Fire Emblem has always left its story behind with each instalment. With every new game, we head to a new region, meet a new cast, play as a new character, and begin a new quest. Sure, that quest is often something as generic and bombastic as saving the world, but each game is a brand new experience. In many ways, Fire Emblem Engage is a continuation of that philosophy, offering up a new hero in Alear, and a new land to explore with new friends and new foes. In other ways, Engage is the biggest exception to the rule in Fire Emblem's history, plumbing the depths of the series' back catalogue to celebrate its former heroes. This is the perfect summation of Engage as a whole. It's old, but it's new. It's fresh, but it's familiar. It's Fire Emblem, but perhaps not quite as we know it.
Like many of us, I was expecting Engage to channel Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The most recent mainline game propelled the series into a new echelon of popularity, sold close to four million copies (making it the most successful Fire Emblem ever), and was a critical darling. Engage is not too interested in being like Three Houses. It takes some social cues from it, but it feels far more like a modernisation of games that came before it – this is a successor to Awakening far more than it is to Three Houses. From a gameplay perspective, this is a masterstroke – it’s far richer than Three Houses, both in terms of individual battles and in how you approach the map and choose your quests and paralogues. However, the less violent parts of the game, which usually hold the most charm and heart, are found wanting.
Let's take to the battlefield first. The basic structure is as it ever was – you lead a group into tactical battle on a grid, and are met with failure if central hero Alear falls. You can choose not only the difficulty, but whether or not death for anyone besides Alear is permanent. You will get a chance to reverse time, but this is limited, so should be used wisely. Different units have different attacks, and this determines their effectiveness (archers are particularly good at taking on flying units, for example). If you've played any Fire Emblem you know all this already. But Engage brings in one (very good) deliberate change, and one (very bad), likely accidental, change. It's a game of contrasts.
The deliberate change is the Engage mechanic. Throughout the campaign, you meet 12 former protagonists who may be summoned from rings for a limited time to grant extra powers. As well as offering use of their own most iconic weapon, they have special moves. Sigurd allows you to drive through a line of enemies on horseback, damaging several foes at once. Roy wields a sword of flames, damaging enemies in an arc pattern. Micaiah drains the health of her wearer, but restores the health of every other ally. It adds a fiendishly tricky layer of tactics to battles. Firstly, there's the question of when to unleash the Emblems, as they are called. Early, to sweep the fodder and hope you can recharge in time? Or save them all to quickly mow down the more powerful bosses? There's also the question of which fighter best suits each ring's approach – you don't want Sigurd causing your healer to dive headfirst into battle, nor Micaiah to drain your tank.
Unfortunately, the Emblems are a little too involved in the story. The entire plot is about collecting the rings, having them stolen, collecting them again, and while it's interesting to see how bosses will use the Emblems, it's also disruptive to get used to Marth (the first Emblem, of course), and then have to suddenly cope without him. Further highlighting Three Houses' lack of influence, Byleth is picked up in the middle of the story with little fanfare, and has no real involvement in proceedings.
Then there's the accidental change. Assigning new classes to your units is bafflingly difficult. In theory, it's straightforward. There are two types of seals you can find, win, or buy to change class. However, before long they will start to lock themselves out of anything. Most of the characters I met at the start, who were present in every cutscene, did not battle beyond the third or fourth skirmish because there were better fighters and no way to upgrade them. Some side quests let you pick up a couple of newbies too, and they never featured at all because they were too weak, even though I got them immediately.
It's not just a case of having to fight enough for them to get better and able to upgrade, either. Early on I was able to assign the Sniper class to one of my units. For the next eight or nine battles, they were my MVP every time. They eviscerated anyone in their path. But slowly, other units gained new classes and surpassed them. My Sniper, despite featuring heavily in every battle, had nowhere else to go, and eventually fell out of the main squad entirely.
This links into the game's main failing – everything is so lifeless outside of battle. The activities back at base are fine, but also very dull after a while. No more dull than the cast themselves, of course. There are no less than four characters whose main thing is 'aren't I cute? I'm cute, aren't I? Tell me I'm cute!', and even ones like Fogado, Chloe, and Merrin, who have more established personalities, have relentlessly boring Support episodes, either with Alear or elsewhere. This is where the game should shine, but the writing is mesmerizingly stale. I have played a lot of JRPGs translated for the West and I know there's often friction, but everyone says so much here and none of it is worth listening to.
There are some late game scenes that both go dark and show some heart, but they're immediately undercut by lines that would make Kingdom Hearts blush about how 'the power of friendship will overcome!' or some other nonsense. I was deeply invested in my Three Houses classmates, and this is a disappointing step backwards. It may be that the cast here, so much larger without the class divisions of the previous entry, is harder to balance effectively. It may also be that the writing, both in terms of plot and dialogue, is horrendous. I suspect it is the latter.
This is the best Fire Emblem game to play ever. No exaggeration. I have not experienced all of the very early games, but I have seen enough to plant my flag for this one. But to fully experience? Way down the list. It's frustrating in the extreme – I just do not care about these characters and their plight, and even the ones where I might have, the game offers me no reason to invest whatsoever. I highly recommend Fire Emblem Engage because the gameplay and battles are stellar. Just be prepared to find yourself skipping a lot of stuff by the end.
A Nintendo Switch code was provided for this review.
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