The most exciting Fire Emblem in a decade.
Fire Emblem Engage feels a bit like it snuck up on me. Only about three months passed between its original announcement and the game arriving in my hands, and I feel like I learned very little about it in that time. That meant that I was going into the game relatively blind, and I’m happy to say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I have been playing this game non-stop since I received it and I’m confident now that this is the best I’ve felt about a new Fire Emblem game in the last decade.
The first thing I want to talk about—which is also the thing I’ve seen people online be the most hesitant about—is the Somniel: Engage’s equivalent to Garreg Mach Monastery from Three Houses. In Three Houses I felt like the classroom-focused gameplay of the monastery was a bit too intrusive, largely being a rote and monotonous task that lost its appeal long before the game ended but was too essential for your units’ long-term growth to be ignored. In contrast, Engage’s Somniel is mercifully skippable while also being much clearer about its immediate benefits. Rather than focusing on long-term growth that becomes evident hours into the game, the minigames on the Somniel provide temporary bonuses to your units that immediately affect your next battle. If you participate in the exercise minigame then you’ll receive a minor stat buff for the next battle, and stopping by the kitchen for dinner gives a special healing item that’s a little better than a standard vulnerary. It’s a good balance that makes the side activities clearly worthwhile, but they aren’t so necessary that you’ll feel like you’re missing out by ignoring them.
But Fire Emblem Engage isn’t just a game about mitigating its predecessors’ weaknesses; it also showcases a number of innovations to gameplay to bring a new twist to combat. The biggest change by far is the complete overhaul of the weapon triangle, which has returned after a brief absence in Three Houses. The basic concept of the weapon triangle is the same as ever—swords have an advantage against axes, axes have an advantage against lances, and lances have an advantage against swords—but what that advantage means has drastically changed. In past games, weapon advantage would give a boost to your stats that meant you were more likely to hit your target and do a little extra damage. Those stat changes have been completely replaced by a new status effect called Break.
Attacking an opponent with advantage applies Break, which completely prevents them from counter-attacking until their next turn. This means that any unit, regardless of their own strength, can attack the afflicted target without any fear of retaliation, giving a big incentive to act more aggressively in battle. The flip side of this coin is that it’s now substantially more dangerous to sit and wait for the enemy to come to you since they have equal opportunity to apply Break to your own units as well. The strongest units can be put into a bad situation after being Broken, so you’ll need to be careful of putting yourself into a spot where the enemy can take advantage of you.
And enemies will absolutely take advantage of you; enemy AI appears to be much smarter this time around than ever before. As early as the very first battle of the game, I was surprised to watch an enemy unit that was already right next to me carefully reposition itself to make sure it was standing in terrain that let it evade my attacks more easily before it attacked me. This is something that I’ve never seen AI in Fire Emblem be smart enough to do before. Aside from smart positioning the AI would also always make sure to capitalize on my mistakes; it would inflict Break first when swarming my units, and it would always go out of its way to target any unit that could possibly be killed in that turn—even if that enemy in particular had no way of dealing the killing blow. Even with the generous rewind function that is now standard in Fire Emblem, I often found myself restarting entire chapters from the beginning because I wasn’t confident that my strategy was going to work out anymore. I should note that I exclusively played on Hard difficulty, so I can’t vouch for whether the AI will still be as smart on Normal, but I was more than happy to get the challenge I was looking for and then some.
Engage also brings innovations that aren’t quite as subtle with the introduction of Emblem rings. Emblem rings take the form of protagonists from previous Fire Emblem titles, acting as a personified piece of equipment that grants stat boosts and extra skills to your units. Each Emblem fills a different niche in battle, such as Radiant Dawn’s Micaiah giving powerful healing abilities, and Genealogy of the Holy War’s Sigurd granting ludicrous mobility to any unit. Emblems grant some passive abilities to their users at all times, but their strongest skills are limited to when you Engage with them.
Engaging with Emblems merges your unit with the Emblem, giving them a fancy costume change and legendary weapons from the Emblem’s original game. Engaging with Emblems is extraordinarily powerful, and it will often be your ace in the hole to take out the game’s most difficult foes. The balancing factor that keeps Emblems from being too strong is the cooldown they have after the Engage runs out. After being depleted the Engage meter can only be recharged through active combat (or through healing for clerics), so simply hanging back and waiting for the Engage meter to recharge won’t be an option. If you want to Engage with your Emblems regularly you’ll need to make sure your units are getting a healthy balance of combat each turn—and the faster you want to recharge a unit’s meter, the more danger you’ll need to put them in. Overall, Fire Emblem Engage skews the risk/reward calculations you’ll be making to favor aggressive tactics where you take on your opponents head on, which is exactly what I think a strategy game should do.
In addition to the major Emblems you can Engage with, there are also minor Emblem rings representing side characters from past games that can be obtained through a gacha system. These Emblems cannot be Engaged with and offer much smaller advantages in battle, but they’re worthwhile enough to at least make sure you have one on each unit. Duplicate minor Emblems can be merged together to create rings of higher rarities that offer greater stat boosts, and some S-tier rings even offer unique skills that you can’t get anywhere else. Unfortunately in this pre-release era where there isn’t any information about these rings online, it felt like I was taking a huge gamble every time I decided to merge some rings together. There’s no way to know which S-tier rings have unique skills, so every time I spent substantial resources to get an S-tier ring only to end up with a dud, it felt like a complete waste of time. This should be much less frustrating when I can just check a fanmade wiki to know which rings are worth investing in, but without that information you’re better off just relying on the whims of random gacha pulls.
The one part of Engage I think is most likely to disappoint people is its main story. The plot is fairly straightforward and spends little time on worldbuilding. It’s reminiscent of the old GBA games where the writing received little focus, and characters often act with little more motivation than simply following the script. If you enjoyed the fact that Three Houses had enough lore to fill a textbook you probably won’t be happy with how underwritten things feel. It’s honestly a shame because Engage’s cast of characters is one of my favorites in the entire franchise. The support conversations in this game go a long way towards fleshing out units from multiple angles, and almost every character has more interesting things going on than the single anime trope that defines them.
This is best seen with the recurring character Anna, who has been reimagined as a child separated from her family. She’s still motivated by money at heart, and her interests are focused on business strategies and marketing, but she also struggles with the anxiety of being separated from her family, and often speaks up about how she resents being treated like a child. The silly trope that defines her may be the same as ever, but it’s been used as a foundation to build a more interesting character instead of just being the entire character like in previous games. The entire cast seems to have gotten this amount of care and focus, and the only characters I didn’t find something to love about were the ones that I simply didn’t keep on the battlefield long enough to unlock support conversations for.
There’s so much more I wish I could say about Engage, but there’s also so much I’m not able to talk about in a limited preview. From the very beginning of the game I was utterly taken in by how much I was enjoying it, and that energy has not let up. It remains to be seen if I still feel as good about it when it comes time for my final review, but for right now I’m more excited about Fire Emblem than I have been in a long time.