The release of Fire Emblem: Three Houses on the Nintendo Switch was the first time that the Fire Emblem series ever truly went mainstream. Since its release in July 2019, almost three million copies of the game have sold and won multiple awards in the strategy and simulation categories.
Despite being such a big hit, it was a complete miss for me. It’s very rare for me to actively dislike a game, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses left a very bad taste in my mouth. I don’t like the graphical style, I don’t like the themes, and I don’t like how heavily the game resembles other popular J-RPG franchises like Persona. It felt far more like a generic high-school sim with some strategy elements, rather than the epic, military-themed tactical role-playing game I was expecting. I spent more time doing mundane side quests and navigating around the school itself than I spent actually engaging with the strategy gameplay for which the series is known. It didn’t feel like a Fire Emblem game at all.
This isn’t me bashing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I don’t think that it’s a bad game per se, but I do think a lot of players who enjoyed Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be shocked to see just how different the gameplay and overall aesthetic feels compared to it’s handheld predecessors. Perhaps the reason that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is so critically acclaimed, despite being so different from it’s siblings, is because for a lot of people, Fire Emblem: Three Houses will be their first and only interaction with the Fire Emblem series. Having never played the previous games, they would have nothing to compare it to. Honestly, I sincerely hope not. Fire Emblem has so much more to offer fans – you just have to be prepared to put down your joycons and pick up a proper handheld.
We are going back to the Nintendo 3DS era – this was the golden age of truly excellent Fire Emblem games being released, pretty much back-to-back, between 2012 and 2017. These were the games that gave Fire Emblem a clear identity; a clear vision for where the series was heading; and an aesthetic that felt entirely unique.
What is Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy-RPG franchise developed by Intelligent Systems (who also developed Super Smash Bros Brawl and Paper Mario) and published by Nintendo. Like a lot of Nintendo’s franchises, Fire Emblem has an unmistakable Japanese, unashamedly anime aesthetic. Fans of JRPGs and strategy games alike will find a friend in Fire Emblem – it’s got all the eccentricity of JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest with tactical gameplay similar to that of the Disgaea series or the Banner Saga. And let’s face it – everyone loves watching cute anime girls and surly anime guys prance around the battlefield giving dramatic monologues between skewering each other on oversized swords. Don’t try and deny it. You’re amongst friends here.
The franchise’s strongest focus is its militaristic theme. The player takes command of a small army of 8-14 unique units and sets them against the opposition army. Each side takes turns moving their units, attacking and using items until one side eliminates the other. The objective is to level up your units, upgrade their equipment and advance their class so you can lead them to victory through the many staged-battles throughout the game.
Battles play out very similarly to a game of chess, though much less complicated (and much more fun). The player has an over-head view of the battlefield, which is composed of tiles set out in a grid, as if to simulate a chess board. This grid-based system determines how far each unit can move and from what position they can attack. The mechanics are very easy to get the hang of, and the game will even offer prompts and predictions for what might happen if you move your units to a certain position.
Fire Emblem isn’t all about swords and seriousness though – there’s actually a huge emphasis on the units themselves and a lot of the storytelling is done through these character’s interactions with each other. Units developing good relationships to one another is one of the keys to success in the game. However out of place it might seem for a military strategy series, romance is actually a core component of the Fire Emblem franchise. Male and female units can actually fall in love, get married and have children. Then the children themselves become playable units! How cute – uh, I mean tactical – is that?
The franchise is most famous for it’s perma-death mechanics. If your units die on the battlefield, there is no way to revive them – with only 40 or so units to last you through the entire 20-30 hour campaign, the stakes are sky-high walking into each encounter. Unsurprisingly, Fire Emblem has a reputation for being infamously unforgiving, even for a military strategy game. Thankfully, since the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening in 2012, players can opt-in or opt-out of the perma-death feature. Call me the ‘filthy casual’ that I am, but this is a great thing in my view – the frustration-factor of perma-death mechanics is certainly not for everyone and should never be a barrier preventing players from enjoying this fantastic franchise.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
True to its name, this is the game that first ‘awakened’ many gamers, including myself, to the franchise. Having spent 12 years of its life as a niche franchise that found little success outside of Japan, Fire Emblem: Awakening introduced the franchise to the American and European mass-markets. It was such a success that seemingly overnight it brought the Fire Emblem series into the spotlight with critical success.
