Fire Emblem: Three Houses was a smash hit for Nintendo both critically and commercially. While it didn't dramatically shake up the combat, its ambitious multi-campaign structure swung for the fences. It only seemed natural that Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems would build off Three Houses' success. While Fire Emblem Engage certainly builds on the deep and rewarding tactical combat, the predictable story and repetitive side activities feel like a step backward for the long-running series.
Fire Emblem Engage follows a more traditional structure than Three Houses’ calendar-based progression. Your time is split between the tactical turn-based combat the series is known for and a hub-like area where you can interact with other characters and outfit your units with weapons and equipment. While there are multiple missions available to you at any given time, the story sticks to a linear structure as you plot a course around the map. There are no major story decisions, and apart from a couple characters found in optional paralogue chapters, everyone will recruit the same characters at the same time.
This traditional structure isn't inherently a bad thing. Some of the best games in the series follow this narrative style, and Engage's presentation and narrative are more polished thanks to its focused design. But this approach also puts the story in a brighter spotlight and, unfortunately, the extra polish doesn't hide the predictable and meandering plot, which overall falls flat.
You play as Alear, son or daughter of the Divine Dragon, and it's your destiny to save the world from the Fell Dragon. The premise is standard JRPG fare, and although there are some twists and turns along the way, these rarely feel like meaningful developments. You and your crew are the good guys, while the evil purple dragon and its followers are the bad guys. While not perfect, Three Houses' approach of pitting different houses against each other and forcing you to make some huge decisions along the way was both ambitious and encouraged personal investment. Engage's story, on the other hand, feels safe and formulaic, so it can be easy to become detached from it.
As you travel the world, you'll meet an eclectic cast of characters and visit some vibrant locales that serve as battlefields. The stakes are high at the outset, and the plot rarely gives you time to learn about or appreciate its large cast of characters outside of a few key figures who are critical to the story. Characters early on are introduced in rapid succession, and after a few battles I had forgotten about some of them entirely. Most of the characterization happens in optional support cutscenes, but given how bloated the roster is at the beginning, some characters naturally fell to the wayside and, as a result, were too underleveled to properly utilize.
The mechanical impact of the skewed social elements at play is that, in the early hours, the larger number of bodies may offset some losses you might incur on Classic mode, which is Fire Emblem's permadeath mode. However, Engage is pretty forgiving on the Normal and Hard difficulties, so in reality you probably won't lose any units on Classic mode either. And, regardless of which difficulty you choose, there is a mechanic that allows you to rewind time to correct any of your mistakes. Normal difficulty gives you an unlimited number of rewinds, while the Hard and Maddening difficulties limit it to 10.
Despite Fire Emblem Engage's forgiving nature, it is a well-balanced experience regardless of the difficulty and mode you choose. Normal offers a reasonable challenge for players who may not want to utilize every system the game offers, while Hard delivers a tough experience that requires tactical forethought and some preparation outside of battle, and Maddening demands strategic prowess and full investment in all of Fire Emblem Engage's various systems. I'm currently a quarter of the way through a Maddening playthrough and it is harrowing. The odds seem insurmountable at first, but the right planning will eventually lead you to victory.
The combat itself is tighter than ever. The tactical tile-based skirmishes return, as well as the original rock-paper-scissors-style weapon triangle: swords beat axes, axes beat spears, and spears beat swords. Apart from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the weapon triangle has been a mainline series mainstay since 1996's Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, and Engage brings some tweaks to the system. Weapon advantages not only deal extra damage, but cause a break effect, which is a mechanic new to Engage. When an offensive unit inflicts a break onto a defending unit, that unit drops their weapon and is incapable of counterattacking for the remainder of the skirmish and one additional skirmish during the same turn.
The break mechanic adds more risk and reward to the weapon triangle by giving weapon types specific purposes and use-cases, making a well-balanced team crucial. With the proper coordination, you can effectively undercut your opponent's entire counterattack effort, leaving your units unscathed until the enemy's turn. Naturally, your opponents can also take advantage of the weapon triangle and break your units if you aren't careful. While it can briefly put you on the backfoot on the Normal difficulty, it can be a matter of life and death on Hard or Maddening. Taking full advantage of the weapon triangle requires clever positioning, a balanced team, and well-equipped units that can cover up potential weaknesses on the fly.
