Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 16, Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Three Houses is a stellar blend of Fire Emblem's past and its more modern incarnations, an all-encompassing game that brings the series to its beyond-the-battlefield peak.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Now, I have nothing against older Fire Emblem games. The proof of that is in these here rankings, in which two of the top four FE titles are from the SNES era, and the other is on the GameCube. Similarly, there is no denying that Fire Emblem, as a franchise, has been far more successful from a commercial standpoint — and as successful critically as it was during its Japanese-exclusive peak — during more modern times, since Awakening first released on the Nintendo 3DS and saved the series with record sales. Records that were then broken by its followup, Fates, and then once again, by today’s subject, Three Houses, which isn’t just the best-selling Fire Emblem ever, but also the best-selling tactical RPG of all time.

The older Fire Emblem titles were more brutal affairs. Not unfair, mind you, but unforgiving, uncompromising. The death of an ally was permanent, your forces forever weakened in some way because of the loss. Death would come because you weren’t paying enough attention, didn’t plot out enough moves ahead, didn’t account for potential changes to the scenario. As the series grew older and changes were implemented, permadeath remained, but was no longer forced upon you: you could now decide to play Fire Emblem in a way where losing in battle simply meant the unit was knocked out until next time. That’s not my preference, not even close, but the option being there hurts no one. If you want to go the classic, heartbreaking route, then by all means, just choose that, and please stop posting on the internet about it.

Fans of the old-school FE permadeath style did gain something new during this era of accessibility, though. More and more emphasis was put on the characters themselves, their personalities, and the relationships they could have with other characters. Whether they were platonic or romantic barely mattered: this new emphasis, which got its start in Path of Radiance but quickly expanded from there, let you fall in love with characters for reasons beyond whatever their skill sets and stats were, without having to do quite as much filling in the blanks in your head as to what they might be “like.” In Awakening, these support conversations were often, to be frank, a little batshit, with the tone of the game in support never fully matching the weight of what it was you were supposed to be doing. It was great fun and plenty entertaining, but a little off, all the same. Fates got a bit more serious, but still, the cartoonish level of conversation and characterization remained.

Three Houses has struck the best balance of the three new-style Fire Emblems, both in its tone and its presentation of that tone. Character personalities do a better job of making sense in both worlds they live in — that of the battlefield and that of a student at a prestigious university for future warriors and leaders of the world. They aren’t almost universally serious like classic FE characters could be, and yet, they aren’t cartoonish representations of what are supposed to be believable people, either. They feel more fleshed out, more real, because of this: sure, the characters are all fueled by some classic tropes, and there are admittedly some goofballs in the mix, but it all feels properly balanced and in line with the world they exist within, and that’s what matters.

The cast might seem large to the uninitiated, but it’s much smaller than it was in the admittedly unwieldy Fates: you stand a much better chance of fully getting to know all of these characters, in all their glory, than you ever did there. Especially since support conversations have been untethered from battle. You still gain support points in battles by having characters fighting next to each other, but there are so many other ways of earning support points now, that you are in a position to fully delve through a character’s conversations and earn full support marks with them without ever actually letting them battle at all, never mind alongside you. Which, when you have a huge roster on a repeat playthrough, is vital. Plus, now your need for support no longer dictates your battle strategy if you don’t want it to: so now, you don’t just have more freedom about who you want to be using in a specific battle, but in how you utilize them, too.

Three Houses also does a much better job of telling a story from three perspectives than Fates did, and Fates didn’t really falter at that. Three Houses’ approach and narrative design is just that good. It’s also so much more focused and logical in its approach than Awakening, which lost points with me because of how the urgency of the story never matches up with the slow-paced, wandering, objective-free way the game expects you to act on the overworld map. It helps that, with Fates, every time you played a new version of the story, it felt like starting over from scratch, because that’s exactly what you were doing. In Three Houses, you can carry over much of what you did in your previous playthroughs, thanks to an in-game point system where you can cash in those points to build up support and stats for characters you already had in your party in the past. Since recruitment of characters from different Houses — more on that later — is possible once your main character, Byleth, reaches a certain level of experience in a given field, being able to transfer all of your past progress to another playthrough means you’re ahead of the game, recruitment-wise, on every subsequent play of Three Houses. And this carries over from difficulty to difficulty, too, so, if you want to play the first version of the story on normal, the next on hard, and the last on maddening, you can do so without ever having to start from scratch other than the very first time you play.

