When the review embargo lifted for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I was still struggling to decide which house I wanted to play first. I’d watched trailers, read about the characters and their mechanical skills, yet nothing had pushed me firmly in one direction or another. My hope was to read a review that helped to guide me on my path – I anticipated a particular path through the game to be “more canon” than the others, or perhaps to be more approachable mechanically. I also wanted to alleviate a concern I had that some of the paths might lead in a direction which I wouldn’t enjoy – I didn’t want to choose a house based on my favorite color only to find out that I had allied myself politically with a force I didn’t agree with. As reviews began to pop up all over my Twitter feed, I dug into them hoping for the perspectives of people who had experienced everything that Three Houses had to offer.
You can imagine my disappointment when it turned out that most reviewers had only finished one of the game’s routes, experiencing Fire Emblem as only one of the titular three houses. The circumstances were understandable – most of the reviews I read clocked one playthrough as somewhere between 60-80 hours. Playing through all of the game’s paths would take way longer than any journalist was given to prepare their reviews for embargo day. Having now played all of the routes myself and finally putting the game down after 230+ hours, I can certainly see how a review with multiple routes was effectively impossible before the game’s release. I tried instead to read reviews written by individuals who played as different houses – Golden Deer here, Black Eagles there, and as it turned out Blue Lions pretty much nowhere. Unfortunately I didn’t get the insights I wanted and so ultimately I had to make my own decisions.
Fast forward 230 hours and now I’ve finished every route of the game. I’ve played as the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer, and experienced multiple difficulty settings. I’ve done two challenge runs of the game. I’ve experimented with new game+, using it as fully as possible and also carefully selecting features in order to create a specific type of gameplay experience. All these playthroughs and approaches make the game feel different, and different styles are likely to most appropriate for different players. So in this comprehensive review, my goal is to address all of these aspects of the game to help you understand what path might be best for you as you dive into Three Houses for yourself, whether for the first time or after having some experience with the game.
Your first big choice in Three Houses may not be the one you think. Before you ever swing a sword or teach a class, you’ll have to decide the difficulty settings you want to play with. Difficulty is measured on two different scales. One scale controls the levels of enemies and the amount of experience that you gain, while the other controls whether or not you lose your characters permanently when they die. Each of these affects gameplay differently. Having enemies at a lower level with no permadeath (Normal-Casual) makes it so you can play through the game at a relaxed pace without having to be too concerned about how battles turn out. The focus is on the game’s story and characters. Higher level enemies with permadeath enabled (Hard-Classic) pushes you to make strategic decisions and be careful of your mistakes, because a lost character is gone forever. You can mix and match, playing a game where battles are brutally difficult but forgiving (Maddening-Casual) or taking an approach where the battles are simpler, but your mistakes will cost you permanently (Normal-Classic).
What you might have read in other reviews, I’ll confirm here – Normal mode in Three Houses will likely be easy for you if you’re a Fire Emblem veteran. It’s quite easy to become and stay overleveled in normal mode; simply doing all the side quests will automatically make your characters outclass the main campaign. When I made the jump from Normal to Hard the game felt so much more satisfying mechanically. Hard mode is designed to continuously challenge you. The way the experience mechanisms work, you’ll only really gain levels for fighting opponents who are stronger than you, and you’ll want to be gaining levels to keep up with the campaign battles. I also appreciated the way in which classic mode forced me never to shrug my shoulders and just let a mistake pass by. I always had to find the exact right way out of a situation to preserve my whole team.
Of course, that’s just my perspective. I’m an experienced tactics game player who likes to be challenged by game mechanisms. If you come to Fire Emblem for the storytelling and the characters but could take or leave the strategy battles, then normal or casual (or both) are probably what will feel best for you. After all, most of us who play on classic don’t really want to lose our characters – we just reset the game! So if you don’t want to deal with that mess and want to be able to keep going after an unexpected critical hit or when your party is jumped by reinforcements that seem tailor-made to kill your mage, then I fully recommend casual mode. Each approach offers a different experience, so consider which experience is the most tailored to your style of play.
