, the amount of planning you can do reaches whole new levels — as you can start planning your dream roster years before they’ll truly enter the wages of war.
Unlike other Fire Emblem games, the story of Three Houses is separated into two main acts: the first finds your customizable protagonist entering the Garreg Mach Monastery to train soldiers and lords of one of three countries. the second is set five years later, when as-of-yet unknown story developments draw the titular houses into a full-on war. We haven’t been told what the catalyst for this war is, but you can expect to face the very same people you’ll meet at the school.
Your time spent at the school has a very unique structure. Instead of going from battle to battle, you’ll advance by month, and spend the days doing a wide variety of activities, with a quest battle scheduled for your students at the end of the month. Some days you’ll be giving lessons to your chosen house’s soldiers to bolster their skills — and you can specifically tutor certain characters to nudge them in a direction so they can try to certify themselves as a particular unit type. Some characters are already predisposed to be better at learning weapon skills than others — or might have an ability that would maker them a better healer than an armored unit, but I was told there’s technically nothing stopping you from working extra hard to ensure all of your characters have access to becoming a pegasus knight if you so choose. By the end of your time in school, all of your students will likely pass their certification tests to gain access to several different unit types — and you can swap between their certified types before each battle without having to re-class them back to level 1. This means if you come across a battlefield full of archers, you can prepare your team by making sure your pegasus knights swap to something a bit more resistant to arrows, instead of having them sit out the fight entirely.
The idea that “anyone can be anything” initially gave me a bit of trepidation. After all, if I can endlessly tailor my soldiers to hold the advantage in every battle, where’s the challenge? Luckily, I learned that your time as an instructor is as much about making hard choices as it is planning for the war to come. You’ll have a set amount of free days each month when at the academy, and while there is no time limit if you wish to explore the massive school at your leisure — there are only so many activities you can participate in. Hanging out with your students in their off-time and bonding with them costs time, but it can also give you a boost in their motivation to get better in certain areas. You’ll need to be mindful of what activities you want to engage in — and with who — in order to make the most of your time, and that’s not counting side quests and secrets you can uncover. You can even forego exploring entirely on your days off and spend it holding seminars, engaging in mock-battles, or even just resting to get troop morale up. Every choice has its own pros and cons, and there doesn’t really seem to be a wrong answer. Each month is capped off with a battle quest that you’ll take your students on, giving you the whole month to prepare for the event.
If all of that sounds incredibly boring, tedious, or way to technical for you — you can literally skip all of it. You read that right. Almost every aspect of your time in the monastery (perhaps with the exception of the battles themselves) — can be bypassed. The game will automate by picking from all of your possible options, and make choices for you on what to do for the week, who to train, and where to focus your students efforts. With this in mind, you can skip an entire month’s worth of events and go straight to the battle at the end, and your students will be appropriately trained and ready for the encounter. However — when you let the game make all the choices for you, expect to miss out on a lot of content: from fully voiced scenes of interacting with your students, to exploring new areas of the monastery, and undertaking special tasks on the side.
Perhaps the biggest bit of info I learned was how my protagonists day’s off could also be spent chatting with members of rival houses at the academy. Not only do you get the chance to learn more about the other nations and their people — but you also have the opportunity to impress these characters by getting stronger, completing tasks, and having conversations with them. Impress them enough, and they may even entertain the idea of joining your band instead of their own house. This means that even after you lock yourself into one of the three houses — you aren’t necessarily locked out of units of the other houses (though don’t the Lord of the Golden Deer to ditch his kingdom for the Blue Lions). Just like other aspects of the academy, impressing characters that aren’t your students require precious time, so you won’t be able to to sway everyone to your team — but it may help some character avoid dying by your blade five years later. This fact alone has some incredible implications on how wild the story can get depending on your choices.
Some other fun facts I learned in my demo time at the academy:
- Motivation is a huge factor in helping your students become better. A character with poor motivation may not even want additional tutoring, and they’ll lose out on bonus experience or expertise.
- Motivation can be gained in a number of ways — like crafting food that a character likes and inviting them to eat with you, or giving your students time to rest.
- Many activities only allow you to pick a small number of characters to take part — but they’ll increase their bond with who they partner up with, and with you.
- You only get so many activity points at a time, but engage in things like fishing and gardening — and each have their own benefits.
- Even as a teacher, you’re still a viable unit in battle too — which means you’ll be learning just as much as your students, and can engage in faculty training for additional benefits.