When it comes to introducing a strategy game to a wide audience, the name of the game is accessibility and proper difficulty scaling. Fire Emblem Awakening hit a home run on this one – the game does an excellent job of easing new players in, introducing new systems and mechanics slowly as the earlier levels go on.
The pixelated graphics are very simple, but highly stylised. I’m a great fan of the 16-bit character sprite design, which would remain a feature of the series all the way until the release of Three Houses, where it was dropped in favour of 3D sprites. Being that it’s the first ever Fire Emblem game to be released on the 3DS hardware, the developers were clearly trying to play it safe – the 3D backgrounds and animations seem a little primitive compared to the quality of future Fire Emblem releases – but they completely knocked it out of the park with the beautiful animated cutscenes scattered throughout the campaign. They’re a delight to watch, it’s just a shame there aren’t more of them.
Fire Emblem Awakening’s characters are where the game’s brilliance really shine through. There are a core militia of key characters that you take through the entirety of the 25-30 hours campaign (especially if you play with the perma-death mechanic turned off, so you don’t lose any of your units). These characters are almost universally likeable, with strong personalities. I’m by no means a sentimental person, but I’m not afraid to admit I genuinely cared about these characters. It’s quite sad really… but a testament to the game’s ability to jab me in the ‘feels’.
Speaking of having one’s ‘feels’ assaulted, Fire Emblem Awakening’s story is also a stand-out feature. It’s the only entry on this list to have multiple slightly different endings, depending on the decision the player makes at the finale (and also who you choose to romance throughout the campaign). The story features themes of time travel, destiny and averting certain disaster. Best of all, it clips along at a great pace – there wasn’t a single chapter I had to grind through.
The romance features are very tastefully woven into the game’s aesthetic, so as to compliment the story instead of distract you from it. As the relationships between your units improve by having them fight together, they will receive some very impactful stat boosts and special abilities. This means that seeing your units grow closer to each other is not only heartwarming, but also strategically valuable – so even if you’re not a hopeless romantic, there’s still a very good reason to engage with the mechanic. Some pairings even unlock side missions, extra cutscenes or change the main storyline!
To summarise how I feel about Fire Emblem Awakening (and I can’t believe I’m doing this) I’ll have to quote the marvellous Todd Howard: “It just works.” Fire Emblem Awakening is a great example of what can happen when each individual feature of a great Fire Emblem game – dialogue, narrative, combat, romance – is given the time and attention it deserves, to produce a well-rounded result which excels across the board. There’s not one aspect of Fire Emblem Awakening that lets it down, and there’s really not much else to say.
…and no, it’s NOT because I have a crush on Chrom. That’s ridiculous.
Fire Emblem: Fates
Fire Emblem: Fates is a game about a bitter rivalry between two neighbouring kingdoms – Hoshido and Nohr – and the protagonists’ desperately struggle to end the fighting. In actuality, Fire Emblem: Fates isn’t “a” game, but rather three distinct games, following the main character down three completely unique plot lines: one where the protagonist sides with their birth family in Hoshido (Birthright); one where the protagonist sides with their adoptive family in Nohr (Conquest); and one where the protagonist breaks away from them both to form a neutral army (Revelation.)
Do be aware that Fire Emblem: Conquest is categorically more challenging than either Birthright or Revelation, so I would not recommend purchasing the Conquest version unless you’re already a seasoned strategist. I played through the Birthright version, as it’s the most popular and accessible of the three.
The combat and overall gameplay in Fire Emblem: Fates is almost identical to that of Fire Emblem: Awakening – it is slick and straightforward – apart from a host of new weapons being added to the game, and the weapon’s triangle being reversed. Many weapon classes have been completely renamed, which totally baffled me at first. It took me some time to learn the new matchups and figure out which weapons were which on the old weapon triangle. Obviously, this won’t be a problem for new players.
