While Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a mainline entry in the series, it changed things up quite a bit. Fire Emblem Engage rolls things back, incorporating some quality of life changes and new features from the previous entry into what feels like more of a traditional Fire Emblem experience. It’s a mix of something old with something new. Based on my initial hours with it, the structure and challenge of past games is here while also adding Emblem Rings for additional powers and the Somniel hub for more social and optional activities.
Dragons and their power are often a fixture of Fire Emblem entries, and Engage is no different. Alear is a newly-awoken Divine Dragon who finally got up after sleeping for 1,000 years. They fell into that slumber following a massive war against the Fell Dragon Sombron. Their memories gone, they get a chance to reunite briefly with their mother before learning a terrifying truth: Sombron’s returned. The way to stop him is to unite the 12 Emblem Rings, each one bearing the spirit and power of a past hero from the series, to seal him away. Following an altercation with Sombron’s forces, Alear is left the last Divine Dragon and finds themselves journeying across Elyos to gather allies and become the first to collect all 12 rings.
You almost immediately start out with a handful of rings. Most recognizable of which is Marth, who is strongly connected to Alear. Pairing them up involves access to skills like Perceptive, which increases the likelihood of dodging attacks due to a 15 point bonus to the avoid rate. It also gives units that wouldn’t normally have sword attacks or proficiency a chance to use them, with Lodestar Rush being the Engage Attack that deals multiple hits for one attack. There’s also Sigurd, from Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, which calls back to his cavalry roots with a Canter skill that lets you move two spaces after performing an action and an Override Engage attack that can hit multiple enemies in a straight line while moving the ally to the other side of them after the assault.
Which is helpful, because Fire Emblem Engage goes back to the roots of starting you out with a smaller army that constantly grows. When Alear wakes up, only their stewards Vander, Clanne, and Framme are there to support them. It works out rather well, since it provides a balance of units for initial challenges. Alear is an infantry unit wielding a sword, while Vander starts out as an axe-wielding paladin. Clanne is your first mage, while Framme is a martial monk that can use fists to attack or a staff to heal. (From what I’ve seen, she should always be healing unless she’s facing a mage.) Sigurd allows someone to use lances when Engaged with him, giving someone access to every weapon in the triangle as things begin. Early stages serve to reacquaint someone with how a weapon advantage can “break” an enemy, letting you deal more damage and put that foe at a disadvantage, as well as remind people that different kinds of terrain could help or hurt you. A pulled back, overhead view allows greater visibility regarding what’s around you, though that can be hampered in darkened levels that require you to expend torches, rely on thieves’ greater range of vision, or light lanterns as you move. Keeping an eye on the grid and your movement can help save your allies’ lives, and you can adjust how visible those lines are.
But even within the confines of a more traditional game, some of the elements that were helpful in Fire Emblem: Three Houses appear in Engage. In-battle, you get the indicators that let you see if a specific enemy would target an ally on the next turn once they move. While the general “danger zone” red overlay is helpful, seeing that line allows for an even more direct look to let you know that yes, if Vander moves out four spaces ahead, four bad guys will try and take him down. There’s also that same level of detail ahead of an encounter, letting you see the expected damage. In fact, it’s even more detailed, as it will show the pace of battle and let you know how much damage you can expect to deal on your turns, compared to how much the opponent (and you) could do with counter and follow-up attacks.
I’d even say the Cafe Terrace meals in Fire Emblem Engage build upon the quality of life adjustments from Three Houses except here, it doesn’t just serve to boost support levels among Alear and up to two other characters. Since there’s no “motivation” to speak of to aid in lessons, the quality of the dish can instead offer a temporary stat boost for the battle ahead. It’s a nod to what came before, but making it work within the confines of the new game.
Also, I found it refreshing in the early hours of Fire Emblem Engage to be returned to a title in which I need to make the characters I have work with my strategies. Your army grows at a steady pace, mind you. Members of royal lineage tend to be accompanied by a retainer or two when they join. You might also encounter a solo adventurer willing to fight alongside your cause. Not to mention the “talk” function returns, with some potential allies sitting on a map and waiting for Alear to strike up a conversation before joining the cause. Fire Emblem: Three Houses allowed you to build your army around your desires, while Engage starts out by making you understand that you can’t always have exactly every class or unit and need to lead who you do have by your side to victory.
Which is one of the best things about Fire Emblem games. Or at least, one of the things I appreciate most. Intelligent Systems is very good at putting you in challenging situations, and it seems like Fire Emblem Engage could offer a good balance when building up an army, socializing on The Somniel, and emerging victorious in sometimes difficult battles.
Fire Emblem Engage will come to the Nintendo Switch on January 20, 2023.