As a huge Smash Bros. fan, I was always familiar with Fire Emblem. Characters like Ike, Marth, and Roy are mainstays in my favorite fighting franchise, but it was only recently that I got into the series. After Byleth joined the roster as a DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I picked up Fire Emblem: Three Houses to see what all the fuss was about (after my disappointment at another Fire Emblem character joining the cast subsided). To my surprise, Fire Emblem: Three Houses was one of the best strategy games I’d played on the Nintendo Switch.
I couldn’t get enough of it. The heartbreaking story and powerful message behind the sensational strategy combat were enough to keep me playing nonstop from the moment the game started until the credits rolled; I’ve been hooked on Fire Emblem ever since.
Naturally, when Fire Emblem Engage got announced, I had high expectations. As the second mainline entry on the Nintendo Switch and the first following the incredible Fire Emblem: Three Houses, does Fire Emblem Engage live up to its predecessor?
Fire Emblem Engage is a strong entry in the Fire Emblem catalog, improving almost every aspect of the series’ strengths. While the story is weaker than that of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there’s a lot to love in this 2023 addition to the acclaimed strategy franchise.
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The Divine Dragon, Alear
A new mainline Fire Emblem means another playable character. This time, you’ll take control of Alear, an immortal with an eternally awful haircut. After 1000 years of slumber, Alear arises in an unfamiliar world. This time, the protagonist suffers from amnesia (surprise, surprise), one of the most overplayed tropes in RPGs.
Hailed as the Divine Dragon, this forgetful deity must gather an army to fight the Fell Dragon, an evil force hellbent on plunging the world into darkness.
What sets Alear apart from Byleth is their active engagement in cutscenes and conversations. While Three Houses’ lead rarely speaks, Alear is fully voiced. I went with the male Alear during my main playthrough, and while I found his voice grating at times, it was nice to have him acknowledge others when they spoke with him.
Welcome to Elyos
Fire Emblem Engage takes place in the mystical world of Elyos. This giant nation has four core realms that comprise the bulk of the map. There’s Firene, a peaceful kingdom filled with lush forests and meadows in the west; Brodia, a mighty nation of warriors hidden in the mountains up north; Elusia, a studious country of scholars sitting in the tundras to the east; and Solm, a matriarchy in the arid deserts of the south.
Each continent has its own cultures, traditions, and climates, making visiting new areas of the story feel fresh and exciting. Moreover, each nation houses would-be allies for The Divine Dragon and its forces.
While these units work closely with Alear, some have established goals they want to achieve along the journey through Elyos, making your party feel alive, even in small conversations. Diamante, for example, wants to be a benevolent ruler to honor his father. On the other hand, Ivy wants to take back her home from enemy forces as a now exiled princess.
The Power of Presentation
One thing players will notice from the moment they turn on Engage are the beautiful cell-shaded graphics. Characters pop with vibrant colors and robust features in both cutscenes and gameplay. Three Houses looked good, but Engage is a cut above, proving once again that stylized graphics are an excellent choice for games on the Nintendo Switch.
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The graphic quality is consistent in Fire Emblem Engage from the intro video until the credits roll. I didn’t have one technical or graphical glitch in my 70 hours of playtime, making it one of the most stable experiences I’ve ever had on the Nintendo Switch. Moreover, the title doesn’t cause the Switch to overheat after long periods of playtime as Three Houses did in 2019.
I often had to stop and admire the game’s appearance, even during optional bond conversations. The world of Fire Emblem Engage was lovingly crafted, and you can see that in every scene or battle you participate in.
Looks aren’t the only thing Fire Emblem Engage has going in the realm of presentation, as the voice acting is potent, memorable, and unique for the dozens of characters in the main story.
Standouts for me this time were Timerra, Fogado, Pandreo, and Panette, with vocal flourishes so energetic I couldn’t help smiling each time they started a fight. Pandreo, for instance, howls after defeating an enemy, and no matter how many times I hear this cry, I never find it tiring.
This isn’t even accounting for the phenomenal soundtrack that Fire Emblem Engage offers, with tense boss themes that got me amped for a tough fight, like Last Engage from Chapter 26 or the serene serenade from The Somniel that compliments its relaxing atmosphere. Engage continues the trend of enthralling music tracks in Fire Emblem games that I can’t thank the composers enough for.
Clever Combat Construction
The battles in Fire Emblem Engage are the main draw of the franchise. Here, you’ll be taking part in turn-based strategy encounters. You’ll have to position your armies and plan how to defeat hordes of enemies without having your units bite the dust. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses you’ll need to plan around.
