Fire Emblem Engage (2023)

Fire Emblem Engage feels like a celebration of the series as a whole. It includes references and characters from all the past entries for fans of the series to relive their favorite games. Aptly, this celebration of Fire Emblem is a summary of the ups and downs of the series. Rarely, if ever, does the series meld strong gameplay, an engaging overarching story, well-written dialogue, and complex characters. Fire Emblem Engage may have some of the best tactical gameplay in the series, but it has a painfully generic story paired with cringe-worthy dialogue.

Like its predecessors, Fire Emblem Engage is a top-down strategy role-playing game. You recruit an army of units, each with their own abilities, class, and stats. The premise of Fire Emblem Engage is that you are a Divine Dragon, a benevolent deity of the land who has been asleep for a thousand years. The evil Fell Dragon has also awoken to oppose you and is pillaging the land in search of powerful artifacts. These 12 artifacts are known as emblem rings, and each host a legendary hero known as an emblem. The primary reason that I consider Fire Emblem Engage to be a celebration of the series is that these emblems are heroes from past entries.

It does feel like fan-service to have the main characters from every other game play such prominent roles here, but they do provide interesting gameplay opportunities. As you acquire the emblem rings, you can equip them to your units. They can then utilize powerful abilities just for having the ring equipped, and can then “engage” for 3 turns, unlocking even more abilities and special weapons and attacks.

I quite enjoyed the strategic depth that emblem rings provided. You have to decide which units are best suited for which rings. You can use a ring to support a unit’s weakness, for example using the ring that increases speed on a slow unit to make them much faster. Or you could use a ring to further bolster the strengths of your units, like using the defense ring to turn a bulky unit into an unkillable juggernaut. Additionally, knowing when to engage is important as well. The engage attacks in particular are critical to success, and they can only be used once per engage.

Moreover, units can inherit certain skills from the emblems. Some of these skills are weapon proficiencies that allow the unit to reclass. Other skills are passive bonuses. Units earn points while battling and can spend those points on skills from the different emblems. It can be fun to build units however you want with the combination of reclassing, inheriting skills, and equipping emblem rings. A complaint I have about this system is that many of the inheritable skills are prohibitively expensive for the power they provide, so many of my units ended up just inheriting the same few skills.

Another issue with the emblem system is that it can be extremely confusing at first. The game has a lot of terminology that isn’t consistently used to explain how the system worked. Gaining skills when you equip an emblem, sync skills, inheritable skills, engage attacks, bond points, SP, bond rings, etc. The game doesn’t explain some of this very well. For example, equipping an emblem gives you some skills, but not all of them as some must be inherited. Which ones must be inherited is never clear.

Along with emblem rings, Fire Emblem Engage has a few other interesting additions to make gameplay more interesting. The first is the reintroduction of weapon advantages along with the new break mechanic. When a unit initiates an attack against an enemy and has a weapon advantage, they will break the opponent’s stance. This prevents the opponent from counterattacking, and also prevents them from counterattacking on the next attack you perform as well. This encourages smart planning to perform actions in an intelligent order to reduce how much damage enemies can inflict back on you. Furthermore, the enemies can also break your units’ stance, which discourages slower and risk-free playstyles.

Another important addition is the introduction of chain attacks. Certain classes, such as Swordmaster or Warrior, have the innate ability to perform chain attacks. When they are positioned in range to attack a foe, whenever an ally attacks that foe, they also have a chance to deal 10% of the opponent’s health. This is another strategic element that encourages foresight to maximize damage. It can be especially powerful when planning your squad around it and investing in skills to maximize the chain attacks.

The combination of emblems, stance breaking, and chain attacks makes for a game where the player phase is emphasized. What I mean by this is that the player has tons of tools to inflict massive damage and eliminate many enemy units in a single turn. But the enemy also has access to all of these options as well. Many other Fire Emblem games reward safe gameplay, and one form of this in the past was to rely on using your strongest unit to be put barely within the enemies’ range to bait the enemy units to attack them. Many times, this would cause enemy units to simply kill themselves while attacking your best character. This is a slow and uninteresting tactic.

Fire Emblem Engage prevents this because even your best units can be stance broken to stop them from dealing damage. Even your tankiest units will get torn apart by the consistent chip damage of chain attacks. And all of your units are susceptible to devastating engage attacks. The best strategy that I found was to setup your formations in a way that would allow you to wipe out large swaths of enemy units in a single turn. The mechanics that are present, as well as the map design, heavily encourages the player to make use of all of their tools to make big moves rather than slowly chipping away at the opposing forces. I love this aspect of Fire Emblem Engage.

