Fire Emblem: Three Houses is set to drop on the Switch in less than four months, making it the first non-Warriors Fire Emblem game on Nintendo’s new and shiny console. It’s an exciting prospect for me, both because this is the first time in years that I’ve actually owned a current console, and because I’ve been studying up on the franchise.
The Fire Emblem train has passed me by for many a year, with its confusing titles and recognizable faces limited to “that one guy in Smash Bros.,” but no more. Nintendo has provided me, a complete Fire Emblem newbie, with the only free and convenient study guide I could ever need: Fire Emblem Heroes. After a full eighteen months with the free-to-play mobile game, I am entirely confident that I can tell you everything there is to know about this — wait, let me check Wikipedia — oh fuck, this series is the same age as me? Really?
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It’s All Relative
The story of Fire Emblem — which may be an object of literal acquisition or more of a metaphor — is the story of the inheriting member of a royal family. Their relationship with their parental figure was possibly contentious, but what’s important to know is that someone has shuffled off this mortal coil so that the next generation can take the reins (except when they are not dead; put a pin in that).
Ike the-Other-Smash-Bros, for instance, is really broken up about his old man being super dead. He is understandably very upset when the gacha machine spits his dead dad out to talk to him for five minutes before reinstating the cold, harsh veil of death. Such is that cruel mistress, legal gambling. Actually, if Heroes is a representative sample, then at least sixty percent of the drama in this franchise has to do with metaphorical missed games of catch. But like, with bladed objects; because apparently nobody in Fire Emblem just takes their kids out for ice cream. No, no, it’s all “combat practice to lead a legendary group of mercenaries” this and “crushing emotional neglect to prepare for the hardships of royal leadership” that. It’s no wonder everyone is constantly on the brink of war with this many neurotic main characters.
Anyway, this seems to mean that 90% of the time the main character wields a heroic sword, and his little sister is a healer. Although if Lucius has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes love interests can be healers too. I have been reviewing anime for a long time, so believe me when i say i’ve put all my effort into not examining the corollary between those two statements.
Infinite Units in Infinite Combinations
At any rate, the hero is forced to leave their home and gather together a group of disparate forces in order to protect or consolidate or win back their kingdom. Sometimes this involves magical time travel of some sort involving the children of previous games, who may or may not be fixing the past and/or alternate timelines. This would explain why there are seven versions of Lyn, why the two redheaded swordsmen are allegedly father and son despite clearly being the same age, and why there are so many ten-year-olds on the field of battle.
Other important factions include bands of mercenaries, who have different names depending on what game they’re from but all seem to do basically the same thing, beast-people, and dragons. Both dragons and beast-people seem to be metaphors for discrimination, but also dragons are divine (or sometimes ancient and evil?) when they are not being small actually-800-year-old girls. I am absolutely certain I do not want to hear the fanbase’s opinions on the small dragon girls.
All of these characters are recruitable, and each one is divided into a different type of “unit” in the game’s turn-based strategy combat. All of them have their own strengths and weaknesses: infantry units are the all-around Marios, horseback cavalry can travel farther but not over certain environmental obstacles, and armored units are brick walls with anime faces painted on them.
Additionally, there is a severe armor shortage going on in the kingdom; while armorers can afford to outfit the top halves of their female warriors, particularly in the shoulder area, leg plating is absolutely verboten. Instead, flexible and mobile miniskirts give even the most hardcore tanks mobility, whether they need it or not. They are, I presume, built from the same hallowed material as the thong of shielding, and also seem to be measured along the same lines as the strength-level-to-boob-visibility relationship. This working theory is currently my only explanation for why Fire Emblem Loki has her tits out far enough that getting on a trampoline would be dangerous.
By far the most important part of the gameplay, however, seems to be meddling in the social lives of your soldiers in between life-or-death combat. As I understand, newer games have introduced the ability for the player avatar to romance characters in addition to playing implacable godlike matchmaker, and this is somehow a deep affront to the pure traditional values of smashing meat puppets together so that they’ll spawn stat boosts.
Regardless, this I get — social links with your pretty party members. Latter-day Persona in fantasy garb. It seems that multiple configurations of character hook-ups are possible, meaning that your choice of action figures could result in certain characters blinking out of existence altogether. I’m extremely curious to know whether the series addresses this deep existential uncertainty.
Same-sex romances seem to be few and far between, and if my gacha pulls are any indication, bows are the weapon of choice for queer men and swords for queer women. Which, frankly, I don’t know who let you all in on the newsletter but rest assured that I will be registering a complaint at the next meeting.
Why Fire Emblem?
So, what’s the core appeal? A franchise doesn’t keep itself going for 29 years without having something that keeps players coming back. And to dispense with the snark, I think I get it. The turn-based strategy is easy to learn but hard to master, as the saying goes — you can brute-force your way through most encounters by making a basic team with that accounts for the rock-paper-scissors damage system, but there are also buffs and passive status effects that become a crucial part of the mix when playing on higher difficulty settings.
The storytelling is a little bit removed, but when Heroes finally introduced enough characters to make its own stand-alone plot, it managed to score some actual emotional investment — at least enough for me to stress about getting more premium currency together to make sure I had a matched set of New Year-variant Laegjarn and Fjorm.
It’s not necessarily top-tier writing, but between the limitations of the onscreen action and snippet-style storytelling, it leaves lots of room for fans to play around and expand on the cast. It’s the kind of story that fandoms can feed off indefinitely. And kudos to Nintendo for conveying the essence of that in a free-to-play game that’s only a fraction of the full experience. Unless it was some kind of cunning plan to get free press for the longstanding franchise and thus drive more people to pay money for the new mainline entry into the series.