I hadn’t been convinced by what I had seen of Fire Emblem Engage before having the chance to play it. As someone who’s sunk countless hours into the tactical role-playing series ever since Fire Emblem Awakening threw it an unexpected lifeline near-dormancy, its strongly nostalgia-orientated approach was something that I had found difficult to connect with or feel particularly excited about. That’s something that came as a particular surprise to me, given how much I have come to adore the series.
In Fire Emblem Engage, you play as Alear, the Divine Dragon – a title of reverence that your party characters will incessantly call you throughout the entirety of the game simply because the protagonist’s name can be customised – who awakens after 1,000 years of slumber. With no recollection of your past, you soon discover that you are prophecised to gather the 12 Emblem Rings, with which you can summon legendary heroes whose assistance you will rely upon to defeat the Fell Dragon Sombron and restore peace to the continent of Elyos.
Sure. Like many, I recognise Marth, Ike and Roy from dodging their sword swipes in the Super Smash Bros. series. I know Lucina, Celica and Corrin from playing their respective Nintendo 3DS adventures, and, of course, there’s Byleth from Nintendo Switch‘s exceptional Fire Emblem: Three Houses. But then there are others such as Sigurd, Leif, Lyn and Micaiah who I’m loosely aware of but I wouldn’t be able to tell you which game they were from if it ever came up in a Nintendo-related pub quiz. If Fire Emblem Engage was meant to pique my curiosity to learn more about them, I didn’t find anywhere that pointed me in the right direction to do so substantially in-game and had to turn to Google for the answers.
Your pursual of the Emblem Rings is paramount to the plot. However, it was challenging for me to care about the Emblem Ring that I had just recovered once the hero that emerged from it turned out to be a character that I had minimal knowledge about. That sense of disconnection punctuated my experience multiple times and even carried through to the game’s Paralogues, where each Emblem character reflects on a pivotal fate-altering battle that transpired in their own world. Battles that I, once again, often felt no connection with. The counterpoint to this is that I relished spending me more time with the characters that I have more familiarity with and have grown to love. For the rest of them, I expect that those with similar knowledge gaps to me will have as muted a reaction as I had on occasion.
It is hardly without its eyebrow-raising revelations and heartfelt moments, but Fire Emblem Engage’s story goes through dizzying peaks and meandering troughs. It comes unstuck in not knowing whether to wholly focus on the characters from across Elyos’ four kingdoms that rally to your cause or the iconic heroes that have been plucked from Fire Emblem’s storied history. Such an unwieldy approach sees both inconsistently juggled alongside each other and moulded into a linear narrative. So, unlike Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you shouldn’t expect branching paths or to have to deliberate over any impactful decisions… at least beyond whether to actually hand your least-favourite character Horse Manure as a Gift.
This sense of disappointment even partly carries across to the game’s Support Conversations. I didn’t find those between Alear and his newfound companions particularly memorable and even resisted the chance to skip them, a shortcoming that was rescued by the more entertaining interactions that you can witness between the party characters themselves. Everyone will have their own favourites from the roster – mine included Etie, Merrin, Kagetsu and Fogado – and it was especially great to see a continued push for diversity. Given that the story’s scale doesn’t allow much time to get to know those that fight alongside you, admittedly like most Fire Emblem games, I savoured these moments.
It can’t be all bad though, right? It’s not. This review will have sounded downbeat so far, but Fire Emblem Engage continues to see Intelligent Systems deliver its best-in-class strategic gameplay. If you see the story as merely an obstacle to you sinking your time into barking commands at your army on grid-based battlefields then know that you will be far from disappointed. From Halberdiers and Snipers to Griffin Knights and Martial Masters, every unit class continues to have its strengths and weaknesses to consider and it is as enjoyable to experiment as it is to rely on tried-and-tested methods.
The Weapon Triangle – Swords beat Axes, Axes beat Lances, Lances beat Swords – remains in effect like before, but the developer has coupled this with a new Break mechanic that has been introduced. If you land an attack on an enemy with a weapon that has the advantage, then they will be broken and unable to counterattack until after their next encounter. This opens a valuable window for you to follow up with an attack from another character – whether to land the fatal blow or not – knowing that they will be safe from being dealt damage in return.
