Fire Emblem: Three Houses was a significant addiction when it launched in 2019. I spent hours of my life focusing on the social aspects of the Garreg Mach Monastery. That year, Fire Emblem was all my colleagues wanted to discuss and how the entry re-energized the series and the SRPG genre. I know I felt that way as it had been quite the stretch that I’d hunkered down and enjoyed the tactical and striking gameplay the series is known for.
Over the years, Fire Emblem has made its own rules and has left us great stories too. Fire Emblem Engage is no exception to that rule. However, it is the first to smartly introduce a way to revisit the past in the present. Nintendo’sFire Emblem Heroes does something different by summoning the heroes into your game while Engage reveals that the Engage rings contain the essence of these heroes with you being able to take their power and use it to save the world.
A shattered dream
Now, Fire Emblem Engage kicks off the new year with one of the mechanically best video games I’ve played in recent memory. While the sequel to Three Houses shifts away from the social aspects previously established, the focus steers into what the series is best known for — brilliant tactical combat. I may not be the most knowledgeable lore expert given the breadth these titles hold but I’ve played enough to know that Fire Emblem’s best-known qualities lie in decimating an opposing force while ensuring your team lives to fight another day.
Playing as Alear, the protagonist who once saved the world from the clutches of the Fell Dragon before falling into a millennium-spanning slumber awakens to a new world. Upon awakening, things are not as they should be and as the hero, you’ll need to pick up your weapons to save the world once again. Fire Emblem Engage’s exciting new mechanic is the Engage rings, items held by neighbouring kingdoms which hold the spirits of heroes from different worlds.
This new mechanic features an accessory capable of summoning heroes from the past, such as Marth, to lend their strength to Alear. One of Engage’s biggest strengths is the way the iconic Heroes integrate into Engage in and out of battle. It’s a story that takes shape from the heroes that revolve around Alear, and it’s just the characters who carry the main story on their shoulders, which can be feeble at times and full of clichés. Its development works along the same lines that place the lineage of the Divine Dragon above all others, but there are events that spice up the conflicts.
Fire Emblem Engage goes back to basics and exceeds at it
It’s good to see new characters intertwining with legends of the past because it’s a natural way to combine modern gameplay with a high dose of nostalgia. The best of it all happens in the midst of a battle with the classic turn-based system and some interesting differences. As usual, we will have to plot out a strategy on a grid to defeat a leader, but the objectives depend on each mission.
Fire Emblem’s always offered rewarding gameplay but that isn’t something the average person might join. The reason I say this is the series is known for its permadeath mechanics (where the loss of units in battle means annihilation) which isn’t something for everyone. Thankfully, newcomers and casual players needn’t worry about this as there are three difficulty levels to choose from — Normal, Hard, and Insane— Fire Emblem Engage also includes both Casual and Classic modes, which respectively prevent or favour the permanent death of units that have fallen in battle. Bearing in mind that battles will and do challenge you, Intelligent Systems added a Time Crystal to help alleviate some of the shame of defeat. I say this with all the goodwill I have but Fire Emblem Engage will upset you at times but in the best way possible. Thankfully, the Time Crystal lets you rewind time to previous moves you’ve made and it makes your time in Elyos bearable on harder difficulties.
While the basics of combat have not changed significantly, retaining for instance the top-down view necessary to be able to read the entire terrain and correctly position one’s units, it should be said that the developer has intervened slightly on the weapon triangle system — the system based on the morra (sword beats axe, axe beats spear and spear beats sword) — we also call it rock, paper, scissors today.
Attacking an opponent with the right killing unit this turn allows you to inflict Breaks and disarm the selected target, denying them the ability to counterattack for the rest of the turn and making it easier to eliminate them. It’s a solution that I appreciate quite a bit and one that adds an extra layer of depth to the series, ensuring you pay attention to your next move. What’s more, Alear and their allies aren’t the only ones who can use Break to leave their opponents defenceless, so be on the lookout for the enemy’s attempt to disarm and engage you, but be wary because, with one false step, things will go south real quick leaving you to pay dearly for the misstep.