As I mentioned above, the Conquest version of the game is purposefully much more difficult than it’s siblings, with more challenging terrain and more diverse enemies. If you’re already familiar with the Fire Emblem style of strategy (or you’re in the market for a challenging strategy experience) then Conquest’s combat might make it the more varied and rewarding choice – despite its reputation, Conquest’s difficulty never feels unfair, just unforgiving.
Unfortunately, the romance-sim elements that enhanced Fire Emblem: Awakening so much have been downplayed in Fire Emblem: Fates. Romantic relationships between units don’t affect the story in any meaningful way, and the stat boosts you get from improving units’ relationships have been reduced. Even the pairing-up system from Fire Emblem: Awakening has been watered down so as to render the majority of units most useful on their own, rather than in a team. I found this to be quite sad as I always enjoyed playing match-maker, both on and off the battlefield.
I have to admit that at first I wasn’t impressed by the characters in the Birthright version of Fire Emblem: Fates, with some of them being intentionally unlikeable in the early chapters of the game (for story-telling purposes) and others coming off as one-dimensional and unimaginative. Luckily, most of them really grew on me over time, which is a good job considering that the impact of the game’s narrative relies heavily on the players engaging and empathising with it’s characters. Ultimately, the characters in the Birthright roster aren’t quite as likeable or as interesting as their Revelation and Conquest counterparts (and certainly not as likeable as their Fire Emblem: Awakening cousins) but they’re still a charming battalion with which to do battle.
Fire Emblem: Fates’ storytelling is definitely the most “adult” of the 3DS family, and deals with some thought-provoking questions on the nature of loyalty, kinship and what the true meaning of “family” is. Is it the people you share your blood-ties with, or the people who raised you? Should someone’s lineage define who they are? Most of the meat of Fire Emblem: Fates’ story is told through characters’ relationships and interactions with each other – whilst it might not be as action-packed or fantastical as other entries in the 3DS family, it’s no less engaging.
Whilst the Birthright and Conquest version of the game both attack the key themes of vengeance and loyalty from completely juxtaposed positions, the Revelation version finds an interesting middle ground. It tells a much more nuanced and dramatic version of events than either of its predecessors, which arguably come down two hard on either side. Birthright’s story-arch is definitely the most one-dimensional version of events, following the “good guys” on a mission to save the world. Conquest’s story-arch goes in completely the opposite direction and inevitably portrays the player as one of the “bad guys.” Which version of Fire Emblem: Fates you feel tells the “best” story probably depends on which interpretation of events appeals to you most, and on what role you want to play in the story – you can choose your own fate.
That’s what it all comes down to in the end. Perhaps what makes Fire Emblem: Fates such a fantastic addition to the 3DS family is not it’s merit as a single game, but rather the choice it offers the player in how they want to experience the narrative. Do you want to side with the bad guys, or the good guys, or neither? Do you want a more challenging or more forgiving combat experience? Each version will cater to the needs of a specific audience; where one version is weak, another version will excel.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia has arguably the most generic premise of the 3DS family – you must defeat the foreign invaders trying to destroy your kingdom – but the gameplay itself is the furthest thing from generic. This is a complete re-imagining of the Fire Emblem franchise and vastly different from the games that came before it.
Fire Emblem Echoes is a dual narrative, meaning that there are two separate story arcs being played out simultaneously, one from the perspective of Alm and one from the perspective of Celica. Although their individual narratives come together to tell a bigger story, they each journey across the continent of Valentia separately for a large portion of the game.
Whilst I’m a big fan of the dual narrative style, I don’t think it’s the right fit for the Fire Emblem franchise. Both Alm and Celica have their own separate armies to command – it’s hard to get as emotionally invested with characters that you only play with half of the time, and the rest of the time have nothing to do with. There are too many secondary characters to keep track of, and I found myself getting confused trying to work out which units, items and skills belong to which militia. Having said that, the two armies do merge in the latter half of the game, and you don’t technically have to play through each story arc simultaneously. I would recommend playing through one protagonist’s narratives to completion before switching to the other, so you can keep track of what’s going on.
