Fire Emblem, as any 30-year-old series does, means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Those who grew up with games like Fire Emblem Blazing Sword (localized in the West as simply Fire Emblem) and Path of Radiance know it as a strategy RPG franchise featuring permadeath, great maps, and mechanics that restrict players but foster creativity, such as limited experience and weapon durability. Players who grew up with Sacred Stones or started in Awakening may know it as a series with simple worldbuilding, the ability to grind your perfect team, and colorful, bombastic characters.
Those who started with Three Houses might think of the extensive worldbuilding of Fodlan, or the ability to turn any one unit into whatever you wanted. Fire Emblem Engage, as a title celebrating the series 30th anniversary (which was likely only missed due to a worldwide pandemic), had a lot of fans to appeal to who all love this series for different reasons. Did Engage succeed in its lofty goals? Let’s find out.
Players booting up Fire Emblem Engage for the first time may likely be taken aback by the absolute cheesiness of the experience – from the intro cinematic song, the over-the-top designs for the protagonist, to how the story is largely “There’s a big, evil dragon, let’s go stab it,” there’s a lot that Engage bombards you with right out the gate. Engage is pure fan service in the most traditional form – lovingly referencing each previous Fire Emblem adventure throughout those long previous three decades. Collecting the Emblem Rings, equippable rings housing the spirits of previous Fire Emblem protagonists, form the impetus of Engage’s relatively simple and jovial storytelling.
Editor’s Note: Check out our GiN Fresh Look Columnist’s attempt to do an Ironman run with Fire Emblem Engage!
The core mechanic of Fire Emblem Engage is summoning the spirits of past Fire Emblem protagonists to aid you in battle, complete with skills, stat bonuses, and flashy abilities that clearly show off the power that made them forces to be reckoned with in their own Fire Emblem titles. It is with the Emblem Rings that you’ll adventure across the world of Elyos in a story that hits many of the same story beats and references tropes of past Fire Emblem titles. Engage manages to mix mechanics of the GBA and SNES era titles, with some features introduced in the 3DS games, and even utilizes hub world elements from Three Houses, to a mixed degree.
Fire Emblem games are pretty similar in gameplay to one another- you select which units you wish to deploy, and then move them along a checkerboard tile map to complete your given objective. Map goals can involve everything from rout the enemy, defeat one specific enemy, escort a specific character to safety, or defend for a certain number of turns. For the most part, these objectives have been used all throughout the series, but Engage includes some pretty major gameplay formula changes that make combat incredibly interesting.
The first and flashiest of the new gameplay mechanics lies in Engage’s Emblem Rings. Past heroes like Marth, Roy, and Ike provide passive bonuses and can be summoned in combat for a whole bevy of interesting abilities like explosive attacks that can deal big damage or provide some other kind of utility, such as healing all of your units or allowing multiple units to act again. These rings offer big, splashy moves in some capacity, and raising your bond levels with the rings will provide more stat bonuses and skills that you can use in battle.
Your Emblem Rings will also provide the characters in your army with not only new skills, but also provide weapon proficiencies as their bonds increase, which offers more reclassing options to your army when it comes time to promote to a new class. Several characters in Engage start off in the wrong class, for some reason or another, such as the character with the highest magic growth in the game starting off in the class of axe fighter, for whatever reason. There’s a ton of flexibility in how you build your army – not as much as Three Houses, but more than enough to keep you invested and attempting to maximize your pairing of Emblem Rings with specific unit classes.
The new backup feature allows specific unit types like warriors and heroes to join in on attacks against enemies within their attack range. These blows can deal around 10% of an enemy’s health per hit, and multiple backup units can all join in and attack enemies repeatedly. On harder difficulties of Engage, it becomes more challenging to defeat enemies in a single combat, so additional sources of damage from backup units makes them extremely valuable and gives great value to weapons like bows. It’s also important to point out that enemies can position themselves well to score multiple backup attacks against you, too, which can help them whittle through your beefy, defensive units if you didn’t place your units properly.
In older Fire Emblems, it wasn’t uncommon to fight against an extreme number of foes by dropping a single powerful tank in a one-tile chokepoint, letting the enemies thin themselves out on enemy phase by attacking the tank. Those one-tile chokepoints are significantly rarer in Engage, which means you’ll need to be more aware of your defensive positions when changing to enemy phase, as repeated backup attacks can chew through the HP of even the fastest evasion tank. To add on top of this, the weapon triangle from past Fire Emblem titles returns as an integral gameplay mechanic in Engage.
Your units can be left as sitting ducks if an enemy attacks with weapon type advantage, as it can disarm you and leave you powerless against a subsequent round of combat, unable to even counterattack. The weapon triangle, which is normally window dressing in the Fire Emblem series to the extent that Radiant Dawn’s hard mode removed it completely to barely any change, actually matters in Engage since it can lead to your weapon straight up getting knocked out of your hands during enemy attacks, oftentimes to great detriment.
