Fire Emblem: Three Houses: Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

Although my time has been limited the last couple weeks, I’ve had the chance to dive into the new Fire Emblem: Three houses recently, and I’m really enjoying some of the systems that the latest offering has put into place.

After loving Awakening in 2013, something about Fates never sat right with me. I’m not sure if it was the split family dynamic, liking the characters less, the significantly worse story or a combination of all of it — I fell off the wagon before getting more than halfway through Conquest. But Three Houses seems to be serving two masters at once: it’s a return to the series’ roots in some ways, yet unlike any other games in others.

The biggest change is that you’re a professor at a school who is helping train the continent’s brightest young officers in the ways of war. This sets up a sort of Persona-esque mechanic where you can spend time building relationships with your students through activities around campus like sharing meals or singing together in the choir, in addition to the traditional Fire Emblem methods like fighting near each other in battle. All of this helps build a connection with your darling recruits, which in turn makes you want to keep them alive on the battlefield (assuming you’re playing with permadeath).

The new activities and mechanics result in a long game even by Fire Emblem standards — some battles take more than an hour on their own, and then you have several in-game days worth of teaching, party management, shopping and events in between. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially on the Switch, where you can put the system into sleep mode mid-battle or mid-conversation and come back to it later when you have more time. In fact, that’s been a lifesaver on a couple occasions; sure, I can put my PS4 in sleep mode, but it’s much harder to use that for gaming in small snippets.

These new mechanics are a lot to take in. The game does a good job of breaking them down one by one, but it’s still a bit overwhelming until you get a couple months into the calendar and have a more steady rhythm to your in-between activities. Some of those tasks can be automated for players who have less appetite for that sort of gameplay, while others can get into the nitty gritty and spend more time off the battlefield than on it.

Three Houses seems to be splitting the difference between old-school and new-era FE fans. Its 3D combat hearkens back to the Radiant Dawn days, and longtime fans will find more difficulty and map surprises than the two 3DS games featured. But there’s still plenty to do in the relationship department, even though only Byleth, the main character, can reach S rank in this game. Fans who started with Awakening will find enough familiar elements here to feel right at home.

I’m only about 10 hours into the game so far, a drop in the bucket compared to what’s ahead. But I’m much more excited for what’s still to come. There are a couple story spoilers that I already know about, and it should be interesting to see how my students make their mark in this world of chaos.

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