What’s Right and Wrong With Fire Emblem: Three Houses?

Gather round, students, and have a seat. I will be your instructor this day, C3, and today’s lesson will center on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a game about a rube who gets recruited to a teaching position at a prestigious military academy but gets caught in the flare-up of a country-wide conflict. We’ll be covering four main areas of the title, gameplay, animation, and story, in that order, on what it did right, what it did wrong, and opportunities it skipped out on, with subsections going into specifics. Hope you’re all well rested and have your steaming cup of Joe on hand, because this lesson’ll be a real doozy.

Synopsis

You play as Byleth, a (wo)man who spends his/her days apathetically cutting down bandits and thieves and also happens to have a sassy loli with the power to manipulate time living inside him/her. One day, you have an incidental run-in with the foot soldiers of the Church of Seiros, the dominant religion and institution in the country, and they bring you and your pops back to their headquarters, the Garreg Mach Monastery, where you’re given a job teaching brats on the spot.

Gameplay

Characters & Interactions

If you’re familiar with Fire Emblem: Fates, the main gimmick of Fire Emblem: Four Houses won’t be from Alpha Centuri. Near the start of the game, you’re given the choice between deciding which class, or House, you’ll be teaching, and that determines your route for the latter half of the game (more on that later). Unless you block out time to vigorously study the game’s 24 students before you ever insert the cartridge into your Switch, it can be daunting which of the three classes you want to head. You are given a moment to briefly learn about each individual student, but again, unless you do your homework before you’re assigning homework, you’ll probably end up choosing your class based on who has the most attractive students.

Coming off of Fates, Six Houses‘s prologue is an absolute snooze fest. In the dual 3DS games, you learn how you were born to one family but raised by their enemies, you fight with and against both factions, you find out you’re part dragon, and then the prologue concludes with the heartrending choice of which family you’re going to make your sworn enemy. The pivotal choice is kinda botched, since it’s based on which cartridge you have in, but the sentiment is present. In Nine Houses, you fight one battle, talk to some people, talk to some more people, then three Pokéballs are laid out, and you get to pick who’s your ace in tough battles. The brevity of the prologue works to the game’s advantage (more on this later, too), but when you’re booting up your first save file, it’s all too mundane to make the changes to Byleth’s life seem consequential.

Byleth's Fortune

Ever been three dozen hours deep into an RPG and one play session set aside fifteen minutes to optimize your party’s equipment, spells, and all that jazz, and by the time you exit the menu, your spouse has marathoned the first season of Gravity Falls? Fifteen Houses makes this temporal phenomenon into an entire mechanic. Byleth’s new job title is Professor, but you’re actually the manager in charge of stats. Once an in-game week, you’re allotted a day to tweak your students’ builds to your liking, with the end goal of perfecting their class. Byleth might be a military expert, but since you yourself might not know the logistical difference between the classes with horses and the classes with flying horses, it can feel like the game’s tasked you with deciding a teenager’s entire career when you can’t even discern their favorite variety of apple. However, this is where one of Eighteen Houses‘s greatest strengths begins flexing its biceps, in how it guides the player so that they grasp its many features.

Maybe I’m still a bit jaded at Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s tutorials, which are the equivalent of hiring a theoretical physicist to teach string theory to preschoolers, but the care and detail put into Thirty-One Houses‘s tutorials blew my juvenile mind. Opting a given classmate into one of the game’s buttload of classes can be even more crippling of a choice than the three for the prologue, but the game does an amazing job at steering the player toward which classes each student should work toward. Sometimes, they’ll come up to your desk and straight up tell you they’re gonna be a mage, dammit, which is on-the-nose, but I’ll take my breaks where I can get them. A subtle method for leading the player toward their ultimate class is the Budding Talent. Some students are really swell at archery or horseback riding or wearing armor, and if you hone those skills, they unlock special abilities, which is great, but if you pay close attention, the lot of those skills are required for unlocking late-game classes, and those specific skills aren’t what you would invest your time into upgrading. It’s a brilliant method for nudging the player in the right direction without slapping them in the cheek to align their face where you want them looking. I do have to note how it isn’t perfect, simply for a handful of students who have hidden talents that are entirely random. One magic-user has a secret knack for the sword, apparently, but it’s also a skill the game actively shouts “She is bad at this” for, and her physical attack is so pathetic that arming her with a sword is like passing her a soggy stick pulled from a pond.

