This article includes unmarked spoilers for the Blue Lion and Golden Deer paths of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
What does it mean for a game to have “replayability?” In a literal sense all games are re-playable; you can pick it up at anytime and begin from the last point you left off or start anew. If games were not replayable – if you could only activate and experience the game one single time – the industry would not have become the success it is today. So replayability must mean something different and have a unique context in the culture of people who play video games.
In most reviews I’ve ever read, the concept of replayability boils down to the ability to play through a video game’s campaign at least twice while having a somewhat unique experience each time. A game which is replayable will allow me to play it again and again without retreading ground that is too familiar. This is perhaps possible because there is a large party of characters and you cannot possibly engage them all in a single campaign experience. Maybe there are multiple endings and each one requires a subsequent run through the game’s story. Maybe the differences are mechanical; your character can have different weapons or abilities that make the game feel different from a gameplay perspective. Regardless of what makes a game replayable, the idea of the term is that the video game in question gives you something new when you revisit it down the line.
I have played through two of the three houses in Fire Emblem Three Houses, and experienced two of the game’s four endings. In that time I’ve wavered significantly on whether or not Three Houses is a game which I would actually consider to have good replayability. It takes the above definition and plays jump rope with it. In concept it seems that Three Houses would be quite replayable – right at the beginning of the game you choose one of three classes to teach and spend the entire game with that group of students. Each of the kids is unique, with different gifts as far as what weapons they can wield well and their own backgrounds and troubles to explore. Surely such a game would be infinitely replayable, yes?
What I have discovered in two playthroughs of the game is that there is a lot about Three Houses that stays the same across runs. Some of these elements are mechanical and some are structural, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a little disappointment about just how much of this game is actually the same from playthrough to playthrough. Some of the elements were those I had come to expect based on the reviews for the game that I read on various websites – others caught me by surprise.
For example, I anticipated that the majority of part one of the game would be pretty consistent across the houses. White Clouds tells the story of one year at Garreg Mach Monastery, so it makes sense that most of that year would be the same regardless of which house you chose. What I didn’t anticipate was how much of the game was taken up by those same parts. Any one run of Three Houses consists of a prologue and then 22 chapters. Each chapter is one month of in-game time. This means that one year at Garreg Mach takes you all the way through chapter 12 out of 22 – that’s more than half of the game that you’re repeating each time you start playing Three Houses from a different perspective.
What really caught me off-guard, though, is how much of Three Houses is identical during part two as well. I can only speak for the Blue Lions and Golden Deer paths at this point, but on those two paths the game hits the same story beats all the way up through the end of chapter 17. Additionally, there are three other chapters that share a common map and similar objectives – they are simply positioned differently as far as what order they occur and whether they are the endgame or build up to the endgame. This means that when it comes to the structural differences between two different playthroughs, there are actually only two unique chapters in each one.
I want to be a little more clear about what I mean by this, so once again I will reiterate that this article includes spoilers for the game.
Part two of Three Houses takes place five years after the events of part one. During this time the Empire has been on the warpath and left both the Kingdom and the Alliance at the brink of ruin. Byleth has been missing during this time after falling deep into a chasm during the assault on Garreg Mach. When Byleth returns, regardless of whether they were the professor for the Blue Lions or the Golden Deer, events play out in exactly the same sequence:
- The class is finally reunited at the monastery the day of the Millenium Festival, just as they promised five years ago
- The Empire attacks the monastery and the students unite with the Knights of Seiros to defend it before establishing it as a base of operations
- In desperate need of soldiers and supplies, the army meets reinforcements at Ailell only to be attacked by a general of the Faerghus Dukedom
- With more soldiers under their command, the army pushes across the staunchly defended Great Bridge of Myrrdin to push into Empire territory
- All three armies meet once again at Gronder Field for a bloody reimagining of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion five years before
These scenes play out beat-for-beat in the same ways. Not only are the maps the same but your positioning on the maps is the same. Your leader’s plan of attack is the same despite the portrayal of Claude as a trickster and Dimitri as direct and aggressive. It takes 18 chapters of gameplay to finally hit a point where the paths of these houses diverge, but once you’ve played one route you’ll still see some similar notes in the other. The battles at Fort Merceus, the outskirts of Enbarr, and the interior of the Imperial Palace have some differences in objective or opposition but ultimately follow the same progression even though they take place at difference times in the campaign.
