Fire Emblem Engage is a polished adventure that misses one key element
Bay Area News Group March 3, 2023
After a renaissance that led to leap in popularity, Fire Emblem sits at a crossroads. The franchise has honed its distinct storytelling style and tactical role-playing gameplay into a fine edge.
Intelligent Systems elegantly integrated relationship building into combat in Awakening and created complex storylines with distinct paths in Fates and shifted the whole formula to a console scale in Three Houses.
The constant improvements in the formula couldn’t last forever, and that’s how fans arrive at Fire Emblem Engage. The latest chapter in the epic fantasy series is more of a polishing of previous ideas rather than a groundbreaking entry to the series. It’s an effort that’s almost like a band’s “best of” album.
A visual boost
Engage takes the core gameplay elements that worked over the past decade, and incorporates them into a campaign that’s beautifully rendered. It’s by far the best-looking Fire Emblem game, with characters that look hand-drawn at times and environments that appear to seamlessly melt from the overhead perspective to one on the ground that shows actual battles. At times, playing Engage feels like watching an anime instead of playing a strategy game.
When it comes to the tactical combat, series veterans will feel at home with the rock-scissor-paper nature of weapons and units. Swords beat axes while axes dominate spears. Meanwhile, those long weapons are effective against swords. Bows take down flying units and those flying units are strong against magic users, who are also the Achilles heel of armored warriors. Over the years, the developers have added new weapons and concepts without it becoming too complicated.
Every unit has a purpose and the best players know how to squeeze the most from each turn-based action. They group together allies when attacking in order to build relationships among squadmates and to activate chain attacks. If two characters have a strong bond, they’ll help each other out unheeded.
The power of emblems
The big addition to the entry is the addition of Emblems, which are spirits of past heroes tied to powerful rings. When players “engage” their Emblem, the wearer fuses with the legend and they gain special abilities and other perks temporarily. The rub is that players have to find the right time to use it, and that could be based on positioning and strategy.
With 36 playable units and 13 Emblems (before downloadable content), players have a lot of relationships and characters to manage. The progression and customization options for every hero is deeper this time around. Players will need Master Seals and Second Seals to unlock classes for characters, but the Emblems add a new dimension because they have inheritable perks that can make a unit more powerful. To build bonds and access those benefits, players have to partner a unit with an Emblem.
A better headquarters
While players will spend plenty of hours on the battlefield, they’ll spend just as much time assessing the aftermath and preparing their small army for the next confrontation. After each fight, players will have a chance to chat with teammates and important characters. It feels like this part of the campaign is excessive and becomes more of a chore as players harvest resources. It’s especially rote after battling in the same environment for a third or fourth time.
Between-battle time is spent in Somniel, a base where players can further build relationships, play minigames to temporarily boost stats and manage their allies’ gear.
The floating island plays a similar role to Garreg Mach Monastery in Three Houses, but it’s thankfully smaller and easier to navigate. The developers did an excellent job streamlining the area so that players can quickly shop for gear and do routine upkeep so that they can jump into the next chapter.
A few flaws
Although Engage fixes plenty of the issues with past games, it stumbles when it comes to an important part of Fire Emblem games — the narrative and characters. The storytelling is more generic in this effort as the protagonist called the Divine Dragon wakes up after a thousand-years slumber.
The amnesiac hero is reunited with his mother, who has been watching over him all these years, but that reunion is cut short when she’s attacked and killed by mysterious forces. Before she dies, she asks the Divine Dragon to gather all the Emblem rings before they fall into the wrong hands. That leads players on a quest through the world of Elyos, and its four major powers.
The narrative takes a long time to get rolling and doesn’t really take off until Chapter 11, but despite the effort to make the plot more interesting it falls into predictable moments far too often. The other part of the problem is that many of characters in Engage aren’t too interesting. Players will see a few beloved archetypes but the heroes don’t feel as developed or as complex as previous entries.
Engage does a better job of mining the franchise’s rich history of heroes through Emblems. Those spirits are in fact protagonists from past entries. They’re given new life as pivotal forces in the campaign and they become a way for players to reconnect with fan favorites or learn about earlier entries’ heroes.
It ultimately makes the game feel less new and more like a compilation of the franchise’s best ideas, but seeing as how well past games excelled that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Platform: Nintendo Switch