Fire Emblem Engage's highlighted mechanic is the Engage feature. Throughout Engage's story, you will come across Emblem Rings that house the spirits of past Fire Emblem heroes. Along with stat buffs, units equipped with an Emblem Ring can merge with the Fire Emblem hero contained within it to utilize unique skills and weapons for three turns. For example, a unit paired with Sigurd, the blue-haired protagonist from Genealogy of the Holy War, can use a skill called Override, which can attack multiple units in a single-file line. Additionally, Sigurd's ring allows the user to move a few extra spaces after attacking, allowing you to leave room for another unit to follow up. Lucina, on the other hand, has a flashy skill called All For One, which allows all friendly units within two spaces to partake in a powerful chain attack. With proper coordination, All For One can deliver a deadly blow to some of the game's tougher enemies. There are 12 rings in all, and each one represents a different mainline Fire Emblem game.
Most of Fire Emblem Engage's depth is built around these Emblem Rings. Any unit can utilize an Emblem Ring, and as a unit battles alongside an Emblem, the bond between that unit and the Emblem Ring increases. As a character improves their bond with an Emblem, they can inherit new skills and permanent stat buffs, which can be purchased with skill points. While certain Emblem abilities and skills complement specific classes, there is nothing stopping you from giving an Emblem Ring to any one of your units. The combinations are endless, and it can be satisfying to find both the perfect duo and an unconventional pairing.
It is imperative to carefully consider which unit should get which Emblem Ring, though, not only for the tactical advantage, but because maxing out a bond between an Emblem and unit can be a time sink. It could take a dozen battles to max out an Emblem's bond with a specific character, and if you've given that Emblem Ring to a character who can't fully utilize its inherited skills, you could be wasting your time. There are ways to speed up the bonding process, but they require Bond Fragments, which can also be used to forge and meld stat-buffing Bond Rings. The Central Pedestal, the place where you can manage all your rings, will tell you if a specific inherited skill overlaps with another. However, it does not tell you who and which classes would benefit most from a specific Emblem Ring. There are even some cases where the story will introduce a new unit pre-equipped with an Emblem Ring that isn't all that beneficial for them to wield, so it's up to you to recognize that and find a unit who might get more out of that Emblem Ring.
Managing Emblem Rings can be overwhelming, especially for newcomers who may not fully understand all of Fire Emblem’s stats, but once you've put together a balanced crew that fully utilizes all 12 Emblem Rings, the combat sings. The unique abilities--especially when paired with the right unit--give you an edge that begins to build momentum as you tear through the enemy's numbers. And knowing that you have a well-balanced team with specific Emblem Rings not only informs your strategy from the outset, but also allows you to adjust in the heat of battle should you encounter a tough situation. And this happens without any one Emblem feeling overpowered. The end result is that the combat remains fresh throughout the game's lengthy runtime.
While the Emblems bring a lot of nuance and experimentation to the combat, they are all one-dimensional characters off the battlefield. Apart from Marth, the Emblems don't add anything substantial to the overall narrative. Occasionally, they'll pop in for a cutscene to deliver a line or two when you first meet, but after that they are relegated to truncated, soulless bond conversations and paralogues that act as straightforward loyalty missions.
There's a paralogue for each of the Emblem Rings, and the setup for all of them is nearly identical. You show up to a place that looks familiar to the Emblem's home world, the Emblem asks you to prove yourself in combat, and then you fight. While some of the battles themselves are interesting, the setups for these paralogues never are. These missions could have been the perfect opportunity to revisit and expand on fan-favorite characters like Lucina and Lyn, or give more personality to the player characters from past games like Corrin and Byleth. At the very least, I was hoping Engage might be a good introduction to characters that never made it to the West, like Sigurd and Leif, but that wasn't the case.
Fire Emblem Engage feels like an attempt to leverage the series' rich history and huge cast of beloved characters, but outside of some clever combat quirks that reference the older games, the Emblem characters are paper-thin. A handful of them also serve as a sobering reminder that a portion of Fire Emblem's history is still inaccessible in the West.
Fortunately, the cast outside of the Emblem Rings is solid. Like previous games, most of the characterization is done through short vignettes called support conversations. They can be funny, quirky, and occasionally deep when they explore a character's internal or external conflicts. They're not all good, and some follow common JRPG tropes a little too closely, but in most cases it's a joy to watch these characters interact with each other.
One highlight for me is Prince Alcryst, who has been living in his brother's shadow since he was a kid. Most of Alcryst's support conversations revolve around him getting over his inferiority complex in unusual ways. In one scene, a party-obsessed companion invites him to a get-together where Alcryst is able to cut loose and discover a side of himself he didn't know existed.
