Fire Emblem Engage is not the game I wanted, but it is, in moments, excellent.
Fire Emblem Engage emerges in the wake of the series biggest success yet, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which arguably moved the series from niche Nintendo mainstay with a growing, modern fanbase, to a tactics genre powerhouse. This was an especially impressive feat given that Three Houses was, in all honesty, a pretty mediocre tactics game. Instead, it managed to draw players in through a complex web of social relationships, meditations on systems and power, and a military academy setting that chummed the water for the series’ new, younger fanbase. Fire Emblem Engage is bad at almost everything Three Houses succeeds at, but somehow manages to make up for this through tactical excellence.
The game takes place in Elyos, a world that exists at the point of intersection between every other universe in the series, which is why previous game’s protagonists can manifest as ghostly “Emblems”. You play as the Divine Dragon, the child of the world’s primary deity, Lumera. The world is composed of four nations: the peaceful Firene, the honor and combat obsessed Brodia, the “free” Queendom of Sol, and the relentlessly goth Elusia. These descriptions feel reductive, because that is what the game reduces them to. They are sketches of nations, populated only with royalty, their retainers, and a handful of other characters who feel little for their countries other than blind loyalty.
Herein lies the first, major divergence from Three Houses—characters exist free of any real ideology or perspective. In Three Houses, the Blue Lions run requires Byleth, the game’s own divine protagonist, to navigate the messy racial hierarchy of a monarchy which only recently halted its colonial advances. The Golden Deer asks you to consider if political neutrality and human kindness can coexist in the face of empire. The Black Eagles route attempts to present a revolutionary future, but one that is enforced through conquest. Three Houses, for all of its failures, is a game that asks questions about the world, and how the player feels about it.
Fire Emblem Engage does not even bother to ask questions like this. Its characters are utterly two dimensional—they are collections of traits and personality quirks, which never change or come into real conflict with one another. Everyone from Firene is peace loving. The prince, and both of his retainers, are obsessed with working out. Alfred is defined by his inability to fit into noble customs, Etie by being both strong and cute, and Boucheron by being a gentle giant. This basic approach to characters, in which each group of nobles and retainers share a central theme or character trait, defines almost every group of characters you meet.
It feels like a Saturday morning cartoon, right down to its extremely entertaining opening song, one in which everything goes back to normal by the end of the next episode. Upon being introduced in a classic transformation scene, Marth says to the camera, “I am Marth. Emblem Marth…to be clear.” And then it holds on his face, as if it expects the audience to laugh along with how absurd that line is. And in its best moments, I did laugh along.
Many of the support conversations between your allies are interesting in theory, some even manage to be funny. An extended dialogue between two former assassins. A soon-to-be regent meeting her god, and having to reckon with her previous actions. An order of religious paladins, trying to figure out what to do with the fact it has two heirs. Fire Emblem Engage succeeded in creating the outline of interesting relationships, but instead of populating that web of connection with characters, it did so with cardboard cutouts who cannot resist the constant urge to tell the protagonist how cool they are.
Engage goes as far as removing the romances which helped to popularize Awakening, Fates, and Three Houses. People don’t get married at the end of Power Rangers episodes. The characters and their dynamics are too simple to have made what romance could’ve been there feel genuine or interesting.
In spite of all of this, Fire Emblem Engage represents the peak of the series’ tactics.
Fire Emblem has, for the last few decades, been defined by the weapon triangle—a mechanic through which different classes of weapon are given additional chances to hit against one another. Swords beat axes, axes beat spears, spears beat swords. This mechanic has been the core of Fire Emblem’s tactics for a long time, but it hasn’t ever felt truly meaningful outside of the early-game and the highest difficulties. Fire Emblem Engage fixes this.
