Explore mode would not work if the game wasn't written well. It is.
The terms of Nintendo's embargo forbid me talking about the story beyond a major flashpoint around ten hours in, and I wouldn't want to spoil it anyway. What I will say is Three Houses has some great twists and turns.
The more recent trailers gave away that there's a time skip in this game, which is a shame as keeping that under wraps would've been amazing. Either way, major characters do some wild things, and you should go in expecting to make decisions that completely change how you experience the story.
Where Fates often felt rushed, Three Houses takes its time. If you get to know the characters properly through the explore system, every decision they make is mostly logical, even when you don't see a twist coming. The story did lose the thread a bit as it approached its conclusion, but maybe that was a quirk of my play-through and the decisions I'd made.
Beyond the main plot, the incidental dialogue is well-written, and the fully voiced support stories are entertaining. One downside of this new-found freedom was a couple of slightly tone-deaf scenes, most likely because the game expected me to get to know the character earlier than I did. They involved talking about a person who, I'm pretty sure, dies no matter what you do, as though they were still alive.
That aside, characters in my chosen house offered comedy, tragedy and everything in between. There are the expected anime and Fire Emblem tropes, of course, but all students have some degree of depth and motivating factors that explain why they are the way they are.
It says a lot that the first thing I did when I finished Three Houses was start over. The game warns you when choices majorly impact the plot, which means I know that I've only experienced one side to the story. And that's just the tale of one house.
The first thing I did when I finished 'Three Houses' was start over.
While the other houses were present in my play through, there are apparently two different stories that I missed out on: According to Intelligent Systems, the experience of playing with each faction is unique. I'm around two hours into my New Game+ now, and I've selected a different house. Even before the major twists come in, my new students are less uptight than the last batch, and their response to adversity feels different.
Although I need to crack on with the other houses to see how much they differ, the pitch here is that you're getting three games in one, rather than paying for one game three times, as you did with Fates and its Birthright, Conquest and Revelation skews. With its three paths, the breadth of content on offer here is staggering: Intelligent Systems says a complete play through (i.e. all three houses, side quests and support conversations) will take around 200 hours.
Given you're probably not going to be rushing through a massive game in four days because of a tight embargo, that 200-hour figure will likely ring true for you. The first house storyline took me around 45 hours to finish, and I imagine the next two will be closer to 60. Then I need to go back and make some different decisions with the first house. And maybe the other two? (Pro tip: Use multiple save slots to guarantee you can revisit those big decisions. I did not do this, so will have to start from scratch.)
In case it wasn't clear, it's going to be a Herculean task to see everything Three Houses has to offer. Thank goodness it's so much fun.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses will be available on Nintendo Switch July 29th.