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Fire Emblem: Three Houses' school setting perfectly bolsters its RPG chops

I hadn't really realised it until I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but war and school makes for a pretty potent mix in fiction.

Obviously these two disparate elements encountering each other is a tragedy in the real world, but in lands of fantasy it somehow just works. Perhaps it's in relatability - not everybody can relate to a battle-hardened soldier, but everybody has been a teenager muddling through the social and academic challenges of school.

It's perhaps not a surprise, then, that stories built around the trope of a school and its students battling some outer threat work so well. There's Harry Potter and his buddies' battling against nazi wizards, the intrepid gang of each Persona game taming demons and of course Final Fantasy 8, where irresponsible adults decide to use highly-trained teenagers to fight a war for them. All are brilliant in their own way. After playing the game's opening chapters, we can now add Fire Emblem: Three Houses to the list of excellent school-based media.

In a twist on the typical formula, you actually join the school as a teacher.

Intelligent Systems and Nintendo have been confidently knocking it out of the park with Fire Emblem's turn-based strategy combat for a while now. That side of the series has pretty much always been good, but for my money the thing that flipped Fire Emblem's fortunes for the better in Awakening was a combination of the perfect platform, the 3DS, some smart difficulty tweaks and a story and cast of characters that really grabbed players. Basically, the strategy stuff was great but was elevated significantly by the role-playing side of the game.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses goes all-in on that lesson learned. It's true that the turn-based strategy combat has been given a lick of paint to make it more interesting and dynamic-looking, turning units from single recognizable characters into sizable battalions and squads led by those recognizable faces - but under the hood, combat will be a largely familiar affair to series fans. It's what happens between the battles that's truly different.

Between combat encounters, the player will be kicked back to the monastery which is essentially a large boarding school. The school is pretty evenly split between three factions, each led by the heir to the premiership of a nearby country. These countries all share borders, but the monastery forms a sort of neutral ground between them, training their brightest and best in everything from botany to writing and, of course, war. As students, you'll battle bandits and other nefarious types, but eventually all must return to their home countries to fulfill their duties. You can probably see where this will likely go as the story progresses.

You end up joining the school as one of its teachers. The school is an actual 3D environment you walk around in classic RPG fashion that in practice feels quite a lot like the hub areas of Persona games. It has all of the areas you'd imagine - dormitories, a cathedral, training grounds, a greenhouse and pond, classrooms and so on. Each of these areas has activities associated with it; you can get involved with the cathedral choir or catch fish at the pond and plant seeds in order to gather ingredients that can then be cooked in the dining room. You can also just walk around and get to know the students.

Battles still play out as a deeply tactical, strategic affair.

All of this is in service of growth. There's the typical RPG growth - events at school might get you better gear or extra cash to spend on items ready for battle - but there's also a huge focus on character development in the narrative, interpersonal sense. Three Houses features a 12-month calendar, and you'll be prompted to do things like wish your students a happy birthday.

Character relationships have long impacted battles in Fire Emblem, and that remains true here - those that know each other well will assist each other and offer stat bonuses and the like in encounters. If you cook a neat meal in the dining room, which students to share it with will be a major consideration as it helps to foster relationships that then factor into the coming battles. Days are limited, so you'll need to think carefully about how to spend time, too.

Early in the game you're forced to choose one of the three houses as your own, but you can then poach characters from other houses to your own by convincing them they'd be better off with you. All of this is done in the RPG phase - perhaps by completing side quests in the monastery, or by improving certain stats then returning to a student later. All of these students are out and about to chat to and get to know, too - including the all-important three house leaders who right now are friends but are one day are destined to lead rival countries.

The slice of Fire Emblem: Three Houses that we're actually allowed to report on as part of today's previews is only one early chunk of the game, but what becomes clear pretty early on is how this increased focus on out-of-battle options really helps to open up the series while also playing to its strengths. It's an incredibly deft piece of additive sequel design. Much of this was present in the series before, but the school setting and design tweaks amps everything up to eleven.

Your personal relationship with each student is important to both narrative and gameplay.

Yet this side of the game also isn't required - as Nintendo-side game director Genki Yokota told us in an interview last week, if you want to play it strictly as a strategy game and largely ignore the RPG sections, that's possible. If you're less comfortable with strategy battles, the RPG layer can be used to boost your power to give yourself an edge. For everybody else, an approach right down the middle will work brilliantly.

Most exciting is how this can mesh with one of Fire Emblem's oldest traditions: permanent character death. Now, admittedly, Three Houses follows other recent entries in having this option off by default - but I can't help but feel like with these additions, it is now absolutely the one true way to play.

The downtime at school really gives you an opportunity to get to know this eclectic cast of characters - and that'd make the loss of one of them in battle all the more heartbreaking. That in turn makes battles more intense, and... well, just in this chain reaction one can see how valuable an addition Three Houses' monastery is. Exactly how it pans out across a full-length RPG experience and if it can stand up to the legacy of 2012's beloved Fire Emblem Awakening remains to be seen - check back in a couple of weeks for our full review.

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