There’s more to teaching than grooming your students into weapons for war. There’s also showering them with gifts and drinking tea with them. As has become a series staple since Awakening, you’re able to build rapport with your brothers and sisters in arms, and if you drink enough tea, one of them might be inclined to offer their hand in marriage. Tying the knot is nerfed, though, because you don’t go confessing your love until the epilogue, which is a mild downer, since I enjoyed whipping ass with my beloved, and also because my best units were our kids. But it’s probably best that Fifty-Four Houses doesn’t include offspring, since they only make sense in the context of Awakening, and Fates has to torture its worldbuilding to justify child soldiers.

Fates Children

But while Byleth develops relationships with his/her students from the standpoint of the mechanics, for the player, they’re just taking a multiple-choice quiz. Two underutilized means for fleshing out a personality are listing likes and dislikes and answering what they do in their spare time. Sixty-Seven Houses goes into all this detail but does so in a backwards manner. The early game has this lost-and-found mechanic where you find random possessions on the ground and get a vague hint as to who it belongs to. This is supposed to teach you that this boy is a painter or that girl likes singing, and sometimes it’s fairly obvious what belongs to whom. Find a button with a memo that it belongs to some bloke with giant bulging muscles, find the one bloke whose physique is racking the threading of his shirt. Easy. Not so easy is when your hint is a snippet of information locked behind a conversation you won’t unlock until later. One misplaced chattel I found belonged to someone who enjoyed gardening. I didn’t have the slightest clue who that was, so I asked the most likely candidates, and it didn’t belong to them, so I asked random people, and they didn’t claim it, either. I pored over the profiles of individual students for their likes and dislikes—which is its own problem, since referencing notecards isn’t the most organic tool to learn about a person—but none of them mentioned gardening. Finally, I gave up and looked up who the owner was, and turned out it was the big stoic guy whose only lines to you are “Don’t talk to me.”

I enjoyed playing detective and tracking down an item’s owner, because it made me feel like a great listener, but to avoid those moments when it was needlessly cryptic, it would’ve been more effective when paired with a surefire means of learning about an individual. Tea Time, as it stands, is playing Sherlock but of a different moniker. You do learn about a student or faculty member, but it’s a guessing game on whether they would rather talk about the guards on shift, library books, or cats, and if you guess wrong, they get pouty, but it’s not a proper conversation. You guess an item, then you guess a second item, then you guess a third item, and then they say say something, and you’re supposed to react in a very specific manner, with no hint or suggestion as to how you’re supposed to react, or they get pouty-faced again, and then that’s it. You can give them gifts or stare at their chest until they declare the necessity of training, but otherwise, you then bugger off to go fishing. All in all, it’s nothing but a mini-game installed to increase an invisible rapport gauge.

When the game introduced Tea Time, I thought I’d be having full-on conversations with my students, getting them to open their hearts, reveal their weaknesses, confide in me, share their dreams, and they would ask me questions in turn, and then silent protagonist Byleth would have some actual lines and personality. Support Conversations accomplish all of this, but that’s the game dictating your shipping route, so I didn’t feel that I had earned the right to hear a student open up about her abusive father. Had I been given the chance to navigate a field of topics to find out what she’s like, what she likes, where she’s been, and where she’s going, and she dropped that bombshell of a topic on me, I would feel like I had gained her trust and threaded us that much closer. I would be sewing an actual connection with her rather than being passively charmed at watching an anime character.

Since we’re on the topic of relationships, here’re two grains of relationship-building advice for you: if you want people to like you, agree with everything they say, and tell them what they want to hear. Some will call you a mindless drone, but the person you’re agreeing with will call you their new best friend. Sixty-Eight Houses makes these two items of advice its entire philosophy on making friends. It plays out fine if your goal is to befriend everybody, but it extracts any individuality from Byleth, transforming him/her into a yes-(wo)man. What’s worse is that you’re a teacher. Your job is to teach. That means offering your students new nuggets of wisdom and challenging them on their preconceived notions. Byleth has no duty telling a noble that his pompous attitude is too good for the lowly commoner.