The combat mechanic in Fire Emblem Engage works like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Swords break axes, axes break lances, and lances break swords. Special classes like martial arts break casters and archers, magic attacks shred armored units, and bows counter fliers. It’s a delicate balance that you’ll need to study and master to succeed in battle.
Depending on your difficulty setting, battle parameters will change. You can rewind combat encounters indefinitely on normal difficulty and rework an unfavorable turn to your advantage. The higher your difficulty is, the fewer rewind charges you’ll get and the more unforgiving enemies will be. Because difficulty options vary so greatly, there’s enough to keep rookies comfortable with Casual Mode and challenge veteran players with the frightening Classic Mode and Hard or Maddening difficulties.
Regardless of your difficulty, though, there are multiple unit types, each with weapon specializations. Mastering these units will be crucial to keeping your teams alive. My favorite unit, Panette, is a Berserker. They can only use axes but brandish immense attack power. You can swap and select the classes for each unit at any time to better suit your playstyle.
Master a Base Class, and you’ll gain access to an Advanced Class with enhanced capabilities. Earn new spells and skills, and gain new weapon proficiencies with these new class choices.
Related: Fire Emblem Engage: Best Advanced Classes for each unit
The freedom to give any of the game’s 35 characters the class of your choice, with some boasting character-exclusive options, provides the player with a nearly unfathomable amount of freedom. You could play this game dozens of times differently during each playthrough, especially when you factor in the enticing new Engage mechanic.
The best addition to Fire Emblem Engage, without question, is the Engage system. Players can summon one of 12 classic Fire Emblem characters with this new mechanic to aid in battle. These heroes of legend fundamentally change how battles play out in Fire Emblem Engage. This makes combat leaps and bounds better than the other systems in the series.
The Engage system is pretty simple: equip an Emblem Ring on one of your active units before a battle begins, and you can merge your character with the corresponding Fire Emblem by pressing Engage from the menu. The Engage status lasts three turns, and once it ends, you’ll need to refill the Engage meter by taking down enemies or resting on a pool of Engage energy somewhere on the map.
After you Engage with an Emblem, your unit gains access to new moves, stats, and weapons exclusive to their ethereal companion. Emblem Ike allows his user to use hammers and axes, raising defense and striking back against enemies with Great Aether, while Emblem Lyn lets users grab one of her bows and fire arrows from up to ten spaces away with Astra Storm.
Emblems also afford unique abilities to their users. Increase your bond with an Emblem via conversations or combat, and you’ll get additional bonuses. The more you use an Emblem, the more skills, passive traits, weapons, and weapon proficiencies become available.
All 12 Emblems come with unique powers and bonuses. Though they all function differently, each has the strength to turn the tide of battle single-handedly, provided they’re used correctly. Finding out what unit works best with each Emblem is up to you, and with over 35 units, there are hundreds of combinations to test out.
Opportunity for Exploration
In between battles, you’ll use an overworld map to explore Elyos. Unlike Three Houses, where you examine a list of locations from a table, Fire Emblem Engage will have players run between points of interest worldwide, accessing story chapters as they see fit.
One of the few issues I had with Three Houses was that there wasn’t much time to do optional combat encounters; a few sprinkled throughout the story, but nowhere near as many as there are in Engage. After each of the game’s chapters, new side encounters open up. These missions are great for trying out a new class for one of your units or grinding a few levels for the next main mission.
There are also Paralogues—missions that let you challenge your Emblems to a fight. Beat them, and you unlock a higher max bond level, gaining access to new skills and weapons. There are 12 unique Emblems to overcome in the base game, each with different strategies and strengths. These fights are varied enough to challenge you and keep things interesting, especially on the higher difficulties.
Somniel: Your Home Away From Home
In between battles, you’ll return to the Somniel, the Divine Dragon’s base of operations. Here, you can participate in a variety of activities. Need new gear? Purchase better items and weapons for your team to use in battle at the shops.
Are you looking to check your bond with the Emblems? Head to the Emblem Chamber, chat with them, clean rings, and inherit new skills. Want to test your party strength? Head to the Battle Tower and take on a series of challenges alone or with friends via online play. There are plenty of practical uses for this base.
Players can also improve their bonds with allies in the Somniel by talking with them, giving them gifts, or eating meals together. Grabbing food with your units also gives temporary buffs for the next battle, making it a valuable tool for combat. Improved bonds grant better synergy in battle, giving these tasks a practical application, but getting to know your army is excellent, considering how well their bonds are fleshed out (more on that later).
Characters even have unique outfits at home; some offer stark contrasts to their battle gear, which is fantastic. If you don’t like the outfits your allies are wearing, buy them some new ones and change their look!
