Gaming

Fire Emblem Engage Review: A Strong Start for Nintendo in 2023

Whenever I embark on a tactical game like Fire Emblem Engage, I always make a critical error. There’s that moment when I become too overconfident and impulsively put one of my troops in mortal danger. This happened during a late-game Paralogue, where I sent a wyvern-riding sage charging into the battlefield without scouting it first. I paid the price when a fatal arrow from a turret caught me off guard. It was a reminder that sometimes, even when you think you have the advantage, you need to take a step back.

Fire Emblem Engage, like a master strategist, understands this need. Instead of simply replicating the formula from the hit game Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the new tactical RPG takes a step back to regroup and reinforce its core combat mechanics. It introduces new systems, such as adding extra armor plating to an ax-wielding knight. At first glance, it may seem like a regression, but it’s actually a lateral move that ensures the series can confidently face its next battle.

Dragon Age

Similar to previous installments, Fire Emblem Engage presents a grand war story filled with political tension and extensive lore. The game is set in the continent of Elyos, where a faction seeks to awaken the evil Fell Dragon, putting the entire region at risk. A human named Alear, with blue and red hair and known as the Divine Dragon, emerges to unite the four kingdoms and restore peace to Elyos.

The narrative may have its ups and downs, but I must commend its stunning design, which would make it a great candidate for an anime adaptation. The game boasts gorgeous visuals, vibrant colors, and character animations bursting with personality. In a year where Switch owners have expressed dissatisfaction with the console’s hardware limitations, Engage serves as a counterpoint, demonstrating how games can still thrive on the platform when optimized for it.

Alear and Marth open a door in Fire Emblem Engage.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I’m particularly fond of the diverse and colorful cast of characters. Engage shines in its support conversations, which offer delightful insights into each warrior’s personality. One of my favorite stories revolves around a character who can’t stop monologuing during training sessions, much to the annoyance of their sparring partner. Another story centers on a woman who is so dedicated to strength training that she uses weighted teacups—an amusing running gag that appears in multiple character interactions.

The smaller stories tend to surpass the overarching narrative this time around. Engage heavily relies on fan service, as Alear must track down 12 rings that summon stars from previous Fire Emblem games. Although the game goes to great lengths to justify this Avengers-like premise, it sometimes distracts from the more compelling original world. Returning characters, like Marth, feel hollow compared to the new cast, and even their support conversations pale in comparison. It’s hard not to see them as mere marketing ploys to capitalize on the success of the mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes, which uses a similar approach.

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While the focus on familiar faces can extend the story’s length, there’s a wealth of thematic depth to uncover. Family drama takes center stage as characters struggle to balance their personal desires with the expectations placed upon them due to their lineage. However, what resonated with me the most was Engage’s underlying message about the perils of recklessness in battle. The story acts as a tutorial for strategic thinking in battles, urging players to adopt a more patient approach. In this sense, Engage presents the series’ most thoughtfully crafted narrative, even if its broader story beats aren’t as thrilling as previous installments.

A Tactical Shift

Despite my mixed feelings about the narrative, Fire Emblem Engage excels in combat, offering a reliable experience. The turn-based tactics gameplay remains familiar, with battles unfolding on a grid. The rock-paper-scissors battle system, which worked excellently in previous games, remains unchanged. And the game introduces enough quality-of-life improvements to stay up-to-date with the rapidly evolving genre.

The game’s innovation lies in a potentially one-time twist. In addition to the usual RPG customization, where players select classes and weapons for each unit, rings add new depth to the formula. These equippable accessories come in two types. Basic rings function similarly to spirits in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, featuring different characters from previous games and providing small stat boosts. These rings are obtained through gacha-style random pulls and can be combined to create more powerful versions. The ring creation system is addictive and adds a collectibles aspect to the adventure, although they lose significance in the game’s final stages.

