I grew up on JRPGs and to this day, they’re still what one might call ‘my jam’. I refer to Final Fantasy VII as the game that made me a gamer and opened up the world of role-playing games to me. Until recently, there was one franchise that I’ve always heard of, but never actually picked up or had given a chance. There wasn’t any sort of real reason behind it. I wasn’t trying to give it a wide berth or stay away from it. There was always something else I was playing. That franchise is Fire Emblem and it’s perhaps just as storied as that of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Why I finally decided to give it a try? I’ve been starved for a good old fashioned JRPG lately and playing HD Remasters has only gotten me so far. There was a bit of hesitance though as a lot of JRPGs can be steeped in to much of the anime tropes and cliches. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend $60 on a game I might not even like. That’s a steep price point to run around a school and be bombarded with ‘Senpai’ left and right. I thought maybe I’d just wait for it to go on sale eventually and try it out, but then my girlfriend expressed interest in wanting to play it. That made it a lot easier to justify buying because if I didn’t like it, she’d still get plenty of time out of it.
I bought it the morning it released, played for about 20 minutes at work, another hour at home and handed it off to my girlfriend. Two hours after that I was downloading it on the Nintendo eShop and with over 40+ hours sank into two separate saves file I’m hooked. The reasoning for my sudden fixation with the game? Familiarity. I’ve played this game many times before.
The first thing I love about Fire Emblem: Three Houses that not many other games tend to do is the idea of the headquarters, or the Monastery in the case of Fire Emblem. It’s something I first remember being used in the Suikoden series, which arguably did it much better. You’d need a place for your rebellion or resistance to thrive, so you find some ruined castle or fortress and make it your own. In the Suikoden series everyone has their place in the castle and they move around from time to time and as you gather more and more people, you actually see your headquarters grow and transform. Fire Emblem: Three Houses doesn’t go quite that far, as everyone is already ‘there’ and while you don’t get to watch the monastery grow and change, more and more sections do unlock the further you get into the game.
The other aspect of Fire Emblem: Three Houses that reminds me of Suikoden is the large cast of playable characters. There are the Three Houses, of which each has eight characters and there are other ‘faculty’ members introduced throughout the game you can recruit as well. Suikoden still dwarfs that number in comparison to their 108 Stars of Destiny, but the point isn’t the number itself it’s that this many characters really makes the monastery come alive. The best part of the game is exploring the monastery on the first of each month to see how each individual characters story and personality is starting to develop and unfold.
The final comparison to Suikoden I’ll draw and this isn’t necessarily something Suikoden did first or even best, but still reminds me a lot of why I love the series, is the political intrigue. At least as far as I am in the game, there isn’t as much of a reliance or focus on other worldly evil or monsters. People and their greed are the issues being tackled, specifically in House Black Eagles the difference between the Nobles and Commoners and their goals are very interesting. The notion of Crests and the Heroes Relics are also very reminiscent of what the Runes represented in Suikoden.
The next aspect of Fire Emblem: Three Houses that really spoke to me and reminded me of another game is probably an obvious one for any long-time Final Fantasy fans and that’s Final Fantasy Tactics, but not just because of the turn-based grid style combat, tons of games have used that before and will continue to do so. Though, I will note that none of the ones I’ve played recently have felt as great as Final Fantasy Tactics and Three Houses does. The biggest and best comparison of the two is the class system and this can even go as far as another tactics style game I loved from the 90s, Vandal Hearts. Every character starts out as just a Noble or a Commoner, but as you level opens up beginner classes, intermediate classes, advanced, master ect. Depending on the skills you train in and excel at, you can specialize in such a wide array of classes from the usual Thief, Warrior, Archer or Mage that you’d come to expect from a fantasy game, to such things like a Wyvern Master, Pegasus Rider or Dark Bishop. In fact, the Dark Bishop is a class you can only train in if you can meet very specific, missable requirements — the same goes for the Dancer class, which you can only possibly get one of per playthrough. This type of mechanic makes every decision seem personal for the character and helps to make every character feel different even beyond the fact that they all have their own unique personal backstories.
Staying on the Final Fantasy topic for a bit longer, the other big Final Fantasy vibe I got didn’t come until maybe 15 or 20 hours into the game. As mentioned before, there’s a lot of focus on politics and religion in the game. Despite being a fantasy game with magic, flying horses and wyverns it still feels somewhat grounded in reality. So, it was a great surprise and a huge WTF moment when what seemed like a simple throw-away boss ended transforming into a terrifying, monstrous beast, without giving away too much in the spoiler department, it had a very authentic Final Fantasy feel to it.
The last aspect of the game that I really love and I realize that this isn’t anything new to Fire Emblem is the relationships you create with the characters in the monastery. At face value, I was never one to be drawn toward the ‘dating sim’ type of gameplay, despite the fact that the reason I love more RPGs is getting to know the characters. I’m also a huge sucker for that same reason when it comes to the golden age of Bioware games. However, it wasn’t until Persona 5 that I really admitted and let myself relish in the fact that I like getting to know these characters in a social setting outside of battle. Everything from giving them gifts to returning lost items, to wondering if I’m pairing the right people together or not. A lot of the times I’d rather be exploring the monastery than actually out fighting anything.
The biggest takeaway I have so far playing through Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that I know what I like in a game. I don’t need a developer to try and innovate for the sake of innovation or to find the next big thing. More and more I’ve started to realize that all the games I’ve been loving in recent times have been games that take old concepts and improve on them. Fire Emblem knows it’s audience and apparently it knows me and exactly what I want. I don’t think it’s going to get me to go back and play any of the older games, but I can promise you one thing about the next Fire Emblem title that comes out…I’ll probably have to buy two copies so I don’t have to share with my girlfriend.
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