There are additional leisure activities for players to enjoy in Somniel as well. While you visit, you can take a trip to the pond to fish, tend to farm animals for resources, or work out with other party members for buffs.
There’s enough here to keep you busy for hours if you enjoy the activities outside of battle and need a break from fighting. Thankfully, nothing here is mandatory so disinterested players can move on with the game without concern.
Charming Characters, Often Forgotten
While much of Fire Emblem Engage’s cast is strong, only a few members get time to shine. Apart from Alear, Alfred, Diamante, Ivy, and Timerra, few characters appear in the game’s cutscenes. The other 30 characters get a short introduction that lasts about a chapter, but once that ends, you’ll rarely see them outside of optional bond conversations. This isn’t hyperbole, either. If you don’t believe me, check out the intro video, where none of the other playable characters appear.
What’s perplexing about this is that every one of the characters mentioned above, apart from Alear, has younger siblings. After you meet them, they vanish into the aether and don’t exist for many of the game’s major events. Seeing these five standing together during emotional moments with not even the entire royal family involved was comical. Talk about family favorites, right?
It’s a real shame that there isn’t more of the standout members of the cast, like Panette and Pandreo, who I didn’t even know were related until after a dozen hours of them in my party. This isn’t because I wasn’t paying attention to the story; the two don’t have a single scene together in the main story.
Panette and Pandreo share that they are brother and sister in an optional cutscene, where they talk about their formerly abusive and now absent parents. These moments are powerful and impactful in ways the main story rarely is.
You’ll undoubtedly see several moments in the character bond conversations that should have made it into the main game. Almost all of the bond conversations between characters are excellent, and while it’s great that these game scenes are so fleshed out, it’s hard to connect with the side characters unless you do a wide margin of them. It’s also doubtful that you can do all bond routes during your first playthrough, meaning you’ll know little to nothing about some of your cast, even as the credits roll.
Despite most character-specific conversations being fleshed out, the opposite is true for Emblem Bonds. Most characters get a single sentence with their respective Emblems when forming bonds. It feels very shallow, with little change at all three conversation levels. The brief Emblem Bonds are jarring, feeling half-finished and tacked on, making me question whether they were always intended for the game or an afterthought.
Plot Problems Aplenty
Though the combat, characters, and side activities are bountiful and exciting in Fire Emblem Engage, the game wanes in quality during the narrative. The story here is pretty uninspired. Alear must gather all 12 Emblem rings to stop the Fell Dragon, who’s as cookie-cutter a villain as I’ve seen. The Fell Dragon wants to open a portal to another dimension and take over all the worlds in the multiverse. He needs all the rings to complete his plan, so both parties race to get the rings.
While there are a few twists during the story, they’re not as “engaging” (I had to make that joke at least once) as anything its predecessor showed. Even following the plot through all 26 chapters, I was underwhelmed during the story.
I wanted to get past the scenes and get to the next fight, which is the opposite of my experience with Three Houses. I was glued to the screen during Three Houses’ story, but here, I found the overarching story unremarkable at its best. Still, it got me from one excellent battle to the next, so I wasn’t complaining too much.
There are a few standout moments across the plot that I genuinely enjoyed, though, and there’s enough here to keep you invested, especially in the scenes that highlight characters outside the main five.
There were a few moments with gaping plot holes I couldn’t overlook. One such scene saw the enemy getting Emblem rings from the main cast with no explanation other than plot convenience. There’s no mention of him getting these or our party losing them, but the story needs to keep moving, right? These moments won’t stop you from enjoying the game, but they are pretty funny when you catch them.
That’s not to say the story isn’t enjoyable in its own way. I had plenty of fun hunting down the Emblems and guessing which legendary Fire Emblem character we’d meet next. In this regard, Fire Emblem Engage shines. Anything related to these otherworldly heroes, their guardians, and their conversations with the cast is a treat.
Seeing the Emblems interact with each other, recalling iconic moments from their past, or referencing a friend from another time will surely make any Fire Emblem veteran smile. Even with my limited knowledge of the franchise’s earlier entries, I got plenty of callbacks (thanks, Smash Bros.).
Despite a disinteresting narrative and lack of focus on the supporting cast, Fire Emblem Engage is another stellar entry in the franchise. Engage improves in nearly every other aspect. Intuitive strategic gameplay, a loveable main cast, and the fascinating Engage system, which pays homage to previous mainline entries, make this a Fire Emblem any strategy game fan won’t want to miss.
|Fantastic combat design||Lackluster story|
|The Emblem system is enthralling||The stellar supporting cast is wasted|
|Excellent presentation||Emblem Bond conversation system is underdeveloped|
|Highly customizable parties|
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