In any given moment in Fire Emblem Engage, you’re likely to see the ghostly shape of a long-gone hero fly into battle, as walls of ice spring forth from the ground, and nearby allies join together for an impossibly flashy – and deadly – sequence of attacks on an enemy general. All of this unfolds on a map you could swear you’ve seen before, and the entire setup feels like something out of a Fire Emblem fan’s fever dream.
Unlike a fever dream, though Fire Emblem Engage is something that’s actually worth experiencing, and more than once. The story is uneven and only really finds itself in the last 10 chapters. However, a deep class system, flexible progression, exquisite battles, and small, but important advancements in storytelling style make this one of the best Fire Emblems in years.
A family affair
Engage starts with Alear, the hero of the tale, waking up to find a mother they forgot existed and a legacy they didn’t know they had. They’re the Divine Dragon, a beneficent ruler, the hero of an ancient war against the Fell Dragon, and owner of the Emblem Rings, which house the spirits of heroes from Fire Emblems past. The reunion is short-lived, though.
After Alear’s only blood tie dies attempting to protect them from the Fell Dragon’s minions, it’s time to set off on a trip to recover the rings. Whether it’s a quest for Sacred Stones, gemstones, or the weapons of ancient heroes, Fire Emblem loves its MacGuffins. Engage is technically no different, since you spend the first half of your journey trying to find 12 Emblem Rings before supporters of the Fell Dragon do. However, unlike the series’ usual MacGuffins, these do actually have a role in the story – albeit a slightly shallow one – and help radically transform Fire Emblem’s tactics on the battlefield.
While the Emblem Rings are meant to offer advice, Alear turns to their newfound friends for a sense of family and for knowledge of this strange world they awake in instead. Everyone they meet is only too happy to help Alear, in no small part because they think Alear is the Divine Dragon. The fact that Alear can’t turn into a dragon and is barely even an Inspiring Lizard at this point, let alone a Divine Dragon, doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm. They’re told Alear is the Divine Dragon, so they believe it. This subtle undercurrent of tension between what we’re told to believe and what the truth actually is runs through the entire game, though Engage does little with it until much later.
The same is true for its other major theme – family bonds and, specifically, sibling bonds. Engage goes out of its way to present the four kingdoms as case studies in family experiences. These run the gamut from almost losing a child to grappling with the legacy your forebears left. Even the seemingly ideal family, along with abandonment and impossible-to-please parents. This focus is unique for Fire Emblem and makes the main cast feel more human and sympathetic. It’s just strange that this and Engage’s other main themes, including the found family story at its heart, have little narrative significance until the back third of the game.
That’s not to say Engage tells a poor story. It just feels a bit uncertain at times, like perhaps it was meant to be deeper than it ended up being. Elyos, the land it takes place in, is a good example of that idea. You come across snippets of worldbuilding at times – Solm’s place as a trade nation, or Elusia’s justification for invading the oppressive military nation of Brodia – but it feels like it just exists as a place for the game to happen in. There’s no firm sense of place in Engage, an issue that’s somewhat surprising after the many facets of Fodlan in Three Houses.
Friends in unlikely places
What it lacks in a strong setting, though, Engage makes up for with its support conversations. Like other Fire Emblem games, Engage uses these chats between characters to develop their personalities and expand on some of the themes the main story overlooks. Your allies in Engage aren’t quite as fully realized as the students of Three Houses, but they’re also more complex than Awakening’s and Fates’ largely one-note characters.
Even the seemingly one-dimensional characters like the exercise-obsessed Etie have some surprising moments of depth when paired with the right person. While Engage only has one story and one moral position to pin your convictions to, it loosely borrows Three Houses’ method of party structure in the way it introduces and groups your new recruits. Nations take the places of houses. For example, you can feasibly play the entire game with the Firene bunch or your new friends in Brodia, but like Three Houses, the best results – at least as far as support conversations go – come from mixing and matching people with the most disparate backgrounds.
The world itself doesn’t feel much deeper as a result, but the clash of ideas and personalities helps make the people in it feel richer nonetheless. It helps that everyone has a range of motivations for joining Alear beyond the usual loyalty to lord and country. Those bonds are there too, but there’s also desire for personal growth, a need for atonement, or just wanting to see how people live in other nations.
Bridging the divide
Engage’s brand-new maps are some of the best in years, and tweaks to layouts and enemy behavior mean that even the repurposed ones inspired by classic maps feel fresh and exciting. One mid-game fight takes place in a swamp at night, as you’re pursued by mighty foes, without the aid of several former allies. Another takes place in a burning village, and the overall layout, the placement of rubble and fire, and the enemy’s formations made for one of the most memorable battles in the game and one where I literally breathed a sigh of relief after it ended.
Your objectives might just be “defeat the enemy general” most of the time, but the path to victory – especially on hard mode – forces you to use every ability and new trick at your disposal. They’re also set in more visually interesting places than usual, and ties to the story make even your standard castle and grassy plain feel more important. An early mission in Firene castle isn’t just a siege. It’s a desperate attempt to save an ally’s mother from being murdered and an extension of Engage’s storytelling.