These new mechanics in Engage make it substantially more important to properly manage your defensive position, as it’s a lot more difficult to let the trash take itself out by your opponents fruitlessly throwing themselves at your tanks. Your tanks can have their HP cut by repeat backup attacks, can be disarmed, can have their defenses reduced due to poisoning, or even be pushed out of the position you intended to leave them in by smash weapons that screw up your formation. Engage’s higher difficulties aren’t as outright unfair on new playthroughs as Fates Conquest’s lunatic mode, or Thracia 776’s anything, but those experienced with the series who want to engage the most with the game’s mechanics (pun fully intended) will likely do well to start at least on hard mode.
Many of the abilities and new mechanics that make Engage interesting would barely be interacted with at all if they were included in something like Sacred Stones, mostly due to enemy HP being low enough that backup attacks generally wouldn’t matter, for example. Many bosses in Engage have multiple health bars, on top of common enemy HP reaching higher digits than many previous games, so proper utilization of backup attacks, breaks, and Engaging inform basically all strategic decisions players make, especially on harder difficulties.
That being said, Fire Emblem Engage does also offer a lot of what people have come to love in the series, such as supports, weapon ranks and variety, and a small hub world to explore. Units that battle side by side or aid each other in battle regularly can have conversations in the hub area that gives the player a view into their personalities. These conversations range from mysterious, endearing, or sometimes outright hilarious, and to add on top of it, keeping units together who like one another can yield bonuses to hit, avoid, or even critical hit rate.
On top of selecting your difficulty, Engage also lets players choose between classic and casual modes. Classic plays like Fire Emblem pre-Awakening: This is the mode with permadeath, and a character falling in battle means they’re gone for good. Casual, on the other hand, is a lot more forgiving as units who fall mid-battle will be available for use again in the next chapter. Players who appreciated the fixed level up growths from Path of Radiance will also be pleased to know that you can enable fixed level ups in Engage after clearing the game once on normal or hard, while maddening difficulty uses fixed growths from the beginning and unlocks RNG growths after beating the game.
As previously mentioned, Fire Emblem Engage has a hub world, the Somniel, that you can visit between battles. In this location you can collect items, prepare meals that offer temporary stat boosts, do a variety of mini-games, and give gifts to characters in your army. A staple of Fire Emblem, the training Arena, lets your characters train against one another to gain a little experience three times between battles. You can also spend bond fragments, a virtually limitless currency, to increase the bond between your fighters and their emblems, maximizing bonuses.
Currency like bond fragments may be in short supply as you begin Engage, but it doesn’t take long to have more than you’d ever know what to do with. After each battle, you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of fragments, and you’ll acquire tens of thousands from the game’s built-in achievement system that yields rewards for things you’ll already be doing like using staves or completing support conversations. Other currencies, like the metals you use for upgrading weapons or gold, will be in much shorter supply as you progress through the game. Thankfully, you’ll still find more than enough to upgrade some weapons as you progress, no matter the difficulty (though you need to be a lot more discerning about what you spend money on if you play maddening difficulty first).
The Somniel hub world in Engage is a lot more subdued than Three Houses Monastery, and this can be seen as a positive or negative depending on how much you appreciated that feature. Some enjoyed the extreme amounts of grinding that the Monastery offered, but the down time spent in the Somniel is significantly more optional. Players can teleport around the Somniel quickly, and if you don’t want the temporary stat benefits from eating a meal, exercising, or from some other mini-game, you can simply skip it and challenge a skirmish battle or move on to the next chapter of the story.
The optional content of the hub area is beneficial, but much lower impact than the exhaustive development of weapon ranks, sets of skills, and class promotions of Three Houses. In Engage, you have two skill slots that can be bought from your emblems with SP, a personal skill, and then whatever skills your paired Emblem Ring provides your characters. As a result of this, character development is still extremely impactful, but it’s nowhere near convoluted or time consuming as it was in Fates or Three Houses. There’s a certain beauty in simplicity.
That being said, I think it could be shown that I enjoyed my time in the world of Fire Emblem Engage very much, though it does have its flaws. The more subdued and simplistic storytelling of Engage can be a hard sell compared to the epic tale told in Fodlan from Three Houses.
In spite of this, the new gameplay mechanics introduced in Engage are absolutely fantastic and are sure to delight anyone who can appreciate solidly designed SRPGs, which more than makes up for any shortcomings in the storytelling department. To add on top of this, the varying difficulties actually make Engage a solid option for players of multiple skill levels, and offers completely different experiences for those who want the challenge of maddening/classic mode versus those who just wanted to have fun on normal/casual mode.
The story of Fire Emblem Engage may be simple, but the gameplay mechanics and map design are probably some of the best this series has had in years.
Developers: Intelligent Systems
Platforms: Nintendo Switch