The best Fire Emblem in the last decade.
Fire Emblem Engage is both a celebration of the franchise’s history and an exciting evolution on the series’ formula, managing to deliver the best of both worlds. There’s plenty of fanservice referencing the series’ more than thirty years of history with classic characters, maps, and gameplay mechanics that harken back to the best memories of your favorite Fire Emblem game. There are also bold new reworks and innovations to mainstay mechanics that drive the tactical gameplay forward to new heights. Engage may not quite be everything I wanted it to be, but I think it’s easily a new high bar for what a modern Fire Emblem can be.
Fire Emblem Engage tells the story of the Divine Dragon, a character whose name and gender you can choose that is canonically named Alear. After a thousand-year slumber, Alear wakes up with amnesia to a world on the verge of war with worshippers of the ancient Fell Dragon. In order to prevent the Fell Dragon’s return, Alear must gather the twelve Emblem Rings—artifacts of substantial power carrying the spirits of heroes from other worlds—and travels the land to find them before they can fall into the wrong hands.
This story isn’t particularly unique—it has a lot in common with Fire Emblem Awakening, which was already pretty derivative in itself—but it gets the job done well enough and gives us the chance to meet a cast of characters from all corners of the world who bounce off of each other in compelling and entertaining ways. The main story may be simple, but Fire Emblem Engage has one of my favorite casts in the franchise, with a number of characters that are fleshed out very well in support conversations.
Some personal favorites of mine include the party animal Pandreo, who earnestly dedicates his life to leading the church his parents abandoned; the former assassin Yunaka, who puts on an over-the-top goofball facade as she tries to leave her violent past behind her; and the child merchant Anna, who dreams up big entrepreneurial schemes while concealing her fear and anxiety over being separated from her family. The only characters I didn’t find something to love about were the ones that simply didn’t stay in active duty long enough to unlock their support conversations.
Of course, Fire Emblem isn’t just a game about characters; it’s also about tactical RPG strategy, which is where Engage really manages to shine. I talked at length about the details in my preview two weeks ago so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but a total rework of the series’ staple weapon triangle goes a long way into encouraging aggressive tactics that raise the stakes of each battle, and powerful Emblem Rings representing heroes from previous games add a new layer of risk and reward to combat. The map design is also fantastic, often encouraging you to split your army into two smaller teams that can tackle separate obstacles at once, which led to me putting a lot of thought into which units synergized well in a coordinated strike force.
Even the fanservice leads to compelling gameplay as Fire Emblem Engage features throwback maps to chapters from previous games. These maps will obviously bring back memories to longtime fans, but the twists they offer to gameplay will make them worthwhile even for players who don’t recognize them. Every throwback map goes out of its way to replicate the feeling of its original context, whether it’s protecting the crest stones in Three Houses’ Holy Tomb, desperately defending choke points in Radiant Dawn’s Nox Castle, or getting one-hit killed by ludicrously overpowered ballistae on a bridge crossing the River Thracia. Even though these maps are technically reused content, they add a whole new layer of variety to the game that make for some of the most memorable tactical problems in all of Engage.
If there is one thing that disappoints me in Fire Emblem Engage, it’s that I’m starting to feel a bit disillusioned with the current split between Classic and Casual modes. The casual mode that disables permadeath and the time crystal that allows you to rewind turns and rethink your strategy are welcome features that have done a great deal to make Fire Emblem approachable to more players, but as an older fan of the series I can’t help but feel like the Classic mode is turning into a bit of an afterthought. As the franchise has pivoted towards investing in units and keeping them regardless of any setback, there hasn’t been any innovations in providing a classic experience that encourages players to keep playing through mistakes and adapt to changing circumstances.
I often wish Fire Emblem would implement a ‘wounded’ system where units are merely taken away temporarily, but even the simple option to adjust the number of rewind charges on higher difficulties—which is locked into the maximum number that was available at the end of Three Houses from the very beginning of Engage—would make me feel like the classic experience was at least something the developers were thinking about. Instead after making a mistake on classic mode we’re left to choose between two extremes, either removing a character and their personal story from the game entirely, or turning back time (either through a full reset or literal rewind) to completely erase a mistake from existence. It’s a great thing that Fire Emblem has options for players that want to mitigate the consequences of their mistakes, but I’m disappointed that players who actually want to deal with those consequences have not received any innovations to match since the series began over thirty years ago.
Fire Emblem Engage may not be my dream game, but it is still a damn good Fire Emblem game. The worst parts of it are merely okay, and the best parts of it paint a bright picture for the future of the franchise. I have never played a game quite so ravenously, sinking over ninety hours into my first playthrough in just two weeks (though don’t get too intimidated by that number, it counts all of my resets from playing on Hard difficulty, and I also played all fifteen optional chapters). At the end of it all I didn’t feel exhausted or burnt out, but rather like I somehow wished that I could play for even longer. Fire Emblem Engage may not check every box that fans were hoping for, but it is easily the strongest showing for the series in the last decade.