While many are looking to the horizon for Nintendo’s next console, Fire Emblem Engage makes a strong first impression that may just surpass Three Houses.
Fire Emblem may not be one of the first franchises many think of when it comes to Nintendo, but the franchise is certainly seeing a huge increase in popularity. Previously often shackled to the Nintendo 3DS, Three Houses saw the superlative strategic combat married to a social sim-like structure, and after a (great) Warriors-style spinoff with Three Hopes, the franchise is roaring back with Fire Emblem: Engage.
Fire Emblem Engage takes place in Elyos, with each of the corners of the realm representing a kingdom, and the holy land of Lythos sitting at the center. Elyos has been at peace for over a thousand years, thanks to Lumera, a Divine Dragon, and a series of Emblem Rings that were used to battle back against the Fell Dragon.
Those rings were since handed to the kingdoms as part of an armistice (sound familiar?), but as you’d perhaps expect from a strategy RPG, all good things come to an end and the game’s protagonist, Lumera’s only child, awakens just in time for the Fell Dragon’s reemergence. The early hours of Fire Emblem Engage move much faster than those of Three Houses, thanks in no small part to more succinct character introductions.
It also helps that the player character, the new Divine Dragon (or toothpaste-chan, as the internet has coined), is a fully-voiced protagonist. It’s a seemingly small tweak, but gives them much more impact than Three Houses’ Byleth, adding genuine conversation options and new weight to support conversations. The story here gets into the meat of things much more quickly than the last game, too, and while Three Houses took time to hook me, Fire Emblem Engage grabbed me from the very early hours — and I’m hoping for more of the same as it unfolds.
Making friends, getting Engaged
To set expectations in case your first entry in the franchise was Three Houses, while there are still bonds to forge with your cohorts, they’re never quite as front-and-center, at least in the early hours of the game. You’ll gain rapport with your team through fighting together and through short conversations back at the Somniel, Engage’s new social space, but the system is now secondary to Emblems.
Emblem Rings, once acquired, can bestow the power of legendary warriors on the party members that equip them. It’s a great way to acknowledge the franchise’s history, too, because these legendary warriors like Marth, Celia, and Sigurd appear in the Somniel but also have game-changing abilities. Pairing Sigurd’s Emblem with Vander in the early game, for example, can turn the latter into a lethal hit-and-run unit, capable of dealing huge damage and moving after combat.
Once a meter is full, characters holding Emblem Rings can ‘Engage’ (complete with flashy cinematic), and the effect lasts for a limited number of turns. Some characters buff movement, others buff damage, and all have powerful abilities like Celia’s Warp Ragnarok, allowing her to teleport across the map. In the early game, these aids are usually enough to clear half of the enemy forces, but on higher difficulties, it becomes a mechanic to be used sparingly. Thankfully, Engage energy can be found on the map itself, meaning it pays to be mindful of your surroundings and where your turn will end up.
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New year, new battle
Outside of the addition of Emblem Rings, much of Fire Emblem Engage follows a similar format to Three Houses. Its combat remains based around the “weapon triangle”, so lance beats sword, sword beats axe, and axe beats lance. Add in ranged attacks, including spells, and support options, and you’ve got a tactical playbook that’ll look familiar to anyone that’s enjoyed an entry in the series — and indeed, other titles like Triangle Strategy.
Where Engage handily bests its predecessor, though, even in its earliest battles, is the sheer variety of battlegrounds. An early skirmish in Lythos takes place in an interior location suspended over an endless drop, and before you’ve caught your breath it’s time to head to the lush fields of Firene to save a riverside village. It’s endlessly more visually appealing than Three Houses’ more medieval (read: brown) color palette, and Fire Emblem Engage feels much more appropriate for a Switch OLED playthrough than just about any other Nintendo title.
It’s not just Emblem energy that you earn from the ground mid-battle, though, with additional XP bonuses and items available, too. Being able to slay an enemy to earn that much-needed Vulnerary is a huge help, and you can also knock down destructible pathways to allow for new flanking options.
After the battle is done, you’re able to wander through many of the maps in a third-person view to pick up items, adopt pets for the Somniel, and engage in additional conversations with units. With all of the items you can pick up showcased on the map, though, it feels a little like busywork, even if it is a change of pace. I’d rather have had those conversations back at the Somniel, personally.
If Fire Emblem: Three Houses ignited an appetite for Nintendo’s particular brand of tactical RPG, then consider Fire Emblem Engage a must-play. Even from its earliest hours, it’s clear that this is a brighter, more approachable Fire Emblem title that sacrifices none of its tactical depth, and is a great homage to a series that’s finally getting its chance to shine.