More importantly, there are 12 hero rings that summon protagonists from each Fire Emblem title. Holding one of these rings allows a unit to “Engage” and activate the hero’s powers, akin to a Persona. For example, Lyn grants her holder a hyper-long-range arrow attack, while Roy can set squares on fire to damage enemies. This small but effective innovation grants characters access to an “ultimate” ability that can turn the tide of battle when used strategically. It adds an extra layer of depth and freshness to a formula that doesn’t require significant changes.

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Alear equips Marth's ring in Fire Emblem Engage.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Fire Emblem Engage offers ample opportunities to utilize these skills. Permadeath mode returns for those seeking a high-stakes story where anyone can perish, but there are also challenging gauntlet-style trials that require serious skill. These trials push players to their limits, as they navigate battles against overwhelming enemy forces. Overcoming these challenges leads to high rewards and unlocks additional weapon customization options for players who enjoy exploring every aspect of the game’s RPG mechanics.

What impresses me the most is how well-paced the experience is—a feat not easily achieved in a story-driven tactics game that spans over 40 hours. Battles never feel excessively long, thanks to various options to speed up turns, automate unit behavior, or skip enemy phases altogether. The balance between story progression and battles feels just right; neither overshadows the other, which was a struggle in last year’s Triangle Strategy. This is yet another testament to Intelligent Systems’ prowess as a genre-defining developer.

Even when Fire Emblem Engage feels like a side game in the series, it still demonstrates the mastery of a true strategist.

The Social Life

While Fire Emblem Engage doesn’t push the series forward significantly, it does build upon the foundation laid by its predecessor, Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Similar to Three Houses, the social interactions between story missions are as crucial as the battles themselves. Players spend their free time on the floating island of Somniel, which serves as a hub akin to Garreg Mach Monastery. There are numerous activities to engage in, ranging from fishing to exercising to petting a dog. I found myself easily spending an hour immersed in Somniel, breathing life into Alear and their companions.

However, the abundance of activities can be overwhelming in practice. Many of them revolve around minigames or repetitive interactions that don’t evolve much throughout the game. For example, Alear can engage in an exercise minigame daily to gain temporary stat boosts for the next mission. This requires completing one of three tedious minigames, such as rapidly pressing the A button 20 times or playing a simple rhythm game. By the halfway point, I grew tired of repeating the same activities and decided to forego the buffs altogether—ultimately realizing that they didn’t significantly impact my gameplay.

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The social activities also suffer from a lack of clarity. I often found myself uncertain about the meaningful rewards I would receive from the minigames. It’s amusing to pet and feed my canine companion, but the benefits of maintaining its happiness level at maximum aren’t entirely clear. Is it worth replaying the simplistic wyvern-riding target shooter multiple times? What purpose does adopting animals and placing them in the farmyard serve? How do tarot readings actually affect the gameplay? Even when I discovered the answers, I often found that my overall experience remained unchanged, whether I engaged in these activities or not.

This is where Engage diverges from Three Houses. In the latter, social time was a precious resource that required careful decision-making. I had to choose how to spend my time, as each activity had significant consequences. Would I spend the day cooking to gain helpful stat boosts, or would I take a student out for tea to strengthen our bond? In Somniel, there are no such limitations, and while it may sound liberating in theory, it transforms side activities into compulsive chores to check off a list.

Some may perceive Fire Emblem Engage as a slight step back, but I view it as a necessary regrouping. It could have easily been a sequel to Three Houses, with a new teacher and a cast of familiar students, capitalizing on the success of the previous game. However, that approach would risk turning a winning formula into something bland and predictable. By taking a step back and experimenting with the recipe, Intelligent Systems introduces compelling new ideas that expand the tactical toolkit. With another successful entry like Fire Emblem Engage, it’s clear that this consistently outstanding series won’t find itself on the losing end of the battle anytime soon.

Fire Emblem Engage was tested on a Nintendo Switch OLED in handheld mode and on a TCL 6-Series R635 when docked.

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