While Three Houses doesn’t have the same level of difficulty as much older Fire Emblem titles, and has taken further steps to make the gameplay even more accessible than Awakening’s optional permadeath did, the battling is superior to that of its modern predecessors. There are some much larger, demonic foes, which require a brand new level of strategy that hasn’t existed in prior FE games, and those baddies will ruin your day if left unchecked, too. As a whole, Three Houses is better balanced, and it’s less reliant on sheer luck to get through. If you crank the difficulty on Awakening, you lose more often because, suddenly, your enemies can surprise with critical hits all the time. On tougher difficulties in Three Houses, you face more enemies, higher-leveled enemies, and more aggressive enemies.

That’s a much better way of going about it, one you can account for and adjust to with enough practice. There is no adjusting to “lol I crit you again” other than not playing anymore because fuck you, game. It all works very well with that extra level of accessibility I mentioned, too. For the longest time, Fire Emblem players have played the game in two different ways. The first is to just accept that you got a character killed and move on. The second is to swear — under your breath or loudly, your choice — and then hit reset on your game. In the Game Boy Advance-era FE titles, there was an autosave after every action, so you would have to restart the entire map to avoid losing that unit. Awakening introduced the ability to play “casual” mode without permadeath on, so those folks avoided the issue entirely, but if you played the classic mode and still, on occasion, didn’t want to lose a character forever, you had to reset your game and start over just the same.

Three Houses introduces a gameplay mechanic tied into the story, which essentially lets you turn back time to a specific turn in order to try again. You gain more and more uses of this feature as you progress through the game, and like with other stats, progression here carries over into other playthroughs. Since the uses are not unlimited, you can run out in a given stage, and that means, unless Byleth or a story-specific character who must remain alive dies and sends you to a Game Over screen, you’re stuck with whatever happens, whoever dies is dead, from then on. On the normal difficulty, you’re unlikely to run out of uses of the “Divine Pulse” unless you’ve well and truly biffed the whole operation, but you might find yourself using it a bit more on hard, and on maddening, well, it’s named that way for a reason, friends.

Like with the option to turn permadeath on and off, if you have complaints about the Divine Pulse system, just… don’t use it. For me, despite my love of Fire Emblem games that hate me and want me to fail, the Divine Pulse was pretty useful for if I decided I wanted to approach a level differently than I had initially started out, or if I was playing a bit more casually because I felt like experiencing the story more than I felt like an increase in my blood pressure. I didn’t have to fully reset or restart a stage in these instances, like you would with past FE games. It’s an acknowledgement from developer Intelligent Systems that not everyone plays Fire Emblem the way it was initially intended to be played, and again, if you are intent on still playing it that way — again, I love to — you still can. And hell, not having to restart an entire level because your main character died is great. Just go back a turn or two and keep that situation from happening again. It’s exactly the same, in terms of learning how to play the game better: it just takes you less time to implement the lesson you learned this way.

Alright, let’s talk about the game’s actual setup for a minute. It’s called “Three Houses” because you, a mercenary, become the new professor at an academy meant to train the next generation of nobility, warriors, researchers, and more that’ll help keep the world running. At the game’s start, you must choose which House you’ll be the professor of. The Black Eagles are the house of the empire, led by the empress-in-waiting, Edelgard. The Blue Lions are led by the young prince, Dimitri, and represent the Kingdom, which split off from the empire years before. And last, there are the Golden Deer, which are more a collection of independent states working together to keep from being reabsorbed by either the empire or the kingdom. They’re led by the heir to that particular group, Claude. All three of these characters are three of the best Fire Emblem has ever produced, and they’re all in one game. There is so much depth to them, so much care put into both their personalities and their beliefs and their narratives, and if you don’t believe me, please look to how much fan art is still made of all three of these characters two years after release. You can only play alongside one at a time, however: while (nearly) all of the other characters are recruitable regardless of which house you choose, their leaders are untouchable, their fates predetermined based on the choice you made.