Combat

This is the side of Seventy Houses that gleams because of how polished it is. It’s you and your band of merry troops versus armies sprawled across the entirety of the map. It can be daunting loading in and seeing that you’ve got 11 guys and girls going up against an army that has anywhere from 30-50 dudes, but that’s how the game makes you feel like a tactical mastermind. Battles are fought piecemeal, ebbing away at the enemy’s ranks while keeping yours up to snuff, and when you break through their lines and make it to the commander camping out at the rear with all of your soldiers still in one piece, you brag about what a 210 IQ general you are.

That was a bragging right I hadn’t earned in the 3DS Fire Emblem titles due to me abusing the tactic of saving mid-battle and reloading my save file to cheese fights, but Eighty-Six Houses must’ve had flies on the wall, because it turned that exact cheat into a mechanic. Each battle, you start off with a limited number of rewinds, allowing you to replay moves, entire turns, or even entire matches so long as you have a charge available. The cap on its per-battle use might seem constricting, but it enhanced my experience. I put more stock into every move and didn’t immediately jump to rewinding time because a turn didn’t play out to precise perfection. I finished battles feeling like I had turned the tap on full for my brain and not like I had just kept rerolling dice until they came up all sixes. It also taught me I have the unique talent of being able to play flawlessly once I ran out of charges.

Acheron's Last Words

Also new to Ninety-Nine Houses are two methods for slaying: Gambits and Combat Arts. If I am to describe Gambits in a silly manner, they’re cheerleading squads attached to individual units who either provide moral support to allies or dogpile on masses of enemies. Some of them come with useful effects, such as increasing the number of blocks allies can move or poisoning a wave of baddies, but for the most part, I found their uses situational and most of the time forgot I even had them equipped. It was largely the same for Combat Arts. For the cost of a weapon’s durability, you can thrust a powerful attack at an enemy, but the usefulness of these falls off after the early hours of the game, when your armory is packed with the weaker iron and steel weapons. And like with the Gambits, I employed them situationally and found more use in the supportive Combat Arts, like being able to reposition an ally from one tile to another.

I am glad Combat Arts and Gambits made it into the game, since those situational uses saved my butt numerous times, but something else I wish was included was more battle objectives than “kill all dudes” or “kill the dudes’ boss.” Call me a psychopath, but I never tired out slaughtering entire armies and leaving no man, woman, or flying horse alive, though that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have enjoyed a refresher from my genocidal proclivities. One side quest does task you with defending a VIP for ten turns, but you can finish up by murdering everybody before then, which I did, since that was what I had been trained to do. The one and only exception comes from a DLC quest (more on DLC later) which has you escaping a murderous rage machine that’s so fixated on your death that it teleports around a subterranean passageway just for the chance at skewering your party. When the game up until then makes a military god of you, it’s downright frightening when it drops an impossible-to-defeat machine twitching to count your bodies on its fingers, and it’s the most memorable chapter from the DLC for it.

Not every other battle needs to feature a death-defying escape from the monster of the chapter, but I would’ve liked a little variety to spice things up. Fates features a game mode where you have to defend your base against waves of baddies, and Conquest is fond of having you march up to enemy territory and plant your flag in it. The best resuscitation One Hundred Three Houses can think up is covering maps with fog so that you can’t see a damn thing. Actually, I didn’t dislike map-covered fogs. There was a certain anxious thrill I got from being robbed of my dominant sense. Where usually I had a god’s eye view of the battlefield and could execute an exacting machination, I felt more like, well, like I was commanding an actual war. I didn’t have an exact clue of where the enemy lurked or what they even were. All I knew was that they were out there somewhere and if I got too careless, my day would go very bad very quickly.

Maybe it was the way they were designed or because I was just a crappy 3DS Fire Emblem player, but I was much more satisfied at my battle prowess in One Hundred Forty-Six Houses. In the handheld titles, I fought extremely conservatively, using my tanks as lures to draw baddies over and then gangbanging them, but Two Hundred Houses has this indicator telegraphing who enemies are planning to attack, how much damage they’ll do, and their accuracy, so I was able to make more informed decisions and play aggressively as I wanted rather than pussyfooting around the battlefield. Tremendously handy as that tip-off is, it does provide a foresight that lets me worm my way around the enemy’s formation and seize the day, making the game feel too easy most of the time. Even on my second full playthrough, with the difficulty dialed up to Hard, I was still steamrolling over enemy lines with barely a first thought and thusly craving a challenge, which led me to discovering that this game’s difficulties are out of whack.

