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Fire Emblem: Three Houses review: The Switch's summer romance

Nintendo's latest sprawling strategy game is all about epic emotions.

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Part of Three Houses looks like this: battles on a grid.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The Nintendo Switch has no shortage of RPG adventures. There's Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Skyrim, Octopath Traveler, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an RPG of a different type completely. 

Fire Emblem is a long-running franchise for Nintendo, going back to the NES. More recently there were three games on the 3DS: Awakening, Fates and Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. There's a game for phones, Fire Emblem Heroes, and the Switch already has a Fire Emblem-themed game, Fire Emblem Warriors. But Three Houses is the first true Fire Emblem game in the series for the Switch. And, about 10 hours in, it's getting me to spend hours like I'm lost in a sprawling fantasy novel.

I'm not well-versed in the Fire Emblem universe or in social RPGs like Persona. I played Fire Emblem games way back on the Game Boy Advance when they seemed like offshoots of the Advance Wars games. I mostly saw them as turn-based strategy. The Fire Emblem games have a larger, expanding story and I'm not part of that world. I haven't played the last couple of games. But I heard the hype and I was curious. I wanted to dive in. The Switch version of Fire Emblem, developed by Intelligent Systems and Koei, feels like a hybrid of game styles in... a way that I'm unsure about.

Fire Emblem is intimidating. It starts with a vortex of anime characters enmeshed in a school in a monastery, part of an odd church organization that seems somewhat sinister. You're a weird, lost person without a clear history, who somehow ends up becoming a professor. There's a ghost girl following you, sharing thoughts you can't quite understand. The school of frequently dramatic students and faculty are all voice-acted, and many times I ended up feeling like I'd landed in Harry Potter or a variation of Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Unlike diving into a Zelda game for the first time, I don't feel like I'm being helped to understand the onslaught of characters.

I've never played the Persona series of games (sorry!), but I've been told that this school world feels reminiscent of them. What surprised me was how much of Fire Emblem is about wandering around the monastery, meeting people and teaching classes. And, occasionally, entering battles.

Once I picked my house to join (there are three houses, each with an ambitious set of quirky characters to train and follow), the game continues to unfold through a calendar, which stops on various days when events happen. Sometimes, you teach a class or have a conversation. Sometimes it's a chance to wander the school grounds again. Or, it's a battle. Or, it's a choice of one of the above.

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Building up character relationships is a major part of the game, even more than battle.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

I found the back-and-forth between wandering-through-church-school and entering battle to be a strange mix, but the rhythm settled in for me after a few hours, and I started to understand how characters could level up skills and develop further. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a lot of submenus and lots of dialogue. That's a lot of tiny text on the Switch handheld display. This game is a much better fit on a TV than on the go. Maybe I should blame my old eyes, but this might not be such a good pick for the even smaller Switch Lite.

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The storyline feels like a slow-simmering dark mystery, and so far, even about 10 hours in, I feel like I'm only getting started. On top of that, you could follow two different storylines if you picked either of the other Houses. (I picked the Black Eagles, led by the princess Edelgard.)

There are also hints of romance lurking around every corner. Nothing has happened yet with anyone in my game, but there's been a lot of innuendo. Fire Emblem games are about following relationships over time. Also, serious gamers play Fire Emblem with permadeath, where characters die in battle and never come back. I don't do that. I play in casual mode, because I can't deal with losing things, and it gives me anxiety.

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Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Who is this game for?

If you've been playing Fire Emblem games before, and you love social RPGs like Persona, then this is perfect. It'll suck you in for many, many hours.

Anyone looking for a pure strategy game might find the social and wandering aspects weird. There are more pure strategy games on the Switch: Mario Plus Rabbids Kingdom Battle, or the excellent Into The Breach. And if you want a more free-flowing adventure game, or RPG, you might find Fire Emblem's calendar-based structure odd.

For kids, maybe this isn't your pick. It's not a family game, certainly. And the dialogue-heavy story can bog down at times. My 10-year-old watched me play for a while, was interested for a bit, then gave up.

I'm more into the game than I expected, but I don't think Fire Emblem: Three Houses is for me. Maybe in another 15-20 hours, I'll feel otherwise. It is, however, the closest to a big, sprawling, emotional social epic that the Switch has in its games library right now. And I think it's growing on me.