While Fates was about showing a story from three different perspectives based on the choice you made — whether you aligned with your blood family, your adoptive family, or decided to risk it all by defying fate and going out on your own to bring them together — Three Houses is about how Byleth’s influence can change the shape of the world and those around them. There is no canon Three Houses story, not really. You play the game and experience the world as it would be if Byleth made one choice or another. Spoilers to follow, obviously. The influence of Byleth keeps Edelgard from going to places she cannot come back from in her efforts to start a revolution that will change the very nature of the world she and her class is to inherit. Byleth parterning with the Blue Lions is the only path in which Dimitri does not die a tragic, seemingly unavoidable death brought on by the decisions he makes. (Really, tragic doesn’t even begin to describe what the game puts poor Dimitri through.) And Claude, well, Claude needs someone else he can trust in his life that’s filled with secret enemies and potential plots against him, and that could by Byleth.

In addition, the only way for you to discover the truth behind everything going on in this world, past, present, and future, is by playing as all three of the houses. Byleth themselves won’t learn all of these truths, just whatever parts are revealed in each respective playthrough, but you, the player, will see how everything connects, how the pieces all fit, and so on. It’s exceptionally well done, the kind of intricacy in narrative that existed in the Fire Emblems that never officially made it outside of Japan, but alongside the kinds of features we’ve come to expect from the Fire Emblems of the last decade, too.

Speaking of those truths, Kotaku ran a piece last summer explaining how Byleth is a “great example of a nonbinary video game character,” and the supporting examples tie into how the cast treats them, as well as how their reception in the story and by those around them ties into being nonbinary. There’s a reason I haven’t described Byleth as your avatar here, like in Awakening or Fates, because Byleth isn’t representing you in the way that Robin was meant to in the former. It’s a fascinating piece that merits reading, as it shows that there is a level of depth here to the characterization and story and feelings of a seemingly “silent” protagonist that you might not expect, and it comes from creating a character that is not meant to be the charming everyman of the previous couple FE titles. Read the piece, play the game again, and see how certain bits of dialogue hit you differently as you read them with this context in mind: as the author, Sisi Jiang concluded, “I don’t think it’s enough for video games to have neutral pronouns: I want stories about being a misfit in a binary world. I want stories about being human in a messy and intolerant world.” Three Houses delivered on that ask.

The last boss is different depending on which house you choose, as are some of the stages you play. Edelgard’s Black Eagles story line even ends sooner than the other two, because, while you’re trying to stop the Black Eagles in the other two playthroughs, you’re on the front lines of the revolution against the Church that runs the monastery that serves as an academy for these students. While you can certainly lob some complaints at Fire Emblem for having an empress declare herself for the people in a way other leaders are not, or for the fact that a storyline about handing power and equality to the people hinges on the actions and decisions and influence of, effectively, one person, it all still works together so long as you aren’t planning on copying it as a strategy for any revolution you yourself want to enact. Hell, we didn’t complain when Luke Skywalker took down the Death Star or the Emperor, did we?

You will come into conflict with the other houses. At first, it’s all mock battles staged for house supremacy, but these are foreshadowing the real conflict, with actual bloodshed, that is to come in the future. You will end up killing characters you like, characters you had lunch with sometimes, characters you spoke to at every opportunity, or maybe even helped out sometimes. It’s heartbreaking, and works better than Fates’ setup, where it was legitimately sad to be killing your main character’s siblings. It’s even better in Three Houses, because you actually get to know these people to a more significant degree, even if they aren’t in your house.

You can, however, recruit almost everyone, as said. And if you need motivation to recruit beyond being able to build the most powerful possible team in order to play on the hardest difficulty level, well, “not murdering your friends” is pretty good. Make them all your students, teach them what they want to know — be it magic, axes, riding a horse, becoming a pegasus knight, swords, leadership, whatever — and then you don’t have to kill them. Pretty good deal, if you ask me.

