January 20, 2023
It’s time once again to dive into the Fire Emblem series! Although Fire Emblem: Three Hopes has been keeping fans of the tactics strategy series occupied, we knew it wouldn’t be long before we saw another mainline title. Fire Emblem Engage combines some of what it learned in Three Houses with traditional Fire Emblem gameplay, while bringing in a few new tricks of its own. Unfortunately, its weaknesses do a lot to stunt what would otherwise be a great game.
Fire Emblem Engage stars 12 heroes from previous Fire Emblems, like Marth, Roy, Lucina, Corrin, and Byleth. Rather than being units of their own, they are spirits called ’emblems’ that inhabit rings that can be worn by any of your units. The scramble for the 12 Emblem Rings drives most of the plot of Engage.
It’s unavoidable that I must make a lot of comparisons to the previous main game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, throughout this review. While I would not call Three Houses a perfect game, I believe it set a new standard for Fire Emblem in terms of character, narrative, and art direction. Not only that, but it utilised a brand new system of weapons training to customise your army to your needs, and set the entire first half of the game inside a beautiful hub area that was full of activities to do.
Barely any of this carries over to Engage. It makes sense that Nintendo may wish this new game to return to traditional Fire Emblem gameplay, but much of what they have taken out feels like they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
I started to get a bad feeling as early as the first chapters, which were full of characters telling the protagonist Alear who she was, where she was, who they were, why they were here, and many more no doubt fascinating pieces of exposition. This is not the first Fire Emblem game to be guilty of this, and I figured it was just racing through the backstory to get to the good stuff.
The good stuff
“Engage’s gameplay is easy to jump into for any returning fan, and easy to learn for first-timers.”
Fire Emblem’s core tactical gameplay hasn’t changed much in thirty years, and it doesn’t start now. That’s a good thing: Engage’s gameplay is easy to jump into for any returning fan, and easy to learn for first-timers. Returning is the ability to choose between a more punishing ‘Classic’ mode, where your units die permanently, and ‘Casual’ mode, in which death simply retires your unit until the next battle. You also have the option to rewind to a previous turn if you feel battle isn’t going your way. I know all of this is contentious within some circles, but for me it’s a simple quality-of-life option. You don’t have to use it.
As always, you begin your game with only a few units at your disposal, bearing various weapons and skills. The good old weapon triangle is back: axe —> lance —> sword —> axe. New to the equation are martial arts, which beats bow, magic and daggers, which may sound overpowered but is evened out by a martial artist’s lack of physical strength.
Other additions to the weapons matchup are Breaks and Smashes. Smashes can only be achieved by specific weapons: they cannot counterattack and they always attack last, but they do massive damage and push the enemy back one space. More exciting in my eyes are Breaks, which occur anytime a unit initiates a battle with the weapon advantage. If you break an enemy unit, their weapon goes flying out of their hands when your attack lands, leaving them unable to counterattack for the remainder of the phase. It can be absolutely devastating for the enemy team, but also for you should you be foolish enough to leave your units disadvantaged. It brings a whole new reason to care about the weapon matchup, and is an overall brilliant little change. If nothing else, I hope breaks become a mainstay in the series.
Battle maps vary a lot as your army travels the continent of Elyos, leading to a great variety of terrain types and environmental hazards. As well as being an excuse to show off how beautiful the world looks, it keeps gameplay fresh.
Graphically, Fire Emblem Engage looks absolutely stunning. Its cutscenes are crystal-clear and crisp with the perfect level of polish and detail, and in-game character models look almost as good. The battle animations are bouncy and energetic, with far more detail and care going into the backgrounds of each scene and battle map. It’s what I wished Three Houses looked like: no more fruit stall JPEGs, that’s for sure. When you select a unit, you’re treated to a full torso shot of them, which is a nice touch.
When you ‘engage’ with an emblem hero, your unit will go through a flashy anime transformation sequence, which never got old. Their overpowered attacks are also treated with the appropriate amount of spectacle, making them an excitement to use every time.
After you’ve beaten a map, you can wander around it as a 3D environment, talking to your allies and picking up items to take with you back to base.
The hub area, called the Somniel, looks amazing too. It’s a beautiful castle outside area with fountains, towers, farmland, and a fishing spot. As you might expect, it’s where you can return to stock up on inventory, craft weapons at the smithy, and play a few minigames like fishing. You even have a cute little pet called Sommie that follows you around. With that being said, there is not as much to do in the Somiel as there was in Three Houses’ Garreg Mach monastery. With no weapons experience training and no weapon durability, I stopped visiting the Somniel once I maxed out Sommie’s friendship
Lords of the Rings
The longer your unit bonds with the person in the emblem ring, the more bonus stat boosts and skills they get. Each Ring has a powerful attack, some of which leave behind terrain effects that change the flow of battle. Fear not: you do not have to use gatcha-style randomised purchases with in-game money. The emblem rings are part of the story and will be obtained at set points throughout. Phew!
What can be obtained through random pulls are less powerful rings that simply boost the wearer’s stats a little. They are completely optional, so I don’t mind pulling for them. Each one is based on a unit from a past Fire Emblem, even using their real in-game character icon. It’s a nice thing to look back on art from a previous era of Fire Emblem.
