It's been 30 years since Fire Emblem hit consoles -- in Japan, at least -- and most series can only dream of getting a fully-fledged game to celebrate. As is the case with Fire Emblem Engage, a game that celebrates this hit strategy series' rich history and its colorful cast of characters. As a self-proclaimed Fire Emblem connoisseur, this is the stuff I live for. Marth, Ike, Lucina, and the like gather together with a wholly new cast in Fire Emblem Engage to bring what is the most fulfilling entry into the series in terms of gameplay... but it certainly takes a step back from Three Houses' strong narrative.
Fire Emblem Engage's Formulaic Story
Three Houses set a very strong example for future entries in the Fire Emblem series to follow. Three Houses had a thoroughly developed world, taking place on a continent with over a thousand years of rich history that reverberated to the present day. Its cast of characters was multidimensional and complicated individuals struggling with the weight of being royalty; conversely, some characters were ordinary people just trying to seize the future with their own hands.
If you expect Engage to be anything like that, think again. Engage is more akin to that of Fates than Three Houses. It's no wonder the story falls flat, since Engage shares the same writer as Awakening and Fates. The same pitfalls that plagued these two titles' stories are prevalent throughout. Characters are often the lifeblood of this series, yet they are far too one-dimensional, often relying on the same trope time and time again in the many support conversations included in Engage.
As an example, on multiple occasions, one of the first characters you meet, one of his quirks is that he likes pickles. This gave me flashbacks to a character in Fates that was obsessed with pickles, and so I pretty much knew immediately how the rest of the characters would be written in Engage. Around a fourth of the entire cast -- which hail from a kingdom called Firene -- are obsessed with either tea, working out, or both. While I did grow attached to a few characters in Engage, most failed to captivate me outside of their performance in combat.
It's clear from the start that writing was not the focus of Engage. Support conversations are far shorter than Three Houses' lengthy conversations. There isn't a particularly strong backstory when it comes to the game's world, either. The most infuriating aspect about Engage's story, however, is how incompetent everyone seems to be. There were multiple cutscenes where our protagonist, Alear, watched as horrible things happened to his allies or talked it out with villains and then watched as they walked away scot-free after defeat. The latter half of Engage is the most egregious offender of these mistakes, however, the first half has a rather decent, if straightforward story reminding me of older titles in the series. Traveling from country to country and gathering new allies along the way is a pleasant experience, but doesn't make up for the downright silly second half of Engage.
Fire Emblem Engage's Enthralling Gameplay
While the story falters in many ways, the gameplay of Engage may just be the series' best yet. With well over a dozen games in the series -- 17, in fact -- this is not praise I heap on Engage lightly. It seems like all 17 entries culminate in this absolute thrill ride of strategy. This is achieved through outstanding map design, versatile character builds, and even because of just how beautiful the game looks.
Let's start with the outlier of my three points above: graphics. I would not normally lump graphics in with "great gameplay," but here it most certainly is the case. Engage is the best-looking Fire Emblem game to date in terms of graphical fidelity, putting Three Houses to shame. In almost every Engage map, you're met with beautiful battlefields filled with enemies and obstacles, and it all runs on the subpar hardware of the Switch without a hitch. Okay, there were a few times when I was bombarded by non-stop reinforcements, leading to a drop in frame rate, but for a game to look this good on the Switch and run well too, I'm impressed. Battles proceed at a smooth pace, so you're not suffering from stuttering or sluggish gameplay that often plagued the visually inferior Three Houses.
During combat, you're met with a zoomed-in view watching your unit fight it out with another -- this is nothing new. But when Engage looks so good, with excellent animations and often incredibly awesome crit animations, I find that combat is all the more invigorating. Of course, visual fidelity alone cannot carry a game to success. Characters and the feats they perform on the battlefield keep you engaged (no pun intended) and coming back for more.
Character classes in Engage don't deviate from the norm, giving players a healthy supply of units that fulfill different roles. You've got infantry, armor, mages, archers, fliers, and the like. Returning from other titles is the weapon triangle system, bringing back the series' signature rock-paper-scissors gameplay. Changing classes and tweaking your units to the way you see fit is all here in Engage, but with the inclusion of Emblem Rings, gameplay brings a whole new dimension of excitement to the battlefield.
