As someone who was disappointed by Echoes, I was worried about the future of the series and how it might drift back to the Fire Emblem of the old days. And with the release of Three Houses, I know why I was right to be worried. Keep in mind, I am someone who disliked Conquest and Echoes because they were slowly trying to push the game back to the days of Pre-Awakening. Once again, Three Houses is pushing back in that way. I have not started New Game+ and have only finished Edelgard's route.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses begins with your main character (named Byleth, but renamable and later on just called Professor) and your father, Jeralt (not of Rivia), saving a bunch of students who have been abandoned by their teacher. Just as one of the students Edelguard endangers herself, Byleth intervenes to save her by sacrificing himself. However, you are greeted by someone by the name of Sothis, who reverses time to give you the chance to save both of you. From there, you are recruited to the Monastary, which is run by the Church of Seiros, and Jeralt is pressured back into the group.
The rest of the story depends on which of the factions you choose to join. Each faction has their own goals and set of unique characters. Most of the story overlaps no matter which faction (House) you join, but the House you join determines your two choices at the turning point of the story. The next major plot point comes when Byleth discovers that he/she can wield the Sword of the Creator and that Sothis is actually a God. Jeralt is killed and Byleth discovers that he/she is the result of Rhea trying to have Sothis reborn by implanting a Crest in the place of the Byleth's heart. Oh and Rhea is a dragon in disguise. Then five years of coma later...
As for Edelgard's faction, she leads an attack on the Church and Rhea turns into an insane dragon. Edelgard unites the entire region and begins her campaign against the remaining mysterious force.
Depending on which faction is chosen, the story changes. Normally, this would not be a problem. But in the end, it is clear that there is one true ending, the Church faction. The other endings all leave something unresolved and only the Church ending results in the unifcation of the region and the defeat of the mysterious group, much like what happened in Revelations. Suikoden 3 did this story better over 15 years ago.
I have mixed feelings about the graphics. It looks improved from the 3DS era games, but you also notice the terrible frame rates in all of the animated sequences. The overall animation are simplistic, but at least more detailed than Pokemon and still work for the series. Characters are fairly expressive in their relationship sequences, which is a big plus. But, the areas that you explore openly look like something out of a PS2 era game. The big monsters look great, but the generic soldiers look bad. For every good, there seems to be something just as bad to balance it out. Overall, things look okay though, but I groan every time they do one of their story animated sequences because I cannot help but notice how bad the animation is. In fact, I feel the normal in game graphics are superior.
Like the games before it, it is a turn based strategy game. They bring in the ability to rewind turns like from Fire Emblem Echoes. With 10 uses of the Divine Pulse to rewind late game, you can actually screw around and find the conditions to trigger reinforcements and enemy spawns so that you can either avoid them or deal with them one at a time. The leveling system was also taken from Echoes rather than the ones from the other games. This means that a class change will not reset your level, but will still change your stats. There is an RNG factor when it comes to class changes that depends on an individual's stats to determine whether they will succeed at the promotion, but you cannot reroll the RNG even if you try to save scum.
Some of the features, such as the ability to pair up units has been modified. Your ability to pair up units is dependent on your "Professor Level" which goes up as you develop your allies during the course of the game. The higher the level, the more you can use. Depending on the unit, they also have different effects. Some do follow up attacks, others may be defensive by blocking damage. Your ability to train students and the number of actions you can take during the allotted time frame within the game also depends on your Professor Level. Over time, you can make students specialize in different classes and unlock better ones too. This action limit in turn creates a soft lock on what you can do in the game because once you use up your free actions, you are forced to advance the game. While they are leniant with the number of actions, it is still a limited number, which I dislike since you could end up in an unwinnable situation late in the game. This is especially true after the story split later in the game.
And this is where I start to have problems with the game. Three Houses is trying desperately trying to balance the old Fire Emblem (pre-Awakening) with the new (Awakening and onwards). Awakening and onward, the games were about being able to advance at your own pace and advance the story when you felt like it. Resources were plentiful and you could grind to get more money and items if needed. This is different from the older games where you could not do this. You had limited resources and that was part of the challenge of the game. Three Houses tries to cater to both sides by allowing you freedom to do a few grinding missions, but will force you along once you run out of free actions on your free days. The result is that it feels like a much more limited version of Persona or the Atelier series that normally allows you to freely explore other areas for some time in order to gain materials and level up. In the end, it ends up catering more to the pre-Awakening era and those who were fans of Conquest more, which I will admit have grown to dislike more over time.
There's a lot of changes to the overall game. An individual's stats are decided at the beginning of the game so you cannot reload the game to scum levels or chances to pass class certification. The weapon triangle system is gone entirely. Some that remain are heavy armor being weak to magic and pegasi/wyverns being weak to bows. Weapons need to be repaired at the blacksmith. Support troops can take actions called Gambits. Magic is no longer an item like weapons and uses are tied to a character's proficiency while recovering between battles. This makes it quite useful until you meet enemies that are completely immune to magic.
There's a lot of new features due to the new explorable areas that utilize the same system that Echoes did for their dungeons. The only difference this time is that they used it to make towns instead of dungeons. By meeting certain skill requirements, you can unlock new characters that can be recruited to your team. They usually tell you what conditions that you have to meet, but it's usually two skills. The problem is that not all the characters on your team will join you after the split in the middle of the game and you might screw yourself over if you neglected some characters over others. While this may not seem like much of a problem, the late game is a different story when the difficulty suddenly spikes.
The biggest problem of all comes in the last few missions when everything starts to cheat. At first, the special monsters that drop materials just seem like a gimmick, but then they become the most infuriating enemies when they start spreading 300 HP that is spread across three life bars (maybe about 500 HP across four life bars in the case of the final boss). In some cases, these enemies are immune to magic, making it significantly harder to take them down since several of your units will be useless against them. Others start developing immunity to critical hits or have ways to cut your accuracy in half. One boss can even absorb your HP from counterattacks that have infinite range. On one map where the enemies can transform into the monsters with multiple lifebars, you can one shot them to avoid transformation. You do lose out on a lot of experience, but it is not worth the risk. Without the ability to take your time to grind things out, you could end up stuck if you ended up overspecializing.
Final Score: 7/10
This game feels much like what Echoes was a trial version for. Much of the game builds upon what was introduced there and improves on it. The story is vastly superior to the games that came before it due to the scenario split being much later in the game. But, I cannot help but feel that Three Houses is not learning from the mistakes of its predecessors and also reverting to an era of pre-Awakening. The game's difficulty comes from the unique abilities of bosses to survive and the reinforcements that show up unexpectedly. Much of the features, such as pairing up units, are restricted early on and poor planning might lead to you getting stuck at certain parts late in the game. As great as most of this game is, I would not recommend it unless you are a fan of pre-Awakening Fire Emblem games or preferred Fates Conquest over Birthright and Revelation when it comes to gameplay.