But if you’re looking forward to becoming best pals with Marth and friends, you’ll be disappointed. Speaking in nothing except generic heroisms like “We can change the future if we try!” and “I’m proud to fight alongside you!”, these emblem heroes are about as three-dimensional as a cardboard cutout. Their entire purpose, aside from what they add to the gameplay, is purely for the sake of exposition. ‘Bond’ conversations between an emblem ring and its wearer, which in a better timeline would have allowed you to form some kind of a relationship with your favourite emblem hero, consist of exchanges of a single flavorless line of dialogue.
You can learn a bit more about the emblem heroes by completing their Paralogue missions, which are optional side-story battles. In other Fire Emblem games, Paralogues were always a pleasant surprise and a nice change of pace from the current main story. You might even find a new recruitable character! In Engage, Paralogues are an optional battle that is accompanied by one of the emblem heroes reading you out the Wiki summary of their game’s plot while Alear nods along saying, “That’s rough, buddy.”
Less than engaged
You have probably gathered it by now: I don’t care for the story in Fire Emblem Engage. And it saddens me that it has dampened my experience to such an extent; after all, it’s not as if we come to Fire Emblem for originality. Fell dragons and warring nations and dead parents, I’ve seen it all. But Engage rehashes its series’ tropes with very little grace. The one thing that may have saved it, the colourful characters, are given no room to steal the show because their dialogue is taken up entirely with exposition and ‘foreshadowing’ that is about as subtle as a glowing neon sign.
“Engage rehashes its series’ tropes with very little grace.”
It doesn’t help that the game’s aesthetic is serving me ‘generic fantasy anime’, which is not exactly what I want from Fire Emblem. The voice acting is too often annoying and overexaggerated, and a lot of characters — the women especially — look overdesigned, dressed from head to toe with candy-coloured hair, ruffles, feathers, baubles, and facepaint. There is rarely any cohesion either: characters hailing from the same country don’t tend to dress similarly or even have the same skin colours, which makes me think that not a lot of thought has gone into creating a believable world out of the continent of Elyos. This kind of character design is something I expect from Genshin Impact or a V-tuber.
I’m also disappointed to see the return of ‘boob plates’ for female characters. Coming from Three Houses, which had toned down the anime outfits in favour of more reasonable clothes, it’s a definite downgrade. I chose to play as the female version of Alear, whose outfit is clearly designed to accentuate her breasts at all times — complete with a stupid little tie that nestles perfectly between them. It’s trying to be cute, but it’s embarrassingly obvious and distracts from every scene Alear is in. Fire Emblem is no newcomer to the concept of putting its female characters in skimpy outfits and poses, but at least before now I didn’t have to also listen to fully-voice acted exposition from a voice actress who sounds like she was directed to sound as bland as possible. The male protagonist’s voice, while a little bit easier on the ears, suffers from the same issue.
Despite my misgivings about Engage’s narrative chops, I still like most of the characters themselves. They are lively and fun, and their supports with each other and Alear is just the same blend of charming, heartwarming, and hijinx that have characterised the recent Fire Emblem games. I like some of the villains too, even if their character development comes too little, too late.
Breaking from the tradition of the last few titles, there’s no romance, or S rank supports, in Engage. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss playing matchmaker, but it leaves me free to pair up my allies for actual strategic reasons for a change, which is ultimately for the best. Still, I hope romances will return in a future title.
As much as Engage adds to the tactical gameplay with the equippable Emblem heroes and advanced weapons triangle, it has removed some long-reigning mechanics as well. Weapon durability is almost completely removed, meaning you can use your overpowered plus+3 Levin sword as much as you like. Only healing staves still run out of uses, which is a strange choice I don’t completely understand. Also removed is weapons experience; your units cannot level up their weapons ranking. The base class Axe Warrior, for example, can use axes up to Rank B only. Only by changing to an advanced class can they use axes of a higher rank. Even some advanced classes cannot use any rank S weapons, which means you need to think carefully about how you upgrade your units. The only way to give a new weapon proficiency to a unit is to have them bond with the appropriate emblem ring for multiple levels – more trouble than it’s worth.
Despite the fun I had with Fire Emblem Engage, I am left with a sour taste in my mouth from its story, which is Fire Emblem’s weakest in recent memory. Fire Emblem fans will likely marvel as I did at its graphical prowess, and many I’m sure will prefer its new anime identity. But I wanted something that improved on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and what I got felt too much like a step back.
Nintendo seems confident in its new title though. An expansion pass has already been announced, coming in three waves, the first of which will be available on launch.
- New depth to some classic mechanics is great
- Spectacular graphical detail on characters, animation, and environment
- Good variety of battle maps
- Completely tedious, predictable, by-the-numbers story
- Emblem heroes are devoid of personality
- Generic anime art style lacks flavour
Fire Emblem Engage is an okay addition to the Fire Emblem series, with fun and varied maps and enough changes to the tactical mechanics to make it probably worth playing for any FE fan, though not all of its changes are winners. Its spectacular graphics are something to behold; it’s just a shame that it is accompanied by a story that falls completely flat and emblem heroes that are shadows of their former selves. It’s just sadly underwhelming in the face of what its predecessor, Three Houses, achieved better.