Fire Emblem Engage is a departure from Three Houses, but an incredible degree of polish and a genuinely affecting story make it an easy recommendation.
It’s not often a game has a breakthrough moment where it hits a whole new audience and then eschews much of what worked for the next in the series. Final Fantasy 7 was a cultural moment, sure, but Final Fantasy 8 still moved away from those characters. The Legend of Zelda’s sequel, The Adventure of Link, moved to a platformer.
Ok, so Fire Emblem: Three Houses might not have been on the level of those seminal works in terms of impact, but as an introduction to the franchise on the Switch, it took over the zeitgeist like no other Fire Emblem game before it. A big part of that was down to its trio of narratives, spawning “best character” votes across the internet.
While Fire Emblem: Three Hopes certainly added an extra layer to that particular universe, Fire Emblem Engage moves in an alternative direction. It’s not just a new set of characters and a new setting, though — it completely sidesteps much of what made Three Houses so memorable. And yet, it’s become my favorite entry of the two.
Fire Emblem: Engage Key details
- Developer: Intelligent Systems
- Price: $59.99 USD / £49.99 GBP / $89.95 AUD
- Release date: January 20, 2023
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Fire Emblem: Engage Trailer
Fire Emblem Engage is set in Elyos, a continent ruled by four kingdoms that have long since buried the hatchet, kicking off a thousand years of peace. That’s thanks to the central region of Lythos, a holy land of sorts, where the Divine Dragon, Lumera, resides.
Lumera fought alongside a series of characters from Fire Emblem’s past, and this roster find themselves attached to Emblem Rings spread throughout the kingdoms to be called upon if the big bad, the Fell Dragon, ever returns.
Players step into the shoes of Lumera’s child, Alear, who has remained dormant for generations. Naturally, the new Divine Dragon’s awakening comes just in time for the Fell Dragon’s own re-emergence.
It’s significantly more setup than offered by Three Houses, and the early hours feel all the better for it as Fire Emblem: Engage moves at a brisk pace. Some early moments feel a little full of exposition, and one early game moment hits harder than it has any right to in the first act.
As much as I love a good JRPG, all too often their narratives tend to wash over me without a second thought. With Fire Emblem Engage, however, I was more invested in my party than I found in Three Houses.
That’s particularly surprising because you won’t be spending quite as much time with the cast here — in the game’s social space, the Somniel, you can attempt some minigames, and hand out gifts (I’m still yet to find what the horse manure is for).
Instead, the characters’ charm comes from the fact that they’re all well-written and acted, and while there are naturally plenty of tropes (just look at the armor designs) and some are naturally more one-note than others, the time I spent with Fire Emblem Engage was some of my favorite storytelling on the Switch so far, and I didn’t really want it to end.
There are plenty of twists and turns throughout, but Fire Emblem’s animated cutscenes easily stand alongside the likes of Persona 5’s (although there aren’t quite as many of them), and while some themes are left undercooked,
While the game has moved away from the more social-sim style of its predecessor, much of the on-field action will be familiar to Three Houses players and series veterans.
Combat follows the same basic format as it usually has — you’ll pick and set up your units, put them on the battlefield, and move and engage with the enemy (no pun intended) in a turn-based affair.
It’s nothing new for the genre, but it’s polished to a mirror-like shine here — character personalities are conveyed through animations, flashy attacks feel suitably weighty, and the removal of the act of moving characters square-by-square (they can no roam freely within their movement range) makes things feel a little more modern.
The Sword/Axe/Lance version of “Rock Paper Scissors” returns, but Fire Emblem Engage’s new mechanic, Emblem Rings, is a game-changer in many skirmishes. As we noted in our preview, being able to merge a member of your party with an iconic Fire Emblem character like Marth or Ike can clear much of the battlefield in the early hours, but in the later hours the limited turn count for using the ability makes it a last-ditch move rather than your first thought.
It helps that Engage puts more of an emphasis on situational awareness, with Emblem Energy, items, and even additional experience from where other players have been slain available to be picked up if you end your turn in the right spot. There are even occasional destructible sections where I was able to crash through a wall to surprise an enemy.
While there are still moments where you’ll get the enemy forces down to a single unit and have to chase them around the map somewhat, for the most part, battles feel perfectly pitched and the difficulty curve is ideal on the standard difficulty – although things do start a little tame.
Crank things up, though, and a single wrong move can spell doom and permadeath for party members. Veterans will certainly love the challenge, but you may lock yourself out of additional quests and dialog by doing so.
Thankfully, every map, both in the main story and in the plentiful side quests, is gorgeous. Much has been said of the Switch’s lack of power, but Fire Emblem Engage is a great showcase both docked and played portable. Whether it’s riverside towns, castles in the holy lands, or laying siege to a fort, there’s always something interesting on each battlefield.
Once you do claim victory, you’re able to roam the big, beautiful maps in a third-person perspective, and while the opportunity to speak to party members is welcome, finding items scattered seemingly at random feels a little like busywork.
We’re still friends, right?
As mentioned earlier, Fire Emblem Engage feels a little bit more focused on the nuts and bolts of the tactics, rather than any real focus on the social side of things.
Sure, you can speak to your party members, and I’d definitely recommend doing so, but much of your interactions play out in short vignettes that buff your links on the battlefield with a nebulous letter-grade.
That means your relationship with Clamme may offer buffs, but Engage isn’t always upfront about explaining what they are, and how powerful they can be.
And yet, I find myself leaning toward Engage’s more straightforward systems than the lengthy, often tedious, time spent at Garreg Mach back in 2019.
The Verdict – 5/5
Fire Emblem Engage feels like a step backward in ways that this writer appreciates. Gone are the lessons, and in their place is a genuinely affecting story with plenty of whimsy and epic tactical conquests.
It’s a great way to kick off the year for the Switch, and also happens to be one of the best-looking games on the platform, too.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.