Fire Emblem: Engage is just the perfect name. As the 13th official entry into the war strategy RPG series, “engage” holds three significant meanings for the franchise. First is the obvious: to engage is to fight. An engagement is a skirmish. Fire Emblem games are made up of numerous engagements between warring armies. The second use of “engage” is what has made Fire Emblem unique among strategy RPGs, and that is to engage in conversation. See, the soldiers in Fire Emblem are people, not pawns. Every character in a Fire Emblem game has a backstory that is revealed by building support between pairs of units as they engage in the war. Such a feature of Fire Emblem has players like me rewinding time any time one of these soldiers might perish because it feels truly awful to lose anyone. The final use of the word “engage” is to engage in celebration. Fire Emblem: Engage is a love letter to its predecessors. The story contains countless references and characters from prior Fire Emblem games, and comes off as almost a loving parody of the games–it feels like an old-timey play where the audience is expected to either recognize every mask as a callback to a prior play or for someone in the crowd to explain their significance. I am not here to do that, as I have only played a few Fire Emblems, but I can tell you that Engage is as refined and grand any Fire Emblem game I’ve ever played.
Fire Emblem: Engage was born under a bad star. Nintendo pushed the game in its initial ads on the Nintendo Direct as partially an advertisement for the mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes. People who didn’t like Heroes figured that Engage was just a console clone of the watered-down, gacha-fied mechanics. Then, when the character designs were revealed, people immediately hated the main character’s look. “Pepsi-chan”, they called the blue-and-red main character that you can see in the center of the picture above. And, lastly, Nintendo just… stopped promoting the game in the four months between announcement and release. The online fanbase of Fire Emblem was dreading this as a shallow cash grab that traded on nostalgia, name, and gacha gambling to get sales rather than the great gameplay the series is known for. Lastly, Fire Emblem: Engage was the first mainline Fire Emblem since the runaway success of Fire Emblem: Three Houses which traded away some of the core focus on the strategy gaming for an increased importance on the social interactions and characters of Fire Emblem. Fans were unsure what direction Fire Emblem: Engage would take. The great news is that Fire Emblem: Engage truly blows all of that fear away.
Fire Emblem: Engage does trade on nostalgia, but, as I said earlier, not in a cynical “look at how much better things were back in previous games when your parents weren’t divorced and milk tasted good!” way. But in a loving way to augment the here-and-now present of Fire Emblem: Engage itself. In the base game, the main characters of the previous twelve Fire Emblem games are in Engage’s universe as “Emblem Rings”. They are spirits that can assist either friend or foe, but aren’t there to upstage what is happening in Engage–just to augment it. When they are at their most relevant is when your main character dies for a second time, and the twelve Emblem Rings decide to revive your main character as the 13th Emblem Ring, the Fire Emblem. Engage is given priority and importance by the past games in a ceremonial way that you really never see in any video game. Usually, present games revere the past and place them on a pedestal as something greater to them, but Engage literally presents itself ascending into the heavens as equally important. It’s refreshingly sincere. Similarly, every single Emblem Ring has an optional chapter that reuses a map from that Emblem Ring’s game. These maps aren’t used for lazy padding; they’re increasing the bond between Engage and the rest of the series in a literal gameplay sense (your max bond ability with each Emblem Ring goes up after completing) and in a figurative ludonarrative sense (not sure what that word means but I think that’s right). It’s truly beautiful.
I got very in the weeds with Fire Emblem: Engage just then, so let me back up. First of all, Fire Emblem: Engage is, well, the 13th Fire Emblem game. Fire Emblem is a series of strategy RPGs in which you lead a small army of “real people” in fights against some other army. These fights are conducted on a grid where you and the opposing army take turns moving your units and taking actions like fighting opposing members with said units. Combat is all numbers-based with zero skill needed in execution; you simply move a unit near an enemy and ask them to attack it. Damage calculation is based on each individual’s stats, weapons, skills, terrain effects, and so much more. That’s where the real strategy of Fire Emblem comes from: moving your units into situations where they can fight most efficiently without being killed. It’s like if chess had one billion more mechanics, basically.
But the combat and actual skirmishes are only one part of Fire Emblem as a series. The most important part, arguably, but not the only part. I mentioned it earlier that Three Houses placed a huge emphasis on character and story compared to past Fire Emblems, but every Fire Emblem game has a story. Even if you don’t want to acknowledge the slop of Fates’ work as a “story”. Three Houses split the player’s time between the fights and a Monastery hub world where players were teachers to their student army (don’t think about that) and could do many activities with them to bond. This side of Three Houses had extreme mass appeal, and, as such, Three Houses was by far the best-selling Fire Emblem game ever. Fire Emblem: Engage is a return to the traditional Fire Emblem in a few ways, but does carry over some Three Houses influence in that there is a central hub where you can hang out with characters, fish, and just take a break from the war stuff. But it isn’t nearly the focus. And you can speed through the important things in the Somniel by just going straight to the next chapter unlike with Garreg Mach Monastery which had 4 weeks of classes between maps. But, as someone who adored running around the Monastery and doing stupid nonsense, the Somniel was still robust enough and had enough dumb lost items to pick up to appeal to me.
The cast of Fire Emblem: Engage was under tons of scrutiny the moment Alear, the main character, was revealed. And, though I’ve not seen them, I’m under the impression that pre-release footage of the cast was frustrating to people expecting the in-depth, well-written people in Three Houses. I’m not going to mince words: the people in Fire Emblem: Engage are all insane. They have more depth than the truly one-note and forgettable cast of Fire Emblem: Fates, but do not reach the depth of the Three Houses’ cast. But Fire Emblem: Engage does make every character quite charming. Clanne and Framme are adorable fanchildren of the main character. Timerra is a singing magical girl princess straight out of Sailor Moon. Yunaka is a bizarre former assassin that talks in cutesy phrases like “hiya papaya” in between slamming down drinks and saying how haunted she is by her past. I think they’re all wonderful in their own ways, though I understand why people are turned off by the early cast of Alfred and Vander as super freaking boring (but necessary) characters. Though it is funny that I benched them super early and they showed up in cutscenes until the end of the game.