You’ve got the standard Normal, Hard is slightly more difficult than that, and Maddening is like a professional boxer uppercutting your diaphragm with brass knuckles. It floored me, the difficulty spike from Hard to Maddening. My second playthrough had me yawning, but then my run on Maddening held me up on the very first battle. I said I wanted my wits tested, but it felt like the game, insulted, had snapped and pulled out a spanking paddle that exploded on contact.

The chief root for the difficulty spike is the level difference, with enemies averaging seven levels higher, but I found you could mitigate the contrast by grinding on free-time skirmishes, particularly on New Game+. But even as I clawed my way through ranks and ranks of entrenched troops, I couldn’t shake my distress at my troops’ quality. Students who were supposedly gods among warriors were fighting like their arms were butter, and it wasn’t as though I had skimped on pumping their veins with stat-enhancing steroids. No, just turned out that whatever I was giving my men and women, the game was giving AI stuff that was ten times more potent. I gave myself pats on the back for overcoming the plainly unfair setups laid out before me, but I think the game can stand to have an in-between difficulty, to not make the leap from Hard to Maddening a Grand Canyon rocket jump. It also can stand to not be so spiteful with changing the difficulty. While I got by just fine on Maddening, there were instances where a distinct battle was giving me more trouble than it was worth, so I considered dropping the difficulty down so that the next hour of my life wasn’t spent raging at my flat screen. But if you lower the difficulty at any point, Three Hundred Houses won’t let you return it to where it was. Why do games do this? It’s demoralizing enough needing to lean on a crutch just to make it to the next stage. I don’t need the game patronizing me by patting me on the head and telling me it won’t let any more big, bad, scary monsters hurt me any longer. This is how I learned the namesake for Maddening. Not because its extreme challenges will drive a player to madness, but because it’s maddening how embarrassingly easy Hard is in comparison.

Animation

Back in my high school, the debate among classmates was which was more important: graphics or gameplay. The answer’s gameplay, obviously, but it’s also a non-equivalence. That’s like arguing over what’s more important: your car’s transmission or the paint job. I don’t put much stock into the graphical fidelity of a game, and don’t think I don’t appreciate breathtaking or artistic aesthetics, but the experience of my gaming session is ranked based on how well-tuned the gameplay is, not how many polygons make up a blade of grass. But when it comes to the cutscene animation in Three Hundred Eighty-Four Houses‘s cutscenes, I have to ask what the hell went wrong.

Like the lot of Japanese games, most of Five-Hundred Houses‘s story is expressed through dialogues, with the punchier moments manifested in pre-rendered cutscenes. But actually watch Five-Hundred Two Houses‘s cutscenes and you won’t feel a single joule of punch. Models move like mannequins three years overdue for lubricant or will stand stock-still like they’re being faced down by Jurassic Park‘s t-rex. There’s very little life to the characters, who move only to convey the sequence of a scene and nothing more.

The thing that really gets me about Five-Hundred Fifty Houses‘s cutscene animation is how it’s twelve steps backwards from the 3DS title’s cutscenes. The striking contrast in quality is perfectly encapsulated in their dance scenes.

Three Houses Dance Gif

Now, compare that to Fates: Birthright:

Fates Dance Gif

At this point, you might be making the argument, “Of course Fates has the better-looking dance. That magical lady’s splashing water around, making it all whimsical and stuff,” and on the one hand, you’re right, and on the other hand, you have no imagination and no motivation to excel. Case in point, Echoes: Shadows of Valentia.

Echoes Dance Gif

Echoes lacks the masterful animation of Fates or Awakening, models being framey or their movements holding no authentic weight, but it still pulls off an enchanting waltz with just three ingredients: camera angles, camera movements, and dance choreography. The only magic is in the scene direction.

Though that’s arguing an imaginary opponent over sending someone to the emergency room because they have a cough and a headache. The Switch title doesn’t need to mimic the dramatic flair of Echoes‘s waltz. Just some decent motion on the dancers and actual motion on the wallflowers so that the ballroom isn’t filled with prototype androids struggling to replicate human balance.

