Final score: 4 out of 4 stars.
Although the "Fire Emblem" renaissance occurred on the Nintendo 3DS, the franchise has always been meant for the big screen. The series had its start on the original Nintendo, and the games' stories, filled with politics, drama and war, have been a "Game of Thrones"-style saga.
As the series took on a more cinematic direction, with voice acting and beautifully animated cutscenes, the title strained against the limitations of the handheld system. The team at Intelligent Systems had an ambitious vision, but the staff needed better hardware to bring it to life.
That's where the Nintendo Switch comes in. The hybrid console has the horsepower to run richer experiences, and it mostly handled everything the developers threw at it with "Fire Emblem: Three Houses." The latest entry to the strategy game series continues the steady evolutionary march with a renewed focus on character development. The move acknowledges the fact that despite the epic scope, it's the drama between the heroes and villains that make the series great.
In this chapter, players take on the role of the Professor, a mercenary with a shrouded past, who ends up being a teacher at the Church of Seiros Officers Academy at Garreg Mach. Located in the heart of the Fodlan continent, the institution is where the three major powers — the Adrestian Empire, the Kingdom of Faerghus and the Leicester Alliance — send their best and brightest.
At this Hogwarts-like school, players choose one of the three houses. Each represents a respective nation and has a combat philosophy. The empire specializes in magic, the kingdom focuses on lancers, while the alliance touts the best archers. Players can recruit students from other houses and church staff into the fold, but most of the campaign will be spent with a core class.
"Three Houses" steeps players into its rich fantasy history, and Intelligent Systems wrap that around the students' back story. Some are traumatized by past conflicts. Others have character flaws based on their view of nobility and class. Everyone has his own demons, and part of the narrative's draw is unfurling the students' inner secrets, fostering relationships and watching them grow.
In the role of teacher, players shape their progress through a class system that has been reworked to coincide with the setting. Half the game is spent in the trademark "Fire Emblem" battles, in which players have to outflank foes and cleverly use their troops' strengths against the opponents' weaknesses. That often involves using forested terrain to boost defense or attacking with soldiers that have a weapon advantage over rivals. The game retains the rock-scissors-paper system, though it's less obvious and melded more tightly to the character customization.
The heart of combat lies in a chesslike system. Players move their troops during their turn, then see how their opponent reacts and try to outmaneuver them without losing any soldiers. One of the difficulties in "Fire Emblem" is that once a character dies in battle, he is gone forever. It makes the conflicts more intense and each demise agonizing.
For newcomers, Intelligent Systems added an easy mode that removes this aspect. In addition, "Three Houses" also has a mulligan mechanic — similar to the one in "Shadows of Valentia" — that lets players go back several turns so they can correct mistakes. The Professor has this power because of his bond with Sothis, a goddess who has the power to control time. I used the feature a couple of times, and it's a much better alternative to resetting the game and starting over if I made a mistake.
The developers also tried to add a new layer to combat by using the Gambit system. It's linked to battalions that each character leads. They act almost like spells with distinct effects based on the troop type, but they often don't offer a better advantage compared to a heroes' normal actions.
Although plenty of pivotal moments occur in combat, the most memorable ones happen when the Professor is building relationships with the students and exploring the campus. This social element has been a component in the past few entries, but "Three Houses" elevates this part of the game with a fully realized environment.
Players explore Garreg Mach and run into students while wandering the grounds. The exercise is similar to the downtime in "Persona 5." Players have a certain number of action points based on their professor level, which can be used to boost student motivation by dining with them, giving them gifts or returning lost items. Those motivation points play a key part in their lesson plans and growth.
By helping students, the Professor also boost the bonds with them, and that impacts how well they work together on the battlefield. Players can also increase the skill of the main character allowing them to recruit rival students and staff.
This relationship-building invests players in the cast and pays off in the second half of "Three Houses" when a series of events introduces a time skip of five years. In that span, the Professor is out of action and returns to find a different world and grown-up students. It becomes an engrossing experience as players see how the youths matured in an era filled with conflict, and how they evolved without the teacher's guidance.
This makes way for more twists and turns as players delve into the secrets of the Professor, while also trying to help their house and students in a new world. All that builds to a satisfying climax that weaves in several threads among the protagonist and the class.
With an enormous cast and a sprawling story line, "Three Houses" capitalizes on Intelligent Systems' grand vision for the series. The Nintendo Switch entry raises the bar for a franchise already on a meteoric rebirth.