Alright alright alright I’ll stop delaying. Fire Emblem: Engage is a video game. What do I think about the gameplay? Well, I think Fire Emblem: Engage is the best Fire Emblem game ever, gameplay-wise. Ever since Fire Emblem: Awakening, the map design of Fire Emblem has felt to be in a rut. Every map felt the same. It was either a boring “rout the enemy” or “defeat the boss” map with little challenge due to overpowered characters, broken-in-the-player’s-favor mechanics like Pair Up, and just uninteresting map design in that it’d be funneling your army at the target in a straight line. Three Houses especially seemed to not care outside of a handful of optional chapters that shook things up. Engage is back to making interesting maps. Even though only like… 2 chapters aren’t “defeat the boss”/”route the enemy”, the way that you’re forced to split your team up or navigate the map is far more interesting this time around. Chapter 25 is an endless slog that puts a clock on your units to get far enough forward to kill the boss before a pincer attack from behind catches you. Chapter 7 forces you to navigate a dark area with enemies hidden as you try and find the boss. Chapter 16 throws you in a gauntlet of six bosses as the town around you burns. And so on. I really enjoyed that every optional chapter was “defeat the boss” as it makes for insanely intense gameplay where you extend your army to try and kill the boss before the rest of the opposing army overwhelms your units.
The minutiae of the gameplay is also more interesting than ever. The classic rock-paper-scissors mechanic of the weapon triangle is back and slightly tweaked to be more punishing–a unit that is bested in the triangle loses the ability to counterattack the next time someone initiates combat with them. There’s a new combo attack system that allows nearby allies to do chip damage to an enemy if they are in range of said enemy while an ally is attacking. There’s the entire Engage mechanic itself where you can equip units with Emblem Rings that they can then “engage” with to boost their stats, give them extra abilities, and use an ultimate attack/action, but this only lasts three turns before needing to be charged again. And what makes all these systems much more interesting is that your enemies can and do use them against you. They force you to think even harder than the usual strategy of “place General with 50 defense at chokepoint against physical attackers” because chain attacks will do damage through that armor. The real nice thing is that you can just turn back time if you screw up, which allows the game makers to put in some devious traps like the corrupted villages on chapter 19 since you can rewind up to 10 times per battle. It sounds like cheating, but it really is there to allow the developers to make the game harder. And, unlike Three Houses, the game nails the difficulty. It’s just really fun to engage with the systems in Engage.
I want to circle back to the story briefly. It’s a very straightforward story of “there is bad guy, defeat bad guy” with a lot of insane twists at the end to add flavor. But it takes a long time to get there, and people check out of the story after chapter 5 thinking it’ll be a boring “go to every country and save every ruler before fighting the big bad”. But what saves even the most boring scenes is the voice acting. Just an incredible job done by all the voice actors to salvage the early stage, and then nail the extremely stupid melodrama of the chapters in the 20s. Like when your main character dies twice, she dies first as a human, then dies as a corrupted (think zombie), and then is revived by the Emblems and transformed into an Emblem herself. It’s very silly! And the game didn’t have much budget for cutscene animation–it doesn’t show a character getting slapped, for instance–so all the emotion and intrigue has to be carried by the voice acting. Again, kind of like an old play when the importance was the words and not the blocking. And these voice actors really sell it. But, yes, just to sum up the story: you gotta stick with it. It gets interesting once Veyle is more involved, and builds up extremely cool moments for chapters 10, 20, and 22-26. Even if those moments are super manufactured at times based on “what would be epic for the win” rather than “what would make sense”.
Fire Emblem is a series that I enjoy for its rhythm. Completing a map in Engage took an average of 40 minutes to an hour where I have to focus. Then I can spend about 20-30 minutes at the Somniel doing things that take way less focus and I can just relax and let support conversations play. Every Fire Emblem game has some similar rhythm of battle and not battle, and it’s only recent titles that tilt in the direction of not battle. For me, it’s nice. I really appreciated the reprieves starting with Fates, and I played the 80 hours it took of Engage in about 3 weeks because of this rhythm. It’s not something I hear people refer to when talking about Fire Emblem, but I think the series’ structure and rhythm does so much to elevate the games. It’s hard for me to appreciate Fire Emblem 7, the first Fire Emblem to release in America, because there is too much battle time and not enough not battle time. But I digress.
Fire Emblem: Engage is just good, folks. It has something for everyone, but never feels like it’s overly pandering to the diehard fans of the classics or to casual fans of having teatime in the new ones. It strikes a near-perfect balance in celebrating the past while proving its case as a game worthy of being celebrated. If you’re a newcomer to Fire Emblem, I think Engage is a great starting point as it is accessible but has a lot of spice and difficulty if you want it. And if you’re a veteran, this game should melt even the most cynical of diehard’s hearts between its reverence for the past and engaging gameplay. If you have the slightest interest in it, I cannot recommend it enough.
More like, Fire Emblem DISengage. Because no one is going to read that many words. Yep. Makes me glad we aren’t mere words ourselves. If only I could turn you into an Emblem Ring and engage with you so that you could pay me… What was that, unpaid intern? You want me to go back in time using the Draconic Time Crystal to the 1910s with labor laws that afforded even less protection? Haha, of course not! Everything is perfect. That’s what I thought.