The drama comes quickly in “Fire Emblem: Three Houses,” the latest in Nintendo’s wonderfully weird, soap opera-worthy sword-and-sorcery fairy tale franchise.
A teacher introduces her medical practice by also noting that she’s single and ready to mingle. A student lays the groundwork for doubting that you’re truly your father’s daughter. An academic administrator says, “We try to avoid discrimination based on social status,” but, well, you know how the upper class can be, so get used to it.
And then there’s the professor who can’t borrow a book without returning it full of crumbs and grease stains.
Who has time for what may or may not be an oppressive religion, a tenuous peace agreement that threatens to send an empire into a war and a ghost-like creature who randomly appears to rewind time, a female specter who is keeping you alive even though she introduces herself by essentially saying she isn’t sure why she’s even bothering?
No wonder one of the first characters you encounter offers this warning: “Is your calendar clear? This will take awhile.”
Part “Game of Thrones” and part “Harry Potter,” with way more comically disastrous rom-com elements than either of them, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” can be a lot to manage. But it’s the best sort of overwhelming — a romance that’s also a high school drama that’s also an incredibly complex fantasy strategy game that also provides a sly dose of political commentary.
There’s no shortage, for instance, of members of the establishment who seem to like the way things are, which gives the game an underlying generational tension that mirrors our own political discourse. But regardless of age, the most likable characters in “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” are those with the idealistic belief things can get better, repeatedly reminding us that the old way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best way.
“Just because someone is special doesn’t mean their children are special too,” says one student. That’s for sure. “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” throws a major decision at players in its opening moments, asking the player to become a professor to one of three factions in a sort of warrior-magic boarding school for the chosen few. It’s not a series for the indecisive, unless you’re ready to replay it trying multiple choices and paths (hand raised!).
The similarities to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Potter series is impossible to miss, and it’s easy to spend more time in the first half of the game wandering the school — fishing, tending to horses, dining with students, playing matchmaker, offering lectures — than it is doing battle.
It’s not idle busywork, though. These conversations allow the player to recruit students from neighboring houses and learn who is an upper-crust, institutional brat and who truly wants to make a difference in the world.
With a core story that could take 80 hours or more and then two alternate paths that could add 160 hours if one wants to be a completist, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” is probably best devoured over the course of a few months, if not an entire year.
After all, when the last game in the series was released, 2016’s “Fire Emblem: Fates,” I was faced with a dilemma: catch up on “Game of Thrones,” start “Westworld” and explore a host of other appointment television, or play “Fire Emblem: Fates.” I went with the last, which made small talk at work events difficult, but I was far from alone. Nintendo has said “Fire Emblem” games regularly sell between 1 and 2 million copies and tend to appeal to those in their 20s and 30s. See? I clearly made the mature choice.
Having played about 30 hours of “Three Houses” since its release July 26, I’m resigned that, even when I “finish” it, I’ll have seen just a fraction of the characters, plot and romances. What continues to bring me back to the franchise, however, are the ways in which this genre mash-up probably shouldn’t work.
While the writing tends to be more corny than anything that’s winning Emmy Awards or book prizes, and characters are often drawn in broad strokes, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” still manages to develop into a rather thoughtful simulation of personality management and how we interact with one another — how people are shaped not just by their own experiences but those we surround ourselves with, sometimes by choice and sometimes by fate. And maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to trust or fall in love. A challenge perhaps, as “Three Hours” is more overtly amorous from its opening chapters than recent “Fire Emblem” games.
The game requires one to manage friendships and romance as much as battalions — we are better at our jobs if we form allegiances — and yet most everyone in the game is flawed in some way. I tend to be rather picky when it comes to picking a mate for my character. One can create a male or female avatar at the start and change the name from the given Byleth. While there are options for same-sex partnerships, know that pretty much everyone will flirt with everyone in the world of “Fire Emblem,” but their selfish interests won’t always align with yours.
This can be frustrating when one spends time to court another, but those who buy in to the game’s worldview may also find there are lessons to be learned here.
My creation, Kes, for instance, seems to have her eye on a music-loving magic user. The latter’s penchant for faith is a slight turn-off, but most of the characters, male or female, tend to be a little too flirtatiously aggressive, which is an even larger turn-off.
I avoided choosing the school with the well-known “skirt chaser,” not wanting to deal with his egotistical, over-confident masculinity — on my first day on the job he asked me to set him up — and then I proceeded to be disappointed that other characters in the game seem drawn to him. Meanwhile, I’ve spent plenty of time trying to get to know people who seem more interested in talking to animals or aren’t interested in leaving their dormitories, as I’m suspicious of anyone, in virtual and real worlds, who isn’t somewhat aloof.
But when playing successful matchmaker to others, I wonder if I’m doing my own character a disservice. When I overhear someone say they love “broody boys,” I wonder if they truly know what’s best for them. More times than not the answer is no, and “Three Houses” shows us the ways in which people can be mixed and matched to potentially become better than the sum of their parts, often in unexpected ways.
And yet I haven’t talked about how battles can unfold like chess matches and stretch for 30 minutes, 40 minutes or more, especially if you refuse, as I do, to let any of my team members die. There are weapons to buy, warriors to train and just when someone is becoming formidable with a sword, they tell you they want to ride a horse and use a lance instead, as if the entire oncoming war has time to wait for them to learn a whole new skill because they don’t think you’re that good of a teacher.
Maybe Kes is just going to go it alone.
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