A dragon, an amnesiac, and a child with a penchant for murder walk into a castle. One of them won’t leave alive, and the other two will become mortal enemies. This is the start of Fire Emblem Engage, and while you might think you’ve heard its punchline before, you’re probably wrong. I’ve spent over a dozen hours in Engage over the past few weeks and come away impressed by its surprisingly emotional tale and substantial evolution of the series’ tactics.
In the opening hours, Engage pulls from some of the more recent Fire Emblem games to set up its story. This is the kind of thing you’d expect from an anniversary game, but Engage includes enough unique twists to keep the unfolding events feeling fresh. A group of villains wants to revive an ancient, evil dragon using Emblem Rings that house the spirits of popular Fire Emblem characters.
There’s a tragic family reunion, and a Dragon Pope is involved, only instead of fighting against the Dragon Pope like in Fire Emblem Three Houses, you are the Dragon Pope – or that’s what everyone tells you. Like Robin from Fire Emblem Awakening, Alear, or whatever you name the protagonist, has no memory of their past.
The plot beats might seem familiar to some, especially if you’ve played the 3DS era of Fire Emblem, but Engage does more than just retread old ground. For instance, an early, ominous cutscene of Alear behaving in a most un-divine manner anticipates their inevitable Big Revelation and makes it plain the significance isn’t in finding out their secret past, like it was with Robin in Awakening. The ramifications of that knowledge matter far more and hang over Alear as they venture forth to gather all the Emblem Rings.
Where Three Houses made its themes clear from the start – religious leaders sending children to murder heretics leave little doubt as to what kind of story lies in wait - Engage lets its themes bubble under the surface. You won’t see too much of these at first, but it has the makings of a touching tale about family, loss, and broken trust, which is a refreshing change of pace from the grand war tales Fire Emblem usually tells.
It’s also a return to classic Fire Emblem style of telling one unified story that features bold and noble aristocrats fighting against a common evil, instead of a broken land at war with itself.
Instead of spending nights and weekends wandering a central hub, you can retreat to the Somniel after battles, a divine little pocket dimension where everyone can relax and don a stylish range of hybrid medieval-and-modern outfits. Here is where you’ll cook and share meals, train to temporarily boost Alear’s stats for the next battle, and get to know your quirky, troubled compatriots a bit better through support conversations.
There’s also a cat who sheds sparkly crystals when you feed it, which sounds strange, but is actually quite useful. These crystals – which you also earn from completing certain objectives and chatting with allies – are Bond Fragments, a currency you can spend to get lesser Emblem Rings.
Lesser Emblem Rings represent party members from past Fire Emblem games, such as Tibarn from the Tellius saga or Lilina from the never-released-in-the-West Binding Blade, and offer a small range of stat boosts depending on their rarity. You obtain them at random in a sort of tame gacha system, but they’re balanced enough where it never feels like you miss out, even if you don’t get the best of the best.
Engage’s story might take time to unfold, but the substantial improvements to battle show up almost from the start. From improvements to the weapon triangle to who can wield which weapon and new roles for healers, Engage’s early hours are quite different from the usual
The new break mechanic stands out the most. Exploiting a weapon’s weakness breaks the enemies defense, and the immediate advantage is that enemies with broken defenses can’t counterattack during that engagement or the next. That’s convenient – and also dangerous. Your broken units can’t counterattack either, which means you have to think much more carefully about who you send into danger zones and what defense they’re actually capable of mounting.
While Engage unrolls a carpet of new hazards at your feet, it also gives you plenty of tools to handle them without much frustration. Weapon durability is gone, so even if you can only take one axe into battle instead of five, it won’t break on you at a crucial moment. You can also rewind time almost from the very beginning thanks to Alear’s Time Crystal, a device that starts life with a full set of 10 charges.
A save function also replaces mid-battle suspend states, so there’s pretty much never a scenario where one wrong move will send you back to the planning screen and throw an hour or more of your time out the window.
Class progression also respects your time. Instead of spending in-game days instructing units to raise their weapon proficiency, your heroes gain arms proficiency by bonding with Emblem Rings. The process takes surprisingly little time, and better still, it gives the equipping unit a strong weapon and skills they normally can’t use. Leif, for example, comes with a Killer Axe and an ability that automatically swaps the user’s equipped weapon to suit the current combat situation.
The other unmissable difference between Engage and previous Fire Emblem games is the visual presentation, which is, frankly, stunning compared to the rather drab battlefields of Three Houses, Awakening’s blurry heroes, and the pixel era’s limited capabilities. A number of small effects make Engage feel more alive, from the pages of a spellbook coming together to form a fireball to the gentle rays of sunset casting their light over the Somniel. The most impressive, though, is that encounters finally happen where you stand. If you’re behind a house and target a knight on a bridge, that’s exactly where the battle takes place. It’s a seemingly small touch with a surprisingly large effect on how immersive Engage feels.
When I first started Engage, I thought it was the anti-Three Houses, a shallow step back from the latter game’s more ambitious narrative. After more than a dozen hours in just the first nine chapters, though, I realize I was wrong. What Three Houses was for Fire Emblem’s storytelling, Engage is shaping up to be for pretty much everything else, including ease of play.
Disclaimer: This preview is based on hands-on time with an early build of Fire Emblem Engage that Nintendo of America provided.
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, Fire Emblem Engage feels like a bold new step for the tactics series
Sounds much better than I expected
I’m used to the old Fire Emblem games. I like what I’m seeing here!