When it comes to the world of entertainment, school is cool. Nothing grabs an audience quite like a story in a school setting. Whether it’s Harry Potter in the world of novels, My Hero Academia in anime, or the X-Men in comic books, there’s something about school that draws audiences to a franchise. Perhaps it is because school is an experience that is nearly universal, something shared by countless people regardless of their unique perception of what it was like. Or perhaps a building stuffed full of highly stressed, rebellious individuals who are trying to find their identity in a world where they have little power gives more opportunities for dramatic storytelling. Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that the choice to focus a story around school can be a safe one. Despite this, it initially seems like an odd fit for the world of Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem is a tactical RPG series that has historically focused on the political pressure between kingdoms. Generally a hostile kingdom tramples a peaceful one in search of some ancient, protected artifact that can be turned towards nefarious purposes. Your character, while perhaps young and inexperienced, is still very much expected to fill an adult role in society. You charge directly into war and your orders cause people to live and die on the battlefield. In between these massive political conflicts with god-level powers and artifacts at play, characters can take the time to converse briefly about their feelings and histories. But for the most part Fire Emblem is war, and the idea of focusing on a school in the midst of that feels like a strange choice.
I’ve had some time since the Nintendo Direct to mull over the reasons why a school might be the setting of choice. The more I think about it, the more I think it makes sense for a Fire Emblem game to move in this direction – and not just so they can appeal to a ‘hot for teacher’ fantasy with the shipping mechanics. To see why school is the ideal place for Fire Emblem Three Houses, I want to first look at what sets Fire Emblem apart as a strategy RPG, then focus on the mechanisms in recent games that embrace that difference before finally discussing how placing the game in a school naturally expands on those mechanisms.
WHAT MAKES FIRE EMBLEM SPECIAL?
While the tactical RPG genre may not be overflowing with titles to check out, Fire Emblem certainly isn’t the only one out there. Heck, for awhile it wasn’t even the only one created by Intelligent Systems! Advance Wars (which until maybe two days ago I thought was called AdvanceD Wars) is the other strategy series that Intelligent Systems was known for, and it differs from Fire Emblem in a number of ways. There’s the obvious aesthetic difference of AW portraying modern warfare while FE focuses on medieval fantasy, of course, but the differences go much deeper than that.
In Fire Emblem, combat is focused on individual units. Each character on the battlefield (at least on your side) has a unique identity and personality that sets them apart from the rest of the party. This has become kind of a joke in the fandom; “wars” are battles between maybe thirty people in a field somewhere. Conversely, in Advance Wars each single unit on the battlefield is made up of a whole squad of soldiers fighting together. In Advance Wars it is normal to see soldiers die as you get attacked, and it is a simple matter to replace those soldiers by placing a unit on a building you control and allowing the squad to slowly receive reinforcements (by the way, I owe much of my Advance Wars knowledge to the excellent In Third Person). Conversely, in Fire Emblem each unit has great value, and since death is permanent unless you reset the game and start the battle over, the loss of a unit is truly impactful. Because you can’t just pump out reinforcements like in Advance Wars, in Fire Emblem you are given a mechanical incentive to care about and protect the soldiers on your team.
I started my tactical RPG journey with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (which also apparently does not have a D?! What the heck!), which is different from Fire Emblem in different ways than Advance Wars. They share the focus on a small party of units – in fact, Final Fantasy has even fewer on the battlefield at one time. As a tactical RPG FF has a bigger focus on unit positioning in tricky conditions involving different elevations or terrain that provides cover or natural barriers. It also had more unit customization, allowing you to switch any unit to any class you wanted within the confines of their race. Story characters like Marche and Monteblanc could spend time in the spotlight having their backstories and personalities expanded upon, but for the most part each unit in your team was a highly customizable blank slate who could easily be switched out for another character at any time with only a mechanical difference to show for it.
Comparing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to the Fire Emblem that was released around the same time, the GBA title simply called Fire Emblem, it’s easy to see how from a mechanical perspective the former could be seen as superior. You have a lot more class options and those options give you plenty of customization – conversely, Fire Emblem only gives you the choice in which class your units promote to, and even then not for everybody. The battlefields have more complicated terrain and your abilities interact with that terrain in interesting ways – Fire Emblem has two dudes swinging weapons at each other on a flat plane. Final Fantasy has a detailed weapon system that teaches new moves to the characters who equip them based on their class, and a variety of skill types from passive to active to reactive. Fire Emblem only gives skills to certain classes, and other than improving statistically very little changes about your character from level to level.
Over the years Fire Emblem has fixed a lot of these mechanical weaknesses, but at the time it still managed to stick around. Why is that? What is it about the Fire Emblem franchise that kept it relevant when competing against other RPG systems with more complex mechanisms? If you’ve played one, you likely know the answer already. The essence of Fire Emblem lies in its characters, these precious units that you come to love because they can be taken away from you at any time. Units in Advance Wars are nameless and faceless. Characters in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance move with you from fight to fight but are essentially just skins for a set of stats and skills. In Fire Emblem, every character has a story to tell and it’s impossible to hear all of them in one sitting – you have to keep coming back again and again, trying new combinations to learn everything that you can about each individual.
