An in depth essay and discussion
What’s left to say about a game that’s already been out for two years? It almost seems a little presumptuous to assume that there’s something more that I can add, even with the whole advanced degree.
When it comes to the basic mechanics and the like, there’s really nothing more I can add. The game is a well known tactical RPG in a long running tactical RPG series. You have your “army” of various characters, in this case various students training at Garreg Mach Monastery, a war academy for several nations. Each one has their own stats, leveling up through experience, which is gained from actions. Three Houses added a few mechanics into the mix: training the students, getting close to them. This builds from previous entries, particularly the Awakening and Fate entries, which really upped the series.
There are loads upon loads of reviews delving into these mechanics. If you’re interested in the various tactics, the game allows you to do precisely that. Each unit has their own individual strengths and weaknesses, and a player can essentially treat them like so many moving pieces on the three dimensional chessboard. There is video upon video that delves into the complexities of the system, which class to assign to which student.
To cover the basics of the setup: the player soft-designs their own personal avatar, originally named Byleth. You start as a mercenary, severing alongside your father, legendary mercenary Jeralt, but quickly save a group of students who turn out to be the future rulers of three different countries that have only recently entered an uneasy peace. One of their protectors recognizes Jeralt, and the renowned warrior and his charge (Byleth) are hired by the Academy.
The player chooses between three different houses, hence the name, each run by a different individual. There’s Prince Dimitri’s Blue Lions, a group of knight wannabes and old school nobles from an esteemed Kingdom; heir to House Reigan Claude’s Golden Deer, an eclectic group made of an even split of commoners and nobles from the odd houses; and Empress-in-waiting Edelgard’s Black Eagles, with her group of mostly nobles from the sprawling empire.
The game is split into two halves: the first several chapters unfolding in the exact same manner, following Byleth teaching whatever group of students they can. Basically this involves uncovering what’s going on in the Academy, and the tensions between the three nations. There’s a pretty easy to predict time skip, and then the back half of the game differs slightly depending on which of the three houses you pick (more on this in a bit).
The basic game pattern breaks some from traditional TRPGs: you battle, but then have the option between several options: running around the Academy and interacting with the various students and faculty (and the cats, if you buy the DLC, which makes it worth it in and of itself). Or you could lead the characters in a seminar (which is all but worthless). Or you could fight in free battles, which again involve the semi-traditional, grid based combat.
All of this is probably more build up than is necessary. As I said, it’s likely that anyone coming upon this review already knows most of this. I also haven’t really offered up much of my opinion on this. I can answer my feelings on the game with a simple statement:
I’ve played over 600 hours of this game.
I also bought my Nintendo Switch originally exclusively to play this game (I did the same with the 3DS and Awakening).
Obviously I like the game if I’ve dumped that much into it, but as I said, there’s enough on the game already. I wanted to give this probably too long, going to be edited out or maybe left for my readers who don’t know games as well (hello Mom and Dad). What I want to do is go a bit more in depth regarding the overall plot, what the game’s really about, and where it falls a little short of what it could be.
As I stated earlier, there’s an initial choice in the plot, one made with minimum information, that whole three houses thing that’s sort of in the title.
The choice that the community appreciates the most is the Blue Lions. There’s good reason for this: much of the plot follows this particular house. The first half has you fighting one of the Blue Lions’ adoptive father, then another’s wayward brother. The main house leader, Dimitri, reveals that he has connections with Edelgard, the leader of the Black Eagles, who, (spoilers here, but they’re gonna be everywhere) is revealed as the main villain of the campaign.
So the Blue Lions plays out in many ways like your traditional video game narrative, particularly for the Fire Emblem series. We have a group of characters who are positioned as knights, almost entirely good at their cores. They’re fighting against the evil Empress who has become obsessed with power and warped by her own desires. Of course, they’re also fighting against their own demons: Dimitri suffers from what amounts to PTSD after a bloody massacre which not only left him a survivor but increased racial tensions against the Duscur people (who, you guessed it, have dusky skin).
There’s a lot there to unpack. The story is remarkably well told, and feels very much like it was the canonical one the game developers were considering. The characters are all nuanced, from Dimitri to his Duscur bodyguard/servant Dedue to the rakish but complex Slyvain to the hardscrabble tomboy Ingrid. That’s a fairly common thread across the board with this game (though a few characters fall short: looking at you, Cyril the utterly worthless).
But here we have this grand tale of revenge and power. You’re working to fight against a silver haired empress like another popular franchise that just happened to be ending around the same time. The story involves blood and sacrifice, with Byleth helping to pull Dimitri back from the darkness (it’s actually been theorized that Byleth is the stabilizing influence on each of the three lordlings, keeping them from their worst impulses). If you’re looking for a bloody, complex tale detailing the complexities of war, this does a brilliant job.
