Intelligent Systems have been crafting tactical games for over thirty years. I doubt that when they began with the Japan-only Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, they could have ever imagined just how popular and wide-ranging their Fire Emblem series would eventually become. While the traditional grid-based strategy is as compelling as ever, they’re now epic 3D RPG experiences that players clamour for months in advance. Fire Emblem Engage is the latest entry in this hallowed series, and while it brings in all of the accumulated modernity the franchise has accrued, it makes sure to stay true to the series’ past.
You’re cast as Alear – or any name you choose – with the expected option to choose either a male or female variant. Whichever central protagonist you decide upon they’re blessed with a deeply unusual red and blue hairstyle, as well as one red eye and one blue one, which nobody seems too concerned about. I suppose people’s eyes can be different colours, and hair dye must have existed in medieval fantasy, and, well, there’s dragons knocking about too if we’re starting to worry about realism.
After an opening where we see our hero in full flow, working alongside a spectre of original Fire Emblem star Marth, they’re struck down by a terrible case of the snoozies, and after a 1000 year slumber the world has changed around them. This particular nap has also led to classic-narrative-ploy-number #1, so we’ve once again got an amnesiac protagonist who’s thrust into the limelight, and who’s sadly forgotten a number of crucial things along the way.
That spectral appearance of Marth is the key change for Fire Emblem Engage. These supernatural entities are Emblems, and you can call upon them, linking up mid-battle to gain a variety of buffs as well as access to insanely powerful moves. There’s more than a hint of Power Rangers to the whole business, with your hero clad in shiny new armour as part of the deal. You can’t just simply choose to use it whenever it suits you though, and building up the Engage meter via combat brings in a new element of risk and reward.
Mind you, it’s only really risky if you’re playing in the Classic mode, with the possibility of losing a character constantly hanging over you. While you can opt to play in Casual, with characters resurrected at the end of a round, this just isn’t how Fire Emblem should be played, and it loses one of the key factors that make you care about each and every member of your party. Still, it is more accessible, and the more people that can experience Fire Emblem, the better.
There’s a heap of kingdom-based machinations going on in Engage, with the land beginning to crumble around our heroes as The Corrupted spread far and wide following the return of the Fell Dragon, a powerful, and thoroughly evil, foe. In the midst of this a great tragedy befalls our protagonist, and they have to find a way to successfully unite the kingdoms while collecting all twelve of the Emblem rings and their respective spiritual hosts.
Fire Emblem’s strength has always been with its characters, and through the opening chapters Fire Emblem Engage offers up a great batch to join you on your adventure. Amongst the first people you meet, Clanne and Framme are magic-wielding twins who have a great outlook on life, and a cool design to boot. Then there’s your cavalry units Vander and Alfred. Vander is an imposing figure, but he’s an absolute gentleman who’ll do anything to keep our hero content, while Alfred is a young prince who’s lively and excitable, bringing some much needed levity at times.
No matter who they are, each character and the game as a whole looks amazing. Intelligent Systems have nailed the anime look, and the cutscenes in particular look like a high-quality production. There’s been great improvement to performance too, and where we’ve seen recent hub areas in the Fire Emblem series that chug and stutter while you explore them, the Samniel headquarters looks great while also running flawlessly on the Nintendo Switch.
There’s a number of other improvements, some of which benefit from our always-online gaming world. With a little nod to FromSoftware’s iconic Soulsbourne games, you might find some lasting remnants of other player’s battles if you’re connected to the network. Yellow spirits appear where many allied units have fallen, while purple ones appear where a host of Engage players have despatched enemies. There’s EXP and items to be nabbed if you inhabit these spaces so they’re well worth keeping an eye out for, and it’s a nice little addition to the formula that might also give you pause for thought if a particular spot has been a bad place to put a unit for other players.
Engage also brings in a revision to Fire Emblem’s classic weapon’s triangle. Using a weapon that has an advantage over another causes the damaged unit to receive the break status. Broken units can’t counterattack until after their next combat, giving you the opportunity to really hammer them, hopefully putting them out of commission as fast as possible. Alongside the three core advantages – swords over axes, axes over lances and lances over swords – arts now also have an advantage over bows, tomes and knives.
You might care more about the fact that the ability to rewind time has returned from recent Fire Emblem games, or, even more importantly that you can adopt an array of pets and bring them home to the Somniel. You’ll need to temper your expectations here as you can’t pet them – seriously, how have they missed out this crucial advancement in modern gaming? – but they will find items and ingredients that you can use.
No matter whether this is your first Fire Emblem or your twenty-second, Fire Emblem Engage really has its work cut out for it, following on from Three Houses which was arguably the best the series has ever been. From our early hands on time the tactical combat seems as robust as ever, meaning that the game’s success hinges, more than ever, on the scriptwriters and narrative designers. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the story takes us, but the early signs are very good.