Fire Emblem Engage is the seventeenth entry in Nintendo’s long-running tactical RPG franchise and celebrates the series’ history while also evolving the formula, resulting in the best of both worlds.
With over 30 years of history, there’s plenty to keep the veteran fans happy in the newest instalment, which introduces new faces while bringing back familiar old ones, maps and mechanics that are reminiscent of all past games, yet somehow remains fresh enough to be welcome in 2023. New reworks and innovative changes made to some classic mechanics ensure the gameplay feels exciting and new, and help it to reach imaginative heights.
Fire Emblem Engage follows the story of a new protagonist, Alear, the Divine Dragon who awakens after a thousand-year slumber with amnesia. The world around them is on the verge of a war with worshippers of the ancient Fell Dragon. Alear is tasked with gathering the twelve Emblem Rings in order to prevent the Fell Dragon’s return. These powerful artifacts carry the spirit of heroes from other worlds and bring a wealth of new skills and abilities to those who bond with them.
The story is reminiscent of some of the earlier entries, particularly Fire Emblem Awakening, but it’s engaging enough to maintain interest and allows players to meet characters who interact with one another in an entertaining way. Fire Emblem Engage has one of the strongest casts in the franchise’s history, with familiar faces and new mixed up to great effect and with varied enough personalities that are well fleshed out.
What Fire Emblem Engage does best is strip itself back. It could have been easier to simply add more of what the series has become best known for — relationships, romance, mini-games et al — but this time around the focus is entirely on combat with everything else being streamlined to make room for it without the game becoming overwhelming as a whole.
The Somniel, the new base of operations, does have plenty of side activities to keep players busy, including fishing, cooking, training and sparring, as well as endless conversations with characters and party members in order to strengthen relationships. That side of the game has been simplified, putting a focus on returning to combat stronger than ever.
In the game’s predecessor, Three Houses, there were plentiful conversation choices, however, in Engage, these interactions are a few sentences at best and don’t give a good opportunity to get in deep with characters. This does sacrifice some character development, as while the personalities shine through, the history and story of these people does lose a lot of needed detail for anyone really wanting to discover more about them.
This lack of agency and depth does unfortunately make the Somniel itself suffer as a result. Returning there feels more like a routine than anything really immersive as it could or should be. The only reason to go to the Somniel is for the reward of increased statistics and strength to help you out in combat. There are some adorable additions in the form of adopted animals and some of the gifting interactions raise a smile, but a more streamlined process would have been welcomed.
It’s difficult to be too disappointed with this minor gripe though, as the game doesn’t focus itself on social interactions as some of the past instalments in the series did. Engage is much more concerned with the battles and story, which is a fair trade-off. The narrative of the game also makes up for the lack of in-depth relationship building, even if Alear’s story is full of somewhat silly moments. The villains of the story, especially those that enter towards the end of the second half of the game, are well-rounded with great stories and without spoiling anything, it’s worth hanging around for this pretty long campaign that clocks in around the 60-hour mark when all is done.
Despite the Somniel lacking that real character engagement, Engage allows players to get to know their party members on the battlefield better than ever before. Characters become vital parts of winning combat teams, with members like Framme becoming an adored healer and Etie taking the crown for the best sniper. The combat requires more forethought and strategy than ever before and as a natural result of that, players find themselves with preferred characters based on their abilities and value in a high-stress situation.
It was for this reason that we decided to play with permadeath turned on, although a small gripe here on normal difficulty is that the rewind function has unlimited uses, meaning if you lose a favourite character it’s easy to flick the switch and retrieve them, which does kind of negate the permadeath function entirely. It’s a very minor gripe though, as the turn-based action is stronger than ever.
Fire Emblem Engage is fully focused on combat. Right from the beginning of the game, players are expected to make important decisions with minimal tutorial help, which is actually a great thing. The game gives just enough information to get you started, and then you’re on your own. There’s no hand-holding which is refreshing. For those familiar with the series, they’ll find themselves facing no surprises in terms of mechanics with the Weapons Triangle making a welcome return. For beginners, that triangle is explained from the get go with the usual swords beating axes, axes beating lances and lances beating swords. The ability to break opponents has been introduced this time around, meaning that enemies can’t attack back in the same turn if players have calculated that triangle of weapon choice correctly.
Flanking is as important as ever, and Fire Emblem Engage also includes breakables if players need to open a path in an emergency. Units interact with one another more powerfully than ever, with the chain attack possibilities seemingly endless depending on who the player has on the battlefield. Even in the most impossible scenarios, moving party members around until a strong enough solution is found is rewarding and satisfying.
Another huge new addition is the Engage system which is based around the Emblem Rings that Alear is seeking out. Fighting alongside Emblems charges up the Engage meter, which triggers Engage mode, merging characters with the Emblem Ring’s spirit and giving the character three turns to use their powerful and varied skills against enemies. This also opens up the availability of Engage Attacks, which can make or break a battle scenario if timed right. Fighting in this manner also increases bond levels, bringing with it some invaluable stat increases and allows characters to inherit skills from the Emblems, which can be used even outside of Engage Mode after creating Bond Rings.
There’s even multiplayer modes included here. Battles don’t need to be played out in one sitting and players can match with friends or random online players to help them out. Outrealm Trials sees players matched against one another to battle in preset or even custom maps. These quick combat encounters give a welcome escape from the main storyline and enable even more familiarity with your preferred battle party.
Intelligent Systems has created a combat environment that puts forth endless possibilities, meaning that Fire Emblem Engage provides true replayability as every decision changes the future of the battle. The game has so much depth while never feeling smothering — the information is right there if you need to call back upon it, but some of the results can be truly punishing if players aren’t paying attention. In contrast to Three Houses, Engage runs without even a hiccup and the artwork and sound design is given space to truly shine.
Engage will undoubtedly divide the more die-hard fans of the series. Many of them preferred the deep social interaction and more agency in terms of relationships in-game, but if you’re a fan of engaging, challenging, interesting and downright fun combat then Fire Emblem Engage is the perfect entry for that. The removal of intricate relationship systems means more time is spent actually in battle and progressing the story, which means the addiction level is ramped right up. Fire Emblem Engage is a fantastic example of the tactical RPG genre, and competitors will be hard pressed to outdo it in 2023.
A Switch key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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