And again: the fact that so much of the early game draws the extra cast of students in speaks volumes. To balance the game, each class consists of seven students: the lordling, a bodyguard, and five other students of various classes. Most of these students just make commentary throughout the game, often filling in various roles that translate across the various storylines. But you fight Ashe’s adoptive father and Slyvain’s brother. You find out about renegade Kingdom soldiers. This is the same narrative that each of the three houses goes through, but it does seem tailored to the Blue Lions.
They also feel like the most complete of the narratives. There are three houses, but there are four narratives here. Of those, three follow essentially the same storyline, with a few details changed, but each faces a different final boss. The Blue Lions face a mutated and nearly demonic Edelgard, and it feels like an impressive fight. The narrative arcs toward it and makes sense.
The Blue Lions were my last choice of the three houses.
I wanted the Golden Deer myself. Claude appealed to me, both because he’s kinda cute (as is his lieutenant, Hilda), and because his personality resonated most with me originally. He’s a rakish trickster who sort of inherited his house in an intriguing fashion. His storyline is about pulling together the disparate nations under one banner: less conquering like Dimitri or Edelgard, and more achieving a diplomatic coup of sorts. Again: same basic missions, but there’s something about this story that sort of resonates.
I mentioned that the Blue Lions route feels like a traditional Fire Emblem story, but the Golden Deer start to feel like a traditional JRPG. The group is united by friendship; they fight for peace, not for revenge or something complex. And their villain is a pulled out of no where ancient evil that is mentioned in the lore as—
wait a second… where did their final villain come from?
See, Dimitri faces Edelgard. It makes sense: the arc builds that way and the game sets Edelgard up as a tragic villain. The grand sweep of the story naturally takes us that way. Claude also faces Edelgard… as a sub-boss in about the third to the last chapter.
No, his final battle is against Nemesis, the risen king, and a group of spoopy ghosts. This isn’t even against “Those that Slither In the Dark,” the stupid, pulled out of thin air, last minute Real Evil Behind It All. It’s some random guy that gets summoned out of no where, because even the other secret evil got stomped. It’s the sort of nonsense that we’ve seen in JRPGs before, and it essentially makes this route fall apart.
Imagine the average player playing that route and getting that weird ending instead of the Blue Lions. The Golden Deer don’t get a real impressive, cathartic, well written climax. They get… whatever Nemesis is. Sure, he’s mentioned in the lore, but he’s hardly a big part. It’s as if the great evil of Harry Potter was Grindelwald (you’re allowed to say “who” at that point), or the big bad of the MCU was actually Stan Lee. Like, yeah, they’ve showed up, but that’s hardly what the narrative was building toward.
It also doesn’t make a lot of sense from an arc standpoint. The Blue Lions’ story is about revenge and the corrupting influences of power. Edelgard in that route let her own desire to set the world aright go mad, and as a result, is scrambled by power. It’s not a great leap to imagine Dimitri, who’s pictured at times as a bloodthirsty beast, being put in the same position. There’s parallelism between the two and the structure.
That is a grand narrative on par with some Arthurian legend, a tale of epic struggles and grand figures that would look good on a big screen. You could see a movie or novel detailing the inner turmoil of Dimitri and how that conflicts with Edelgard and her decisions.
Claude facing a resurrected king? Not so much. Very much a video game plot.
The astute reader will have noted that I have only mentioned two plots, and I said there were four (and that there are only three houses). The Black Eagles’ plot gives you a choice later in the first chapter: you can journey with Edelgard to see her crowned Empress through political manipulations, or you can sit that out. Either way, Edelgard breaks from the Church and by extension the peaceful accord that unites the people together.
If you choose to go against Edelgard, you essentially follow the same path as the Blue Lions, only without Dimitri and instead with the assorted students that come with the Black Eagles. It’s called “Silver Snow” or the “Church Route,” and the whole thing feels a bit… empty. It does have the advantage of having Edelgard positioned as someone the player and characters trusted at some point, only to have cruelly turned against. But it almost feels like the Golden Deer in several ways. You’re playing a group of people who know what is right… but really are just following Byleth because of Byleth’s shining personality.
I do not understand how the silent protagonist who is declared as emotionless has this pull on people. It’s obviously about creating a player stand in so we can feel like we’ve got the pull and power, but it’s awkwardly handled and makes me long for the older games where every character has a preordained personality. But I digress/rant…
Silver Snow therefore again feels very video game. It’s a bit less than the Golden Deer: You fight against Edelgard and then discover that the Church needs cleansing, so there’s a little more narrative weight and sense. But it’s still not as great as Blue Lions.
No, the challenger for that should be the “true” Black Eagles path: Crimson Flower. This is where the game becomes interesting. You side with Edelgard, who has been positioned as the evil Empress by most of the rest of the narratives. Even in this version, there’s no doubt: she’s the one who starts the war. She’s the one who decided to plunge an entire continent in fire and blood.