There is another new gameplay mechanic in Smash, which, usually when a character chooses to wield a heavy double-handed weapon, sees them strike after their target. Their resulting attack is powerful, knocking the enemy back a grid space with the chance to inflict Break on them if they are smashed into a unit or another obstacle. This was something that I came to rely on regularly, instead choosing to deal damage from afar before moving in for the kill.
These gameplay mechanics alone can make approaching Fire Emblem Engage’s combat feel fresh, but the Emblem Rings are far more than a mere plot device, too. You can choose to give an Emblem Ring to any of your characters, a decision that you can leave the game to optimise for you if you aren’t sure which Emblem to partner them with. Granting increased power and sync skills, a character can Engage with an Emblem once the respective meter is full. This merges them together, lasts three turns and not only lets them gain access to an Engage weapon but special skills, and the chance to unleash a devastating Engage Attack. Allow a character to continue to fight alongside the same Emblem from mission to mission and their bond level will increase, heightening their stats and unlocking new skills and effects.
Despite the narrative’s missteps, the Engage mechanic that the Emblem characters are the vehicle for is conceptually brilliant and makes you think about the way that you approach each battle in entirely new ways. Emblem Sigurd’s Override can see you charge through lines of enemies to damage them or Emblem Micaiah’s Great Sacrifice reduces its wielder’s HP to 1 but restores every ally’s health, whereas Emblem Roy’s Blazing Lion can ignite nearby terrain to damage enemies over time. Even Emblem Celica’s Warp Ragnarok and Emblem Lyn’s Astra Storm can be used back-to-back to make a daring, distant strike at an enemy character that you need to eliminate. Each Emblem has been carefully considered and all have a part to play in your wider strategy.
Your objective in most battles is to either eliminate all enemy units or to take out a specific character, and, despite some late-game standouts that I don’t wish to spoil, this needed more variety. The developer has instead looked to differentiate what you are sometimes challenged to do on each map, whether that be lighting beacons to illuminate darkened areas, wading through quicksand that slows down your unit movement or unleashing ballistae and flame cannons to even the odds. More often than not though, you’ll be confronted with stronger enemies that carry Revival Stones that they will consume once their HP falls to 0 to recover their health.
Longevity post-completion comes in the Tower of Trials, with rewards awaiting those that overcome its Tempest Trials, Relay Trials and Outrealm Trials. Tempest Trials challenge you to clear several maps in a row, whereas Relay Trials require a Relay Ticket and will let you team up with other players in asynchronous online battles – taking turns to command your units to secure victory. Whereas in Outrealm Trials you can challenge another player’s armies on maps that you select or create and upload. I don’t know how long this content will hold your attention, but it’.
Between story chapters, you are free to battle it out in optional Skirmishes or Paralogues that pop up on the World Map but you will more than likely spend your downtime on the Somniel. There are activities such as cooking meals to eat with your allies, training in the Arena, having a character’s fortune told, taking care of the puppy-like Sommie or catching forty winks with the chance that a random character will wake you up. Sadly, I didn’t find these activities to be meaningful or impactful which is strange after the successes that Fire Emblem: Three Houses had scored.
Something that I can heap endless praise on is Fire Emblem Engage’s production values. From the bright and striking character designs which Mika Pikazo was responsible for – with assistance from Amagaitaro (ORDAN) according to the game’s credits – to its flashy combat animations and sonorous soundtrack, it’s a notable step up from Fire Emblem: Three Houses and easily ranks as one of the Nintendo Switch’s best-looking games. The vivid colour palette will score bonus points with those lucky enough to be playing in Handheld mode on the Nintendo Switch OLED Model.
Despite faltering in its plot delivery and the absence of meaningful decision-making, Fire Emblem Engage once again allows Intelligent Systems to demonstrate its unparalleled strategic brilliance and unquestionable dominance in the genre. It isn’t a game that is lacking in heroic ambition, in many ways evolving its own formula triumphantly beyond what was achieved with Fire Emblem: Three Houses but otherwise disappointingly falling short in others.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo