It’s been four years since Fire Emblem: Three Houses became a surprise hit on the Nintendo Switch. The long-running tactical RPG franchise took an experimental pivot that focused more heavily on the social aspect of growing your army and list of allies. It became popular with new players due to its fantastic cast and writing. But some (like myself) found the combat lacking the same polish that previous Fire Emblem games excelled at so well. Would Three Houses’ social elements be the new norm for the franchise? Or could we see a regrouping from developer Intelligent Systems to bring the nucleus of the combat back? Enter Fire Emblem Engage.
Revealed last fall in a Nintendo Direct, Fire Emblem Engage took some flack at first for its untamed main character design (yes, we all saw the Colgate-Chan memes). Plus, many called out its reliance on the franchises’ history with its new “Emblem Rings” mechanic. The characters could wear these rings and bring back old heroes from the franchise like Marth.
To some of the fandom, it screamed of a safe cash grab akin to the series mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes. But after 20 hours with the game, I can confidently say Engage is anything but that. It takes the elements that worked from Three Houses while also resuming and refining the combat elements that made the series so addictive. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation. Let me explain why.
Back to camp is ok!
Let’s get one word out of the way that’s been tied to this game so far. Yes, Fire Emblem Engage is campy in story and tone. It opens with a cinematic akin to a “Saturday Morning” cartoon. The characters have quirky elements like speaking corny slang or discussing how they make homemade pickles. The villains are so generic in their goals that it’s honestly hilarious. It’s a vast departure from the more grounded and dark tone that Three Houses presented.
And you know what? I love that about it. It gives the game a vastly different identity than Three Houses. Which, given how that game was the first entry for many players, is the right call. Trying to top Three Houses was going to be impossible from a story and character perspective. So, pivoting to another direction makes Engage stand on its own in the best way.
A loveable group of idiots led by an anxious Dragon
Part of the strength of any Fire Emblem title is the characters. In most modern titles, the playable protagonist has been a stand-in for the player with little to no personality. Another lead, like the quiet and stoic Byleth, would have felt boring. So, to see the new protagonist Alear have a relatable identity right out of the gate was a pleasant surprise! They are thrown into a world and task they didn’t ask for but realize they have to challenge head-on. With some understandable anxiety, of course. But they stay positive and work to get a good repour with new members of the army and the spirits in the Emblem rings.
It’s not just Alear that is memorable off the bat. As mentioned above, most units in your battalion have specific quirks or traits that are hard not to attach to as you learn more about them. Is this a staple for Fire Emblem? Yes. Do I care? No, because it still works, mainly because the voice cast does a fantastic job bringing charm to these characters that make the quirks pop out.
The triangle is back! Plus, masterful secondary elements
I always speak about how the little intangibles in a game matter. Gameplay mechanics, performance, music, menu interface, and navigation are some I’ve discussed in the past. Fire Emblem Engage nails all of these elements in spades.
The core gameplay mechanics that Fire Emblems are known for are back. The weapon triangle is a simple mechanic that works like rock-paper-scissors. Sword beats axe, axe beats lance, and lance beats sword. Simple but effective in execution as you need to strategize who gets sent where based on what enemies are going to attack you. If a unit falls, it’s permadeath. They’re gone for good. Well, unless you play in casual mode (which I highly recommend on the first playthrough to fully enjoy the game).
As for the other intangibles mentioned above, they all shine too! The performance hits a solid 30FPS with little to no framerate dips in docked and undocked modes. The music is phenomenal in adding to the more upbeat tone of the game at specific points. Plus, navigation around your hub world and all the menus is easy to understand and utilize to your advantage. All these elements add up to keeping players glued to the screen as they work through everything from fight preparations to support conversations between units.
Gather the rings
Let’s now bring up elephant number two that players have been curious about: the Emblem rings. These rings allow the spirits of former Fire Emblem protagonists (such as Marth, Roy, Lyn, and Ike, to name a few) to aid your army in battle with stat boosts and abilities. Some players were nervous that this was an easy way to appeal to older fans of the series. Frankly, the rings are anything but that. They play a pivotal part in the story and the gameplay.
I won’t delve into the story specifics because of its significant spoilers. But the gameplay benefits by having rings give boosts and buffs to whoever brandishes them in battle. In addition, more abilities are unlocked as units wear the rings multiple times and boost their relationship with the spirit in the ring. Understanding this and building relationships between specific unit types and spirits is paramount to success as the game continues. For example, Micaiah specializes in healing buffs and abilities. So, giving her ring to your healers is critical to get specific abilities you’ll need later on. This adds another layer to strategy that’s extremely fun to utilize to your advantage as you progress through the campaign.
Final impressions for now
Fire Emblem Engage is a radical departure from Three Houses that focuses on what made the series work in the first place. It refines the combat by bringing back the weapon triangle, while also expanding on it with the ring mechanics to add new abilities and buffs to fighters.
But it doesn’t forget who all loved the last entry as well by having fun, loveable characters and a hub that’s easy to navigate and explore to build bonds and relationships. Plus, adding in all the intangibles like amazing music, exceptional art design, and challenging maps make for some of the best in the franchise. Fire Emblem Engage feels like a bridge to help the new players understand how the series used to be in its tactical gameplay, while also being a warm, loving tribute to the series.
I know it’s only January and I have a lot of the journey to go in this title. But when I sit down to play, I know this will end on my best of 2023 list. And it will be up there high.