Credit where credit is due, the dialogue and voice acting is the best in the series so far. Even though the premise isn’t the most creative, the tales are told more thoroughly and cinematically than previous games, with more cut scenes and less long sections of dialogue, which is a welcome change. The method of story-telling has definitely entered the modern day.
Another notable change Fire Emblem Echoes brought to the franchise was that part of the game is played in a 3rd person over-the-shoulder view. Dungeons and caves are rendered fully in 3D, and explored by the protagonist on foot with full manoeuvrability, similarly to a Legend of Zelda style. This adds a completely new dimension (literally) to the franchise which had previously been played exclusively in 2D.
It’s hard to deny that adding a dungeon-crawling aspect certainly adds spice and variety to the series, and it IS very well executed – the environments look great, and I mean, who doesn’t love delving for that sweet loot? It’s also a fantastic way to grind levels and equipment for your units, since the enemies constantly respawn. Having said that, I find it ends up pulling focus away from the game’s strategy elements, in favour of more adventure and exploration. This might be ideal for some players – it depends how much of a strategy-orientated experience you’re looking for, and how much time you’re wanting to spend away from the battlefield.
In terms of the combat, there’s nothing new to catch players truly off-guard, but here are a few features that are noticeably absent. For example, the weapons triangle has been scrapped. That means that the individual classes in the game don’t feel as distinct, and apart from some classes having higher defence or speed or skill, there isn’t as much room to be tactical in exploiting weapon weaknesses with speciality classes. You also can’t fight with two units as a pair. Each unit fights on it’s own which means you can’t take advantage of the team-up buffs and skills. Overall, it’s clear that the focus for the franchise is being pulled away from raw strategy in favour of diversifying the gameplay. Fire Emblem Echoes’ combat appears to have been watered down even more than in Fire Emblem: Fates, which is a crying shame.
When all is said and done, I think the mistake the Nintendo made in Shadows of Valentia was that, in trying to model Fire Emblem in the image of what they thought western audiences would prefer, they stripped the game of all the eccentric JRPG charm that attracted western audiences to the franchise in the first place. With it’s extravagant characters, corny romance and dramatic dialogue, Fire Emblem offered something that western players couldn’t easily find in the mainstream market. Stripping away those features of the franchise left Shadows of Valentia feeling somewhat bare and lifeless compared to it’s siblings. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Shadows of Valentia is a fantastic and enjoyable strategy game with by far the most polish and variety of any Fire Emblem game on this list.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
I hope this journey through Fire Emblem’s not-so-distant past has been enlightening. Playing through these games and experiencing the franchise for the first time are some of my most treasured gaming experiences; it has been a delight to share them with the Internet.
I believe that playing through the older games in the franchise before playing through Three Houses made me realise that, for me, a lot of the new and innovative features Fire Emblem: Three Houses has added to the franchise are completely surplus to requirement. The truth is that you don’t need an endless stream of sidequests, vamped up 3D graphics and a massive military academy to wander around, to make a great Fire Emblem game. Sometimes, less really is more. But then, perhaps it’s just nostalgia talking.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has set a clear precedent for how Fire Emblem games will be developed going forward. Given the sheer amount of content Fire Emblem: Three Houses offers to players – 95 hours of it to be precise – it’s hard to imagine the franchise returning to it’s humble 20-30 hour roots, however great the previous games were.
I have to give credit where it’s due though – Fire Emblem: Three Houses has launched the series into the mainstream full throttle, and that’s hardly something I can grumble about. I can only hope that, as time goes on and new consoles come and go, these games aren’t resigned to the annals of Fire Emblem’s history. However limited and quaint they might seem in comparison, they do not deserve to live in the shadow of their younger, higher production-value sibling.