If you’re like many other gamers, you’ve probably heard the name “Fire Emblem” a lot, but you’ve never actually played it. You might know that it has, like, way too many characters in Smash Bros. You might know that it has something to do with swords, magic, and people with blue hair, but you might not know what Fire Emblem really is.
Well, with Fire Emblem: Three Houses just around the corner for Nintendo Switch, there’s never been a better moment to jump into this series for the first time. But if you have absolutely no idea what Fire Emblem is all about, you may have no idea what you’re getting yourself into — or if it would even be something that’s up your alley. Well, fear not, because we’re here to break down the basics for you.
Here are some things you should know about Fire Emblem before jumping into Three Houses!
10 – (Almost) Every Fire Emblem Game is Independent From the Others
The first thing you need to know is that Fire Emblem is kind of like Final Fantasy. That is to say, almost every single game is its own unique entry, with its own characters, world, and storyline, disconnected from other entries that came before. While a couple of games have been direct sequels, the majority of them stand on their own. So, even though there have been a ton of games in the past, you don’t need to worry about keeping up with some grand, overwhelming story.
This is true for Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Three Houses isn’t connected to any other FE games in the series, so it’s a perfect point for new players to jump in. Indeed, in the new game for Nintendo Switch, we’ll be seeing a whole new cast of characters in a world we’ve never seen before. If it’s your first FE game, your experience will still be just as fresh as everyone else!
9 – Fire Emblem is a Tactical RPG
Here’s the big, important one. It’s important to know what Fire Emblem is, and the best way to describe it is that it’s a tactical RPG. If you’re still not sure what that entails, we’ll try to break it down. Here are some defining aspects of Fire Emblem’s core gameplay:
It’s Mostly Grid-based Tactics Battles: The lion’s share of FE gameplay is going to be on a grid-based battlefield, where you’re ordering units around against an enemy. Think of it as a much more in-depth version of Chess. Every turn, you’ll select each of your units and give them commands. You can move them, have them attack the enemy, use items to heal, and so on. Once you’ve commanded all your characters, the enemy does the same, and so on, until the battle is won (or lost).
There is RPG-like Progression In Your Characters: While Fire Emblem is mostly tactics battles, your characters do level up, increase their stats, gain new abilities, and wield a diverse inventory of weapons and items. Characters who are constantly deployed can become overpowered, and characters you never touch can fall behind.
There Isn’t Really Free Roaming or Exploration: Although we’re defining Fire Emblem as a tactical RPG, it’s RPG-like in the sense that there is a lot of RPG-based progression in your characters. But when a lot of people hear the term “RPG,” they think of sweeping worlds where you’re walking around and exploring towns. Fire Emblem doesn’t really have that. The overwhelming majority of the game is made up of tactics battles — everything outside of that mainly has to do with managing your characters, inventory, and abilities.
8 – Fire Emblem Games Have an Ensemble Cast
Oh, you thought there were a lot of Fire Emblem characters in Smash? Well, as it turns out, they’re a drop in the ocean compared to FE’s titanic list of characters across every game.
Since FE games are tactical battle games, they’re usually based around the premise of armies fighting each other. Tactics games work best when you have a sizable force to command, so each Fire Emblem game is stuffed with playable characters by the time you reach the end. Once you reach the final battle, you typically have anywhere between 20-40 units to choose from, though there’s usually a limit to how many you can deploy on a map.
Zeroes and Heroes
Most of the characters don’t have a huge impact on the story. Many of them are introduced in some quirky way, and then you don’t hear anything from them ever again unless you choose to develop them outside of battle. On average, most FE games have 1-3 characters who are the definitive “main characters” of the story, with 6-8 supporting characters who also play a large role. Everyone else usually has a small or even insignificant role to play in the story, but they nevertheless have unique personalities and character quirks.
Overall, Fire Emblem has over 700 characters across all its games! Much like Pokemon, even the most minor characters have dedicated fans. In fact, in 2017, a large community of fan artists came together to make the Fire Emblem Compendium, a huge project where every single character in the history of the series got drawn. If you’re a fan of diverse character rosters, Fire Emblem surely won’t disappoint.
7 – Your Characters Can Die… Permanently
One of the most iconic defining traits of the Fire Emblem games is perma-death. That is to say, when your characters die, they actually die. That’s right, we’re talking dead as a doornail. Done. Toast. When you lose a character, you’ll lose access to them for the rest of the game, and they will be acknowledged by the other characters as being long gone.
This lends a certain weight to the battles in Fire Emblem. While the main characters will live because of their necessity to the story, a “death” will still label them as critically wounded and unusable for the rest of the campaign (appearing only thereafter in essential cutscenes). Your choices really matter, because you can’t just give your characters a Phoenix Down and revive them.
But if that sounds scary to you, don’t worry, because newer Fire Emblem games allow you to turn off perma-death. This is referred to as “Casual Mode.” Don’t let anybody gatekeep your FE experience. If you want to go with Casual Mode, go for it! But the normal perma-death mode is definitely something that should be tried eventually if you’re up to it. Fortunately, newer games have added ways to mitigate the harsh effects of perma-death. Three Houses, for example, gives you a few redos in every battle.
6 – You Can Build Relationships Between the Characters
With so many characters in any given Fire Emblem game, there needs to be something to do with them outside of battle. And there is; you can build relationships between the characters in your army, and depending on the game, you can actually pair them together as partners.
“Support conversations” are a big part of Fire Emblem. In a nutshell, when you have certain units fight in the same battles together, they can form bonds with each other, unlocking support conversations. These conversations, once unlocked, will play as a little miniature cutscene where you watch the characters bond with each other. There are usually three to four levels of support, and with each one, the relationship grows stronger, and boosts stats between the two units.