The difference is that we get to better understand why.
The entire world is built upon this “crest system,” where certain individuals are born with innate powers or Crests that grant them a leg up on the world. Most manifest through combat, allowing for a video game boost that makes sense mechanically. It’s also revealed that crests are used to enhance the already existing class system. Crestless children are abandoned; families adopt those that have crests; heirs are appointed solely based on this. It’s obviously an issue, and it’s an attempt at making allegories to power and the like.
The issue is that this actually does give some power, so the allegory doesn’t quite work as well as the writers would likely want it to. Most of the actual issues with race and privilege don’t have literal magic powers from beyond to back them up.
But let’s get back to Edelgard. It’s revealed that the reason she has the sexy-white haired Khaleesi look is because they performed vicious experiments to inject a second crest into her. The same has been done to another white haired character, and it’s damaged their lives and possibly their minds. It’s definitely cruel, and it points to the flaws in the system, which Edelgard want to fix.
Which means that the writers created this complex heroine. She’s been essentially abused, and she wants to strike out against not just her abusers, but the system they perpetrate. There’s also the added bit that Edelgard is one of the bisexual characters. Admittedly, there are several, as the Fire Emblem series has become part dating sim now. But the fact remains that a female Byleth can flirt with Edelgard, and it even makes sense to pair her with other females (I prefer Dorothea myself, but Dorothea comes off as pretty pansexual, with high sexual chemistry with literally everybody).
This complicates the narrative further, though the writers likely didn’t consider it. Now the potentially abused female fighting against the system is potentially queer. Most of her accompanying cast are revealed as being equally messed up and/or queer: Healer Lindhardt is another bisexual (and the only non-DLC male student to be so); I already mentioned Dorothea; Caspar comes off as bi or asexual; Petra comes off as both bisexual and tormented, as she’s essentially a hostage for a smaller sovereign nation; and Bernadette might be straight, but she was obviously abused by her father to the point where she’s literally afraid to leave her room.
These people are messed up, and they’re fighting against a messed up system. This narrative should unequivocally be the best among the four. It’s absolutely loaded with potential and goes into bold new directions that we don’t see in video games.
Yeah, it falls short, and most agree that the Azure Moon path (Blue Lions) is the best.
Part of this is because the Crimson Flower path almost feels like a hidden extra. To find the path requires talking to Edelgard at a certain point (though by that point in the game, you’re trained to do so), agreeing to her, then agreeing to go against the Church, which has been sort of soft established as the “good guys” (Rhea, the church leader, comes off as creepy to me; probably because she comes off as if she’s supposed to be both motherly and someone we want to find attractive and it doesn’t quite work). It’s difficult to get to.
It also doesn’t quite feel like the writers fully know what to do. The biggest issue is that this plot line introduces the idea of “Those that Slither in the Dark.” this awkward name is coined by Hubert, the sort of creepy bodyguard of Edelgard, and both works really well and is, well, awkward. It refers to the people that are truly responsible for experimenting on Edelgard, who would resurrect the dead for Claude, and who are kinda corrupting everything.
They also kinda ruin the story.
This is partly because they feel very “video game.” Without them, we get this complex story; that’s why Azure Moon works. With them, we get this strange, shadowy group that is actually behind the evils, instead of the society or the hegemony or the patriarchy, all of which would make more sense given the narrative Crimson Flower establishes.
Perhaps oddly, that’s not the main complaint of many fans and gamers. The Crimson Flower path just sort of… ends. You fight Rhea, which makes sense in many ways you’re essentially killing “god,” which is a JRPG trope, and it’s mentioned that now Edelgard will go for Those that Slither in the Dark, but the game just sort of… stops. The shadowy guys are beaten behind the scenes.
What’s annoying is that they could’ve continued without Those that Slither. Edelgard has a creepy uncle who’s obviously behind this stuff, obviously tortured her, and is implied to have done worse. Just have him be jammed full of crests and go to town. Or have him twist Dimitri, who’s already portrayed as a nearly inhuman wild animal. Dimitri is practically sidelined here, and he’s arguably one of the best characters.
What this is a failed narrative attempt. It’s got the potential to do something thrilling and new, possibly even something queer and powerful, but falls into tropes and feles underdeveloped. Maybe the developers overreached when they were dealing with the four paths. Maybe they just didn’t know what to do. Who knows. Either way, it stops this game from hitting that true perfection route.
Though arguably Blue Lions gets close.
oh, do you want a score? Seems superfluous now…
9 you got so far and tried so hard, but in the end, it didn’t really matter
(note: the DLC is a solid 7, worth it if you want more content and/or the DLC chars and/or the chance to play all the lords on one team)