Intelligent Systems and Nintendo have an outstanding strategy game franchise on their hands, with an in-depth combat system that follows a simple sequence of rules that make up the gameplay’s foundation. Fire Emblem Engage, the latest entry on Switch, is a standout in the series — it quickly throws you straight to the action of combat by cutting out many of the side activities and time management tasks that have appeared in previous games, namely Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Engage does right in keeping the focus on the combat and highlighting the fantastic, sometimes frustrating, tactical maneuvers that take place on the battlefield. Unfortunately, to get to this point, Engage takes out part of the game’s heart that many fans might miss, exemplified by the many beloved characters from Three Houses, and features a far too safe and hollow narrative.
Returning to the classic Fire Emblem formula
The plot in Fire Emblem Engage is relatively straightforward, with lead protagonist Alear awakening from a thousand-year slumber. They awoke after the world-ending enemy they defeated thousands of years ago, the Fell Dragon Sombron, starts returning to power. Our hero must collect the 12 Emblem Rings featuring main characters from other Fire Emblem games to gather strength and defeat the Fell Dragon. Along the way, the main party meets a jampacked cast of heroic characters, each with two companions joining the party. The story is a much safer plotline that feels rather conventional. The designers have a formula for Fire Emblem storytelling, and they’ve stuck to it relatively well for several years, with slight twists and new ways to tell it along the way. It’s a stark black-and-white narrative that fans had feared, but it doesn’t make for a lesser experience.
The Emblem Rings are a fun callback to notable characters that have appeared throughout the franchise. Although I only have a history with a few of these characters, not knowing them never made me feel in the dark. That’s because, beyond featuring recognized characters, they were an exciting upgrade to use in combat. The designers also brought back the overworld exploration map from previous games, with a smaller character representing the party as they moved around to different battles and the weapon triangle gameplay — a throwback for classic players.
However, the return to Fire Emblem form is a stark difference from the creativity of Three Houses’ structure, which gave players four unique stories to explore. The overall arching plot was told from the perspective of the players’ house choice at the beginning of the game, giving four extraordinary tales to tell the same story.
Fire Emblem Engage does not feature such choices, but it’s for the better of keeping to the straight and narrow and not laying out too many opportunities. As a result, the story plays second fiddle to the genuine joy and delight of planning and executing complicated tactical play using these diverse characters.
Never short on thrilling tactical combat
Engage is a rewarding Fire Emblem game, as it throws you straight into strategic combat. You can focus primarily on the main story, completing the many chapter battles that appear, or partake in any side stories, Paralogues, or random Skirmishes that appear on the map. Paralogue missions and skirmishes are optional but are heavily encouraged for anyone who wants to beef up their characters and prepare them for far more harrowing battles.
The combat retains the Fire Emblem formula of characters moving across a battlefield, and they can freely attack any characters in range. The type of characters you use plays into a rock-paper-scissors combat triangle, made up of Swords, Axes, and Lances, with another offshoot of Gauntlets, Tomes, Bows, and Knives. Although simple at first glance, the system only inspires joy and contemplation as it slowly weaves in buffs, unique units, and heroic classes as the game progresses.
What may give you pause is the large number of characters that unlock while progressing through the game. In total, 36 characters unlock before the end of the game, and only eight to 12 can appear in combat. For some, it might be challenging to keep track of this many characters, but each has a way of sticking out with unique personalities and colorful appearances. Fire Emblem Engage is nothing short of gorgeous in its presentation, with some characters standing above the rest, such as dashing brothers Diamant and Alycryst, who arguably have some of the best armor designs.
While the diverse cast can make it challenging to pick the correct team to take with you for each battle, it’s relatively easy for players to pick a handful of favorites and use them for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, their overall personalities don’t have time to boil, and many characters become forgettable.
Fire Emblem games have some nice flexibility by offering players the ability to switch a character’s class from the original. Although it might not be the best based on their stats, sometimes changing them up to build more fun teams can be an enjoyable experience. Like any good game, a character’s fashion can make them more desirable than others, but it also comes down to stats and usefulness in combat. There is no wrong way to play Fire Emblem, and there are no useless party members. The real highlight is how often players have the chance to test this.
Engage cuts the fat of side activities for a leaner experience
In-between battles, there are opportunities to return to the main base, Somniel castle, to do a handful of activities. None of these tasks are required, and you don’t miss out on anything if you don’t participate in them. These tasks are different from activities in Three Houses, where there were many more minute tasks and duties to fulfill before reaching the heavy combat, all pressured by time management, making it easy to miss the finer details for those not in the know.
These tasks in Three Houses were also required to unlock multiple characters and ensure ideal units had the most optimized stats and weapon proficiencies. Even with the extra work, these were also an excellent way to get to know them. The more personal tasks in Three Houses were fun ways to further learn about these characters beyond their class, stats, and how useful they were to you in battle.
Engage has fewer intimate activities than other Fire Emblem games, and it sometimes felt like a missed opportunity, as if the heart of the game needed to be added. Instead, these characters returned to becoming rigid chess pieces. At first, it’s a punch in the gut, but in reality, the game gives players more time to get to the real meat of why they bought a Fire Emblem game: the tactical combat. The overarching plot of Engage might fall flat and feel like a tale you’ve seen before, but getting through to that main story is endlessly satisfying thanks to the rewarding, in-depth combat.
Although there is a distinct lack of social and side activities for you to enjoy in Fire Emblem Engage, it’s for the better. These cuts made Engage a more enjoyable experience from start to finish, with the overarching plot taking a backseat to the phenomenal strategic combat. Engage gets straight to the point of playing the strategy game and doesn’t force you to spend far more time than you want with every character you recruit to join your party.
Even though the general plot could have done with some more spice, and it’s not as replayable as Three Houses, Fire Emblem Engage wants players to dive straight into the game. It serves as a positive step in the series that I’d like to see repeated in future entries, but it could benefit by taking some creative risks in its narrative that make drawing to the conclusion of the story an exciting adventure rather than simply looking forward to the next battle.
|+||Rewarding tactical combat that is just difficult without being overwhelming|
|+||Cuts the side content to get straight back into the importance of the game|
|+||Enhanced combat mechanics that build on previous games|
|–||Flat plotline that plays it too safe|
|–||Little time to spend with the characters|