Anime JRPG Review Strategy

Fire Emblem Engage – Review

Fire Emblem’s life on the Switch has been a prosperous one, with two solid spinoffs and a beloved mainline entry having made waves. Leading the pack now is an anniversary game that aims to celebrate the series in a big way. Fire Emblem Engage is here to bring us back to the series’ roots in style.

Good Morning, Divine One

You, a figure called the Divine Dragon, awaken from a millennium-long slumber in a world that is unrecognizable. As it turns out, the thousand-year nap took its toll on your memory, and you are left with questions as the world is steadily headed towards warfare. Walking corpses called the Corrupted threaten to cause destruction all over, and a neighboring country threatens to resurrect the Fell Dragon, which caused problems centuries ago. Now, it’s a race to gather items across the land called Emblem Rings to defeat the rival country and put a stop to the Fell Dragon’s rise.

If this sounds like a by-the-books setup, that’s because it is. Fire Emblem Engage, for better or for worse, plays almost all of its predictable plot beats completely straight. If you’ve played your share of Fire Emblem games or fantasy titles, you’ll see every twist and turn the story takes from miles away. In many ways, it works as an excuse to have cool set pieces and battles spread across multiple lands. It’s successful in that sense, and despite the story not having a drop of substance to it, it’s still earnest in its efforts to deliver something satisfying.

It’s far removed from the previous entry, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, where politics and personal character struggles were the cause of its many conflicts. Even that game’s largely gritty and bitter tone is foregone in favor of something a lot more lighthearted and cheery. At times, this can work against Engage in moments where it decides to get serious and other clashing elements harm it. But for the most part, it works as a fun, if highly predictable and somewhat rote fantasy adventure that harkens back to the Fire Emblems of old. That said, it’s very much not a story that is going to please everyone.

Fire Emblem Engage - Marth

A Colorful Army

You’re given a lot of characters to meet and deploy in your army over the course of your trip through the land of Elyos. Like in other games in the series, some will start as allies and others will be your enemies at first. Some will also remain optional and need certain conditions met before they’ll join you. From there, you’ll be able to mold them into whatever role you may need them to fulfill.

Like the story itself, the cast here is a lot more colorful and characterful compared to the relatively grounded writing of Three Houses. This is expressed plainly in both their costume designs and cartoonish interactions. That isn’t to say that the characters don’t have depth, many do, but they do lean hard into the ‘fantasy’ aspect of the story. It rarely plays at being realistic, but I feel that’s largely to the benefit of the whole game. By and large, the cast is good in spite of the mostly predictable story they’re stuck with. I’d argue that they’re what brings things together.

Fire Emblem Engage - Céline

Between maps, you’ll have downtime in your hub area where you and other characters can chat up one another. Through these Support Conversations, you can learn more about them, and even romance a select number of characters. The writing quality of Support Conversations are generally much higher than the main storyline, as they can take on a greater variety of tones and scenarios. Characters who are only relevant in the story for a short while can additionally have the rest of their personalities explored through these. It’s worth doing them if you want to learn more about whomever may interest you in the core cast.

On The Battlefield

Fire Emblem Engage’s strategic combat remains true to the usual mold past games have taken on. With a balanced set of characters at your disposal, it’s your job to clear map objectives safely and efficiently. This can range from defending spots on the map, to routing all enemies, or defeating enemy generals. There are also micro-objectives within some maps such as avoiding ally casualties or defending parts of the map from destruction, which can net you valuable rewards.

Fire Emblem Engage - Battle Map

Strategic character placement and foresight is the key to keeping your characters safe from a bloody end, or a temporary retreat if you play on Casual Mode. Each character and the weapon they wield comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, sometimes minor or major. With this in mind, knowing where to send who and what enemies to prioritize defeating are the two greatest factors in ensuring a smooth victory.

New to this game is the Break mechanic, where exploiting an enemy’s weakness will disable their ability to counterattack for the rest of the phase. It’s a vital mechanic to keep in mind when dealing with enemies who can take a lot of punishment. It feels like a natural extension of the classic Weapon Triangle system, to a point that I’m surprised it hadn’t been thought of until now.

