Fire Emblem Engage: An "Engaging" Return to Series Roots
A must-play for tactical RPG fans
After nearly 4 years since the last main entry on the Switch, Intelligent Systems have released yet another Fire Emblem game for players to sink their teeth into. Fire Emblem as a franchise has been steadily gaining traction since the release of Fire Emblem Awakening in 2012 (under the risk of the franchise being cancelled) and this entry seems to want to maintain that solid forward momentum while also giving new fans a glimpse back at the legacy of the franchise over the past 30 years.
While you might first expect Fire Emblem Engage to iterate on the more social simulator elements of Three Houses, Engage is very much an experience in line with the more "traditional" Fire Emblem games of yore. That is to say, the focus of Fire Emblem Engage lies squarely on the combat while the social simulator elements take a backseat in comparison. This distinction will be the driving force as to whether or not Engage is the game for you, or if you should go back and do another one of the multiple routes in Three Houses.
While the game does have a quaint hub area in the Somniel, this location is far more focused on helping you raise your stats and take part in mini-games rather than being a stage for all sorts of romance and friendships to form. And that absolutely serves the game well; Fire Emblem Engage is not a game that is struggling to live up to the legacy of Three Houses, because it has absolutely no interest in that. There are no branching narratives, romantic afternoon teas or teaching in this game, and it helps to bring back to the front what really makes a Fire Emblem game. While one might be able to ask why buying weapons and consuming meals can't be done via a main menu, the addition of the Somniel as a small area to decompress really helps to establish a fully realised experience with bite-size distractions.
That isn't to completely dismiss the cast of this game, however; there are some lovely personalities hidden within this ensemble cast that really stand out in a crowd and help to make the experience all the more flavourful. Support conversations between units have made a return and really help to flesh out the various personalities (which tend to otherwise be fairly basic). It's an unfortunate and borderline inevitable consequence of having a cast as broad as Engage and so I am very glad to see that these characters get to come into their own when having 30+ units all contributing readily to the story might be somewhat overbearing.
Similar to recent entries in the series, each individual unit has their own selection of support conversations that can be unlocked through pairing up units on the battlefield, with various comedic scenarios being unlockable with units who you might not expect; seeing the stalwart Louis go off and have parties with the surprising party-goer priest of Pandreo or Alear scolding Alfred for being over-zealous in his devotion to them are two particular highlights among an entire cast of interesting personas. I found it hugely rewarding to pair up characters who I would never think to see working together and seeing where their stories were going!
This is aided by the story this time round, which serves as a perfectly fun and twisting backdrop to allow you to experience unique and exhilarating scenarios that test your strategic prowess and wrestle with the Corrupted. While I wouldn't want to spoil a second of some of the wild antics that go on towards the end of the narrative, it is suitably over-the-top and exhilarating all the same! It most certainly doesn't deal with topics in the same gravity that previous games did, but some moments do stick the landing and offer some strong emotional punch. You play as Alear (name and appearance dependent on your own preferences), a Divine Dragon who has been sleeping for 1,000 years after a battle with the Fell Dragon and a dragon with one gnarly sense of style if their hair is anything to go off of.
1,000 years later, they have been awoken to do battle with the Fell Dragon yet again and collect the 12 Emblem Rings to help them do that. What follows is a journey spanning countries and continents as you gather allies and search for the Emblem Rings to finally defeat the Fell Dragon.
It's a simple setup that stays relatively straightforward as you progress, although there are some twists and turns along the way. Still, the goal remains the same through and through.
So, with the focus being squarely set on the tactical combat in this game, it feels very good to say that this iteration of the Fire Emblem combat system feels like the most well realised one so far. With some new wrinkles and the reintroduction of some Fire Emblem staples that were strangely missing in Three Houses, Engage feels like the best of both worlds and offers a new spin on the classic system that should satisfy most players. The reintroduction of the classic weapon triangle injects a lot of the strategy I felt that Three Houses lacked, as well as the "break" system that encourages you to really pay attention to the types of weapons you're using, or risk being made vulnerable.
The real mechanical addition to Fire Emblem Engage is the titular "Engage" mechanic; this allows you to assign a Fire Emblem character of yore to one of your new units, allowing for stat buffs and unique movement options specific to each Emblem. For an example of two very different Emblems: one allows you to warp across a map and use powerful magic which is great for chasing down targets or just dealing with a pesky long-distance foe. Another Emblem might let you use a map-wide heal but sacrifice a unit's HP for the privilege; this system adds a brand new layer to the customisation in builds that avid fans of the series are sure to enjoy. Will you match Sigurd the Cavalier with a cavalier you have on your team already? Or will you decide to put Sigurd onto one of your mages to help them compensate for their weaknesses? These decisions will be ones you'll have the opportunity to make with all of your units and it's absolutely thrilling to come up with new ideas.
These changes, alongside enormous map variety and scenarios, help to create a game that will never bore tactical RPG fans. That isn't to mention the online functionality that Engage offers, with you being able to build customisable maps and armies for your friends (and foes) to rally against and see who can make the most fiendishly strong army.
Performance has often been a big part of the conversation regarding recent Switch launches and so it also helps that Engage stands shoulder to shoulder with recent offerings from Nintendo as intensely stylised and visually gorgeous. Compared to the muddy visuals of Three Houses, Engage offers an intensely colourful world and a stylised cast that really stand out in comparison. The rest of the game has also seen touch-ups across the board, with expressive 3D animations doing a lot of heavy lifting during the game's cinematics and support conversations. Instead of a 2D character portrait, all of the main cast have unique idle animations. Even down to the small details in the hub area of the Somniel, it is apparent that Intelligent Systems have certainly paid close attention to how this game looks in every meaningful way.
One massive step forward is how the transitions between battle and map are finally properly seamless. With most maps also being explorable on foot after finishing a battle, these small details really help to make Fire Emblem Engage the most well-realised title in the series so far. This visual fidelity alongside a soundtrack that covers wistful woodwind instrumentals all the way to Saturday-morning cartoon openings, helps to make an audio-visual experience that is a pleasure to watch and listen to as it is to play.
At the end of the day, Fire Emblem Engage is an absolutely phenomenal tactical RPG that stands tall in a franchise that has been known for its outstanding brand of strategic combat. But there will always be a question as to whether Fire Emblem has to become more than just a tactical RPG. For those many who were introduced to Fire Emblem through 2019's Three Houses, it is important to keep in mind that this game does take a step back from the social simulator elements that helped that game rise to the success it did. That much is undeniable; if you go into this game expecting an experience on par with Three Houses in that regard, you will be disappointed.
However, if you come into Engage with the mindset of a massively enjoyable and streamlined tactical RPG, with layer upon layer of options for you to pursue, as well as a healthy amount of side activities, Fire Emblem Engage should hopefully prove to be an engaging experience!
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