There are two types of Fire Emblem players: Those who gravitate towards the social mechanics and those who prefer the tactical turn-based combat. After a guided demo, Fire Emblem Engage seems like it may cater more towards the latter. While the social sim aspects are still intact, there seem to be far fewer extraneous activities in the hub area compared to Three Houses. A lot of your time at the hub is spent outfitting your party members, unlocking new combat skills, and preparing for the next battle. In this way, Fire Emblem Engage feels like a more focused take on the long-running tactical JRPG series.
Fire Emblem Engage follows a similar structure to other modern Fire Emblem games. Your time is split between the tactical tile-based combat and a hub area where you can interact with other characters. On the battlefield, Fire Emblem Engage brings back the traditional weapon triangle that the series is known for. Swords beat axes, axes beat spears, and spears beat swords. Taking advantage of the weapon triangle inflicts break, which prevents the defending unit from countering in that skirmish. Weapons outside of the triangle such as bows, daggers, and spell tomes are weak to physical attacks. As much as I enjoyed Three Houses (I played nearly 200 hours of it), I did miss the traditional weapon triangle. In past games, it gave specific weapons distinct strengths and weaknesses that forced me to carefully consider my party. The reintroduction of the weapon triangle could lead to a more balanced experience, especially for those who might have felt Three Houses was a bit too easy.
At the center of Engage’s combat is the Engage mechanic. As you progress through the story, you unlock Emblem Rings that can be equipped on any party member. Each Emblem Ring houses the spirit of a character from a previous Fire Emblem game, and when given to a party member, they can combine for improved stats and some powerful abilities. You can mix Emblem Rings with any character in your party for varying effects and strategies. Some combinations can lead to incredibly mobile party members, while others could significantly buff a character's strength stat. Some combinations may work better than others, but every party member can forge bonds with every classic character housed in an Emblem Ring. Like bonds formed between units, bonds between party members and Emblem Rings increase the effectiveness of that pair.
Every mainline Fire Emblem game is represented via the Emblem Rings. Some of the returning Fire Emblem characters I saw in the demo included Ike, Lucina, Roy, Marth, Lyn, Sigurd, and Celica. Additionally, there are items called Bond Rings that can be equipped in place of Emblem Rings. These rings feature characters from previous games and grant passive buffs. Bond Rings can be accumulated through a gacha-style minigame.
After you’ve equipped your party, you can activate the Engage mechanic by pressing the + button before kicking off a skirmish. While active, the classic Fire Emblem character embedded in the equipped Emblem Ring will accompany that unit. After three turns are up, you will need to refill your Engage meter through combat. I didn’t have enough time to experiment with different Emblem Rings, but it seems like this could lead to some interesting combinations.
There are also a handful of tweaks to the moment-to-moment combat as well. Most notably, now you have direct control over a character's movement. Rather than selecting a unit and plotting a path for them, you can freely move around the battle before committing to a tile and attacking. It’s not a huge change, but it does give you a little more flexibility and precision to your movements.
Fire Emblem Engage also does away with weapon durability. Once you find or purchase a weapon, it’s yours to keep. Hopefully this change means we’ll be spending less time managing a unit's inventory, and more time battling enemies and chatting up comrades. I am curious to see how the game’s economy is balanced now that you don’t need to keep buying weapons as they break on the battlefield.
Most of your time outside of the battlefield is spent at the Somniel, your home base. Here you can interact with your party members and heroes from past Fire Emblem games, manage an animal pen complete with adorable pups, partake in some weight training for temporary stat buffs, cook meals to build relationships with other characters, and upgrade your Emblem Rings.
That said, there is a lot to dig into when it comes to Emblem Rings. Each ring has an upgrade path for each character in your crew. These upgrade paths can give a character permanent stat boosts and new skills that are unique to a specific Emblem Ring. There is a dizzying amount of combinations here that should give players plenty of flexibility. I only had a few minutes to look this over, but I could have easily spent an hour digging into all the upgrade paths and considering my options.
Aside from the Emblem Rings, there is a large cast that you can take into battle, level up, and customize. I didn’t play nearly enough of the game to form any solid opinions on the characters I did see, but many of the traditional JRPG/anime archetypes seem to be here. There’s a heroic strong man with a shield, and a feisty, petite mage just to name a few. Hopefully, like other Fire Emblem games, these characters develop beyond their trappings, but that remains to be seen.
What is immediately clear is that Fire Emblem Engage looks great. The Nintendo Switch has had a rough year when it comes to performance and visuals, but Fire Emblem Engage pops off the screen thanks to its vibrant color palette and lively character animations. The cel-shaded art style from Three Houses is back, and it feels as though it's been cleaned up.
The slant away from the social sim mechanics from Three Houses might disappoint some, but the refined combat and reintroduction of the weapon triangle should excite longtime fans. Engage also feels incredibly deep, and I look forward to diving headfirst into all its mechanics and tactical nuance on January 20, 2023.
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