Well adventurers, it took me a good 45 hours to manage, but I finally finished part one of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Known as White Clouds, part one consists of a prologue and then twelve chapters of gameplay and makes up your first year as a professor at Garreg Mach Monastery. Twelve may not sound like a lot of chapters, but the structure of Three Houses makes each one take much longer than a typical chapter in a Fire Emblem game. Every chapter is a month of exploring the monastery, teaching lessons, competing in tournaments, fishing, flirting, and executing missions that makes each one filled to the brim with content. So much content, in fact, that although the end of part one certainly sets up that more story is coming, White Clouds is so full of mechanisms and character backstory that it feels as if it could stand on its own.
I’ve shared my very early experiences with the Golden Deer house and the mistakes I made mechanically during my initial playthrough, so today is something of a review. Naturally I still have half the game to finish (please gods let it only be half) so I cannot share my full thoughts at this time, but since part one is such a behemoth it feels fitting to analyze it on its own before I delve too deeply into part two of the game.
Note that there will be minor story and mechanical spoilers for White Clouds, but I will not discuss any major spoilers in this article.
White Clouds tells the story of a young mercenary (canon name Byleth) who joins the Officer’s Academy as a professor after being recognized for his or her bravery and skill by the archbishop of the Church of Seiros, Rhea. There are three houses at Garreg Mach Monastery – the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer. Byleth must choose one of the three houses to teach, and the chosen house influences which characters Byleth will be able to train and interact with throughout the story of White Clouds.
From a story perspective, the focus of part one is primarily on Byleth’s mysterious past. Byleth seems to have amnesia, though it’s never really established why, and his or her father Jeralt is not exactly forthcoming with secrets. Jeralt has some trust issues with the Church of Seiros, the first of many implications that something is not quite right with them. I chose the Golden Deer house for my playthrough and the house leader, Claude, echoes and amplifies many of Jeralt’s fears. There’s certainly a lot sketchy going on with the church – hidden secrets, individuals who are not who they say they are, and a deep level of political involvement that could be very well be interpreted as machinations by a power which desires control over others.
Compared to other Fire Emblem titles, Three Houses has a bit more intrigue. Fire Emblem has always been about politics and war, but in a very straightforward way. An obviously evil mustache-twirling king or emperor invades a kingdom of perfectly pristine fantasy peasants, requiring a pampered prince or princess to rally an army of adorable do-gooders to save the day. Three Houses doesn’t feel like that – you are at any point a bit unsure of who your allies are, with even Claude’s scheming and machinations sometimes coming across as suspicious. Personally I deeply enjoyed this touch, as I felt it made the story more compelling than many of the previous entries in the series.
What’s truly impressive is that the intrigue doesn’t just reach the main story and the mysteries surrounding Byleth and the church. Your house is impacted by political machinations and backstabbing, and you get to watch as the students unravel the messes caused by their parents. In the Golden Deer, a lot of the drama is tied to Lorenz, whose father in House Gloucester has his eyes on the leadership of the Leicester Alliance. Gloucester’s political maneuvering has had negative effects on multiple students in the Golden Deer, so seeing them have to navigate that and question their friendships is a truly compelling story arc in its own right.
Structurally, Three Houses is similar to most Fire Emblem titles but with a lot of mechanical depth and storytelling added in. The normal Fire Emblem structure is that you see some story sequences, have a battle, return to a base menu or overworld map where you can do some shopping and have support conversations, and then watch another story sequence before jumping into another battle. This structure of story, combat, base is maintained in Three Houses but with the base sequences turned up to eleven. Each chapter of the game is a month of in-game time, and you follow that month on a calendar of events during which there are a large number of mechanisms to engage.
Fire Emblem Fates featured a customizable base where you could run around visiting shops and services and potentially have short conversations with some of your units. Garreg Mach Monastery is not customizable – it has a set structure, and a massive structure at that. After playing a few chapters you’ll learn the layout of the building pretty well and be able to use fast travel effectively to get to exactly where you want to go, but when you first begin to run around Garreg Mach the size of it all can be truly intimidating. While you’re there, you’ll see students not just from your house but from the other houses as well, plus members of the Church of Seiros. Each of these characters will have something unique to say to you once each month, related to whatever is currently happening in the story of the game.
These conversations start out interesting and eventually hit the point of no longer being worthwhile. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a long game, and the time spent exploring the monastery is a big contributor to that length. In my experience I found myself lessening the amount of time I was spending talking to people in the monastery, first ignoring the nameless characters with dialogue boxes and then ignoring students who I really didn’t care for that much. The conversations do sometimes give you opportunities to increase your support level with someone by responding correctly in a dialogue option, but for the most part they’re just informational, and it’s not necessarily new information.
Supports are back in Three Houses and there are lots of ways to build your support level. Fighting alongside one another is an option (though pairing up in the Awakening/Fates sense is not present in this game), but there are so many other ways to develop friendship between yourself and the party and between other party members. Activities around the monastery like signing in the choir or eating in the dining hall raise supports for everyone involved in the activity, and the same applies to the group tasks you assign during instruction weeks. Giving students gifts or hosting a tea party with them allows you to focus more strongly on the relationship between Byleth and the student or faculty member in question, and these relationships are also improved during instruction time when you teach someone weapon skills. There are so many ways to develop supports, in fact, that often I found myself with lots of supports that were ready to roll over to the next level but where I wasn’t far enough in the game to see the conversation yet. This would often lead to situations where I had a large number of support conversations unlock all at once.
