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Take It Easy Mode is a bi-weekly column on the unsung hero of video games, the Easy setting, for casual and new gamers, parents, and people who generally find higher difficulty modes frustrating.
I've been hearing about the game Fire Emblem: Three Houses for a few months now. It seems like the bulk of my Twitter feed was raving about this Nintendo Switch game. I looked it up, curious to see what all the fuss was about, but honestly, it didn't really seem like my jam. Something about the description didn't quite capture me (probably the focus on the story, rather than the gameplay), so I put it aside and continued in my quest to find new, fun, easy games to play.
But I came back to Fire Emblem: Three Houses after I started writing this column. A friend recommended it to me after seeing some of my Take It Easy Mode writing, calling the game a blend of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Fullmetal Alchemist. Now, that was enough to capture my attention for sure.
The thing that clinched it for me was the turn-based battle system. If you're unfamiliar with Japanese RPGs, turn-based battle is basically a system where you deal a set amount of damage based on various numbers, such as your attack power, prowess with a weapon, and the enemy's defenses. There are really no complicated button maneuvers, and because everyone gets their own turn, you aren't pressured to move quickly. You have time to survey the battlefield, the enemy's weaknesses, and make an educated decision on how to play. As long as there's an Easy Mode, turn-based combat is ideal for gamers like me. It's why I played Final Fantasy games almost exclusively for so long.
I was a bit apprehensive starting Fire Emblem: Three Houses because there wasn't an Easy Mode — just "Normal." That translates to pretty easy gameplay, though, so don't let that turn you off. Right away, you're immersed in the storyline and the combat style of the game. And there's definitely a learning curve here.
The story of the game is as follows: You play as Byleth, a young person who's recruited to serve as a teacher at the Officer's Academy. The world is controlled by a Church, which is headquartered in the same place as the Officers Academy, and it has a lot of secrets Byleth needs to uncover. You pick one of three houses to lead, and I agonized about this decision for a very long time. However, it doesn't make too big a difference in the long run, honestly. Just go for whoever you like best — for me, that was Claude and the Golden Deer. You do have the chance to talk to all the students and get a sense of their different abilities before you make the choice. The good news is once you pick, you can ask other students to help with missions to offset your weaknesses (for Golden Deer, there aren't enough magic users) and eventually recruit them permanently into your house (come on, Dorothea, just say yes!).
I'm maybe 20 hours into the game at this point, and I've experienced everything from rescuing a kidnapped girl to finding a magic sword to a fishing tournament. It really is just incredibly varied, and in a lot of ways, the experience is what you make of it. You can spend time cooking with your students, or you can teach extra classes, or rout bandits from the vicinity of the monastery (highly recommended every once in a while, as it allows you to gain more XP, making future battles easier).
The game operates on a calendar; every Sunday is a free day and you can choose how you spend your time. You can run around and explore the monastery for as long as you want; if you want to take part in anything, that costs activity points, and you have a limited number of those. You can also pick up quests during your free day; some are simple, while others tie into the larger story and help with worldbuilding. Doing quests and talking to people around the monastery (and hosting tea parties — yes, really) is a great way to build rapport, which is necessary when it comes to recruiting more people to your house. During the week, you work on teaching skills to your students. Each month, you're assigned a mission, and at the end of the month, you take care of it (so far, it's pretty much always been a battle).
Let's talk about the battle system, which takes some getting used to. It's not that the combat is hard, necessarily. It's pretty easy to defeat enemies, even in "boss"-type battles. But the issue is strategy. This is a tactical RPG, which means you need to look at your own movements, enemy movements, tiles that give you special powers, rewards on the battlefield, make sure your items and equipment are stocked, and more. There's a ton to consider. Luckily the game starts you off slow and introduces you to these concepts over the first few hours of the game. It also prompts you to save before and after every battle, so if you do die (and I have, twice or so), you can easily restart without having to replay a bunch of the game.
Because you have limited movement for each unit (think Civilization style, if you're having trouble picturing what I mean), there's a lot to think about during each battle. I tend to keep my units clustered together, rather than dividing and conquering. It may protect my team, but it means I'm not using my people as effectively as I could. It also means that the battles are long — I allow an hour for any major battle. Less risk-averse people would probably be objectively better at this game, but my strategy works for me.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing graphics — they seem uniquely suited to the Nintendo Switch's screen. The colors are soft, yet vibrant, and the anime art style really is wonderful. The game is a joy to look at, and the voice acting is excellent. This is as fun a game to experience as it is to play, and I absolutely love the personalities of the different characters. They're genuinely a delight to get to know.
What I appreciate most about Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that I can play it through multiple times and have new experiences. Yes, the overall storyline will likely remain the same, but by choosing a different House and recruiting new-to-me characters, it can feel new. Re-playability is important to me if I'm paying full price for a game (or, in this case, a game + DLC), so I fully appreciate that aspect of it. All in all, I'm thoroughly enjoying this game and can't wait to see what twists and turns the story has for me.