Booting up Fire Emblem Engage for the first time, I was a little apprehensive. After thoroughly enjoying Three Houses and indeed, Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, the lines between the two genres felt like they could be about to blur. But within minutes my fears slid away, because Engage is a Fire Emblem game through and through, and in many ways, feels a bit like a greatest hits.
The “Engage” subtitle plays more of a role than the usual Fire Emblem title that underpins the story (Awakening, Three Houses, etc). Here, it’s both deep rooted within the story, but also the newest and most interesting mechanic. The story of Engage is played out by a new cast of characters, but the “greatest hits” aspect comes in the form of using “Emblem Rings” to summon in Emblem characters from the past. Alear, the male or female (your choice) protagonist of Engage can summon these Engage characters, and once that’s done, they can share the ring with a fellow party member who can bond, and engage with them as well.
The only one I’ll mention for now is the first of these Emblem Rings, which summons Marth to your side. The idea here is that Marth enhances your capabilities with passive and active buffs, but also special moves relating to his character. You can probably already imagine the depth this sort of thing offers, and the heroes from past games that aren’t just sword-based that could change battles in your favour. Initially once “engaged” you can stay that way for three turns, so there is no urgency to use the special move, but it is a tactical decision, though you can replenish your Engage meter by landing on specially designated slots on the maps, and thus re-engage for another go around.
But that’s really just the start of things. As you make use of your engaged hero, you grow with a bond level. Each level will add a new buff, whether it’s +2 strength, or a passive ability, and after level 5 you can inherit these skills. This means that, should you choose to, you can go and use some of the in-game currency to add Marth’s bond skills to Alear, while moving the actual ring to another Engage character, and start building up their bond, and thus, their skills as well. It’s complex to explain but easy in practice, and adds yet another layer to the tactical combat on offer throughout what I’ve played so far. What it means in practice is that there is seemingly an endless wealth of stats to play around with based on how you mix and match your party, but also your Emblem Rings.
Of course there’s a whole “RPG” element akin to Three Houses present here, but I’m pleased to say that from what I’ve played so far, it’s quite streamlined. In fact, that’s something that can be said of the entirety of my time with Fire Emblem Engage so far. Whereas pretenders to the throne have copied the tactics-based gameplay before, with all the animations of battle, and tried to improve it, often they include x2 speed up options, and more. Engage doesn’t need to (so far) because everything is snappy and fast.
For instance, when you action an attack, the camera zooms from the top down perspective directly into the action, and back out again when complete. But if you do want to speed it up, tap the B button and the animation will be skipped and you’re back to the tactics screen. Likewise, hit “Start” on the enemy turn and it can skip the entire turn, getting you back to the action. I wouldn’t recommend this aside skirmishes or optional battles, but it’s always a good option to have. Of course, if you want to, it’s an option to automatically skip these animations entirely, and make it just that top down tactics game, but I suspect people won’t do that, because the game looks so good.
Elsewhere, all the information you need is on the same screen now. In a battle you can see your stats, and nothing is buried beneath reams of menus. Accessibility seems at the forefront for Intelligent Systems with Engage, and once again this is why it feels like a combination of everything good the series has done beforehand, at least so far. The combat is so tight and it’s as glorious as ever. Getting a crit still amounts to one of the best feelings in a game I’ve ever had, but everything feels honed to perfection. There are few games that channel that tactical feeling of playing Chess without, you know, actually playing Chess, but Fire Emblem is one such experience, and there’s no doubt in my mind that if Fire Emblem Engage can stick the landing and continue in this vein, it’ll likely be the best the series has to offer yet.
Before I head back to playing it, I do want to offer up something that truly took me by surprise: this game is gorgeous. From the character designs and animations, cut-scenes, to the colourful battle arenas: it’s not what you expect from Fire Emblem in some ways. There’s a sheen to the vibrant art design that feels like it’s on a higher plane than usual, and after playing a game like Pokemon Scarlet, Engage almost feels next-gen, thanks to the vibrancy of the aesthetic, and the amount of fully voiced dialogue. With a soundtrack that’s been stuck in my head too, really all that’s left to say is I can’t wait to play more, and this feels like it could be the perfect game to hide away from 2023’s dark winter months with, and dare I say it, this could perhaps be the best Fire Emblem title ever.
Fire Emblem Engage is coming to Nintendo Switch on January 20th, 2023. Check out our full 2023 release calendar.