- Some students may come to you for advice on what they should be learning. Maybe one student isn’t sure he should be a cavalier — and it will be up to you to influence his expertise level and motivation.
- As students gain expertise and study, you can see what their chances are of passing the certification for each class (100% means they are guaranteed to pass). If they fail, you’ll have to try again later, but if they pass — they’ll add that class to their list of what they can promote into and swap between in future battles.
- You can celebrate a student’s birthday! You can choose to host a small party to boost morale, or even give flowers to increase your bond, but it will require materials. Or you can just be a jerk and do nothing.
- The story you experience during the school year will largely be the same — but you’ll get more insight into your chosen house and the stories of the students you’ll teach.
- There are all types of animals that wander the monastery school — I saw cats, owls, and a dog (which I was unable to pet).
- The Garreg Mach Monastery is huge — so huge that once you explore an area, you can fast travel to it in subsequent weeks.
- When looking at the map of the school, you can see at a glance which students and characters are located in each area — and they’ll move around from week to week.
- Online functionality seems limited (no multiplayer battles), but you can see percentages of how other players spend their days off — which may help influence what you should do.
So, what about the battles? Even disregarding the entire school aspect of Three Houses (and its seems to be a big chunk of the game), battling has also gone through some pretty significant changes compared to previous titles. You’ll still fight turn-based battles on a grid-based map, select your units, stock up on weapons, and get a look at the enemy layout — but there’s plenty of new additions too. I only got a bit of hands-on time in a battle against some bandits that took place at some point during the school year, but here’s some interesting points I learned:
- As seen in some of the early trailers, each character has their own battalion that fights alongside them (which might give you some Advance Wars vibes), and the health of the character is also tied to the battalion they fight alongside.
- You can customize the battalions each character runs with. One of my archer students was backed by lance-wielding soldiers to help him counter close-range attackers, while my healer had a battalion of monks to increase her healing factor.
- Battalions can level up just like characters do, and can help increase your overall hit rate, crit, and other attributes.
- Combat animations can vary from the main character ordering his battalion into the fray ahead of the, or wading into combat themselves — and critical hits are as flashy as ever. You can even spot survivors of an enemy battalion flee as their combined health is depleted.
- Small red lines branching out from your enemies shows which characters they are likely to target on your turn, helping you decide who to protect, and which targets to take out first.
- The weapon triangle is largely gone — swords aren’t better than axes by default anymore. Much like Shadows of Valentia, weapon abilities now have increased effects against certain unit types.
- Characters can equip multiple combat arts to deal with a variety of situations and enemy types.
- Similar to Shadows of Valentia, Combat Arts have an associated cost. Unlike SoV, they don’t require health, but instead will increase the durability use on your chosen weapon.
- Characters and their battalions each have a Gambit Skill. These seem to vary wildly — from offensive maneuvers, to a skill that increased the movement range of everyone near the unit by 5. They also seemed to have their own cost — likely so you can’t use them all the time.
- Characters who have a high support rating with each other can boost the rating of their offensive Gambits when performing them close by. You can have up to 4 characters boost a single Gambit.
- You won’t be fighting against just enemy humans. A large beast was residing on the left side the map — and took up 4 whole spaces on the grid!
- This “King of Beasts” charged up a mighty attack that unleashed poison damage in a large area of effect around it, hitting several of my characters at once.
- The King of Beasts also had multiple health bars! Designated by red crystals (almost like Sekiro), completely knocking out its health would break one of the crystals before filling its health bar again. This makes killing creatures like The King of Beasts in one shot impossible.
- The traditional view displays each character on a grid space before zooming into battle alongside their battalions, but you can zoom in at any time to get a close up view of the battlefield as you move your allies around X-com style (though it can be a bit jarring and tough to control at this angle).
What little time I had with Fire Emblem: Three Houses left me desperate for more, as there’s still so much I don’t know about the game. What I do know is that Three Houses is shaping up to be an incredibly unique experience for everyone who plays it — whether you find yourself micro-managing every last lesson plan, or skipping straight to the battles. It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking that’s redefining Fire Emblem’s customization and strategy at its core, and I can’t wait to see where it all leads next month.
For more news on Nintendo at E3, be sure to read our breakdown of the Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo Treehouse live presentation, and our review of Nintendo’s Direct.
Brendan Graeber is IGN’s Guides Editor, and still has nightmares that he forgot to study for his paladin certification test 10 years after graduating. Follow him on Twitter.