Emblem Rings take the form of characters from past entries in the series (i.e. Celica, Roy, Corrin, and Byleth) and have unique powers that work in tandem with units that hold said rings. In addition to increasing the stats of your units, those who have equipped an Emblem Ring can "Engage" and transform. This transformation temporarily grants incredible abilities to your units and allows them to perform extraordinary feats on the battlefield. Rather than go through the whole system, I'll provide a few examples of just how ludicrous Engaged units can be.
Let's start with Louie. His base class is an armored unit in Engage, thus he has a lower movement speed than any other character. By granting him Sigurd's ring, he becomes the most mobile unit on my battlefield. Sigurd grants him a number of helpful weapons when engaged, but also allows for increased movement. By the end of Engage, Louie would, theoretically, be able to cross from one side of the battlefield to the other in no more than two turns. Upgrading Louie's class to General meant he was exceedingly tanky and took less damage from all sources except magic. It's safe to say he carried my butt through quite a few battles.
Then there's Alcryst, my one and only archer. Partnering Alcryst with Lyn meant he was incredibly potent at long ranges. Engaging doesn't just give you passive stats or abilities, but lets you use a strong ability during the period you're Engaged. Lyn's unique ability, Astral Storm, allowed Alcryst to target just about any enemy on the battlefield regardless of range. As an already strong archer, he becomes even more dangerous to enemies and by blasting them with Astral Storm. These examples are but two of the many combinations you can create in Engage.
The more you use Emblems with their assigned partner, the better they get. More abilities and weapons unlock as your bond progresses, and soon you are able to unlock traits to inherit. This means you could create a unit with abilities from multiple emblems, and the synergy from inheriting can lead to even further possibilities. It's absolutely ludicrous what you can achieve in Engage, and that's what makes it so fun. There is one caveat, and that is the rate in which you accrue "SP" to inherit new abilities feels glacial, so you're not likely to get as far as you'd like with a character without grinding for it.
Character builds aside, the map design in Engage outclasses most other entries in the series. There is a healthy variety of different battlefields across 26 separate chapters (and multiple Paralogues, too), meaning you aren't likely to get bored of battling. While most objectives comprise routing the enemy, it's the layout of these maps that really set this game apart. One chapter takes place on a shoreline where the tide rolls in and out. When the tide is high, your units' range of movement in the flooded areas is heavily restricted, but once the tide rolls out, you're free to move much further. That also means the enemies have a chance to charge upon you, and the clever AI knows this -- so you have to move at a steady pace but not so fast that you'll get hounded by enemies.
Another memorable battle took place on a snowy mountain. The battlefield is split into three rows with both your units and the enemies' on either side. You'll inch closer and closer to the boss in order to complete the level, but your progress is hindered by avalanches that'll fall every few turns on one of the three rows. If your units are hit by an avalanche, you'll be pushed all the way back to the start, but positioning units behind rocks prevents this. This type of map design is not as prevalent in the series as it should be, so I hope Engage sets a standard moving forward.
Fire Emblem Engage | Final Thoughts
While Engage does feature a hub area, it isn't nearly as exciting as something like Garreg Mach monastery. The Somniel is your new base of operations, and here you'll be able to interact with allies and build up your units. The Somniel looks pretty, but I found it to become a bit exhausting in the latter half. I felt bogged down by too many pointless activities, and the more helpful interactions within the Somniel -- like enhancing units with abilities and such -- isn't explained all too well. At the end of the day, it doesn't feel like the Somniel's full potential was realized in Engage. That's alright, I guess. I'll stick to Engage's stellar gameplay.
There's so much more I want to say about Engage, but I don't want to prattle on and on. That's how it is as a huge Fire Emblem fan. And as a huge fan of the franchise, I want to say Engage is excellent in every single way, but that is, unfortunately, not the case. Gameplay will always be king in Fire Emblem, but it doesn't hurt to have a great story to accompany it. I feel as though Three Houses found the perfect synergy between gameplay and story, but to simplify things perhaps a bit too much, Engage boils down to "gameplay good, story bad." Nonetheless, as a celebration of the franchise, Engage serves as a satisfactory reminder of how far the series has come.
Fire Emblem Engage was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a copy purchased by the reviewer, over the course of 65 hours of gameplay - all screenshots were taken during the process of review.
- Unit Building is Complex and Versatile
- Varied, Original Map Design
- Graphics are Great and Runs Well on Switch
- Story and Worldbuilding Lack Any Sort of Punch
- Bloated Hub Area