Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the game Fates should have been.
Developer Intelligent Systems has made a lot of tweaks to its formula for the series' first outing on the Nintendo Switch, and the result of those changes is a game that marries Fire Emblem's dual personalities in a meaningful and satisfying way.
If you don't know about Fire Emblem already, a quick primer: It's an almost-three-decade-old tactical RPG franchise from Japan that only came to the West after characters like Roy appeared in Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. It didn't truly rise to worldwide prominence until the release of Awakening on the 3DS in 2012.
Fire Emblem games are epic fantasy tales about nobles, knights and mages, often spanning years. While the series has always had grand, turn-based battles, it's increasingly focused on the relationships between the myriad characters fighting in them. Three Houses follows this path, too, but with the move from 3DS to Switch, it does so in a more accomplished, natural way. Now, what happens between conflicts is just as important as the battles themselves.
Three Houses is set in Fódlan, a continent split into a trio of nations controlled by noble bloodlines. In the center of Fódlan is a monastery that plays home to the Church of Seiros, the region's main religion. And in that monastery is an officer's academy where each nation's best and brightest are sent to learn about knighthood. This school is segregated, so students from each nation go into their own class.
The setup is somewhat similar to Fates, but your role in the story is very different. As the game begins, the academy happens to be inducting the future leaders of each country. Your character (who can be male or female) is a new professor at this school and must choose one of the three houses, and therefore future leaders, to teach. Your decision affects how the story will unfold and which characters you will end up fighting alongside.
Once you've made your decision, things settle into the routine of everyday school life, but it's not long before strange things start occurring. The story then shifts towards the twists and turns Fire Emblem games are known for, and you begin taking your students into increasingly challenging battles.
Goodbye, weapon triangle
In Three Houses, sword does not beat ax, ax does not beat lance and lance does not beat sword. This rock-paper-scissors system has been a huge part of Fire Emblem combat, and while this isn't the first Fire Emblem game to drop it -- see Gaiden in '92 and its recent remake Shadows of Valentia -- it is still likely to be a contentious decision.
In place of the triangle, characters learn combat arts as they study and fight. You'll find a sword art that's effective against beasts, an ax art that smashes through armor and a bow art that increases your range. These special attacks come at a cost: Fire Emblem weapons usually degrade by a point per attack, but utilizing an art can reduce durability by as much as five points.
There is actually still some hidden weapon triangle stuff going on -- advanced lance users unlock the "swordbreaker" skill that makes those duels more favorable, and so on -- but it just doesn't play as big a part in combat as it used to. Instead of just putting my ax user in sight of a lance-wielding enemy, I had to devise a strategy and use terrain to my advantage.
After initial doubts, I'm all for the change. The shift to exploiting class weaknesses over "what weapon is this enemy carrying" also makes a lot of sense. It's mirroring the status quo for bows and flyer class enemies, and how class-effective weapons (which make a return) work. With that said, playing the game at normal difficulty was not particularly challenging. There's a mechanic that lets you rewind turns if you make an error, and I generally felt overleveled for a lot of missions. I usually ignore the "this mode is for experienced players" advice that games give, but this time I wish I hadn't.
Another thing worth mentioning is re-classing. As your students level up, you'll have them take certification exams to change class from, for example, a soldier to pegasus knight. To pass exams, a student needs to be proficient enough in the relevant skills. This is similar to old games, but the new bit is students can be certified in multiple classes at any time, and you can then select which class a character enters a battle as.
There is no limit to how many classes your character can be certified in, besides the fact that time is limited, so there are only so many skills you'll be able to level up sufficiently to pass exams. The flexibility is nice, especially later in the game when your needs may shift.