If there is a complaint to be made about Three Houses, it’s that the battles aren’t very different. Your goal in nearly every stage is to rid it of enemies. The diversity of goals found within games like Path of Radiance just doesn’t exist here, but on the other hand, there is so much other stuff to do in Three Houses besides battling that it barely matters. The downloadable content that adds a fourth house helps change things up, and is worth playing to get the extra recruitable characters, too, so there are ways to find some variety on the battlefield. But as said, between the various ways you can spend your days — training, chatting, fishing, eating, raising morale via sauna, educating, and so on — the same-y battles aren’t as direct of a problem in Three Houses as they are in, say, the unranked 3DS title, Shadows of Valentia. While “clear the stage of enemies” is almost always the goal, at least said stages are well constructed, and you will put a lot of thought into how you want to approach things.

And if you don’t want to be battling all the time, you don’t have to. The story of Three Houses progresses on a specific, unchangeable timeline. It’s not open-ended like Awakening was, which is great, because as mentioned, the way Awakening’s story wanted you to play vs. the way it expected you to play in order to progress the story didn’t match up at all. Three Houses progresses week-to-week, over the course of a school year. Events will happen within the week — birthdays, characters wanting to have conversations with you — but you’ll spend most of your weekdays educating the students and bettering them. On the weekends, you’ll get a “free” day, which you can use to roam the campus and engage in conversations, return lost items you’ve found to their rightful owners, train yourself by learning from other professors or leaders of the monastery, and more. Or, you can skip the roaming if you’ve already done it once that month, and battle battle battle all the time. Or you can host a seminar by an expert in a specific field, to teach a few of your students (and yourself) more about that field.

You’ll want to go with some variety here, because your students need motivation to learn during the week. Loads of activities can increase motivation: eating a meal with two students will raise their motivation, as will the aforementioned seminars. You can also raise all of your students’ motivation if Byleth is the MVP of a battle, or by using your free day to actually let students rest and do absolutely nothing. All of these options keep the day-to-day, non-battle stuff from being a chore, since you can cater both to the needs of your students and to your own motivations. And I mean you, the player, in that instance. Don’t feel like battling and just want to get to the next story beat? Then take a rest day, and let the game automatically teach your students, too. Or roam around campus for the second time that month, but do it not for roaming so much as for reloading your activity points, which can be used for a variety of, well, activities that increase motivation or skills.

A thing I appreciate about Three Houses is that it gives you options for how you want to experience the game, and for how long. Me? My first playthrough on normal took about 30 hours. I then spent another 50 hours on a second playthrough with a different house on a tougher difficulty, played the non-canon DLC to recruit the characters within it and make them available for my third playthrough with the last remaining house. I’ve spent about 150 hours total with Three Houses since its 2019 release, but I could have spent so much more time with it. My wife also loves this game, but she’s only played with one house so far, and yet, she put in over 100 hours with just that house. She might not play again for years, if ever, but she got her 100 hours in, and it’s her favorite Fire Emblem because of it.

“What’s the best Fire Emblem?” is a tough question to answer, because of how different the games and the tastes of its fans, now stretching over 30 years, are. This is the highest-ranked Fire Emblem on the list, making it the best Fire Emblem by that measure, but I do prefer to look at things kind of in terms of their eras, too. The best of the classic-style Fire Emblems is Genealogy of the Holy War. The best “pure” Fire Emblem experience is Path of Radiance. And the best of the modern games is Three Houses, and it ain’t close. It just so happens to also be the best of both worlds, with all of the non-battle elements cranked up to 11 in a way that makes Three Houses the best game with Fire Emblem in the title, as well as one of the great tactical RPGs ever. Maybe you prefer Genealogy or Path of Radiance to Three Houses, for one reason or another, and I don’t blame you for that: the difference between 37, 30, and 16 on this list is real, but not so significant that I don’t understand where your disagreement stems from.

For my money, though, Three Houses masterfully blended together the series’ past and its present into a game that should be enjoyed by all but the most ardent message board complainers. And that’s no small thing when you’re talking about what is supposed to be a niche-ish subgenre of JRPGs.

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