When 20 out of 22 chapters of each path are essentially identical, it could be seen as a blow to the replayability of Three Houses. If your expectation is that each house will offer a unique experience, that’s not the case at all. At least for the Blue Lions and the Golden Deer, what you are truly offered is the same experience from different perspectives. You’ll fight the same battles in the same places, but the context of why those battles are important and who ultimately wins them will vary based on which house you chose.
The question now becomes how important the new perspectives are. How much of a difference does it makes that you see the same basic story arc through the eyes of a completely different set of characters? Naturally this will vary from player to player, and in my experience it varies from chapter to chapter as well. Sometimes the sameness became a source of frustration and it felt that the character models were skins slapped onto the same dialogue prompts. Other times, the unique perspective added by a different group of characters helped to elucidate points which were unclear in a previous run – or information from a previous run gave me context for information which might have otherwise been a mystery.
I’d like to give concrete examples for each scenario. I already mentioned how both Claude and Dimitri use the same plan of attack despite their differences in approach being emphasized in conversations throughout the game. When the monastery is attacked by the Empire in part two, both of them use a scheme in which the derelict buildings are set ablaze as a trap for the enemy. This risky scheme makes sense for Claude but feels quite out of character for Dimitri. There were many points during White Clouds where it felt that the choice in House had little significance, but perhaps none stood out so much as the raid on the holy tomb, where once again Claude’s craftiness justifies the conclusion that Rhea’s assassination letter is a fake, but Dimitri doesn’t have a similar context. Would it really be so unrealistic for the Blue Lions to have been protecting some other part of the school and then had to scurry to the tomb when they realized that it was the true target all along? It seems that sometimes character nuance is sacrificed in service of keeping all of the narratives on the same beats.
Other times, though, the perspective of a different House adds a lot to the game. Throughout White Clouds, the Blue Lions have personal connections to characters who turn against the church and present themselves as enemies. It feels infinitely more personal when Ashe and Sylvain have to struggle to defeat their own families in the name of god and country. I was particularly impressed at the second battle of Gronder Field, though, when as the Blue Lions I learned that Dimitri did not ally with Claude because of a trick orchestrated by the Empire. In the Golden Deer run Dimitri seemed violent for the sake of violence and Claude had no idea why the Kingdom would not stand with him – during a Blue Lions run it is clear that Dimitri and his people are misled by the Empire into seeing Claude as hostile. This added context actually made some pieces of dialogue during the Gronder Field conflict make more sense than they did the first time I played through. Conversely, the Golden Deer run taught me a lot about Those Who Slither in the Dark, a mysterious organization which makes a brief appearance at the end of part two in the Blue Lions but is given absolutely no explanation as to what they are. I can imagine how confused I would be playing Blue Lions first and having no idea what to make of their presence at the final battle – but having played Golden Deer first, I knew everything I needed to in order to appreciate what was happening on a deeper level.
I think the question of the replayability of Three Houses is one that each player will have to answer for themselves. For me it has swayed every time I boot up the game. Some sessions I find myself skipping dialogue and speeding through monastery preparations as I slog through the same-old same-old. Other times I am glued to the screen, listening to the actors deliver their lines and smiling enthusiastically as gears begin turning and I make connections in my mind. In my experience there is just enough new to make the game worth playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back; but only just. I imagine when I put the final touches on this game it may be a long time before I ever pick it up again. But for now, at least, I love the characters enough and am curious enough about their motivations that I am inspired to keep repeating the same maps and story beats again and again.