When I played Path of Radiance for the first time and became introduced to the Fire Emblem series, it wasn’t the weapon triangle that drew me in. It wasn’t the class promotions or the skill scrolls that led me to replay the game immediately after finishing it for the first time. I wanted to know the stories of the characters I didn’t get to spend enough time with yet. I loved seeing Lethe and Ike explore their racial tension in their supports and wanted to see if their were more relationships with that depth and complexity. It took second, third, and fourth playthroughs for me to have meaningful interactions with characters like Soren, Zihark, and Nephenee that later became favorites for me. Fire Emblem is about its characters, and those characters are what made that series click with me more than any other tactical RPG I played at that time.
HOW DO THE MECHANISMS IN MODERN FIRE EMBLEM TITLES EMPHASIZE THE CHARACTERS?
It’s a common story, I think, that Fire Emblem Awakening saved the franchise. It was the last chance for Intelligent Systems to create an FE game, as the popularity of the franchise was failing fast. In a desperate attempt to make the ultimate Fire Emblem experience with their final game, they put in every mechanism they’d ever come up with, combining them together in a single experience while also including some new tools as well. The game they created exploded in popularity and now the franchise is bigger than it has ever been – it all started with the decision to put their all into the series. In my view, what makes Awakening a great experience is that the way they combined old mechanisms – and the way they introduced new ones – further emphasizes the characters, which we have already established is the part of the series that makes it stand out from others.
Think back to our comparison to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
d. Square’s title was more effective at character development mechanically because you could choose classes for each of your characters as well as customizing their skills. Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon had added this feature to the FE series already, but Awakening did it better by combining it with the skill system from the Radiance games. Each class in Awakening learned two skills at specific levels (1 and 10 for base classes, 5 and 15 for promoted classes). This meant that changing classes didn’t just change your weapon proficiency and growth rates but also allowed you to unlock different skills. The ability to do this laterally meant that you could max out a base class and then move sideways to another base class, allowing your character to still gain experience rather quickly and learn skills faster before evolving into the stronger but slower-paced promoted classes.
Each character in Awakening has their “canon” class and then two other classes they can switch between. Because these class options are different for different characters, this means that each individual unit has different skill options and thus can be developed in different ways despite starting out very similar to each other. Take Miriel and Ricken, a pair of characters who both start out as mages. Miriel’s other class options are Dark Mage and Troubadour, other classes still focusing on magical ability that have skills associated with magic. Ricken on the other hand has Cavalier and Archer classes as his other options. This gives him access to a completely different set of skills than Miriel, such as the Great Knight’s Luna attack or the Sniper’s massive bonus to accuracy. In previous Fire Emblem titles these two units would be interchangeable outside of their personalities – Awakening made them totally unique, which allows players to focus on character development not just in a story sense but in a mechanical one.
Awakening also gave an increased focus to its characters by beefing up the series’s classic support system. In past titles each character could only have a total of five support conversations (even less in Radiant Dawn!), which restricted the amount of character backstory you could obtain in any one playthrough. Additionally, there were no game mechanics during battle that helped to facilitate the building of support levels. Awakening fixed both of these problems by removing the support conversation limit for the former and then introducing Pair Up for the latter. Pair Up allowed two units to occupy the same space and fight together, giving the lead character stat bonuses and also enhancing the rate at which the two characters supported each other. This boost in support rate allowed you as the player to quickly build the relationships between your characters, and the lack of a limit on your support conversations meant this faster rate could be applied to building all kinds of fascinating relationships.
Shipping was a normal part of the Fire Emblem experience – in games like the GBA Fire Emblem as well as in Sacred Stones or Radiant Dawn, certain characters could end up in relationships if you paired them together. What Awakening did differently was have these marriages happen during the course of play rather than as an endgame anecdote. Characters falling in love gain an additional support conversation and support level, and since you can only have one of these S-level conversations per character per game, this is the element which gives you incentive to play through multiple times. In my own case, my wife and I have replayed Awakening enough times to have almost all of the S-level conversations unlocked (not counting Robin, who can marry EVERYBODY); say what you want about the “Waifu Emblem” approach but lots of people have fun pairing the different characters together. There’s another benefit to these pairings as most women in the game, in addition to Chrom and the male Robin, each have a child unit you can unlock by having them get married.
