While Fire Emblem has been putting out quality turn-based strategy experiences since its revival in 2012 with Fire Emblem Awakening, the majority of titles have been quite a departure from the foundations laid by its most defining entries. The inclusion of social sim elements and a more accessible level of difficulty hasn’t quite scratched the itch left by the Fire Emblem games of old. After nearly eight hours with Fire Emblem Engage, it’s clear that Intelligent Systems are returning to Fire Emblem’s roots while not entirely separating from the modern sensibilities of recent titles.
Much like Awakening, Fates, and Three Houses, Fire Emblem Engage follows a male or female protagonist known as Alear, also known as a Divine Dragon. After being woken up from a 1000-year slumber, Alear is quickly thrust into a conflict with forces attempting to free the Fell Dragon Sombron from its imprisonment. To fight the inevitable war to come, Alear sets out to find the twelve Emblem Rings, all of which are connected to previous Fire Emblem characters.
After eight chapters with Engage’s narrative there’s much to be done to get me properly invested in its characters and premise. It comes roaring out of the gates with heavy exposition, world-building, and an inciting incident that prompts the cast to set out on their journey, and slows down just as quickly as it settles into a somewhat predictable formula for collecting each Emblem Ring.
While Alear is an endearing protagonist, and watching them navigate the hazy memories of their past is almost always entertaining, the supporting cast doesn’t boast the same sense of camaraderie or personality as characters of prior titles. The core premise also isn’t anything we haven’t seen before besides the inclusion of the Emblem Rings, which have little plot significance outside of their power and relationships to certain characters.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s still a lot to be introduced, though. I’ve only visited two of four major realms of Elyos, and while eight hours sounds like a decent chunk of time, it probably only equates to around one third of the experience. If Engage is to follow suit, I expect the narrative developments to pick up in both scope and scale as I move from conflict to conflict.
While Three Houses did away with many staples of prior Fire Emblem games, Engage seeks to bring them back and build on them, while introducing new mechanics and layers of strategy on top. For starters, the weapon triangle makes a triumphant return, with new bells and whistles to boot. For example, if you exploit an enemy’s weakness, you can inflict Break on them, increasing damage dealt against them for that turn and rendering them unable to counter-attack.
There’s also the Smash mechanic, introduced in chapter eight, where hitting units with heavy weapons will knock them back a space, inflicting Break if they collide with another unit or wall. The trade-off, is that heavy weapons will always act second, even if you initiate combat, meaning these attacks need to be used at the right time, and at the right place. Both Break and Smash introduce small changes to typical combat that challenges the player to think more actively about positioning and what weapons they bring into battle.
Most pivotal of the new systems is the game’s namesake, the Engage system. Engaging allows units paired with Emblem Rings to Engage with the spirit tied to that ring, merging them into a powered up form for three turns. These forms not only boost stats and weapon affinities, but also provide powerful one-time use skills that can turn the tide of battle.
Different Emblem Rings are unlocked as you progress through the main narrative, from series mainstays like Marth and Roy to lesser known characters like Celica and Micaiah. Each one is faithful to archetypes from their original games, and it’s a true joy to see these characters rendered in glorious HD. Rings can be paired with any unit as you see fit, so smart application of each Emblem is pivotal to winning battles and getting the most out of certain units. When these units aren’t Engaged with their Spirit Emblem, they still gain benefits from being paired with a ring, so there’s much more to this system than initially meets the eye.
Units paired with Emblem Rings will also bond with the spirit linked to that ring, allowing them to inherit passive skills that benefit the unit even when the ring isn’t equipped. This incentivizes moving a ring to another unit when its bond caps out for someone else, meaning you’ll have to play and build around different units all the time, as the ones paired with Emblem Rings are typically going to be your strongest. It all comes together to make for a system that demands to be understood and utilized properly both inside and outside of combat, serving as a celebration of the franchise, yet still grounds itself in the world of Elyos.
Between combat encounters, you’ll explore the world map, take on optional combat encounters, complete Paralogues, and return to Somniel. Somniel acts as a hub for Alear and co to return to during chapters, and this is where a lot of the social stuff comes in. From bonding with allies and cooking food, to partaking in arena challenges and training before the next battle, Somniel is positively packed with stuff to do – perhaps too much.
Because all of these activities refresh between every single battle, including Paralogues and optional encounters, the prospect of returning to base after each conflict is an exhausting one. This is largely due to the frequency of which you can interact with all of these progression systems, how many resources there are to keep track of, and having to dig through a plethora of UI to find the one menu you’re looking for. It’s by no means bad, but it often feels like busy work because of the necessity of engaging with it all.
Because there’s so many ways to power-up units and improve your army, Engage has been a remarkably easy experience thus far, which is somewhat disappointing. I’ve had little to no struggles with any combat encounter on the normal difficulty, and while its early days in terms of enemy variety and progression, I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the sheer power you can gain through Somniel’s systems coupled with the Engage mechanic. My hope is that the game will steadily ramp up in challenge as its numerous tutorials conclude as I move towards the mid-game.
One thing that Fire Emblem has always nailed is its presentation, and Engage is no different in this regard. This game sports some truly gorgeous CG cutscenes that are far more frequent in nature than they usually would be. Bringing characters to life with stunning attention to detail, these are always a treat to take in as you progress through the story. The world of Elyos is also fantastically realized with the first two realms touting distinct colour palettes and design. It’s a much brighter and more colourful game in comparison to the relatively gritty look of Three Houses, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
All in all, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played of Fire Emblem Engage so far. While the narrative and characters have yet to hook me in like prior games have, and the myriad of systems surrounding combat can be overbearing at times, the core strategy and appeal of Fire Emblem is intact here. From the return of the weapons triangle to the inclusion of the Engage system, combat is a consistently rewarding experience that I’m always excited to jump back into. Seeing FE mainstays brought to life in this level of detail is an indescribable feeling, and I’m eager to see where Engage takes me next.