelling with their father. A customisable lead – Byleth can be male or female, and even their name can be changed if you don’t like it – you’re soon swept up in a conflict spanning the continent of Fódlan, and the three nation states that comprise it. However, you’re not just a military commander – here, you get forced into the role of professor at the Garegg Mach monastery, a temple-cum-military-school used by all three countries, where you’re expected to guide the students into an elite fighting force.
Garegg Mach acts as Three Houses’ hub, allowing you to explore and talk to characters between missions, building relationships off the battlefield and moving the story along. Interpersonal dynamics are as important as they’ve ever been in Fire Emblem, as characters with stronger bonds unlock more powerful linked attacks in battle, while classroom sections allow you to guide each character’s education into different roles in combat – pushing one to be an archer, another to be a mage, and so on. Having a full 3D environment to explore makes you feel more connected to the expansive cast’s lives than in past games though, and conversations feel weightier.
The first major choice you’ll have to make is which of three school houses you want to align with – Black Eagles, Blue Lions, or Golden Deer, each reflecting one of Fódlan’s three countries. Each boasts its own unique group of students and allies you’ll follow, and although the decision and others like it won’t have a major impact early on, they can drastically alter the later game, with the battles you engage in and maps you fight on changing as a result.
Battles are the heart of Fire Emblem and here they’re better than ever.
Battles themselves are the heart of Fire Emblem though, and here they’re better than ever. Ostensibly still grid-based, albeit with the lines hidden to better show off Three Houses’ often beautiful maps, each turn sees you moving each of your units, then attacking, healing, or using skills, all now presented in glorious full 3D rather than bitty sprites. Encounters boast a bigger scale than before too, with Three Houses introducing battalions – entire army squadrons, rather than the individual characters, and with their own sets of abilities to get to grips with. These help make each fight feel like the massive conflicts they’re meant to be, rather than a series of one-on-one scraps. On default difficulty, characters who die in battle are gone for good, too – a heavy blow, given they’re meant to be students under your protection.
However, the bigger battles mean bigger maps, and the tradeoff is pacing. The expanded size means your units – solo or battalion – take longer to get around, especially characters travelling on foot rather than a mount such as a pegasus. Spending a few turns just positioning units to eventually attack gets boring, robbing the game of primacy and urgency.
Three Houses is also the closest that Fire Emblem has ever come to doubling as a dating sim. Past games have let you woo side characters, but here there are more options and more depth, from flirty dialogue choices to giving your intended gifts. Unfortunately, it’s all mired in a baseline level of discomfort that many of your dating options are your students, even if the game is at pains to make clear they’re roughly the same age as Byleth. There are also some unfortunate moments if you want to pursue male-male relationships – one in particular pulls a bait-and-switch where the target of your affections is swapped out for a female character.
Pacing and awkward romance options hold Three Houses just shy of a perfect score, but it’s still one of the best strategy games in years, and a fine addition to the Switch library