Over the next few days, we will reveal what we believe are the 10 best games of 2019, organized by release date. Then, on December 17, we will reveal which of the nominees gets to take home the coveted title of GameSpot’s Best Game of 2019. So be sure to come back then for the big announcement, and in the meantime, follow along with all of our other end-of-the-year coverage collected in our Best Games of 2019 hub.
There’s a reason Fire Emblem is only growing in popularity, even if the developers themselves aren’t sure why that is. It’s a series known for strong strategy-focused combat fought by casts of fantastic characters, with recent entries really upping the ante on forming relationships with your units. This year, Fire Emblem: Three Houses took it even further, supplanting the 3DS games’ romance with an emphasis on mentorship and camaraderie on and off the battlefield. It’s an incredibly involved and rewarding experience that draws you in from every angle.
In casting you as a professor, Three Houses puts you in a prime position to become invested in its characters–and quickly at that. You’re responsible for each of your students’ personal growth; as you instruct them in various forms of combat each week, you shape their talents to suit the kind of unit you need while taking their personal study goals into account. Watching as various skill meters and levels tick up week by week is an incredibly satisfying reward for your menu-managing efforts on its own–it’s one of the best feedback loops all year, for sure–but it’s developing bonds with your students and watching them come into their own that makes Three Houses so special.
School life is a major part of Three Houses, and you spend a good chunk of your time in the game talking to students and faculty, running around returning lost items to their owners, and doing favors for people all in the name of improving your relationships with them. Happier students work harder and learn more efficiently, which, from a min-maxing standpoint, makes little favors well worth the time and effort. But it’s also easy to like nearly every character. They each have their own likes and dislikes, weird quirks, and difficult pasts. At first, many of them fit into anime archetypes–the tsundere, the prince, the womanizer. But there’s more to each of them, and as their professor, becoming a good confidant is part of the job.
As the school year goes on, you get to watch an incredibly shy girl become more confident and learn why a flirty disaster of a man treats relationships so flippantly. An enemy in one playthrough can become a friend in the next as you see another house’s side to the story. Facilitating friendships between two students–whether it’s by eating lunch with them or having them fight alongside each other on the battlefield–can open up cutscenes that give you greater insight into them as people. The friendships that develop are as much a reward for investing in your students as the hit of dopamine you get from watching their stats tick upward.
Out on the battlefield, you feel the effects of that investment immensely. Permadeath might not be as devastating in Three Houses as it was in previous Fire Emblem games–while the unit is lost forever, you still see the character around the monastery–but you still feel a distinct sense of responsibility toward the students in your charge. Arguably the best way to play Three Houses is on its harder difficulties, where each choice you make has a ripple effect days (off the battlefield) and turns (on the battlefield) down the line. Making the most of your time and crafting effective strategies is crucial; as the turn-rewinding Divine Pulse ability often shows you, seemingly small choices, like moving a character two spaces ahead or three, can mean the difference between a student surviving or falling in battle.
There are quite a few layers to any given battle strategy in Three Houses. You want to keep your students safe from harm, but you also want them involved enough to level up, possibly while next to someone you want them to befriend. You need to make sure they’re using the right approach for the matchup, but also using a weapon that they’re proficient in. You might want someone who can pick locks seek out a treasure chest, but it has to be someone fast or strong enough to go out on their own. There’s so much to juggle that securing a victory is exhilarating on its own; doing it while nailing all the side bonuses, like nabbing extra treasure, can feel like a superhuman feat.
The story, too, has just the right amount of intrigue to draw you in without distracting from the quiet moments of school life or the difficulties of battle. While each house’s playthrough covers the same main beats, a web of B-plots and different perspectives on the same events–or different outcomes to the same events–provide enough variety to differentiate each house from the others. It’s all too tempting, once you finish one playthrough, to immediately launch into a New Game + run as a different house.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the kind of game you love to get lost in. Whether it’s tinkering with inventories and menus or orchestrating grand strategies, it’s as easy to get totally absorbed in your plans as it is completely invested in the students you mentor.