I want a Fire Emblem game to make me think. Challenge me. Make me work with the units I’m given. Offer maps with interesting terrain or elements that force me to do things I might not want to do. Serve up a good cast of characters and unique elements to make it exciting, and give me the opportunity to keep growing and experimenting. Fortunately for not only me, but Switch owners at large, Fire Emblem Engage does all of these things.
1,000 years ago, a great war raged across Elyos, with the Divine Dragon Lumera and her allies facing the Fell Dragon Sombron. They managed to seal him away with the help of 12 Emblem Rings, each connected to a legendary hero. (That is, the protagonists of past Fire Emblem games.) This came at a great cost. Alear, the Divine Dragon’s child, fell into a deep sleep. They awake just as the seal on Sombron is weakening, spurring the need to gather the 12 rings together again and find allies from other kingdoms to unite to face the menace.
At the outset, it seems pretty straightforward! Visit the kingdoms of Firene, Brodia, Elusia, and Solm on a worldwide tour to collect the most useful pieces of jewelry ever and make friends along the way. However, there are a few twists to change things up. Some seem telegraphed, to varying degrees. If you’re familiar with Fire Emblem as a series or picking up on certain clues, you’ll see what’s coming before it happens. Even so, I was sufficiently surprised by some events. The characters tend to be pretty well-rounded, though ones who aren’t royalty are only explored during support conversations. (These go up to A-rank.) I especially appreciated how well it handles certain characters, as these conversations don’t harp on about their appearances or likes. The game gradually builds upon its foundation, becoming move involved.
Likewise, the complexity of maps increases at a reasonable pace. The first three or four chapters serve to introduce basic gameplay concepts. As usual, the weapon triangle exists. Swords best axes, axes beat lances, and lances take down swords. Attacking wisely can keep enemies from following up, aiding allies. Bows, daggers, and tomes attack from a distance. I found punches can be especially effective against mages. Armored units and certain kinds of cavalry units are stronger than usual against physical attacks. A grid along the ground lets you see possible arrangements and movement options. The terrain might offer places that can provide increased or decreased avoidance opportunities, restore health each turn, or allow someone to use special features to hit groups of enemies with arrows or magic. Characters can have certain traits, with ones with “backup” being capable of following-up on attacks of allies nearby for a chain attack. Some maps involve environmental hazards that require a player to be aware of their positioning.
Each chapter in Fire Emblem Engage features one major battle, though random fights on the world map can help build up experience or funds. These scale in difficulty at a faster pace than the chapter’s, which can help provide additional feats to overcome and training opportunities. Also, if you’re connected to the internet, they can be a great way to build up your armory with additional weapons or beneficial items for free. There are also Paralogue chapters that gradually unlock, with each one offering a way to recruit additional characters or improve the skill inheritance range of the Emblem Rings.
There are two kinds of Emblem Rings. The first are the story-based ones. A character with one equipped gets the benefits of the skills and weapons of that character, with increased Bond relationships offering more inheritance and weapon opportunities. When someone Engages, their appearance changes, they get access to new weapon proficiencies, and they can use special skills or once-per-battle abilities to aid allies or attack opponents. For example, someone with Byleth equipped can use a Goddess Dance that allows up to four adjacent allies to act again. People with Lyn equipped can use bows, summon four doubles, and use an Astra skill to attack four times. There are also more ordinary rings with a gacha-like randomization mechanic. The Bond Points you earn can let you randomly acquire more characters from the same series as their parent-ring and fuse them to make them stronger. Some of these rings even possess certain skills. Claude’s Wind God, for example, adds +1 to an archer’s range if their health is maxed out. Each character can equip three inherited skills at once, allowing for a rather interesting degree of customization.
Part of what I loved about the Emblem Rings in Fire Emblem Engage is that using one doesn’t transform the character into an overpowered hulk that can survive any attack or destroy any enemy. Rather, it provides access to new weapons and abilities that offer new tactical approaches. Sure, there are certain rings with an ability that can increase the survivability of that character for a turn or aid the army. But in general? It’s about offering more options and enhancing a character. Especially since increasing the bond between an Emblem and an ally allows for skill inheritance for more interested and varied forces.