In Alcryst's case, it was fun to watch him build up his confidence as I was developing him into a cold-blooded archer on the battlefield. By the end, it felt like Alcryst's character outside of combat mirrored the character I had molded him into on the battlefield. Not every character has an arc like Alcryst’s, but each of them has a distinct, often peculiar personality that keeps support conversations fresh and lighthearted. Some of these scenes can be a bit awkward, but they usually give you just enough backstory to make you care about them in battle.
Most of these conversations take place at the Somniel, your base above the clouds. Here you can chat with your companions, exercise for some temporary stat buffs, share a meal with some friends, fish, take care of livestock, purchase and upgrade new weapons, feed the Somniel's spirit animal Sommie, donate to one of the different kingdoms, battle friendly units in the arena, and, of course, manage your Emblem Rings. Most of these activities reset after each battle, so you're encouraged to return to the Somniel often to make the most of your time. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before these activities start to feel like busy work.
While the support conversations are generally great and tweaking your units’ loadouts can be satisfying, running around the Somniel to pick up resources and partaking in these activities is not. The worst of the bunch is a minigame that has you polish Emblem Rings as the Emblem hero either awkwardly praises or chastises your work. Of course, you can skip all these activities and focus solely on the battles, but that could put you at a significant disadvantage, especially on harder difficulties. In order to keep your companions in tip-top shape and bring in a steady flow of resources, you'll need to return to the Somniel after each battle, whether you like it or not.
The most substantial side activity in the Somniel is the Tower of Trials. Here you can connect with other players for asynchronous co-op and player-vs-player game modes. Relay Trials pits you against an AI-controlled team and has you trade off with other players every few turns. Once the trial is complete, everyone involved will receive some rewards. It’s a neat idea that lets you try out character builds created by other players, but it's not as compelling as a standard battle. Since you could be joining mid-fight with an unfamiliar team, a lot of the tactical decision-making is out of your control. Losing an ally or an entire battle due to another player’s poor decision-making feels antithetical to Fire Emblem’s core design.
The asynchronous PvP mode, Outrealm Trials, lets you or an opponent create a map and scenario that other players can take on. The designer can place obstacles, mounted weapons, and select their units to populate the battlefield. Once the level is complete, it can be shared with friends and strangers. Once again, it’s a neat idea, but there doesn’t seem to be any proper balancing or level scaling in these trials. I joined a random match and the opponent’s units were underleveled to the point where I was able to one-hit all of them. I can see the appeal of sharing trials with friends who are evenly matched, but hopping in random games seems unfair, without better skill-based or balance considerations being made. It is worth noting that I tested Outrealm Trials during a pre-release phase, and a more balanced matchmaking system could be in place once the game is available to a wider audience.
Fire Emblem Engage's biggest surprise is its presentation. Engage is a noticeable upgrade when compared to Three Houses. Character models look much sharper with thick and defined edges, the pre-rendered cutscenes are gorgeous, and the battlefields are more detailed.
Not only does the game look better on a technical level, the art direction in Engage feels much stronger this time around. Characters are lavishly rendered with colorful outfits and accessories that perfectly capture their personality. Jean, the young medic, brandishes a backpack equipped with vials and a medicinal flask, while Diamont, the royal prince of Brodia, is adorned with a crown and heavy armor with red accents to match his country's colors. Even though Engage does frontload the experience with too many characters, they all feel visually unique.
The flashy battle animations go along nicely with the colorful cast of characters as well. While you're likely to skip the standard battle animations in the back half of the game, I still found myself sitting through all of the extravagant Emblem attacks. Watching an enemy's health bar plummet after unleashing an explosive multi-hit attack is gratifying.
What really hammers home the stellar presentation, though, is the incredible score. The sweeping orchestral compositions elevate tense combat scenarios, and salvage some of the dullest beats in the story. Thankfully, you can replay any track from your bedroom in the Somniel, including a handful of tracks from previous entries.
While Fire Emblem's combat mechanics have never been better, Engage's story and structure lack the ambition of its predecessors. The result is a predictable and straightforward romp that's carried by its fantastic presentation and engaging combat. And although the Emblem Rings add a deep and satisfying wrinkle to the battles, the heroes contained within them are one-dimensional apparitions that leave a lot to be desired. If you’re looking for a deep tactical RPG with some colorful characters, it will certainly scratch that itch. But beyond that, Fire Emblem Engage feels like a safe, straightforward entry in Nintendo’s long-running series.