Story

Part I

If combat is where Six Hundred Sixty-Two Houses is the shiniest, the story is where it’s covered in dirt and rust stains. It’s split into two parts: your days teaching at the Monastery and—spoilers—a five-year time skip during a civil war. By that description, it sounds like the two halves would juxtapose one another, like Byleth was living out his/her peaceful existence when one day an atomic bomb was dropped on the country, but there’s a fair amount of gritty trouble peppered in, so much so that Byleth can come off as a charm for inviting bad dudes to do bad things. You’ve got bandits you have to rout, peasant lords inciting rebellions, an organization of ghouls turning villagers into rampaging zombies, a dude in armor who kidnaps little girls, another dude in armor who sneers at the ghouls, and all of this on top of your dad’s warnings to not trust the head honcho of the Monastery. It’s pretty intense with its countless mysteries and stirring of a storm, so it primes you good and ready for when everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Part I does have one glaring flaw, and it’s a curious flaw, because it comes about strictly because of Six Hundred Seventy-Seven House‘s main gimmick, that being that if you want to see all three routes, you have to fight the same battles and watch the sameish cutscenes three times over. The head honcho tells you at the start of your teaching gig that each House has to complete one mission each month, so I thought your missions would vary each playthrough, but no, she just stacks all the hard labor on Byleth. This made repeat playthroughs a fierce test in endurance where I had to train myself to get through the weeks of battling and teaching as fast as possible so that I didn’t drop the game out of boredom. Bumping up the difficulty and having new squads of students to train and command mitigated the tedium by only the slimmest margin.

What makes Part I even more frustrating on repeat playthroughs is that because much of it is tutorial, you have to rinse and repeat all of them. They’re well-designed and don’t take up too much of your time, but when you’re handed the reins to walk around the Monastery, you get the same prompt explaining how to walk and control the camera in New Game+ that you get in a brand-new save file. Even when I’m 160 hours deep into the final route, the loading screen’s explaining how to use healing items, which is doubly irritating, because that textual real estate could’ve gone to sharing the library’s worth of lore on the setting’s history and politics à la Skyrim rather than going to waste because I didn’t understand any of it on my first playthrough and didn’t have the tiniest inkling of patience to reread it on my third playthrough.

The obvious solution to eliminating the monotony on repeat playthroughs is to determine missions based on which House you’re educating, as I thought would be the case. One House handles a bandit uprising while another has to keep hungry wolves away from a Shepherdess’s sheep. But methinks we can do better.

The narrative has it that Byleth teaches military tactics at a military academy, but something s/he spends very little time doing is teaching actual military tactics. Fire Emblem isn’t designed for you to employ legit battlefield tactics like the hammer and anvil, but it, like any other game, has its own set of tips and tricks it could educate the player on, prepping them for the tough battles ahead, especially if you’re aiming to sink yourself into Maddening. What you learn would change with each House, too. In one, you learn hit & run tactics of cavalry and flying units, another teaches you the overwhelming firepower of magic, and the third has you emphasizing critical hits over brutish strength, as examples. Tea Time could’ve been in on the learning, with students approaching you for help with homework, and you go through a brief lesson on what the Luck stat does. Part I would remain one extended tutorial, but it would constantly teach the player new things they might not have figured out on their own.

Part I did enamor me my first playthrough with its mystery and intrigue, but it cheats in order to obtain those attributes. The ghoul organization you dedicate a fair number of months to countering only exists to provide a bad guy to fight so that the story has wheels to roll on. After the scat show starts, the game locks that bunch in a crypt and pulls a switcheroo on who the big bad baddie is. I spent my post-skip time wondering whatever happened to those ghoulish cretins who liked experimenting on cute girls and trapping Byleth in inescapable voids.

The game is even less clueless with its seasonal forays. At the start of each month, the screen splashes a colorful woodcut illustration of the activities and chores of the country’s citizenry, but it’s only once or twice the events they describe directly correlate to what you do. The rest of the time, they’re thrown up for mood-setting, then hurled into a fireplace. One month describes women weaving garlands for friends or lovers, which sounds like Seven Hundred Forty-Nine Houses‘s Valentine’s Day, but you never see any of the students get in a tizzy over confessing their love. I also can’t represent how immeasurable my disappointment was when the winter months came, were advertised for their snowiness, and then the Monastery was dry as a bone.