As for the Somniel? It’s a hub that offers a socialization aspect and downtime for characters, but still serves to support your endeavors in battles. Everything comes back to ensuring your army is at its best. Taking part in the fitness exercises gives Alear a temporary stat buff. Eating at the cafe increases bonds and can offer a temporary bonuses. Making donations to kingdoms increases the yield from battles and your income from fights. The animals at the farm provide you with additional cafe ingredients, as does fishing. Taking care of Sommie gives you points needed to acquire or improve more ordinary Emblem rings. Building up Supports means better improvements among allies in the field or increased opportunities for skill inheritance with Emblems.
Fire Emblem Engage also features activities that could carry someone well into the post-game. For example, the online activities like Outrealm and Relay Trials. Getting to cooperatively work with another player to complete a map offers an incentive to return and take on new challenges. Needing to constantly swap match codes is a bit frustrating, however. I appreciated the chance to create a custom map to try and torment other players, while also exploring to see if I’m strong enough to face other people. It’s especially interesting, since your “defense” team members can’t be used in your party when you go to challenge someone else. Being able to choose where units are placed would have been helpful there. Tempest Trials offers more and more maps as you progress through the game, with customizable difficulty and greater rewards that can improve characters or be used for forging when you succeed. I’d also say the chance to experiment with character classes, perhaps changing their default role to see how they’d serve in another job, could be interesting. Especially when you combine the skills you’d learn that way with additional Emblem Ring inheritances.
I’m sure this all sounds glowing, and that’s because Fire Emblem Engage is a wonderful game. To be honest, most of the issues I have stem from comparing how some of its mechanics work compared to past entries. For example, the “villager” character here feels more limiting than in installments like Fire Emblem Awakening or Fates. When they join the cast, you can clearly see the skill that boosts their stat growth. However, you don’t have the ability to immediately use a Second Seal to customize their class, so you’re locked in to a specific role for a substantial time. Not to mention the Emblem Ring system means inheriting additional skills for this person can be more taxing. On the other hand, you get this ally very quickly, meaning you get plenty of time to shape their growth and development.
The Emblem Ring system also means building up individuals in your army is a lot more work. Everyone starts with an innate skill. When they reach level five in an advanced class, they learn a second one. You can make them inherit skills from Emblem Rings, if they formed a close enough bond with the hero tied to it. However, some of the best skills cost at least 1,000 points to acquire. It’s always been time-consuming to get your army just the way you want. I appreciate that, honestly! It makes me feel like I earned it. But the limited nature of the rings and time it takes to reach the level five bond to unlock inheritance from them turns it into quite a chore.
I also found the Support system in Fire Emblem Engage to be a little unfulfilling, especially after games like Fates and Three Houses offered S-rank conversations with deeper relationships. In some cases, I didn’t sometimes didn’t even feel like an A-rank relationship resulted in a major relationship shift. Like I’d expect those people to, at the very least, be best friends by that point. Their relationship is also only acknowledged during those conversations and via battle buffs, and nowhere else. There is romance present in Fire Emblem Engage, but it is limited to your avatar and certain characters.
Fire Emblem Engage also suffers from the same sort of representation issues as, say, Genshin Impact. We get a region in-game that feels based on a real-world area. The royal family and some NPCs you’ll encounter there are people of color. However, all four of their retainers and another person you’ll recruit in the region are the pastiest folks you’ll ever see! Even though, before meeting them, they all were camping or wandering in a sunny desert. It’s a missed opportunity for a more interesting cast.
But when you think about it, only having those four issues after I’ve spent over 60 hours with Fire Emblem Engage isn’t bad! In fact, I’d say it is a testament to how solid this strategy game is. Intelligent Systems and Nintendo really went above and beyond when tailoring this tactical timesink. The gameplay is sound, with elements that will challenge longtime players. The accessibility options are ample, so folks coming in from Fire Emblem: Three Houses can ease into a more typical Fire Emblem experience and not be intimidated by the nuances. Fire Emblem Engage is amazing and a wonderful way for Nintendo to kick off 2023.
Fire Emblem Engage will come to the Nintendo Switch on January 20, 2023.