Many monastery activities focus on increasing the professor level for Byleth. Things like eating in the dining hall, fishing, gardening, and participating in tournaments all give EXP to Byleth which, when the level rolls over, increases the number of points available to you to participate in activities, instruct students, or battle in skirmishes. This means that building your professor level is a valuable long term investment that will increase your capability to perform a variety of activities later on. Of course, many of the activities which increase your professor experience use the same points that are needed for faculty training, where other teachers give you bonuses to your skill levels. This is one of my major complaints about part one of the game – the tools for enhancing Byleth’s skills are not nearly as robust as the ones for the students, which means that your protagonist may very well feel like he’s falling behind the very students he is supposed to be teaching.
The tools for improving the skills of your students are excellent. Each month there are two to three weeks where you have instruction time for your students. Based on your professor level you can give kids personal lessons in a particular skill, essentially giving them free experience in a weapon or school of magic. You can also set goals, which are one or two skills which will gain significant EXP at the end of the week regardless of whether or not you provide personal instruction. Each student has strong and weak skills, and some have budding talents, weak skills which can become strong after multiple sessions of personal instruction. Because classes are based on skill mastery, this means you can effectively customize every student to any class you want – except for some very unwelcome gender limitations. Fates made a great move by opening all classes to all character genders, but Three Houses not only takes a step backward by re-gendering classes like the Pegasus Knight or War Master, but even classes like the Hero aren’t available to female units now. It’s a frustrating change that feels quite archaic in a game which advances the series in so many other ways.
All of this works together so that the meat and potatoes of Fire Emblem is not necessarily the combat anymore, but it’s a welcome change. Expanding on the base options makes the game play in nice segments that give you more variety in gameplay. It’s easy to get burnt out when a game feels too much the same from play session to play session – in Three Houses, a typical night of play will involve one month of game time, running around the monastery and training your students before then engaging in one of the game’s tactical battles. The variety gives you a nice structure with clear stopping points and also keeps you from getting too exhausted of one particular style of play.
Speaking of the combat, how are the battles in part one of Three Houses? Much of the game is what you’ve come to expect from the franchise in this regard. You deploy units onto a map where you take turns moving all of your characters, attacking, and then the enemy gets their turn doing the same. Units have a movement range based on their class, which is further impacted by the terrain of the map. Mounted units can move farther generally but are hampered by some terrain, while flying units can soar practically wherever they want but are vulnerable to archers. You can, as always, see the attack range of all enemies by pressing the ZR button, and you can press A when hovering over a specific enemy unit to further highlight them specifically. I often do this to have the attack range of archers stand out compared to the range of other enemies so I don’t accidentally move a flyer into the kill zone.
A neat new feature in Three Houses is the ability to see the aggro lines of enemy units – you know who they are going to attack and roughly how dangerous it is, as you are also able to see the damage that would be dealt and the accuracy of the attack. The lines appear when you move a unit but before you commit to the movement, which means you can tell whether or not moving a particular unit next to another one will change which of the two is getting attacked. It’s pretty great when you start to have someone rush forward and then suddenly five aggro lines appear all at once – it lets you know that what you are doing is probably a very bad idea, and gives you the opportunity to adjust.
Speaking of adjusting, Three Houses features a mechanism called the Divine Pulse which allows you to undo mistakes during combat. Now there’s a “limited” number of Divine Pulses, a term which I use loosely because you start with something like four of them and can build them up to eight or nine per battle. This feels like a high number of uses if you have a solid grasp of tactics, and I often use my divine pulses to adjust small but insignificant positioning errors so I can optimize class experience or boost the supports between specific units.
During combat, beyond simply attacking with a weapon, your characters have other options to bring to bear against their enemies. Combat arts return from Fire Emblem Echoes, and this time instead of costing health points, they cost weapon durability. Any one character can only hold three combat arts, and most are limited by weapon type, but in the early game of Three Houses they are essential to picking off enemies. I’ve found that once you get stronger weapons and can double attack more reliably, many combat arts feel unnecessary, but there are still some which will be valuable even right up to the end of part one.
Magic has been changed in Three Houses as well. It works more similarly to Echoes than past titles where the spells a character can access are tied to the character’s level and weapon experience, not to mention varying from character to character. Instead of durability spells have a certain number of uses, which can increase when you learn the spell multiple times or when you change to specific classes. The uses per battle system makes spells that used to have to be conserved desperately – like Physic, Warp, or Rescue – much more accessible. This makes magic feel a lot more useful, and that is also helped by the fact that even in a magical class, your characters can carry and use whatever weapons they want to. The big thing to watch out for is that the reverse is not true – if a class does not specifically say that it can cast spells, then your character will lose access to the magic spells they’ve learned until they change into a spellcasting class again.
The new combat options combined with the classic Fire Emblem battle system helps Three Houses to feel like a fresh take on a beloved system. And when the combat and the monastery training work together, your creative options expand significantly. Want to have your armored knight ready to double as a priest at a moment’s notice? Set a goal to build his faith and spend some instruction time working on that skill during instruction time. Want your cavalier to master the bow but don’t want to only use training bows until her weapon level goes up? Practice at the monastery until she’s good enough to shoot silver arrows with the best of them! Training during instruction time expands your combat options, and having characters fight together on the battlefield expands your support conversations, giving you more details on the story and characters. All of the mechanisms feed into each other so that every action you take in the game feels valuable and like you are progressing towards your various goals.
Because of all this – the intrigue, the number of classes you unlock, the amount of weapon experience you gain, and the number of hours invested in the story and characters – White Clouds almost feels like an entire game on its own. The ending of part one does not convey this; it is very clearly setting up for a part two, and there are some aspects of the game that still haven’t been fully explored mechanically yet. It would be more accurate to say instead that White Clouds is a preparation phase, getting you invested and building you up for what part two will ultimately bring. You’re a teacher but you are also a student, learning how Three Houses works so that when the time comes to put your skills to the test, you’ll be ready for what’s to come.