Fire Emblem turned 30 years old back in 2020, but one could be forgiven for thinking of its latest entry, Fire Emblem Engage, as a belated 30th anniversary celebration. It’s got that sort of wild celebratory energy about it; a Fire Emblem game with a little bit of everything, plus the kitchen sink, and then some. That development approach has positives and negatives in practically equal measure – but it’s nevertheless difficult to not be charmed by what Engage offers as a sprawling package.
As a series, Fire Emblem is structurally quite similar to things like Final Fantasy and Persona, in that each game is usually a relatively enclosed affair. There are crossovers, and very occasionally there are direct sequels, but for the most part each game stands on its own, connected primarily by strategy RPG mechanics that are tweaked and flavored in each game with unique gimmicks. Such is the case with Engage, but with the fanservice for the series’ past both bulked out and streamlined all at once. As contradictory as that seems.
For this title, the gimmick is called the Engage System, and this titular mechanic is also the primary conduit through which this title’s nostalgia flows. It’s specifically all about equipping ‘Emblem Rings’, special items that sort-of contain the essence and consciousness of past heroes from each of the past Fire Emblem adventures. Emblem characters can’t exist on the battlefield as discrete units, but any character can pop on a particular character’s ring and then gain abilities, weapons, skills, and a general upgrade as a result, both passively and when you ‘Engage’ with the ring, merging the equipper and the Emblem into a super-powered state.
The 12 launch emblems and the fact that they can be equipped on a wide range of Engage’s traditional suite of new Fire Emblem units leads to a surprisingly strong new layer of depth to the game’s mechanics, and on the whole this is actually the most strategically meaty Fire Emblem in some time. More than that, however, it actually gives this Fire Emblem something really unique and outstanding in the pantheon of the series within its combat system. Other recent Fire Emblem games have differentiated themselves through systems outside of combat. Engage is keen to flex its SRPG muscles, however.
Nostalgia can often be a bit of a conceptual meringue in a series this old, but here it has been put to good use. Yes, it’s exciting to see people like Marth, Ike, Lyn, or even Lucina again - but it’s also just as thrilling to experiment with how to deploy their abilities on the battlefield - and through who. Each Emblem has some truly powerful abilities, though how often they can be used is limited - which means you have an interesting strategic quandary in terms of when to use them, and also who each ring should be equipped to.
It’s good strategy RPG stuff, and a powerful dose of nostalgia. But it also comes at something of a cost - and it’s in an area that might disappoint fans of the last major title in the series, mega-hit Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The story just… isn’t as good.
A lot of this, I think, is down to the structure of the game. The character-building ‘Paralogues’ are now largely focused on the Emblems instead, taking players on nostalgia tours where the Emblems briefly relive battles from their past and from games fans will remember, including remixed music and recreated battle maps. Initially, as an immersive dose of nostalgia, this is brilliant - until you realize that it’s coming, in part, at the cost of the original characters and world of Engage.
This combines with the game’s decision to give you a fairly aggressive flow of new fighters, leveled up and ready to tackle the next story mission, to mean that you feel less pressured to spend extensive time with the new cast of characters. When you do move to get to know them better many feel relatively thinly characterized, with little of the nuance found in Three Houses. Yeah, Three Houses was anime-ass stuff. No denial. But it was that with surprising depth. Engage is much less like that.
In fact, outside of battle, this is sort of a theme with Engage. The main narrative is too straightforward for its own good, for instance, and though the hub zone of Somniel has even more side activities and distractions to partake in than in Three Houses, I didn’t actually rate half of them. Everything is optional, but it’s all also so optional that the benefits and rewards for participating in most of these systems barely make a difference to your adventure. When things do make a difference, there’s still that general feeling that tooling around Somniel is more overwhelming than Three Houses’ monastery downtime ever was.
In fact, the best of the monastery’s energy now has been supplanted into an entirely new feature, the ability to walk around areas that represent the surroundings of each battle. Here you can debrief with your fighters, talk to locals who you’ve helped out, and nab a few collectibles. It’s a chill little time, and I really like it. Another thing I really like, incidentally, is that the Persona-style calendar and time system is gone. Every time you return to Somniel, you can kill as much time as you like or proceed to the next battle. This makes Engage simpler to play as a strait-laced strategy RPG.
I don’t dislike the story and character work, to be clear. I always love spending time with Anna – who, for my money, should have a prominent role in every single title, like how there’s always a Cid in Final Fantasy. There are some strong story moments. The bright character designs, including the protagonist, actually grew on me over time. And I love that there’s a nation in this game, Solm, with royalty of color and multiple dark-skinned playable party members. Y’see, not all fantasy worlds have to be all-white!
So, yeah. I don’t hate the Fire Emblem Engage story, nor what it does when you’re outside of combat. Though it’s also fair to say that compared to Three Houses, that side of the game feels a touch inferior. Even though there’s more of everything thanks to that kitchen sink approach, not all of that quantity is as high quality – and that’s a shame.
On the other hand, however, Fire Emblem Engage is certainly superior to Three Houses, and that’s as a strategy RPG. It’s probably a little easy on normal mode for those more experienced in the series or genre – but crank it up to hard and it’s a real blast and one of the most mechanically satisfying Fire Emblem games in many years.
In some ways, that focus-shift back to SRPG fundamentals feels like a possible course correction after the significant ‘Personafication’ of Three Houses. On the other hand, this game still feels like it strives to marry old-school Fire Emblem with those new ideas. As a fan of older Fire Emblem and strategy games in general, I was thrilled to see the depth of combat and the level to which you can make battling your absolute focus. That’s still true even if Engage doesn’t quite get the balance in its execution right in a way that might put a small subset of Three Houses lovers off. It’s still a tremendously satisfying experience, mind. It’s engaging - sorry, I had to get it in – and an easy recommendation.