Dear Fire Emblem: Three Houses, when you say “normal,” I think you mean “easy.”
I’m nearly 30 hours into Three Houses, roughly halfway through Nintendo’s ambitious strategy game about a trio of student groups swept into a complex web of dark magic and manipulative politics. I love it, and my precious students mean everything to me, giving Three Houses an emotional weight previous Fire Emblem games have lacked. But I also have a problem: the game’s battles no longer mean anything. My students may regularly confess to having confidence issues, but in the field of war, they (and me) have nothing to fear, as they can nearly one-shot whatever comes their way. They’re machines of death.
There are two key phases to Three Houses—socializing and fighting—and one of them has been rendered moot for me because the game’s difficulty curve seems completely broken.
Cards on the table, I’m playing on normal difficulty and the deceptively-titled “casual” mode, which doesn’t change anything moment-to-moment in combat, except to prevent key main characters from permanently dying. (Which, at this point, hardly matters; none of my characters are in any danger.) I haven’t been grinding side quests in any meaningful way, outside of participating in the optional character-driven missions that occasionally pop up. I say this all to blunt flippant suggestions I’ve tried to bend the game’s natural difficulty curve.
I no longer put any consideration into where a unit should go strategically. My only thought: who should this person stand next so to ensure they get another support conversation? (In Fire Emblem, character relationships are upgraded by having them complete actions next to each other.) Straight up, I honestly think I could win most fights by never moving a unit on the battlefield, unless it was specifically required to achieve the objective. My group of angry, horny teens could achieve victory only relying on the counter-attacks characters automatically dish out.
Combat has now become mindless and perfunctory, a sideshow before the next character revelation. My version of Three Houses has slowly turned into an expensive visual novel with elaborate combat sequences where I hit buttons for giggles. Three Houses does have an “auto battle” mode, but it already feels like I’ve flipped that on? It's especially frustrating because I was attracted to Fire Emblem explicitly because it was an engrossing but approachable strategy series. Fire Emblem: Awakening and XCOM are what turned me onto the genre!
I think there are broader problems with the combat layer of Three Houses—maps are boring, there is a lack of unique objectives—but all of that is totally exaggerated by the lack of difficulty.
Unfortunately, Three Houses lacks a modern convenience other games have started to incorporate: the ability to change difficulty modes on the fly. When I hit an unexpected difficulty spike in the card battler SteamWorld Quest a few weeks back, I was able to quickly ratchet the difficulty down a notch and see the ending, rather than walking away. Here, I’d love a chance for the opposite, an opportunity to make Three Houses much harder; I don’t have the spare time to spend another 20+ hours getting back to this point on a new save.
I’m at a loss. It won’t be long before the game’s fabled time jump takes place, at which point, maybe I’ll stop joking about Three Houses being a visual novel and finally treat it like one.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've can hack my save to make the game harder, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.