No less important in Fire Emblem Engage is learning to mind your surroundings and use the terrain to turn the tide of battle, with several maps presenting environmental obstacles to be destroyed or circumvented — things like quicksand need to be sidestepped or you’ll have units deal with restricted movement, use a torch to illuminate the battlefield, or find a breakable barrier and get the one-up on enemy forces. You can even use shrubbery to ensure victory and it’s easily the best the mechanics have ever felt for the series.
However, my favourite addition to Fire Emblem is the Emblem rings, each one offering you the chance to fight alongside some of the most iconic Fire Emblem characters from the series including Celica, Lucina, or Ike. Once associated with party members, not only do they grant bonuses to basic stats, but they also allow them to use the Engage command, a temporary buff activates for several turns while granting access to special weapons and attacks.
Engage Attacks are powerful abilities that can only be used once before a cooldown kicks in and the effect of which varies depending on the bound spirit — while Marth’s Lodestar Rush consists of a series of lightning-fast attacks that inflict enormous damage, Celica’s Warp Ragnarok gives its user the ability to teleport to a nearby square and strike an enemy with powerful magic, while Sigurd’s Override is a full forward charge. Then there are Engage Attacks that have a supporting function, such as Micaiah’s Great Sacrifice, which after is used to restore full HP to allies. Learning how to extract the usefulness from each of the Emblem rings can lead to turning even the most desperate situations upside down. While Synchro Skills improve things like dodging and allowing movement even after completing an attack or mitigating some of the damage received after an exchange of blows onto the enemy, Engage Skills to bestow extra attacks, increase movement speed, and can even extend the range of magic weapons and their area of effect.
The most interesting aspect of the Emblem rings, however, is the freedom of associating the Emblem rings with any member of the party — the story clearly features canonical bearers, but you’re free to give them to different characters. And you’ll want to do this because, once the bond between the hero and its party member has been strengthened, you are free to spend its Skill Points to inherit Engage Abilities permanently.
A traditional rock-paper-scissors combat system
I mentioned that Fire Emblem Engage may have done away with the social aspects of Three Houses, but not entirely. While we’re no longer in Garreg Mach Monastery, we do have a hub that houses your party and serves as a base. Enter The Somniel, a floating island where you can manage your team and yes, socialize with your teammates. While it never reaches the same levels as Three Houses, there are things you can partake in including fishing and cooking, training units in the Arena, and some minigames like the Wyvern ride.
There are several optional exercises too, and you even have your own bed chamber to retire to at night. In general, it’s great being able to see your team gathered together while going about their day. However, the most important room is the Ring Chamber, a place where, in addition to inheriting skills from heroes to our units, you can forge Bond rings. Similar to Emblem rings, these rings are used in the same way but are imbued with the spirits of minor characters from Fire Emblem. Also, you can polish rings which, increases your bond with the hero and your party member.
Something worth checking out once you unlock is the Tower of Trials, a place where Fire Emblem Engage’s multiplayer exists. There are a few modes worth checking out once you hit this point including the sometimes frustrating Relay Trials. Participating in the trials requires a Relay Ticket and you only receive one every 24 hours. Once you’ve done this, you have two choices — start a new trial or join in on an existing one. The idea is to take turns defeating enemies on the battlefield in a set number of turns before passing the battle on to the next player, who then does the same until all enemies are defeated. If you’ve ever played an asynchronous multiplayer game before, the hardest part is waiting for the other person to make their move. In some battles, it is easier to keep things flowing but when paired with a player who agonizes over every move they make, it becomes a waiting game at that point.
You can also dive into Outrealm Trials in the Tower of Trials. Essentially you create your own map where you can place units and terrain to prevent your opponent from getting the drop on you. I didn’t really find myself engaging with this mode as it struggles to differentiate itself, paling in comparison to the campaign maps.
Lastly, Tempest Trials offer wave battles, with rewards increasing the higher difficulty level you tackle. The higher your difficulty level goes, the more despicable enemies become, making them a nuisance and offering some of the toughest challenges in Fire Emblem Engage.
Fire Emblem Engage may not share the same ingredients as Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but it is far more impressive and palatable because of its finely-hone mechanics. If anything, Engage is a celebration of the series and the perfect starting point for newcomers who may want to engage with the series. While its story may not be bigger than its predecessor, it makes up for it in almost every other way.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]