Fire Emblem Engage - Heal Magic

Having played the game on Hard Mode with permadeath enabled, I found the game to be immensely challenging and stressful. Each map is carefully designed around forcing the player to make consistently smart decisions, while also having enough surprises to keep things tense. You can never be too safe in this game, and only through on-the-fly adjustments to strategy can you win without taking any losses. Even with the addition of the Time Stone, an item that lets you turn back time to correct a mistake, it never feels like mistakes aren’t my own.

Emblem, Engage!

The headlining feature for this title is the eponymous Engage system. By equipping rings containing the souls of past Fire Emblem protagonists, you gain access to a bevy of game-changing abilities and attacks. From Marth’s emphasis on speed and evasion, to Sigurd’s extra number of moves per turn, there’s no end to the potential for customization on offer here. Smart play with the Emblems is an absolute requirement to clear out some maps on higher difficulties. 

Mixing and matching Emblems based on units can allow for them to cover up their weaknesses, or make their strong aspects all the stronger. For example, you may want to give someone with an Armored class Sigurd’s Emblem to cover up for their poor movement. Or you could instead give it to a mounted unit, allowing them to go through most of the battlefield in one turn. Figuring out what you might need for a specific map is an important process in ensuring a smooth victory.

Between Battles

There’s a good amount of content to engage in between the main story missions of Engage. Structurally, it most closely resembles Fire Emblem Awakening, where you’re given a world map and can pick whatever contents open up at your leisure. Paralogues, optional mini-stories with new maps, are the main focus. These are pretty much essential on the game’s higher difficulties if you want to stay within the game’s tight level curve, and can unlock new units or items that will prove useful in the long run. You can also partake in Skirmishes, shorter battles on old maps mainly meant to allow you to grind up levels for your party members.

Paralogues related to the Emblems will use remixed versions of maps from past games, coupled with some easter eggs for longtime fans and new music. These are among some of the most difficult maps in the game, so they are not to be taken lightly.

If you don’t feel like battling, you can take part in some minigames at the Somniel, your base of operations. There’s an arena to gather experience points for any floundering units, which is free and painless to use. Several mini-games will give temporary status bonuses, and you can run a small farm with the animals you can adopt over the course of your playthrough. Most of these are extraneous features that act more as time-killers to relax, but I still found them to be charming individually. Fire Emblem Engage is very much a game that values how the player wants to approach the game above all else. 

Graphics and Sound

After every battle, you’re allowed to walk around the battlefield and collect any items or animals you discover. It’s here that the game’s graphics may catch your eye. In short, it’s downright uncanny how much better Fire Emblem Engage looks compared to the series’ previous efforts on Switch. In both environmental detail and especially character models, the game’s presentation is very slick and refined. It’s telling that this is the first game in the series to not use drawn character portraits to tell its story at all, because it doesn’t need it. Everyone looks and animates very expressively.

Attacks pop, characters move quickly but expressively, and everything is presented with real flair. It’s the first time a 3D Fire Emblem game’s visuals have ever left me this impressed. Even though I can turn off attack and movement animations, I was never tempted to because watching them was just so fun. Special props must go to the Critical Hit animations in particular, which use dynamic and fast-moving camera angles to enhance their spectacle.

The CGI movies are also a vast improvement over past titles, with excellent storyboarding and overall direction helping raise the story’s emotional beats. This coupled with excellent voice direction in both English and Japanese makes for a story that is easy to get invested in, despite how shallow the writing is.

Lastly, this game’s soundtrack rocks, literally. There’s a ton of rock, electric, and even techno music that first started to crop up in Three Houses. While the many remixes of past songs are nothing to sneeze at, the new tracks are already among some of my favorites in the series thanks to fantastic instrumentation. Good Fire Emblem music is par for the course, but Engage’s left my head bopping the whole time.

Verdict

As both a celebration of the series’ past and as a Strategy RPG in general, Fire Emblem Engage is masterfully and lovingly made. Though the story left much to be desired, addictive and airtight strategy gameplay kept me easily invested the whole way through. Much-needed enhancements to the presentation and its return to more simplified and straightforward structure make this my favorite outing for the series in a long time.

FIRE EMBLEM ENGAGE IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Purchase: Nintendo Store

If you enjoy Fire Emblem, then perhaps you’d like our review of Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes.

Many thanks go to Nintendo for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.

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