Fire Emblem Engage has raised some fan eyebrows prior to launch. The Fire Emblem series has a reputation for being more grounded and morally complex than your average JRPG or Nintendo game, some even describe it as “Anime Game of Thrones,” but this latest entry looks a bit… different. Fire Emblem Engage opts for a bright, poppy aesthetic, and its story looks to hew closer to standard JRPG tropes. The game’s new Engage system that lets you pair units with the spirits of classic characters from the past offers a unique twist, but some have questioned whether it’s just nostalgic fanservice.
Will Fire Emblem fans find this latest entry engaging? I’ve had the opportunity to hit the battlefield with Fire Emblem Engage, and while I can’t report on everything yet, I can share my experiences from the game’s first 8 chapters (which works out to around 8 hours of gameplay). Sharpen your blade and scroll on for the details…
Fire Emblem Engage is set in Elyos, a land divided between four nations surrounding the Holy Land of Lythos. Players take on the role of a “Divine Dragon” in human form (named Alear, although as usual with Fire Emblem protagonists, you can choose your name and gender). After sleeping for a thousand years, you awake without any memories, and unfortunately, you don’t get much time to catch up on the last millennium. The shadowy nation of Elusia has awoken the Fell Dragon Sombron and are plotting to steal the 12 Emblem Rings in order to return him to full power. A sneak attack puts you on the back foot and it’s up to you and your ragtag army to try to collect the Emblem Rings before the bad guys do.
If this all sounds a bit by the JRPG book, well, it is. Much of Fire Emblem Engage’s writing feels stiff and clunky, with most characters easily reduced to a single descriptor (loyal, insecure, likes to exercise, etc.) The game’s main character is an overly trusting dope that leads his followers into one unnecessary scrape after another, and yet they still revere him without question because he happens to be their god. Not really the formula for a compelling protagonist. Meanwhile, rather than hardened warriors, most of the game’s villains are over-the-top anime cliches, often decked out in costumes that appeared ripped from a particularly sexed-up fighting game. There is some attempt to give each of Elyos’ nations a unique personality -- Brodia is warlike, Firene is peaceful, etc. – but any development of the politics between these nations seems cursory at best.
Of course, there is a chance Fire Emblem Engage’s story and world will spring to life as I progress deeper into the game. This certainly wouldn’t be the first JRPG to start out slow. At least it’s all presented quite well. Engage’s pre-rendered cutscenes are impressive and its in-game visuals are bright, crisp, and colorful. The character designs aren’t even bad per se – as mentioned, they’d probably work well for a fighting game – they just feel out of place in this particular franchise.
Thankfully, in terms of gameplay, this is still largely Fire Emblem as you know it. You and the enemy take turns moving all available units on various grid-based maps in tactical battles, with units all having individual strengths, weaknesses, and personalities rather than just being random grunts. Various rock-paper-scissors-style systems, most notably the classic Weapon Triangle (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords), are in place and will need to be kept in mind if you want to win the day. It would be nice to see Fire Emblem incorporate modern elements from other tactical games, like a greater emphasis on cover and the ability to set up overwatch ambushes, but the basic blueprint still works.
The new Engage system is where most of this game’s innovation lies. Each of the Emblem Rings you collect contains the spirit of a classic Fire Emblem character. There’s a fair amount of freedom inherent in the system, as these rings can be equipped to any unit, at which point that unit will be accompanied by the spirit of the ring into battle. This allows you to create impromptu tag teams, with the Emblem spirits granting the unit they’re attached to various passive bonuses. You can also “Engage,” merging the unit and Emblem spirit into one, which further boosts stats and grants you some powerful special attacks. You can only remain Engaged for three turns, after which you’ll have to wait for a power gauge to refill before you can do it again.
Each Emblem has a specialty of sorts, and combining them with specific units can create some interesting possibilities. Sigurd provides movement bonuses, including the ability to move twice per turn, so I paired him with one of my medics to create a unit that could dart in and out of the fray to heal allies. Celica is all about magic attacks, so I gave her ring to one of my heavies to create a spell-tossing tank. The Engage system gives you more opportunities to really make your team feel like your own.
There are also an array of upgrade mechanics attached to the Engage system. Units can inherit skills from the Emblems; you can forge Bond Rings to boost Emblems’ stats, and more. It takes some time to get your head around it all, but it all fits together well enough. While there are some mild gacha-style mechanics going on with Bond Ring forging, any fears that the Engage system is an excuse to wedge extra Fire-Emblem-Heroes-style monetization into the game is largely unfounded. Yes, Fire Emblem Engage does have a season pass, but the main selling point of that is arguably its additional story content. It really does seem like the Engage system is an addition designed to benefit gameplay first.
Oh, and yes, the social elements the Fire Emblem series is known for (particularly in recent entries) return. Your home base, a floating island called the Somniel, offers a variety of quirky side activities, including fishing, exercising, and building up a farm full of fuzzy friends. Unfortunately, the awkward writing that hobbles Fire Emblem Engage’s main storyline also hurts this part of the game. There’s no real hint of romance that I’ve seen – sorry, no waifus or husbandos for you – and support conversations are often more inane than interesting. Characters will natter on about how they love to watch you sleep or their weird food obsessions, and it isn’t clear if they’re supposed to be charming or creepy. Honestly, I don't know if the game makers are sure themselves.
Current Thoughts on Fire Emblem Engage
Thus far, Fire Emblem Engage serves up a divided experience. On the one hand, concerns about the game’s story and presentation are more well-founded than I’d like, with shallow, oddly-written characters and JPRG tropes standing in for the more complex storytelling of past entries in the series. On the other hand, the franchise's core tactical gameplay remains as satisfying as ever, with the Engage system adding an accessible new strategic wrinkle. Whether the two sides of Fire Emblem Engage will eventually combine into a conquering fighting force remains to be seen. Look for Wccftech’s full review in the coming weeks.
Fire Emblem Engage launches on the Nintendo Switch on January 20.