I’ve had a difficult two months. I don’t know when I’m teaching again. I’m concerned for my family’s safety. But I’ve gotten some respite by playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, sometimes late into the night. I have a backlog of games to play, but I can’t put Fire Emblem down, in large part because I’ve mastered it. The certainty of victory is soothing at a time when everything else is in flux.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was designed for long playthroughs. As a new professor at Garreg Mach Monastery (think Hogwarts, but with less whimsy and more swordplay), you choose to lead one of three student houses: the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, or the Golden Deer. Each house has a unique group of students (though you can recruit members from the other houses later on). Each house has a unique story route: the Black Eagles have “Crimson Flower,” the Blue Lions have “Azure Moon,” and the Golden Deer have “Verdant Wind.” And there’s a final, fourth route where you declare your allegiance to the Church of Seiros (which is sort of like the Ministry of Magic) called “Silver Snow.”
In an interview with JeuxVideo prior to the game’s release, game director Toshiyuki Kasukihara claimed that each route would take approximately 80 hours. Multiplied by four, that’s 320 hours of gameplay. As someone who’s played and beaten all four routes, Kasukihara wasn’t exaggerating.
The first go-around, I beat “Crimson Flower” on Normal difficulty (50 hours). Then I beat “Azure Moon” on Hard difficulty (80 hours). “Verdant Wind” on Hard difficulty followed after that (80 hours). Each time I started a new route, I carried my accumulated progress over into a new game plus, which allowed me to roll over my Renown (currency to purchase advanced skills) from prior game saves.
By the end of “Verdant Wind,” nearly every character was powered up, and I decided to start the fourth and final “Silver Snow” route on the highest difficulty, called Maddening. I had heard how impossible the setting was, but I figured that the combined stats from three prior playthroughs would be enough to overcome it.
I managed, but with great difficulty. I actually had to restart the “Silver Snow” route midway through; too many of my characters died, creating a no-win scenario. It took me five consecutive nights to conquer the route’s final level, and even in victory, five characters died in the attempt.
“Silver Snow” took me about 100 hours to finish, including the restart. It was around the time I completed the route that the New York City Department of Education announced that my school was closing due to COVID-19 concerns, and that I would be teaching my students remotely for the rest of the year. My wife, who works for the NYC Department of Health, would also be working remotely. My 5-year-old son, who’s enrolled in kindergarten, would be learning from home.
Amidst the chaos, I turned back to Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I started a fifth new game plus, but instead of playing Maddening difficulty again, I turned things all the way back down to Normal. Combined with all my accumulated Renown, it’s been a very different experience than my previous playthroughs.
Fire Emblem had been a game of spacing and character placement, of using heavy-armoured units to tank whilst the archers sniped from a distance and the healers sat further back overseeing everything. It was about positioning characters at the end of one turn so they would be in range for an area-of-effect buff on the following turn. It was about using the map’s choke points to limit the opponent’s movement and force the confrontation to happen on my terms.
Offence was even more perilous. If you advanced on a fortified enemy position, you’d better take it out in a single turn. There’s a character named Lysithea, for example, who’s a glass cannon—high damage output but extremely low health. Using her is essential to defeating some of the toughest enemies, but you have to support her with multiple units to buff her defence and block the enemy infantry. The game is designed so that no single unit can go rogue.
But on my current playthrough, that is no longer the case. I recruited every possible student and teacher to my team, and I used my accumulated Renown from four playthroughs to train all 36 characters into cold-blooded, independent killers.
How did I do this? The first chance I got, I used the Renown to upgrade my Professor level; that enabled me to teach for longer, complete more daily activities, and upgrade my students’ skills faster. I used the rest of my Renown to unlock advanced spells and Combat Arts, many of which would typically not be available until the end game.
I also applied my accumulated knowledge. After hundreds of hours with the game, I know which plants I need to grow in the garden to permanently increase my defence, my charm, or other lacking statistics that “balance” a character. I know to save my fishing bait for “Fistfuls of Fish” calendar days, when you catch multiple fish off a single earthworm or insect larva. You can trade in those fish for thousands of Renown in the Abyss (the DLC area of the map), or Gold, which can be used to upgrade your weapons to their highest potential.
The combined disparity, of playing the game on the least difficult setting with the most optimised skills—makes every battle hilariously one-sided. Forget spacing and strategy. Just one of my characters—even Flayn, who’s basically a little kid, or Anna, who’s a local merchant—can take down an entire army of enemies by him or herself with no backup or support.
My game has become what it was probably never meant to be—a power fantasy. It feels great to arrive at a level that gave me nightmares in a prior playthrough and decimate it by driving a single character up the middle of the map. I love registering 300 damage on 29 HP enemies. I love seeing a monster 20 times bigger than my character melt from the force of a single punch.
The enemy AI doesn’t quite know how to react to a character that’s 20 levels more powerful than it’s supposed to be. One time, I killed the Death Knight (one of the game’s main villains) in a single turn. On the following turn, the remaining enemies continued talking about the Death Knight as if he was still on the map. It seemed the developers hadn’t accounted for the possibility that such a powerful enemy could be destroyed so quickly.
Since the story battles are simple now, I make my own challenges. I beat a level with only healers. I completed an entire level with the weakest character on my roster. I completed a map without taking any damage. I’m fooling around on top of a skill ladder that’s run out of rungs.
At a time when life is challenging, I don’t want an obstacle to overcome. I want an obstacle I can obliterate—a constant, reliable feedback loop of small victories to wind down the day. I don’t think Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the only game that’s like this. But it happens to be the game that’s been there to provide a small psychological comfort, at the right place and the right time.