Relationship building is completely optional in most of the games, so if you’re turned off by Fire Emblem looking like a social anime sim, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Oh, and You Can Have Kids (In Some Games)
In a few FE games — specifically Awakening and Fates — support levels can reach the point where two characters end up marrying each other, resulting in a child unit which inherits their parents’ stats and growths. This results in a fun (or frightening) eugenics simulator where players dig deep to pair up the perfect couples in order to min-max the stats of child units and create superhuman warriors. Didn’t expect THAT, didja?
It’s important to note that Three Houses will not have child units, so no eugenics here, sorry folks. Additionally, while we know for a fact that support conversations are returning, it is not yet clear whether you can marry characters to each other.
5 – Fire Emblem Is a Min-Maxer’s Dream Come True
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, min/maxing is the idea of pushing a game’s systems to their limits to create the most powerful combinations possible. If you’re all about maximizing stats, finding the most powerful gear, and decking out your characters with the craziest, most OP abilities, Fire Emblem has a lot to offer.
The games give you a lot to do in between battles, and you have a lot of control over every character. You can decide which classes to make them (thief, mercenary, axe fighter, you know the drill), and this will have an impact on their stats, weapons, and abilities. There is a lot to choose from in even just one character — but once you have 30 in your roster, the possibilities are endless.
Three Houses is looking to be one of the most complex entries yet. It’s looking like we’re going to have an unprecedented degree of control over how our characters grow and develop, so it’ll definitely be a game to check out if you’re into that kind of thing!
4 – The Fire Emblem Games Are Highly Replayable
The “replayability” of any game is admittedly a subjective measure, but it suffices to say that there are a lot of fun ways to experience any given Fire Emblem game. They are quite replayable, and diehard fans can sink hundreds of hours into them and still find enjoyment in each run.
Fire Emblem is the type of game where you can customize your experience each run. Some players use a randomized “lottery” to determine which units they’re allowed to deploy throughout their run, and if any of those characters die, tough luck. Others like to experiment with the shipping and pairing. And, of course, some people like to see if they can break the game using hilariously overpowered combinations of units and classes.
A lot of Fire Emblem games are also replayable because you can’t experience the entire story in one playthrough. This is definitely the case for Three Houses, which will have you join one of three factions early on. Your choice will have heavy implications on where the story goes, and the game is designed for you to experience each path separately.
3 – There Are 16 Fire Emblem Games
Did you know that the first Fire Emblem game released way back in 1990 for the NES? That’s right — this is one of Nintendo’s oldest franchises, but we heard precious little of it in the west until Super Smash Brothers Melee, where some blue-haired dude named Marth showed up out of nowhere.
Fire Emblem wasn’t released in the west until 2003. The first Fire Emblem game we ever saw was actually the seventh in the series, and it was a prequel to a Japan-only game that came before. That game was simply called Fire Emblem, but in 2017 the name has been retroactively canonized as Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade.
Since then, we’ve gotten several more games. Here are the ones that have been released in the west:
- Fire Emblem [The Blazing Blade] (GBA)
- Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (GBA)
- Fire: Emblem: Path of Radiance (Gamecube)
- Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Wii)
- Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (DS)
- Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
- Fire Emblem: Fates (3DS)
- Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia (3DS)
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch)
Oh, and There’s a Mobile Game
In addition to the various mainline titles, there’s also a mobile entry called Fire Emblem: Heroes. Heroes is a free-to-play game which incorporates characters from every game in the series. It consists of countless maps, and it plays like a miniaturized version of the main titles. You acquire characters by “summoning” them from a randomized pool, and — you guessed it — you can improve your odds by pouring money into the game. While Fire Emblem Heroes is relatively generous to free-to-play players compared to other games in its genre, it still is, at its core, a gacha game. Your mileage may vary depending on your tastes. This writer has had quite an enjoyable run with it, but you’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s for you or not.
2 – Awakening Is a Great Starting Point for Newcomers
The release of Three Houses is imminent, and all signs point to it being the new de-facto starting point for new fans of the series. But if you want to jump in anywhere else, Awakening is generally agreed upon to be one of the best starting points.
Fun fact — did you know what Awakening single-handedly saved the Fire Emblem series from its deathbed? Sales had been low, and Nintendo was just about ready to abandon the series. As a last hurrah, Fire Emblem: Awakening was created, and it acted as a swan-song that paid tribute to all aspects of the series up until then.
Well, Awakening ended up being a runaway hit, and it managed to not only save Fire Emblem from death, but turn it into one of Nintendo’s biggest juggernaut franchises. There’s a reason why Awakening is constantly recommended to newcomers, and it’s really simple — it’s just a really, really good game. As an added bonus, this is the game that Robin, Lucina, and Chrom of Smash Brothers fame appear in! If you own a 3DS, we encourage you to give this masterpiece a try.
1 – Three Houses Is More Than Meets the Eye
Finally, we’ll end this post on a note about Three Houses, the upcoming Fire Emblem game for the Switch. One concern that I’ve seen is that the game has been marketed as a glorified Japanese Academia simulator. There’s been a heavy emphasis on the “training school” aspect of the game, but there’s more to Three Houses than meets the eye.
Partway through the game, there’s a five-year time skip, and from there, the story picks up considerably. There are major conflicts, characters turn against each other, and it turns into a much more traditional Fire Emblem story where nations and empires war against each other. If the Persona-like school setting of Three Houses doesn’t appeal to you, know that the game is much, much bigger than that.
Are you a Nintendo Switch owner who is curious about Three Houses? Fire Emblem might be the game series you never knew you’ve always wanted. We encourage you to give it a try if you like what you see, and if you have any other questions about the series, make sure to let us know in the comments!