Swords, sorcery, turn-based tactics, and romance—the Fire Emblem series is a chimeric combination of crunchy tactical battling and powerful relationship drama. Since 1990 Intelligent Systems has created 15 core Fire Emblem games for Nintendo, a publisher that sadly very rarely lets its series appear on other platforms.
But we can dream. In Fire Emblem adjacency bonuses are both a combat boost and a bonding exercise. As your units fight side by side, they grow closer in skill and friendship. In Fire Emblem Awakening warriors show their devotion by diving in front of each other to block strikes before responding with flurries of counterattacks. Soldiers that have the gall to come at your most popular heroes are punished by your hero's overprotective mates. How dare you come at Gary, tiny axe man! Have three fireballs and a dragon lance to the face.
I have been playing the latest edition, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, on Nintendo Switch this weekend. It's rare that the PC loses out to other platforms in the strategy space, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. One is Advance Wars, but you can turn to Wargroove for something similar. The other notable omission is Fire Emblem which, if it's never going to get a PC release, should at least be comprehensively ripped off by other developers on PC.
The design ideas are too good to miss out on. Fire Emblem is relatively accessible, thanks to a simple collection of weapon archetypes (each of which hard counters another), and a class system that gives your soldiers 'commoner' or 'noble' identities, and grows spectacularly from there. There's a gentle cRPG tone to battles too, which often feature treasure chests and locked doors that the thief class can unlock. As your units bond you unlock story skits that you can view between missions to take their friendship (or more) to the next level.
Three Houses adds another neat touch: battalions. Every soldier on your team can lead a troop. An arrowhead formation of knights might do direct damage, whereas skirmishers can launch a flanking attack that damages and pins enemies. The camera zooms in to show combat exchanges in detail, as soldiers rush across the battlefield and your hero duels in the middle.
I'm not a huge fan of Three Houses' aesthetic compared to more colourful previous editions, but it's a great format for presenting battles. The game moves smoothly between a pragmatic tactical view and showy close-up vignettes that has me cheering for my favourite warriors. It feels great to watch my main man Jeremy dodging two attacks in a row and then obliterating the poor bandit with a glowing god-tier fire sword.
The between-battle sections are fresh as well. I love Firaxis' XCOM, but the metagame is all about resource juggling and commerce, basically. Fire Emblem has some of that—you want to restock on Vulnary potions and repair weapons between fights—but in Three Houses you wander a huge monastery which functions as Hogwarts for private school kids who want to learn to murder real good.
As an unlikely mercenary professor you tutor your youngsters in the art of war, setting exams so they can learn new combat classes. Sometimes one of them will come up and ask if they can become a pegasus knight instead of a swordmaster, or something, and I think 'kid you're just 15' but say yes anyway because I want that fast attack cohort to murder archers. Oh, by the way, if you pick 'classic mode' in Fire Emblem units you lose will properly die forever. Good luck, students.
The interchanging combat/social phases reminds me of Persona, another series that desperately ought to come to PC. It's a brilliant combination: a little bit of XCOM, a little bit of Final Fantasy squad building, and a little bit The Sims. Come on Intelligent Systems and Nintendo, let's get a port or two into PC gamers' libraries.