Engage introduces the break mechanic, which disables counterattacks when hitting your enemy with an advantageous weapon in the weapon triangle. This allows your units to deal uncontested damage against your enemies, while setting their allies up for success. In previous games, if you sent a weaker sword user to fight an Axe Armour, you would do virtually no damage and risk having your swordsman killed by a bad dice roll. Instead, the only answer to an Axe Armour was to send in a mage, or a powerful melee unit with an armor piercing weapon.
Engage provides significantly more solutions to that particular combat problem. The game also adds “Great” weapons, which are extremely slow but deal a lot of damage and knock enemies back on the map. Great weapons are so slow, in fact, that using them against an enemy allows them to counterattack before you can complete your own attack. This is a massive risk, bordering on a death sentence. However, if the enemy can’t counterattack because they’re broken, great weapons suddenly become powerful burst damage options that can overcome the tremendous defense of armored units if you don’t have a mage on hand.
Your enemies follow all the same rules, meaning that poor positioning is even more heavily punished than before. If you send a high level sword unit against a squad of lower-leveled lance units, the sword unit will likely be killed. In previous games, a unit with a strong enough weapon could kill an enemy with a counterattack before they have the chance to do their second attack, allowing them to handle large groups of enemies much more effectively—the break system prevents this and, in doing so, stops you from relying on overleveling your characters.
In addition to the new break system, Fire Emblem Engage also adds Emblem rings, which allow characters to use the skills of previous series stars like Marth, Ike, and Lucina, here called Emblems. This means that every one of your characters has a signature skill, a class skill, two empty skill slots that they can fill with the abilities of Emblems, the skills of their equipped Emblem, and a handful of extremely powerful skills and supermoves provided by Emblems when activating the limited-use “Engage” ability (which includes a short transformation sequence as your characters fuse with their Emblems). In total, end-game characters can have 8 skills at once, ranging from stat boosts, to skills that remove the ability to dodge attacks in exchange for a flat 50% damage reduction.
And Engage manages to teach you how to use all of its tools better than any other game in the series. Setting aside your standard tutorial messages, Engage builds combat encounters that test specific skills, and teach specific lessons which the game will continue to play with throughout its duration. To make your Emblems stronger, you have to pass their trials which are unique late-game encounters. These encounters are excellently designed, and do a lot to express the personalities and fighting styles of the Emblems you’re fighting against.
There are twelve of these trials, and each of them does a great job of teaching you how to use the Emblems effectively in the latter half of the game, something you will doubtlessly need to do because Engage manages to find difficulty in spite of the incredible tools at your disposal by taking clever advantage of terrain, enemy composition, and overwhelming numbers of enemy troops. If you want to survive, you have to fight cleverly.
All of this comes together to create engaging build crafting that allows every character to find a role in your army, even if the random stat increases from leveling up are particularly unkind to them—culminating in a late game that I can only describe as Power Ranger’s-esque, transformation sequences and all.
I played the game on Hard difficulty, and it has without fail managed to push me into awkward situations, and great fights. This is the first Fire Emblem game I’ve played without permadeath enabled, because, in Engage, the fights are genuinely challenging. Beating chapters without losing a unit, as I had in previous games, was significantly more complicated, and I didn’t feel like I had a strong enough grasp of Engage’s tactics to do so my first time around. Instead, I forewent the tension of Classic mode, and embraced the joyous experimentation of a combat system worth experimenting with. In Engage, I take big, messy swings to see what happens—and what happens is usually an incredibly memorable fight, something the series had, for me, always struggled with before.
Fire Emblem Engage is obsessed with the series’ past. It builds itself around the protagonists of previous games, re-uses those game’s most memorable maps, and builds its narrative around referencing the beats of older, better told stories. If the next Fire Emblem game is like this, it will be a disappointment. Engage’s tactics, however, set a new standard for the series. IntelligentSystems managed to perfectly meld mechanics and tone, but the tone they picked was fun, but ultimately empty. If they could manage to apply these same principles to more interesting narrative ends, the next Fire Emblem game would be the series’ best.