Fire Emblem Engage Review
A minor setback
For a series that has been around for decades, Fire Emblem has arguably never been more popular. Three Houses, and to a lesser extent Tokyo Mirage Sessions and Three Hopes, have all succeeded both critically and commercially. Each of them featured fresh tweaks to familiar long running mechanics, but still managed to invoke the spirit of the series. Fire Emblem Engage follows that pattern but calls back to the foundations of the series in ways the more recent entries did not. What results is a title that remains enjoyable but feels like a slight step back.
After working with Koei Tecmo on development of Three Houses, series stalwart Intelligent Systems once again has full control. This is perhaps the main reason why the sequel feels like a throwback to the more traditional entries. Gone is the differentiating story options and calendar management from the prior main entry. Instead, Engage places a larger focus on its turn-based battle engine and calculating battlefield management.
One of the ways that the title does this is by reintroducing the weapon triangle. Until being removed from Three Houses, the weapon triangle was a mainstay of the series. The triangle follows a similar pattern in Engage as it did in previous entries: Sword beats Axe, Axe beats Lance and Lance beats Sword. Taking stock of what weapon your unit is wielding, and what weapon an opposing target is equipped with is key to navigating each conflict. Taking advantage of a beneficial match-up will lead to you doing higher damage and inflicting break, which lets you attack without worry of being countered. Enemies can and will take advantage of certain matchups as well, so you need to always be on your guard.
Combat will feel immediately familiar to long-time fans of both the series and genre. It's a turn-based engine with movement done across tiles. There are frequently objects found on each map that can lead to stat boosts or can only be traversed by specific unit types. Much like with the weapon triangle, taking stock of the lay of the land is an important facet of battle. Studying the map can also help you determine which allies you choose to go into battle with. Certain battles may be better suited to specific classes such as Archers or Lance Fliers. While I tended to go with a balanced selection of units, there were definitely clashes where I loaded up on one specific class more than usual.
The big addition to the formula for this iteration is the titular Engage feature. As you progress through the main story missions, you'll acquire the Emblem Rings. These special pieces of jewelry contain the spirits of heroes from Fire Emblem past such as Marth, Roy, and Lucina. There are 12 rings in all, and each ring can be given to an ally of yours to wield. Giving them a ring not only provides a boost to their base stats, but also lets them merge with the hero housed in the ring for three turns. This will let them tap into a special skill that could help turn the tide of battle.
Mixing and matching Emblem Rings with different characters is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the title. As your characters battle with the rings equipped, they will strengthen the bond between the two. Building the bond allows them to unlock additional skills and stat boosts that can be utilized even without the ring being equipped. There are certain combination of character and ring that work best, though, and it's important to eventually recognize that. It may not seem evident right away, and with rings often being introduced along with a new party member, it can take some trial and error. But even if you have a less than ideal load-out, it's still good that you are getting benefits every time you go out to fight.
It's important to have as many advantages as possible because the difficulty of Engage can be brutal at times. I have been playing the game on normal and have still had more than my fair share of tough fights. Enemies are smart and will take advantage of any mistake you make. I will say that I haven't been playing on Classic mode, though, which does feature permadeath on ally units. That option is still there for the traditionalist fans. One other advantage you do have, though, is the Draconic Time Crystal. This power allows you to rewind a battle back to a specific movement or action. On normal, you have unlimited uses, while higher difficulties restrict you to 10 per battle. I did try to avoid the use of the crystal as much as possible, but it's nice to have the option if I really mess things up.
When not in battle, you'll likely be spending most of your time at the Somniel. The Sominel is the floating home of the main character Alear and comes to serve as the base of operations for the team. It's here that you can work on building relationships with your teammates through discussions and gift giving. Having a strong relationship with a unit unlocks boosts for them while fighting alongside you. As you make progress in the story, you'll eventually discover the option to potentially romance one of your allies. I will say that the depth of these relationships is not as strong as it was in Three Houses, but there are benefits to exploring this system.
The Somniel also houses several areas where you can improve your team. There are various shops to purchase new weapons, items and even clothing. There's a smithy where you can improve the base stats of the weapons in your arsenal. Most importantly, though, are the assorted Emblem Rings benefits afforded to you. There is a training area where you can spend Bond Points, which can be earned in battle, to boost the bonds between characters and Rings. This will let you unlock the new skills for them that you normally would get through taking part in battles with that ally. You can also forge additional Bond Rings in the Central Pedestal room. These lack the major advantages of the Emblem Rings, but they do provide additional stat boosts and are worth giving to your lesser allies.
Additionally, the Somniel is where you will be able to find multiplayer. The Tower of Trials has both PvE and PvP options, but neither of them are as enjoyable as you would hope. For the team-up option, you and another player take turns controlling Alear and company during battle. The twist is that it's not real-time, so you have no control over when someone will make a move in your match. It's a strange set-up, especially if you don't know someone else with the game, as you are stuck waiting for someone to randomly get assigned your match. The PvP side has you creating a custom map, and then letting players take a crack at it. This is a little more exciting, but the limited map creating tools put a cap on how unique these matches can get.
If there is one real area where Fire Emblem falters, though, it is that the story is lacking. You play as the Divine Dragon Alear, a legendary warrior who has been asleep for the past 1000 years. Upon awakening, they realize that the evil they previously defeated, the Fell Dragon Sombron, has returned. In order to once again save the day, Alear will need to collect the 12 Emblem Rings and work with a wide variety of allies. These include royalty from friendly nations, sworn protectors to the Divine Dragon and even former enemies who realize the error of their ways.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this set-up, and if nothing else, it does a decent enough job of weaving in a sizable roster. However, it lacks the decision making and characterization that made Three Houses such a delight. There was a direct goal to tell a straightforward story for this sequel, and Intelligent Systems did succeed at that. But by giving you little agency in the events of the story, it ends up being disappointing. There are some moments with the side-cast that are well-written and enjoyable, but for most of the interludes that pop up when talking with your allies, I was bored. Either by giving you more options to directly effect the story, or by better fleshing out party members, the story could have been improved.
The dated hardware of the Nintendo Switch has led to some rough game performances over the last year, but I'm happy to say that Fire Emblem navigates this issue successfully. Outside of slightly long load times getting into battle, the title ran extremely well both docked and handheld. The performance does seem to have come at a slight cost to the graphics, but the anime art style helps mask the downgrade. The main character models look solid and have some excellent bursts of color. The environments are lacking in fine details, though, with it being particularly noticeable during the non-battle segments. Ultimately, I would still take the quality level of performance over advanced graphics, but it still makes you long for a more powerful device to play it on.
Fire Emblem Engage continues the string of success the series has been on recently. The tactical gameplay is as gripping and intense as ever. There's plenty of depth to the myriad of systems in the title, and you have countless ways to load-out your team. However, it would have been nice for the excellent gameplay to have been paired with an equally solid story. The tale of Alear, though, is too heavy on tropes and lackluster characterization. It struggles to captivate, despite a constant flow of cutscenes and conversations. The bland story isn't bad enough to ruin the adventure, but this still feels like a minor set-back for the franchise.