Name a long-running Nintendo blockbuster and Mario or Zelda spring to mind. Fire Emblem may not be up there, yet this strategy series has been going strong for more than 30 years now. First localised in the early naughties, and only a commercial hit following Awakening on the 3DS, but hardly a sleeper success.
Following a number of spin-offs and Smash Bros crossovers, it’s now the first Ninty franchise to actually get a second new mainline game on the Switch. Fire Emblem Engage is also a bit of a different beast to 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses. That game was the first to jump to full 3D, top-down gridded battle maps and all, while also introducing more explorable and social elements away from the battlefield.
This latest entry tries to push the series forward by also stripping away some of the fat of later entries, while also restoring classic elements. It also has the feel of an anniversary entry (even though its 30th anniversary was in 2020) with a bit of a greatest hits hook. What will newcomers and series fans alike make of it?
Rings of power
It might be set on an all-new continent of Elyos, with an original story, but Engage features a roster of heroes from past games. Uniting other nations to defeat a Big Bad feels like a roundabout way of jumping on the multiverse bandwagon, and how many faces will be familiar is debatable given much of the series never officially came to the West, but there’s narrative justification for it all.
These heroes of old, or Emblems, are spirits who fight alongside you, drawing power from 12 Emblem Rings. They’re a bit like back-seat companions which give the character that equips them stat buffs, or special moves which not only change a unit’s hair colour but also lets them use a different weapon.
Fortunately these Emblems don’t overshadow Engage’s new characters, of which there are many to get to know. There’s a diverse roster, hailing from different nations including the peaceful pastoral kingdom of Firene and the desert queendom of Solm. Depending on your disposition towards certain anime tropes, you’ll either find the chivalrous royals and their quirky retainers future favourites or grating.
Everyone should agree the cast looks incredible as cel-shaded 3D models, which transition almost seamlessly between cutscenes and gameplay. This is the first entry in the series not to use any hand-drawn cinematics, but they aren’t missed. After some less flattering first-party efforts stretching the dated hardware, it’s great to see a Switch exclusive looking and running this good.
Weapon triangle strategy
Whereas 3DS predecessors Three Houses and Fates included multiple narrative paths, Fire Emblem Engage returns to a singular story. It also brings back the series’ weapon triangle system, a paper-rock-scissor gameplay mechanic where swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords.
As both sides normally get to attack during a turn, an overlevelled axe wielder can still crush a sword user, so theres a new twist: stronger weapons inflict a Break status, preventing the other unit from following up with an attack on that turn or the next. The triangle has also been enhanced where gauntlets can also break bows, knives, and magic, while archers can still devastate winged units, adding a new tactical layer.
One fortunate mechanic carried over from Three Houses is the unlimited ability to rewind your turns unit by unit, even all the way to the beginning of a battle, allowing fatal mistakes to be reversed or the freedom to try other tactics. In theory this might undermine the tradition where characters who die are permanently lost, but let’s be honest, most of us would just hard-reset the Switch anyway. It’s a convenient mechanic that other strategy titles like Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope and Marvel’s Midnight Suns lack.
Besides, these battles are no cakewalks. Early skirmishes that breeze by in 20 minutes eventually develop into complex clashes that take well over an hour apiece. That’s not including optional battles or side story Paralogues, some of which unlock new characters, the challenging Trial battles, or co-op Relay battles.
A very long engagement
Engage further develops the things you can do back at base, which have become a staple of recent series entries. The Somniel isn’t quite as overwhelmingly large as Three Houses’ monastery school, but it still manages to cram in a surprising amount of activities. That includes a handful of minigames which offer rewards or buff stats for the following battle.
However, it’s a lot less grounded (literally, as the Somniel is a floating island) and a lot of them feel like filler, distracting us from getting back to the story. You can also walk around each map after you conquer it, but this throws in more busywork like collecting items on the ground or adopting animals to take back to base. They’re optional though, so you can skip ’em while still seeing support conversations with allies, or accessing the marketplace for buying new gear.
In any case, none of the activities have the same charm as tea time in Three Houses, which brings us to Engage’s biggest shortcoming. Improving bonds between units is still important to adding perks when they fight near each other in battle, but the support conversations just aren’t as good. Some verge on twee or cringe, and confusingly, they’re accessed from a menu within a menu. We weren’t even sure where to look during the game’s initial hours.
It could be because there’s just too many characters, making it impossible to get to know everyone in a single playthrough when battles typically only let you bring about 10-12 with you. At least with previous entries, being aligned with a specific faction meant you could focus on a core group of characters and better appreciate their individual arcs. Engage may have gone back to basics in some areas, but it still sometimes falls victim to quantity over quality.
Fire Emblem Engage verdict
It’s hard to say if having a roster of classic Emblems from past games will entice newcomers, but nonetheless Fire Emblem Engage has the core series experience, be it the weapon triangle system or bonds forged on and off the battlefield. It just doesn’t quite reach the heights or depths of its predecessor, so if you’re completely new to the series, then do yourself a favour and start with the excellent Three Houses first.
Still, Engage carries 2022’s bumper year of turn-based strategy games (including Sparks of Hope, Midnight Suns, Triangle Strategy, and Tactics Ogre: Reborn) into the New Year. It also marks a strong start of 2023 for Switch owners, being both a great showcase for the hybrid hardware and providing hours and hours of challenging battles.
Another worthy turn-based strategy game for the Switch if not hitting the same heights as the previous Fire Emblem.
Challenging yet accessible strategic battles
Callbacks for series veterans
Worldbuilding and character interactions weaker than Three Houses
Some pretty forgettable busywork and minigames away from battle