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Why Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my game of the year

There is no multiplayer in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but it certainly lends itself to being social. I have a running text thread with two friends about the game, and I have a couple more I message. Nicole and Christina send me Three Houses tweets and memes. Sarah chronicles her playthrough on the game’s toughest difficulty setting, “maddening,” which is proving appropriately named. Andrew has advice about “min/maxing” characters, though I haven’t had the heart to tell him I have no idea what that means. Basically, I’ve been talking about Fire Emblem for the better part of the year.

Three Houses is a rare feat in that it’s a legacy franchise that seems to have satisfied the longtime players and also welcomed a new audience to the series. (I’m somewhere in between, having played one and a half of the Fire Emblem games on 3DS.) How developers Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo pulled that off has mostly to do with making an excellent game with an overwhelming number of entry points. Maybe you like an RPG with a sophisticated leveling system to fiddle with. Maybe you like a near-perfect loop of tense tactical combat and relaxed moseying between battles. Or maybe you just like the Hogwarts vibes of Three Houses’ high school drama.

It helps that, generally, the writing across the game is consistently strong, often weird, and even funny. The sweeping fantasy plot is serviceable in broad strokes, but it’s the many hours of dialogue here that do most of the work. Throughout the game, you’ll have support conversations with your classmates, and they’ll talk to each other. The whole thing feels rich and lively; each student has their own motives and anxieties and petty feuds.

Plus, the game incentivizes you to get to know these characters. The more you talk to, have dinner with, or leer at (eye-roll) them, the stronger they become in battle. Want to get to know the reluctant alliance prince? Go for it. A mage who loves to cook? An agoraphobic archer? A samurai with daddy issues? Why not. A chaotically horny professor? You do you.

The older Fire Emblem games were famous for permadeath, which is the video game term for, uh, death. When a unit dies in a battle, they’re gone for good. What Three Houses does to up the stakes is make all of your units feel like actual characters with personalities and backstories. That means if they get offed in a skirmish, you might actually miss them. (It also lowers those stakes a bit by allowing you to rewind your turns in battle.)

This brings me to Three Houses’ greatest weakness: its combat. In some ways, fighting is more accessible than in previous Fire Emblem games, but it’s also less sophisticated. Even on “hard,” the battles are pretty straightforward. Plus, there’s very little variation in missions or maps. You seemingly rout the same bandits over and over across a series of familiar forests, beaches, and deserts. The presence of oversized monsters is a fun challenge, but even they become rote after you slay your dozenth beast.

A couple of months before Three Houses was released, I was playing another excellent strategy game on the Nintendo Switch called Wargroove, a title clearly inspired by, among other things, the Fire Emblem series. Complete with throwback pixel art and a cast of cheery, kind-of anime characters, Wargroove focuses almost all of your attention on the battles. It has a more consistent, rigid approach to combat, with fewer dimensions, forcing you to be more deliberate with your positioning and attacks. Basically, Wargroove is harder. (In fact, it’s so hard that developer Chucklefish Games released a patch to make the campaign easier.)

Yet, even as I complain about the new Fire Emblem being a bit too easy and too forgiving on the battle front, it’s the game I keep returning to. It’s more likely that I’ll go for a third playthrough of Three Houses before returning to Wargroove. In its nearly 20th iteration, Fire Emblem, a series built on a reputation for its punishing combat, has become a funny thing: a game more concerned with loving than fighting.

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