Spoiler warning: I'm nowhere near the end, but I reveal one or two big story beats in this. Do not read this if you don't want to know.
As much as I hate repeating myself, I bought a Nintendo Switch. I'm, also, still mostly playing Fortnite, since it's the lowest possible effort right now. I have, however, prestiged my battle pass by now, which is 200 levels. So, now I don't need to look at missions anymore, since that doesn't add anything, which has freed up some time. It so happens that, at around that milestone, I finally got my hands on a copy of one of the games that was recommended to me by you, the Giant Boomers. That's probably not a great name. We're old, though.
It's surprisingly hard to get physical copies of Switch games that didn't release recently. The rare few that are, in turn, still sell for full price and that just doesn't sit well with me. I'm sure Breath of the Wild is a good time, but it will have to wait until some second hand copy pops up. From all the games that ended up on the shortlist, I managed to indefinitely borrow a copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The Gameboy Advance predecessor is one of the best tactics games on the platform, so there's a pedigree there that has me interested in seeing its evolution. There's gotta be a reason that they keep shoving characters in the Super Smash Bros titles, right?
Three Houses has a scope far greater than its origins. Rather than just have fights, interspersed with conversations, the game now presents the protagonist with a hub. Your life as a mercenary has landed you a job as a teacher in a monastery, where youths are training to protect their side of the land. Out of the houses present, guess how many, you choose to lead one color-coded side. I went with the yellows, because their leader wasn't a serious as the others and they had a himbo named Raphael, who is a continuous delight to have around. Personality is a huge draw here, which is why you'll spend a lot of time in the monastery running around and getting to know people better, even the students from the other two groups. There are also a few side activities, like fishing and gardening, though those aren't nearly as involved. They're there. The place has a bright, colorful tone, though the cel-shaded textures are surprisingly low resolution for a game of this stature. Whether you're playing on a screen or in handheld, the smudgy edges are very noticeable, even if the overall art is solid.
As Three Houses is twofold, one part in the monastery and one in combat, I'll detail both. Each month, there's a mission that will happen. Until then, you can not just talk to students, but also instruct them in certain traits that raises skill levels and unlocks more attacks. Teaching requires motivation, which in turn can be increased by handing out gifts. I don't know why a teacher would do that, but that's the mechanism. Give a girl flowers and she'll want to be tutored some more. Someone good enough in a taught trait can pass an exam to become a more potent class of fighter, from thief to a wizard flying on a dragon. Well, it's a wyvern, if you wanna be nerdy about it.
With these new powers, it's time to hop into a battle; whether it's the month's mission or auxiliary quests. Once again, the battlefield is weirdly ugly for a game like this, tiled in the most drab environment you could think of. After choosing the units you like, you'll fight in a traditional roshambo system. Sword beats axe, axe beats lance. There are a whole stack of other possibilities above that. Magic of different kinds, ranged attacks, special skills that reduce weapon durability and battalions with limited assaults that cannot be countered. As far as fighting goes, Three Houses hasn't missed a beat. Pour on top of that the personalities of the students and fighting is a joyful affair. I want my kids to do well, even the ones who are little douchebags.
A lot of emphasis is put into making these characters likable, whatever their archetypes might be. In fact, I could argue that relationships are the main priority in the game; in the tactics game. At first, I just talked to people I wanted to and got on with my day, until I realized that's a punishing way of playing. Any character that doesn't get attention also doesn't scale. Not talking to someone will hide information that will be needed later, to increase someone else's potential. On top of that, there are 'support' conversations between all the students, so that they do better while in proximity with each other in fights. I'm almost always talking to someone or watching someone talk.
At first, I thought Fire Emblem was about fifty-fifty between fluff and combat, which is already a weird ratio. The real slice, however, is a conservative 60/40. I spend at least an hour and change in the monastery and the mission is never longer than 40 minutes. In fact, if you'd only do the mandatory fight, you could easily play the game at around 80 percent dating simulator and 20 percent fights. That's insane! I enjoy my time with the people of the monastery, but there's a limit to how much blabbering I'm willing to do.
With all that dialogue, it's also hard to stay engaging. That's really where this game broke down for me. The first dozen hours of Three Houses are amazing, some of the best I've ever played. After that, the anime parts start rearing their heads, including cutscenes. Conversations get more generic, clichéd tropes are brought out. The wide range of possibilities funnels into a trodden story that Fire Emblem will tell, whether you like it or not. That point came to me as a major event was supposed to rock my world. My mentor wanted to tell me something important, but didn't have the time, as there was a dangerous mission ahead. That's a giant burning flare to say that person dies. It was very anticlimactic. Right after that, a character demands that I hand over the deceased's diary, even though no point until then would make me do so. You frequently get choices that can raise (or lower) your relationship, but in this case only one option worked. The other choice, not giving up a super personal item for no reason, would just loop back around endlessly. For a game that asks for your input every twenty second in dozens of hours in dialogue, it certainly doesn't give a fuck what you think, when it comes down to it. Why even ask anything of me, other than to waste my time.
I haven't seen a plot railroaded this badly, ever since Fallout 4 let you carelessly blow up the world for twenty hours, before making you suddenly deliriously emotional about your child that hadn't been mentioned more than once. Fallout 4 wasn't the franchise we were used to, just like Three Houses, but the evolution of it was enjoyable, until it stopped giving a fuck. Just like Fallout 4, there's a better game in here than the new Fire Emblem ends up being. The monastery is just like the settlements that you have to foster. The tactical combat of both is undermined by more popular, emerging game systems. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Fallout 4; a divisive mess that will alienate a lot of older fans and will make others dig their heels in.
As I recruit more students and therefore have to sit through even more talks, I've started doing daily tasks around the house while they yap. I have to touch the controller, like all the time, but it's nothing more than a check, to see if I'm still there. Compelling. On the combat side, as your students get more involved, a huge rift grows between them. Anyone who is on a flying creature straightup obliterates the enemy. If you give that character a bow, it will even demolish archers, which are supposed to be a direct counter. As such, anyone not on a flier just can't keep up, especially when terrain gets harder to navigate. Anything with range scales twice as much, so I have to go out of my way to not super murder everything, just so a grounded unit can painstakingly kill some fodder. Admittedly, I'm playing on Casual so that I don't lose units, but that has only happened twice in the beginning. It also doesn't change the fact that ranged units trump everyone else. The game is stupidly easy once a few missions have passed; I barely pay attention anymore. It's almost like they just want you to get back to the dating sim part.
I still think there's a great game in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but the honeymoon phase has crashed and burned. Some characters still make my heart flutter when they appear, I do want to stress that. That's why I'll keep playing. Some of the writing is endearing and will land for you, no matter what kind of person you like in your anime bullshit. Then again, I also am forced to invite people to tea parties, just so I can raise my charm that I need to recruit others. It's clear that the priority for this franchise has shifted away. Where it was once a plot-driven tactics game, it is now a dating sim with some combat systems. Right on queue for me to fall out of love, they've announced a new Fire Emblem, subtitled Engage. Subtle. It looks like they've made it even more anime than before. I'm sure someone will like that, but for me the hype is dead.
Long live Fire Emblem.