Four years after Fire Emblem’s impressive debut on Nintendo Switch with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, much was expected with the launch of the following installment, Fire Emblem Engage. Three Houses reignited a lot of love for the franchise, and as the series debut on a new system, it had many expectations to meet. The popularity of the Fire Emblem series meant that there were some big boots to fill with the launch of Engage, and while the newest installment offers something new without losing the charm of the traditional formula, the line remains slightly blurred as to whether the game meets the bar set by its predecessor.
As our story begins, we take on the role of the Divine Dragon, Alear, who has been asleep for a thousand years after being wounded by the Fell Dragon Sombron, but at long last, Alear has awoken. Rather than waking up and recalling the battle with Sombron and being able to return to life as normal, the second their eyes are open, Alear struggles to recollect their memories and understand where they are. Despite encountering a handful of excited citizens who do recall the tale of the Dragon Child, nothing is jogging the memory of the Divine One, and it quickly becomes your responsibility to do what you can to remember their past life and save the world from peril yet again.
Consisting of 26 chapters, the roughly 40-hour campaign of Fire Emblem Engage will take you through the process of Alear coming to terms with what happened while facing off with the opposing force which injured them in the first place, exploring the relationships Alear develops with the characters met along the way. Instead of relying entirely on the story to produce a captivating experience, Fire Emblem Engage spotlights a number of alternative features for you to enjoy, such as developing a relationship with comrades outside of combat and building a safe space for everyone at the central hub, Somniel.
Following on from Three Houses, Fire Emblem Engage really tightens up its focus on combat, which is necessary since it is the driving factor of the entire game. From the moment the gameplay starts, you are thrown head-first into a battle sequence, and it’s refreshing to get an immediate hands-on experience rather than sitting through lengthy cutscenes as the story sets up. After a brief introduction to Franne, Clanne, and Vander, the three characters to first appear by the Divine Dragons’ bedside when you wake up, you jump straight to battle once again, which is where you get to really take the reigns and experience what Fire Emblem Engage has to offer.
The cutscenes you experience throughout the game and in-between chapters are visually impressive and incredibly well-animated, feeling like some of Intelligent Systems’ best work yet. As you explore new areas and meet the cast of eclectic characters, these cutscenes help you get to grips with the different personalities and relationships between them, which can also provide valuable insight as to which characters can pair well together in battle to create chain attacks, such as Boucheron and Alfred for example, who can cause significant damage to an enemy when placed in the same vicinity.
In addition, these cutscenes help translate the desperation Alear feels toward the opposition on the battlefield, which is aided by the fully narrated cast. Once you return to combat following a cutscene, everything is fluid and fast-paced, which maintains any tension constructed in the cinematic. Since you learn the basics of combat from the moment you start the game, you never feel intimidated by the mass of enemies you’re about to face. This is ideal for new players of either Fire Emblem or tactical RPGs as a whole, and the variety of units and abilities keep even the longer battle sequences exciting. The heavy emphasis on harnessing the unique abilities of each unit and emblem keeps you on your toes and thinking about how you can succeed.
Furthermore, the emphasis on exploration and building relationships was also refreshing after finishing a bout of combat, despite not being new to the Fire Emblem series, as Three Houses also heavily emphasizes the importance of building a relationship with your units. Thankfully, this is carried across in Fire Emblem Engage and is used to increase the strength of your partnerships, which translates to attacks during combat.
Once you’ve completed a battle, you are free to explore the location and loot items placed around the map while speaking to the units you’ve been fighting alongside to get a different perspective on the battle. Although it’s not a huge part of the gameplay, it helps bring characters to life a bit more, which is necessary, given that the story leaves a lot of space for certain characters to slip through the cracks, which is where Fire Emblem Engage begins to let itself down.
When considering its story, Fire Emblem Engage lacks compared to previous games. It feels like a huge amount of content in the cutscenes takes away from the plot and focuses on the backstories and importance of the characters, new and old, blurring the point of the game in places and making elements feel more like filler. Although the cutscenes are visually impressive, there’s a lot that you can skip without losing any vital bits of information. Most of the story frequently shifts from the attention of Alear recollecting their memories, to resting on the shoulders of its returning support characters, including the likes of Ike, Byleth, and Roy.
Given that Fire Emblem games typically have a heavy focus on the story, it felt slightly disappointing to feel like corners were cut to make combat the driving focus of Engage. The story itself is predictable in places and doesn’t feel as tight and tense as previous games, but the pure nostalgia its cast offers players, along with the fascinating social aspects between Dragon and Unit, keep you encapsulated in the game without feeling like things are rapidly growing stale.
However, only a select few returning characters get consistent appearances in cutscenes and the central storyline, so unless you’re constantly fighting alongside every Emblem, there’s a high chance you won’t get a lot of time among some of the more fan-favorite characters. That said, a handful of these cutscenes are essential for character development, so even though the story deflates in certain spots, some sequences will have you wide-eyed and feeling slightly betrayed.
As a tactical RPG, it would have been nice to feel more attached to the motives of both Alear and their corresponding units. Even though there is a huge dose of nostalgia in bringing back returning characters for players who are already familiar with the franchise, for an entirely new player, I can see the lack of a more in-depth story jarring and causing some confusion. You never really get to know who you are working with and why they are so important, and as soon as their backstory begins developing, you are thrust into the next zone to meet the next batch of new characters.
As a whole, it is impressive that Fire Emblem Engage manages to carve its own identity within the franchise without straying too far from previous games. Still though, there are certain elements that let it down that aren’t quite small enough to pass unnoticed. If the core gameplay combat wasn’t so tight, the lack of drive in the story could have been detrimental to the experience, but there is still a lot of good to derive from the title.
Though it is evident that some corners have been cut, with the focus predominantly being on returning characters and fighting mechanics, there are numerous instances throughout Fire Emblem Engage which also make it an unforgettable experience. Watching your social hub grow alongside Alear as you progress, filling it with the characters you have helped along the way, is all the drive you need to thoroughly enjoy each of the chapters and face off against the evil forces of Sombron once more.
A copy of Fire Emblem Engage was provided to My Nintendo News by Nintendo UK for the purpose of this review.
Engage has been a huge disappointment for me. As great as the tactical level design and graphics are, the story side is so insultingly poor that it really detracts from the experience. I’m fine with a weak story in a game that gives me lots of choices and room for my own emergent storytelling (see: Breath of the Wild), or a series of linear levels that doesn’t take itself too seriously (see: Yoshi, Mario, et al.), but FE:E misses both marks. It shoves a story in my face that’s clearly trying to sell itself as an epic, but that was just as clearly thrown together by tossing a pile of tropes into a blender.
Most of the characters are completely flat, the support conversations are disconnected from the plot, and the world-building goes no further than “let’s figure out where to put the level maps.” Every chapter is just “go here, watch an overlong cutscene with a ‘Big Plot Reveal’ that I saw coming at least five or six chapters earlier (or sometimes since the beginning of the game), then fight.” 26 chapters of that is just a slog.
I’m going to keep it 100% honest with you I walked into engage expecting it to build on everything that three houses established, and it did not meet that mark.
That being said, I will not call the game of failure: while I do believe the story is very by the book, and the characters are sentient tropes with very little flushing out going on, this is the best the series has looked and played in a long time.
Personally, I would forgive the storyline faults if they actually gave us paired endings: I am a massive shipper, and taking that out was a huge blow for me
Fire Emblem is so popular that I haven’t seen it yet. This is a regret. However, it’s not too late because I’m getting ready for a sleepless night.