What elevates Engage’s maps and battles even higher is the soundtrack. Most Fire Emblem games keep the same track for a long time, changing only when you switch main characters or after a major story development. Engage has separate tracks for each region whose melody and intensity correlate with story situations at the time, specific tracks used for certain late-game encounters, and even a unique track that plays during pivotal chapters with major twists. Whatever the situation, it’s perfectly suited to the events at hand and, like the best soundtracks, does more to tell the story than just provide a nice bit of background noise.
The soundtrack is just one of several extra touches that enhance Engage’s stories without traditional exposition. Personal skills are another. Fates and Three Houses included personal skills, but Engage’s version ties the triggers and effects more closely to everyone’s personalities. Take Jade the knight, for example. She enjoys being alone, thinking, and building outlines for books she wants to write. Her personal skill is meditation, which raises her resistance when she’s alone and doesn’t act. Alcryst, the spare heir to Brodia’s throne, is desperate to keep his loved ones safe, so when they’re attacked nearby, he gets a strength buff.
All this, combined with their individual motivations and dreams, means that every time you deploy that character, it feels like you’re advancing their personal stories and giving them an important role in the broader plot, even if they don’t actually have one. Whether you experience something similar depends on how invested you are in the idea of these characters. Regardless, it seems evident that Intelligent Systems tried taking steps to blur the divide between battle and off-field character development, and it’s a welcome effort that makes the whole package feel more unified.
Engage shakes things up on the battlefield as well. Each Emblem Ring corresponds to a specific hero – Ike, Leif, or Corrin, for example. They grant the equipping character some stat boosts, and when you engage with them in battle, they also give you a fancy new weapon and a special attack. Ike’s signature Great Aether ability absorbs damage for a turn and then attacks every enemy within two spaces. Some of the later Emblems also give you a special multi-use skill. Lucina can shield nearby allies from damage, while Corrin’s Dragon Vein ability lets you manipulate the environment to block enemy movement or boost defense for nearby allies.
Emblems can also impart multiple skills and even weapon proficiencies, which a unit can inherit after they reach level five in their bond with that Emblem. The system is a brilliant expansion of Three Houses’ open class structure where you can not only put any character in any class, but you can build your dream skill combinations too. You can take the pragmatic route and boost a unit’s less inspiring stats, or you can get creative and, for example, give a sage skills that normally belong to a paladin, swordmaster, and sniper.
The result is the series’ most flexible and enjoyable class system to date and one that requires very little investment from you to get what you want. Back at base, you can spend Bond points to train with Emblems and raise a character’s bond level with them. Bond Points are plentiful too, so while you may not have enough to experiment freely with every recruit, there’s enough flexibility to try different builds and see what you like best without having to wait for New Game+ like in Three Houses.
The break system makes you think about weapon advantages from a new angle as you prepare your defenses, while chain attacks and chain guard give you – and your enemies – a subtle advantage in certain situations. Units classed as “backup” can chip in during a fight and deal extra damage, often making the difference between victory and letting your foe walk away intact. Qi adept units can use chain guard when their HP is full to block hits to adjacent allies, a perfect way to offset risks and keep your friends alive.
Engage also makes class weaponry more open. Where before, classes such as the Hero were stuck with swords and axes, you can make a sword-and-lance Hero or a Wolf Knight who wields knives and axes. By far my favorite change is to do with healers, though. Light magic is gone again, and your base healing class is now a martial artist who can use staffs. Fists break bow users and mages, making them useful for more than just pummeling foes, and anyone who uses a staff – including sages, griffon knights, and the new royal knight – gets an experience boost, whether that staff is for healing or for automatically breaking an enemy’s defenses.
Fire Emblem Engage might not be as narratively ambitious as Three Houses or the Radiant games, and the Emblem system is torn between being useful and shallow. However, in practically every other way, Engage excels. Its open class and skill system mean you can shape every member of your army as you see fit. The engaging (ha) cast and their tapestry of sad, inspiring, and amusing stories make up for the somewhat lacking main narrative. Best of all from a tactics perspective, though, is the stellar map design and subtle, significant changes to how battles unfold. All this makes for a substantial step forward and turns Engage into one of the best Fire Emblems in years. Hopefully next time, we can get all that with a stronger story too.
This review is based on a copy provided by Nintendo of America provided. Fire Emblem Engage will be available for the Nintendo Switch on January 20, 2023.
Fire Emblem Engage
- Brilliant map designs
- Open class and skill system with endless customization options
- Stellar soundtrack
- Clever use of small details to create depth in character and storytelling
- Uneven, sometimes uncertain story
- Emblems play a shallow role outside combat
- Some support conversations feel forced
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, Fire Emblem Engage review: I dream of heroes
Emblem Ring. Let's call them emblem rings. I don't see any problem with that. No other game sounds like emblem Ring