Yeah, I’d say it’s engaging
It was crazy to see the moment when Fire Emblem really started to make it big out of Japan. I’ve said it often, but growing up with people who constantly questioned where Marth and Roy were from in Smash Bros., witnessing the star power of this series (to the point where it has multiple spinoffs) from every angle has been something else. And now that it’s more in the public eye, it’s also subject to quite a bit of scrutiny.
I don’t think people will object to much in Fire Emblem Engage, though.
Fire Emblem Engage (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Released: January 20, 2023
As I talked about in my preview session, I was immediately enamored by the tone of Fire Emblem Engage. The sense of whimsy and wonder it has resembles Lunar: The Silver Star Story and other bygone JRPGs, which is a wonderful thing. It has the “badass that’s also goofy” trope, the aloof hero, the unflappable confidant: the whole nine yards. That might not be a lot of people’s cup of tea, but I found myself remembering and connecting to character names more in Engage than most past entries, even as I amassed a bigger and better party as time marched on.
The premise is very familiar fantasy: a great warrior and Divine Dragon named Alear by default (that’s you!) defeated a fell dragon a thousand years ago, and the battle subsequently put you in a deep sleep. Fast forward to the timeline of the game, and your dragon mom (for real) senses a great evil again (that’s the part where you wake up). Of course there’s twists and turns along the way, as well as the humanistic angle of how this world’s citizens live in the wake of the divine: which means there’s plenty of political intrigue and clandestine machinations to be had.
I also bought into the “chosen one” conceit, because Alear has just enough characterization to feel like a part of the world, but not so much that they dominate the storyline. Some absurd looking costumes aside, this universe is full of interesting characters, and as I mentioned above, I got attached to quite a few of them. Not everything lands, and the story is predictable in chunks (especially toward the beginning), but it has so much energy (and the game has so much to do) that it’s easy to keep moving forward.
The other strong pillar of Engage is the fan service, which is mostly muted in the form of bonds through Emblem Rings. Point blank, this is an excuse to get people to connect to their favorite old Fire Emblem characters (like Roy and Marth), but the team went above and beyond in terms of how everything is actually implemented. While those spirits are heavily integrated into the actual plot (gathering all the Emblem Rings is the initial quest), they serve a mechanical purpose, and do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to party customization. At first it seemed like another “multiverse” style cash grab, but I was pleasantly surprised after seeing how it actually worked.
On top of the typical class swapping and advanced classes, you can pair up a character with a spirit via an Emblem Ring. This not only grants that party member bonuses, but it also allows them to merge into a super-charged form throughout the battle for a limited amount of turns. Bonds have a multifaceted impact throughout the game, allowing spirits to pass on passive skills, bond and interact through very short cutscenes on top of the normal bonding system (with the classic A, B, C level ranks), and of course, do cool stuff during combat like unleash a giant flame attack that hits multiple squares. You also have the option to “re-engage” as it were once the meter is full again, so there are strategic considerations with this system.
In Engage, you’re constantly upgrading things that matter. Your equipment loadout can be changed, as well as your skillset, class, bond, and a lot more. As you progress with the story more options will be unlocked through the typical in-game shops, as well as the chance to create miniature rings that confer bonuses on party members who don’t have an all-powerful Emblem Ring equipped.
From a strategic standpoint Fire Emblem Engage plays out like past entries, and like many famous strategy RPGs (SRPGs). There’s a grid-based system, a rock-paper-scissors gear mechanic (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords), a party to manage and kit out, and enemies to defeat or objectives to tackle. With no durability there’s a lot less worrying about upkeep and more of a focus on loadouts: which matter quite a bit, since you can “break” enemy counterattacks for a turn with a hard weapon counter.
The battle maps in Engage are interesting, particularly with the placement of copious amounts of items, buff-inducing squares, cover, and bond bonuses: which grant you full bond charge after ending your movement on them. Even in some of the easier encounters the layouts do some heavy lifting to keep things moving along. Things move pretty fast, too.
The core flow of the game is effortlessly fun. After finishing a mission generally you get the chance to lightly explore a very small little zone (imagine freeing a town, then talking to the townsfolk after), then you go back to the world map and choose what to do next. If you were annoyed at the pacing of Three Houses, Engage should be a breath of fresh air. As much as I did like those pitstops in the hub in the last main entry, the freedom that Engage allows strikes a great balance. After completing a mission, in most cases, you have the option to move on through a world map to the next story bit: or take a break and do some paralogues (side missions)/head back home to the Somniel hub.
You have the choice to go back to the hub, talk to everyone, do all the minigames, fish, spend time with your mystical pet, spar, change up the hub zone music, rewatch story bits in your room: you get the point. There’s a lot to do if you want to stop and smell the roses, or you can just go full throttle and continue the narrative chapter by chapter. It’s refreshing, because I’d constantly change up how I played based on how a particular mission went.
If things felt dicey, I’d look at all of the upgrades available and spend some time reconfiguring my party. Sometimes I’d do three or four chapters at a time without stopping. And in some cases, I’d spend a few hours at the hub just messing around, donating to allied countries’ war efforts, combing through the achievements I hadn’t unlocked yet (which grant bond fragments, which can be used for bond bonuses), looking at the animals I adopted from the story zones, that sort of thing. There’s just enough to do where things matter, but not so much that you’d feel like you’re missing out if you don’t grind out a particular fishing segment.
I was also able to do some light testing of the online trial system before launch, and while I likely won’t be playing it full time, it does seem like a nice diversion. The two main modes involve a relay race against other players on the same map, and the ability to create your own (or play other) challenge maps online. You can even “take over” someone’s run in the relay mode, which I did every so often just to try out different party builds and see if I could optimize something myself. As a completely optional diversion, I’d say it’s a welcome addition.
When Fire Emblem Engage was first announced I was wary of the visual style, but it grew on me once I saw it in action. The strategic bits are smooth, the customization element is deep, and I’m a sucker for the tasteful fan service that we’re getting with the appearance of past franchise heroes. If you were overwhelmed by Three Houses, this is a great follow-up that doesn’t just follow that same formula: and in many ways, gets back to Fire Emblem basics.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]