It'd be easy to write off Fire Emblem: Three Houses as just the latest entry in a long line of Fire Emblem games. The name alone basically implies that it'll be a solid video game overall, but maybe nothing special. (Looking at you, Fire Emblem Fates.) But if Fire Emblem Awakening brought the tactical role-playing game franchise back into the limelight, it's Fire Emblem: Three Houses that takes that torch and really runs with it.
Admittedly, the game’s mechanics are fairly straightforward, and honestly nothing out of the ordinary. The strategic battles are sometimes clever, and the various maps and situations range in difficulty from mindless to genuinely puzzling -- in a good way. Spells, abilities, classes, and all of the trappings of the traditional Fire Emblem experience are present, and refined, but there’s nothing terribly shocking to be found on the game’s battlefields.
Except for the ways in which the simulation parts of the game intersect with the battles. Helping students grow and learn isn't simply window dressing; it informs how those characters engage with one another, and the player, in a war with no simple answers. Sharing a meal or talking with various students might initially seem vapid and somewhat a waste of time, but the other option -- not doing such activities -- ultimately means those students are less likely to join the player’s house, and that means bad things for them in the future.
And that's sort of the whole crux of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There’s a whole bunch of people, and they share a number of formative experiences together, but each of them has a unique background and set of experiences beyond that which influence… literally everything. The three leaders of the houses, Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude, are not necessarily bad people, but they make decisions, and those decisions have significant, deadly consequences.
And it's that combination that truly makes Fire Emblem: Three Houses shine. It's easy enough to convey the tragedy of death and war when the stakes are personal; it's harder to do so when the stakes are largely based around the needs and wants of others. The game manages to make the worlds of others feel personal by tying their mundane, everyday lives to the player's own. When they die, a part of you dies with them, and their successes are your own as well.
It helps that there's multiple paths through the game, each of which are compelling for their own reasons. When playing as the Golden Deer, the actions of the Blue Lions might not make any sense whatsoever, but playing through the Blue Lions explains so much that it makes the unfortunate circumstances of previous playthroughs all the more tragic. The game is a master at letting players in on exactly the right amount of knowledge, all while using its mechanics to drive its themes home all the harder.
Take, for example, the ultimately inconsequential feeling of battles in the first half of the game. Ostensibly, the player and their allies are out there murdering bandits, heretics, and more, but it all feels fairly meaningless and worth it because of the rewards like loot and levels as well as the simple fact that the game requires a certain amount of bloodshed. Nobody comes into Fire Emblem expecting to be a pacifist. But then it subverts that expectation, and suddenly the player is murdering old friends. What of the previous nameless thugs and enemies, though? How bloody a path did the player carve, and what did it cost them and others? How unclean are their hands?
Few games made me think about my own previous actions within them the way Fire Emblem: Three Houses did this year. Hell, few games have ever made me think about my own previous actions within them the way Fire Emblem: Three Houses did. And yet, the call of its gameplay is too hard to resist, and I regularly find myself returning to its battlefields for just a couple more turns. War is terrible, the game seems to say, but it can also be terribly addictive and enthralling.
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