Child units were not actually introduced in Awakening – they are another element yanked from a previous Fire Emblem title. But combined with the other changes made in Awakening, these kids really took off. Each child inherits a skill from each parent and inherits alternate classes from their parents, meaning that these kids take the character development aspects of the game to the next level by potentially inheriting ridiculous combinations of skills. There are guides out there for getting Galeforce – considered the best skill in the game – onto as many kids as possible in order to give you an army of ultimate units. I can speak to the popularity of customizing your child units based on my blog: the most successful articles on Adventure Rules for years were the guides on Fire Emblem Fates explaining the optimal combinations for the various kids in the game. Child units take what Fire Emblem does best and turn it up to eleven; they are highly customizable characters who are obtained and optimized through the way you utilize their parent characters. From start to finish, a focus on character development is what made Fire Emblem Awakening so unique, and I believe this is what truly revitalized the franchise. Once Intelligent System went all-in on the aspect of the series that made it stand out from other tactical RPGs, the series exploded.
HOW DOES THE SCHOOL SETTING ENHANCE THE FOCUS ON CHARACTERS AND BUILD ON PREVIOUS GAMES?
Now we come at last to Fire Emblem Three Houses, a game which gives the player the role of teacher to a cast of young characters who will serve as your units in battle. School may seem like an unusual choice for a series previously focused on political squabbles between kingdoms, but what we’ve seen in the trailer combined with what we know about school suggests that this builds quite logically on what games like Awakening and Fates brought to the series. Let’s focus on themes first and then we’ll get back into mechanically decisions.
High school and college are both viewed as deeply impactful times in an individual’s life. School is both incubator and trial-by-fire, molding children into adults both through rigorous educational expectations and through social pressure. Students are challenged to question their ideals and to engage with the tough abstract concepts about the world. School changes people – I can say anecdotally that the person I was starting high school and college both was quite different than the person I was when each one was over. Thematically, this gives the characters in Three Houses a place where there is a lot of potential for support conversations about tough topics. These are future kings and emperors, after all; surely they have different views on economics, ethics, and religion. Perhaps by studying together and hearing each other’s perspectives, they are even questioning the ideals that have been drilled into them by their parents growing up.
On the level of romantic relationships, school is certainly a breeding ground for it (maybe not the best choice of words on my part). High schoolers are dealing with hormones that are cementing their sexual attractions for the first time; college students have social pressure to look towards marriage as part of their adult lives. Imagine throwing politics into the mix – would Edelgard be under pressure to marry either Dimitri or Claude to forge an alliance between their kingdoms? If Claude is attracted to men, can he embrace that or would he be under social pressure from his culture to date women instead? Would the king of Faerghus scold Dimitri for forming a relationship with someone of common birth? Focusing on a school environment opens up a ton of thematic possibilities when it comes to support conversations, allowing us to see these characters in a very interesting light if Intelligent Systems will seize the opportunity.
School isn’t just a great fit thematically – it naturally builds on the direction that Awakening has pushed the series while also changing it up. I can only speak anecdotally, but I think that many Fire Emblem fans are tired of having kids. My wife and I both wanted to see that element cut from Three Houses, and when I tweeted about the lack of children being one of my hopes for the game that tweet got quite a bit of interaction in the form of likes and retweets. However, we established previously that kids add a mechanical focus to character development that is valuable to the game. How does Intelligent Systems keep that valuable game mechanic while also removing the element from the game? The answer is in making you the teacher to these units instead of parenting them.
You can do with students everything you could do with kids in the previous Fire Emblem titles, and then some. We’ve seen it is possible to change the classes for your students, as the trailer features Edelgard taking her brigand exams (I guess Adrestia has fallen on hard times). In the screenshot above, we see that you can give your students different topics for solo study, which allows them to practice with different weapons in order to increase their weapon level. This also includes skills like riding for cavaliers, heavy armor for knights, and flying for pegasus or wyvern riders. Because you can customize both a character’s class and weapon preferences using the teaching mechanisms, these units have even more depth of customization than the kids of yore, with much stronger justification by the setting that doesn’t involve one bit of time travel shenanigans.
This, I think, is the real beauty of the school setting. Awakening and Fates both featured these deep layers of character development in a way which felt tacked on. It was fun and compelling, sure, but it stretched the suspension of disbelief in Awakening and then completely shattered any perception of verisimilitude within the world of Fates. Why are all these people getting married in the middle of a war? Why do we keep manipulating time and space to breed battle babies Pokemon-style? In a school, there’s room for the characters to explore their romantic relationships in a setting that makes more sense. As the teacher to your student, there is a natural and sensible way to incorporate a mechanic for developing your units in specific ways. The school setting allows Fire Emblem to do naturally what it has been trying to accomplish through unusual means for the past two games, and to do so in a way that opens up a lot of exciting new possibilities.
I personally am quite excited to head back to school in Fire Emblem Three Houses. I think the setting has a ton of potential for great support conversations and am happy that it gives a better in-game justification for the character customization that the series is now known for. I think it’s a smart decision for Intelligent Systems, and it’s a decision that has me anticipating Three Houses even more than I was before. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter, adventurers. Are you excited for this new setting? Does it turn you off to the idea of this game? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!