I believe that most of the risks taken by Intelligent Systems in creating Fire Emblem Engage were worthwhile. Engage takes inspiration from older entries while retaining Three House’s social mechanics, so what’s here feels more like a sidestep than the next giant leap, which is to be expected when diverging from one of this generation’s most acclaimed RPGs. While the story could use some work, this is an exciting link between modern and classic Fire Emblem, and the core strength of the game is its tactical role-playing gameplay.
Due to its premise, Engage can only be judged in relation to its forerunners. From games spanning the series’ entire 30-year run, 12 iconic heroes from Fire Emblem return for one final romp. You aren’t literally bringing them here from another world like in the mobile spinoff Heroes from 2017. Instead, the spirit of each lord is contained within an Emblem ring, bestowing immense power on its wearer. In your role as Divine Dragon Alear, you must track down the 12 rings, which are at the heart of a new conflict with the Fell Dragon Sombron.
Fire Emblem Engage returns to a linear story without any branching paths, major decisions, or even funny answers to meaningless questions. Even though I appreciate the extra time off, I can’t help but feel like this is a regression. In and of itself, Engage’s plot isn’t terrible, but it lacks the nuance and moral ambiguity that made Three Houses so successful. In contrast, both the plot and the characters’ goals are starkly obvious. Also not helping is the use of cliches like an amnesiac protagonist who must battle a resurrected ancient evil.
Though Fire Emblem Engage’s plot and characters are often predictable, the game benefits from some excellent writing. Although Alear’s flamboyant hairstyle may lessen the emotional impact of certain scenes, this in no way diminishes their ability to be an inspiring leader. This is further strengthened by a compelling cast of secondary figures. Some are obviously written for a specific personality — the cute one, the fitness fanatic, the alpaca enthusiast — but none of the major players are particularly dull, and I was invested throughout.
Awakening, a game released for the 3DS in 2012, has a similar structure between chapters, and I find myself thinking about it often. You will travel across a map with multiple options, including the chapter’s main mission, a paralogue for optional content, and a quick skirmish to level up your units. Combat at an ally fort is transformed into training, with the victorious troops receiving experience bonuses similar to those in Shadows of Valentia. Exploration is not hindered in any way, however, because skirmishes are entirely voluntary.
Engage adheres to the fundamentals of combat regardless of your choice. This is turn-based tactical combat in which you eliminate individual enemy commanders or route their forces. As a result of Engage removing the durability of weapons and tomes of magic, the management of weapons feels diminished, but the availability of staff remains restricted. Battalions are also unavailable, but Emblems more than makeup for this, and mistakes can still be undone by rewinding time.
There are also some classic touches. Certain units can be recruited mid-battle if the appropriate person speaks to them or if certain paralogues are completed. Following its absence in Echoes and Three Houses, the weapons triangle reappears with a new twist. Attacking foes with the proper weapon now causes breaks, preventing them from counterattacking. Great for eliminating single foes, but be careful not to become careless.
All of these changes are good, but the Emblems are what really make the combat in Engage stand out. Units that are paired with a ring can choose “Engage” to channel these ghostly lords, which gives them new weapons, skills, and unique abilities that give them clear tactical advantages. Eirika’s Twin Strike uses both a sword and a lance to break the triangle, while Corrin’s Torrential Roar can flood an area to make it harder for an enemy to run away. Emblems give units a lot of flexibility without forcing them to switch classes or add more people to a roster that is already too big.
One of my favourite parts of Fire Emblem Engage is when Alear can freely roam the battlefield after each battle. Talking to allies gives you different views on what happened, praise for how well they did, or questions about why you haven’t used them in a while. There are scattered items, NPCs, and animals you can adopt for your base. Engage’s worldbuilding is often subtle, but it usually works, and these segments are a great way to show off the game’s better graphics. Everything looks cleaner, the environments are more detailed, and a nice soundtrack backs that up.
When you’re done seeing the sights, you can do one of two things. Go back to the world map and keep fighting, or go to The Somniel, which is a beautiful airborne base that looks like Garreg Mach without its school. Fishing and riding wyverns become available over time, and the Tower of Trials is the only place where you can play with other people online. I couldn’t fully test these before they came out, but you can make your own maps and fight another player’s army, which should make them more interesting than just the 40-hour campaign.
That campaign also has a lot to offer. Support conversations are back, and Alear can boost the support of a unit by eating together, giving gifts, and helping them in battle. This is often where Engage’s writing about characters shines, as it gives even minor characters a chance to shine, and yes, romance is back. This time, any ally with A-rank support gets a special scene. I can’t say for sure if changing Alear’s gender changes anything, but some scenes seem to make their friendship stronger, which is nice.
Emblems also have supports, but they aren’t very strong. Most of the time, each side only has one short line of dialogue. But when you reach the maximum number of bonds, you can access special paralogues that reenact important parts of a lord’s life. I won’t give anything away, but I liked how these parts made me think about myself. Importantly, Engage doesn’t talk about their past in the main story. Instead, it does so in these side stories, which makes the nostalgia trips optional. For older fans, it’s like talking with an old friend about old times.
Intelligent Systems put together a game that is a culmination of Fire Emblem’s history. It is a surprising mix that clearly takes ideas from both times. I miss the mystery that made the main story of Three Houses so interesting, but Fire Emblem Engage makes up for it with a great cast and great tactical gameplay. This is a good RPG that adds to an already deep combat system. Longtime fans will get more out of it, but newcomers might be interested enough in the series to look into its long history.