Ever since we saw gameplay from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a lot of news publications have compared it to another popular JRPG series: Persona. With the embargo lifting a few days ago, allowing people to give their early impressions, this comparison is all the more prevalent. The problem is that it does both of these game series a great disservice. You can easily talk about one game’s mechanics without comparing them to another, and it feels like it’s another case of difficult games always being called “the new Dark Souls”.
Yes, Persona and Fire Emblem: Three Houses do have similar game mechanics such as a calendar system, getting to go to school and doing certain activities in a time limit; but other than that, the games are completely different. Telling people that this new Fire Emblem game is like Persona could either steer people away because they don’t like the Persona series, or give people an unrealistic expectation of what the game will be like. It also does a disservice to the developers at Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo as comparing these two games makes it seem like they just took their ideas from Atlus. It’s absolutely fine for the developers to credit other developers for inspiration and ideas, but when titles of articles are “Fire Emblem Is Like Persona Now,” you’re painting Fire Emblem a colour that it’s not. Saying this also gives the game the wrong reputation because so many people just see the title and don’t even bother to actually read the article. This can lead to an unfounded stigma that could turn many discussions about Fire Emblem: Three Houses into “Isn’t that the game that copied Persona?”
Fire Emblem is a series that has been growing and experimenting since its infancy before it even came to western audiences and it deserves to be recognized for the risks and creativity that the series has had. Persona is a RPG social simulator, whereas Fire Emblem is strategy simulation game with a balance of light RPG mechanics. Popular Fire Emblem YouTuber Chaz Aria LLC says it pretty well in this tweet about Fire Emblem’s coverage in western news:
“If you’re on the fence about buying FE:3H and you’re waiting for reviews… Don’t. Fire Emblem has been constantly mis-represented in western games journalism for well over a decade to the point where it’s a running gag in the community… Don’t let someone who comes at the game as an “RPG dating simulator” decide for you. I can at least say that in the entire 15+ games I’ve played there hasn’t been a single one I haven’t felt was a “great game” in its own right.”
Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Persona may be similar in the fact that they are JRPGs with a large aspect of the games having social mechanics like befriending people, dating, and getting to know the character’s backstories. The games, however, could not be more different. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is all about customization and replayability. You get to choose which house to pick pretty early on in the game, all of which have 8 unique students. There are 39 classes in the game that you get to assign to your characters (which they can change back and forth once they complete class exams) and for the first time in the series, classes are free to use any weapon type they want instead of being restricted (except for non-magic users). No playthrough of Three Houses will be the same unless you try very hard to make it that way, so the replay value is endless. Another boon is that Fire Emblem’s level-up system relies on RNG (Random Number Generator) meaning each time a character levels up, there is a percentage chance that they will gain +1 point in each attribute. So it doesn’t matter if you always pick the same characters, classes, and weapon types — mathematically speaking, it’s impossible for your characters to level up the same way in different playthroughs.
Now take Persona 5, where the replayability is much more limited. The game’s social aspects are the only mechanic that might lend to its replayability, since it’s very hard to max out all your confidant ranks and social skills in one playthrough. All the members of your party will also turn out exactly the same no matter how many times you replay the game. The only difference between your characters is that they use different elemental attacks, and whether or not they can use healing spells. Every time your characters level up, you don’t get to see what stats go up or even how it really affects your characters because the stat boost are so minimal, it only affects them in the very long term.
Whereas Fire Emblem, every point you gain in an attribute immediately makes a vast difference. The combat of Persona 5 focuses on finding and exploiting the enemy’s weakness so you can stun them and finish them off. There’s also, y’know, the whole mechanic where you catch Personas and convince them to fight for you. Fire Emblem’s combat is much more strategy oriented: moving your units carefully on the battlefield, making sure that no matter what move they make or who they attack, they’re going to survive. Every move matters since Fire Emblem has a perma-death system, which is what makes strategy such a focus in this franchise.
Then we move onto the two series’ social gameplay. In Persona 5, you hang out with confidants (friends/people who need your help), as you raise your relationship level with them by choosing the right dialogue options, giving them gifts, or taking them to places they like. The main highlight of this is to see their story play out and to help them conquer whatever social or personal injustice they might be facing in their life. Leveling up your confidant level with your party members will give you access to abilities that trigger by chance. Hanging out with non-party member confidants will give you access to passive abilities like giving you more money from battles or allowing you to craft certain items. In Persona 5 you’re also allowed to date the female confidants (regardless of age or even if they’re your teacher). But it adds nothing to the game besides being able to call certain characters your significant other. The social part of Persona games really makes the game special and doing them really makes the RPG aspect easier and smoother, whereas the social aspects of Fire Emblem games immediately and greatly affect combat.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses seems to be doing away with the running gag in the Fire Emblem community about newer games just being “dating simulators”, thanks to Fates and Awakening featuring marriage and child units so heavily. Unlike Persona, characters in Fire Emblem can gain support levels for one another so that when characters fight close to each other in battle, they gain bonuses to their attributes like “hit,” “avoid” and “attack.” You gain said supports by making your units fight together, getting characters to spend time with each other, and completing your student’s side quests. Supports have 4 levels, C, B, A, and S. The S rank will result in characters getting married or dating. Each rank you gain will further increase the bonuses you gain in combat when characters are near each other, and these bonuses can greatly affect battle. It can even mean the difference between life and death for some of your characters.
Support bonuses in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are immediate and not chance-based skills as Persona 5 has. Also unlike Persona, supports are not just between the main characters and a side character, in Fire Emblem side characters gain support levels to each other, which is arguably one of the best parts of the series because it highlights the side characters backstories and relationships with one and other since you don’t get to see that in the main story. Fire Emblem does such a great job of making you grow with these characters and watch their relationships build. This makes the permadeath system so much more impactful because if they do die on the field of battle, you’re willing to restart a whole chapter just so they aren’t gone forever.
One of Persona 5’s main taglines is “take your time.” It shows up on every loading screen of the game to remind the player that you don’t have to stress about the limited time you have for social events every day. Three Houses is the complete opposite. You also have limited time per week you spend leveling up your students, their supports, and yourself (Byleth, the main character, and professor). At the end of every month, you have to do the typical Fire Emblem chapter battle and if you aren’t ready and didn’t spend enough of your time wisely, the battle might be incredibly hard. This time management, mixed with all the customization options, the combat system and social mechanics being intertwined, means Persona and Fire Emblem: Three Houses are nothing alike. Not to mention the fact that in Persona 5, you play as a high school student, while in Three Houses you’re a professor at a medieval fantasy academy where you do more than just choose dialogue options during classes.
Comparing these two games misleads the larger gaming audience into thinking they share similar mechanics when indeed, they are nothing alike. While Three Houses may have taken some inspiration from the Persona series, it’s clear they are doing something incredibly different with what they have created. Saying these games are alike, massively undermines what these series with long histories have both achieved. Fire Emblem: Three Houses focuses much more on customizing your characters, replayability, and is a strategy simulation, whereas Persona is more about the plot, hanging out with friends, exploring dungeons, and capturing new Personas. Fire Emblem is a series that still has a lot of growing to do, and comparing it to other JRPG’s just stunts that growth.