Another great gameplay addition is the emphasis on bosses. In many older Fire Emblem games, bosses would just sit still and essentially be punching bags. They were tougher than the average unit, but they would rarely move, making it easy to strategize to defeat them. In Fire Emblem Engage, most bosses will eventually start moving and begin to go on the offensive. In addition to this, they often carry emblems that allow them to utilize engage attacks and special abilities. Furthermore, they all have multiple Resurrection Stones, meaning that you have to deplete their health bars two or three times to defeat them. I love because boss fights feel like a genuine puzzle now as you have to find a way to burst down the boss before they can deal huge damage.

My only big complaint when it comes to gameplay is the amount of downtime between chapters. This was a much larger issue in Fire Emblem Three Houses, so I am glad to see that the social sim aspects were toned down. However, I still found there to be a lot of busy work to be done between chapters which bloated the length of the game. Things such as exploring the battlefield post-battle to collect resources, collecting resources at your home base, participating in mini-games to boost stats, listening to support conversations, inventory management, and watching battles in the arena to gain extra experience, there’s just a lot so much busy work that needs to be done after every battle.

I ignored the mini-games and most of the resource collection portion of the game barring the forge. But I still felt like I spent a ton of time doing menial and tedious tasks. The actual tasks are pretty quick, but between excessive menu navigation and loading screens, a lot of time is wasted. I found myself spending 30 minutes to an hour between each chapter depending how much inventory management and arena training I needed to be done. And that’s after ignoring all the mini-games like cooking and strength training. It’s just a lot of time to be spent on by far the weakest aspect of the game. None of these tasks, barring support conversations, are enjoyable, they are a time sink meant to pad out the game.

I can appreciate the inclusion of post-battle exploration and the home base of the Somniel. These both bolster the world building and can go a long way to make Fire Emblem Engage feel more immersive. I mentioned this in my review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses as well, but I think a large portion of why social sim aspects feel unsatisfying is that they are an ever-present chore list. Compared to a game like Persona 5, the social sim aspects of Fire Emblem Engage are unlimited. They are omnipresent chores that must be done after every battle for full optimization. Yet in Persona for instance, these kinds of tasks are extremely limited so they feel much more satisfying to participate in and reap the benefits from.

My biggest gripe for Fire Emblem Engage is by far and away the story and characters. From the very start of the game, it is obvious that Fire Emblem Engage is going to lean heavily into anime tropes and dialogue. From the very first seconds you are dubbed the chosen one, and everybody loves you. The main character never has to earn trust or credibility, they are an infallible and honorable hero who is universally beloved. Every plot twist is painfully predictable and can be seen from a mile away. The writing is painful at times, it takes itself very seriously despite there being zero moral ambiguity or interesting conflict.

The Fire Emblem series rarely puts out a game with a good story. They all follow the same template of war that has been spurred on by dark forces that have manipulated powerful nations. The series would benefit from not relying on this formula for every entry. The games that do have a more memorable story typically deal with real conflict and push the evil dragon narrative to the very end of the game. Take for example Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, which dealt with racism, oppression, and genocide. There were often moments of moral ambiguity as nations that were on your side also committed heinous acts. The characters had to struggle with real issues as opposed to the blanket “good vs evil” plot of Fire Emblem Engage.

It’s disappointing that Fire Emblem Engage does actually have a decent theme, but it’s not apparent until the very end of the game. Family is the driving force in Fire Emblem Engage. Whether it’s the desire to have a family, the drive protect your family, or dealing with the repercussions of your families’ actions, the characters and plot are centered around kinship. Honestly, when I was looking back at the story of Fire Emblem Engage I was shocked that there was a cohesive motif at all. But I am glad that the theme is present. I wish they didn’t wait until the very last seconds of the game to reveal the motivation behind the cast of villains, because it could have made plain evil characters at least a little more empathetic.

The last flaw that I’d like to mention is a weird one in the context of recent Fire Emblem. The user interface. Recent entries in the series have had stellar design in this department and could easily convey tons of information in relatively little space. There’s a lot of stats, abilities, weapons, and so forth that need to be easily understood. Personally, I had some trouble finding specific information that I was looking for. For example, how much SP my character had. Or how much SP it cost to inherit a skill. Or which skills were even inheritable. These are all critical when trying to build a character and I couldn’t find any of this anywhere except for when in the skill inheritance menu which only can be accessed in the ring chamber. It’s not a major issue, but it was odd than a franchise that typically is phenomenal in this department made such obvious mistakes.

I suppose that it is appropriate that a game which celebrates Fire Emblem summarizes the series as a whole. The few games that have a great plot tend to have weak gameplay, and the games which have the best tactical gameplay have embarrassingly bad stories and writing. Fire Emblem Engage has some of the best gameplay in the series. The player and their opposition both have numerous tactical options to leverage, leading to interesting gameplay scenarios. Unfortunately, it was painful to sit through many of the cutscenes and exposition dumps because it was so bland and trope-filled. It is for these reasons that I give Fire Emblem Engage a 7.5/10. If you value tactical gameplay like I do, Fire Emblem Engage is one of the best titles available. If you want a great story to along with it, you will be sorely disappointed.

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