Elating as Part I is on a first playthrough, with its midday antagonist swap, it feels like the story was making stuff up until it was ready for the big bad reveal, which is why I think it would’ve been better off scrubbing the ghouls out the plot and focusing on the halcyon academy days of the staff and students. Imagine how much more jaw-dropping it would’ve been if yesterday you were singing choir with your students and today the final boss shows up to set fire to the entire country.

Part II

Though I could call Part I fun on a first playthrough, I can’t say the same for Part II. Most of that comes from its continued use of bullying small-time bandit bands and micromanaging your students’ skills, which all sounds fine and dandy, but by that point in the game, you’ve largely gotten your party members to where you want them to be, and any unfinished business is grinding that last skill or two you need to upgrade to their final class. You still have all the time in the world to do what you need done, but there’re no lost items to find, hardly anyone to talk to, and fleeting reasons to buff up your own stats. Exploring the Monastery for the first time after awakening to war is a haunting experience: the sobering music, the many students gone from the grounds, walls torn down from previous assaults. Too bad that awe turns to boredom once you realize there’s nothing to do. Graciously, you do have the option of skipping downtime and plunging straight into the next major battle, but I don’t proclaim it the standard of good design when there’s a button to disregard regular features because the game couldn’t be arsed to install new or interesting content.

As the title Eight Hundred Houses suggests, the game has three routes, though one of those splits into a fourth route about midway through. That makes for a meaty game that’ll give you your money’s worth and then some in content, but that’s what’s written on the back of the box. In actuality, there’s only two routes: one where you side with the big bad baddie and one where you oppose the big bag baddie.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say the opposition route is three carbon copies with different coats of paint. The major differences are your troops and two chapters. Every other battle has you fighting the same armies for the same story objectives, which only exasperates the boredom Part I was no help in alleviating. If Eight Hundred Eighty-Eight Houses only had the resources and wherewithal to script two unique routes, fine. You won’t find me complaining about Fates 2.0. But don’t tell me I’ve got all this extensive content to keep me starry-eyed, only to find out I’ve been playing the same story three times over.

The story of Part II doesn’t fare much better. Aside from it largely forgetting about the ghouls—the one route makes an epilogue cliff note that your army put them on stakes after the war—the narrative doesn’t have the common courtesy to answer the player’s questions or confirm their suspicions on the mysteries from Part I, and there was a lot put on the table in some fashion or another. Just one example is this brother-sister pair who, if you listen in on their conversations with the students, appear to be more than an older bro overprotective of his little sis. The brother confirms as much on one of the carbon copy routes, when he admits they’re “Children of the Goddess,” but then stops right there like you’ve heard of Children of the Goddess and know exactly what that means. It was so unbelievably frustrating for the game to finally acknowledge the question that had been on my lips 2/3s of my playthrough and then bow out after handing me an encrypted telegram in Latin. I understand the game disperses information to entice the player into completing the other routes and not because it gets its strokes on edging others, but with its penchant for making the player sit through the same content multiple times, I have to scoff at its arbitrary consideration for this one area.

This is likely yet another side effect of replaying the same story several times over, but I found the plotline of the war to be so straightforward as to be dull. For the many great messages that can be and have been expressed in media, there’s scarcely more than battle strategies and post-war plans. One House leader is cunning as a weasel and slippery like a snake, so I was expecting some gray morality out of him when he heads the war effort, like dirty tactics or manipulating allies, but, no, he’s nothing more than a specific carbon copy’s pretty boy mascot. The only interesting war story, in my humble opinion, is if you side with the big bad baddie. That’s where you get your healthy dose of gray morality, with the House leader inciting a war in the name of equity, but when you combine their reasoning with the confessions of how the status quo has negatively impacted a number of other students, you get to thinking that maybe you’re on the right side of history.