The house choice is your next key decision, and if you’re like how I was when I first picked up the game, going in you may enjoy having a little more direction about which house will be the best fit. Unfortunately only one of the game’s three houses really gives you any kind of choice in the path that you want to take when the time for war finally comes. For the other two houses, who you side with from a political standpoint is predetermined regardless of how you feel about their viewpoints or teachings. And what really stinks is that there’s not really a strong indication before you choose a house of what side you’re choosing. With that in mind, I’ll explain what each path focuses on without diving into specific story beats. Still, this will include mild spoilers, so be sure to skip the next two paragraphs if you’d prefer to go in completely blind.
The story of Three Houses focuses on a country where a religious organization wields a significant amount of political power. This organization upholds a system where those chosen by the goddess are gifted with magical blessings called “crests.” These crests are the basis on which nobility is established and maintained, giving special boons to those who bear them in order to make them more capable. Of course, there are those who would say that the crest system is the basis of oppression, as those without crests are limited in their opportunities. Some individuals value crests so highly that they estrange family members who don’t have them; there are also those who would conduct vile experiments to enhance the power of crests.
The game’s principle conflict takes place between those who value the existing power structures of the crest system and those who would oppose it. With the Black Eagles, you can join either side, but the primary Black Eagles path is to fight to revolutionize the crest system. Both the Blue Lions and the Golden Deer stand in defense of the established order. The difference between them is motive. Claude and the Golden Deer have plans to change the system from the inside. Dimitri and the Blue Lions have close ties with the forces that protect the nobility. If you see yourself wanting to play a game about overthrowing a potentially corrupt regime, Edelgard is the clear choice. If you like the idea of changing the status quo from the inside, Claude will get you where you want to go. If you want to stand in defense of the nobility and serve the goddess, Dimitri will scratch that itch. The path that I absolutely do not recommend that you take is joining the Black Eagles and then siding with the crest system. This path is the least interesting from a story perspective and offers the least unique battles and new information. It was easily the least amount of fun I had playing this game.
Speaking of playing the game, my various playthroughs have helped me to recognize that some approaches to the game ultimately lead to a more satisfying conclusion than others. Some of this is to do with the game’s pacing, while some focuses on the mechanical aspects of the game. Either way, I have learned over the course of four playthroughs that the more you engage with all of the systems that Three Houses has to offer, the more exciting the game is likely to be for you.
After I played through the game the first time and discovered the functionality of new game+, I immediately got into the habit of using renown to fill up my professor levels right away. This allowed me to ignore things like fishing and tournaments unless they were specifically related to a quest and thus put more emphasis on learning skills from faculty training. However, from a pacing perspective it also forced me into a loop of doing nearly the exact same thing each month: instruct every single student during an instruction session thanks to my high number of activity points, then explore every weeks to restore those instruction points, with time to battle only once at the very end of the month. The game isn’t necessarily intended to be paced in this way and the lack of variety in your activities can be draining. The time you spend to grow your professor levels does make exploration take longer, but having a longer break between battles or story segments makes it easier to be excited when you finally get to engage a new gameplay mechanism. The game is paced better when you play it as intended.
Recruitment is a mechanism that I engaged with minimally in most of my playthroughs. My motive for this was that I wanted to see where characters appeared in the storylines of their own countries when you played on opposite sides. As it turns out, most characters don’t really play that interesting of a role from a story perspective, meaning you can recruit them away from their original house without concern about the game’s narrative. Having characters progressively join your party throughout the game as you build your skills is a lot more satisfying then getting your whole party in lump at once at the beginning of the game, and seeing the supports across different houses is really interesting.
For me, my most satisfying playthrough of the game was actually my final one: a Hard-Classic run where the only new game+ feature I used were statue progress and weapon levels on Byleth. Engaging the mechanisms as they were meant to be, I spent my explorations building professor levels and working towards recruitment while also battling to keep my party at even levels with the main campaign. White Clouds was focused on building my team so that when war came in part two, the focus could shift to more complex tactical battles. This felt like the most satisfying cycle for the game out of all the playthroughs I did, and it’s definitely the approach I would recommend to others to have a positive experience with Three Houses.