Also, one last thing I have to point out, because it’ll drive me crazy if I don’t: inconsistencies. On the carbon copy routes, the big bad baddies have laid claim to most of the country, but if you side with them, they haven’t broken out of their own borders. It had me wondering what the hell went wrong that becoming their teacher made them an incompetent general. You’d think the opposite would be the case. Same lack of cause for the final boss of two of the carbon copies. The penultimate chapters pit you against the same ghoul boss, with the same cutscene playing post-battle, but then who steps up to be the final boss depends on whether some sleepy fellow feels like waking up from his millennium-long siesta.

Cindered Shadows

Asked whether or not the Nine Hundred Nine Houses DLC is worth it, my answer is how much its one side story is worth to you.

Cindered Shadows tells of Byleth and a handful of his/her students discovering what appear to be thieves shifting through hidden passages beneath the Monastery. Turns out those thieves are students belonging to the Ashen Wolves House, a class reserved for outcast students, set in the Abyss, a crumbling settlement for outcast denizens. There’s a legend of four saints whose blood, when pooled in a mythic chalice, awakens an awesome power, and an unsightly bunch have their eyes set on, and the force standing between them are the students of the Monastery surface and the Ashen Wolves House.

Ashen Wolves House

Before picking this side story up, I caught a line noting how Cindered Shadows is more challenging than the main game, and there’s some credit to that claim. However, I found its battles more annoying than difficult. You have exactly one dedicated healer who has to manage the health of nine other units, seven if you disregard the two axe-wielders I scooted to the sidelines because they, for whatever reason, had the accuracy of tipplers wearing drunk goggles. Then there was a mission where I took my time systematically executing the platoon I was against. One bloke roasting marshmallows in the corner took me a while to off due to the comrades throwing themselves before him in sacrifice, so by the time I got to him, he was one of three dudes left. But the second I nipped him, the House leader cried out, “There’s too many of them! Summon kaiju to distract them!” I freaked, “What do you mean there’s too many of them?! We were almost done, and now I have to break out the muzzles and the pentobarbital because you’re programmed to not lose your mind until this one very specific enemy is killed!”

In between battles, you’ve given a fifteen to explore the Abyss, talk to your party and its residents, and get their thoughts on current events. The same ish as exploring the Monastery. Your list of activities is severely curtailed, however. You can’t dine with your students, can’t train with any teachers, can’t even upgrade your weapons. Stripping away most of the custombility was one of Torna – The Golden Country‘s sharpest sticking points, but in Cindered Shadows, it’s trimmed fat. You don’t have to mull over builds or stats for an eight-hour campaign. Just have your reprieve, then jump back into the fray. Cindered Shadows expedites itself so greatly, matter of fact, that as soon as you finish talking to everyone, the game goes, “Done chitchatting? Good. Now get outta here.”

Overall, the Cindered Shadows side story is what Part II should’ve been, with battles and story beats knocking into the next and the occasional break to finish rounding out your troops. The default party composition wasn’t to my liking, but it was also refreshing not being allowed to parade over the enemy as I had been, and its story was damn good as well, with charming characters, funny exchanges, twists to keep you guessing, and a few nods to the main campaign. It’s so good that it’s the one thing keeping the DLC from being a hard sell.

The Nine Hundred Thirty-Seven Houses Expansion Pass falls way short of the 3DS DLC, where you get epics of children fighting to avenge their parents or hilarious scenarios of your battalion visiting the beach, and fighting waves of the undead and pinching their oodles and oodles of cold, hard gold. If Cindered Shadows doesn’t tickle your fancy, then there’s nothing else worth your money in the Expansion Pass, unless you’re hardcore into maid uniforms.

Conclusion

The quality of One Thousand Houses depends on how much of it you’re willing to play. If you fight against the big bad baddie and then ally with them, you’ve seen just about everything the game has to offer, so there isn’t much point in pounding through the last two routes aside from seeing the minute differences and trying out different troops. Reviewers often grade a game on its replayability, yet One Thousand One Houses is a strange case of having a ton of replayability and yet none at all. When you limit what you play, the game’s fantastic, the highlight being story battles, which had the effect of sucking me in to where I would forget about the plate of food on my lap. But when you go for broke, the selling point of One Thousand Sixty-Nine Houses is like an Ouroborus, coiling in to bite its own tail, except instead of representing eternity, it’s just biting itself in the butt.

Three Houses Closer

One thought on “What’s Right and Wrong With Fire Emblem: Three Houses?

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