Move. Attack. Wait. With such a simplistic loop, why is it that Fire Emblem has stuck around for so long? Three decades of tactical gaming building up to Fire Emblem Engage have only seen the series grow in stature and renown, rather than fade into the grid-based background. Arguably, it’s the personal touch. Long before the series discovered friendships and romance there was already a deep bond between the characters and players, forged by the brutal reality that a permanent death could come for them at any time. It was your job to protect them, a role so engaging and involving that you’d turn off your console and start a level all over again rather than lose one unit. While many things have changed for the series, this bond steadfastly remains.
Fire Emblem Engage puts engagement in its title, and you’re literally going to spend the game putting a ring on it. That’s a very literal connection, with the core adventure centred on the Emblem Rings. These contain the spirits of previous Fire Emblem heroes, starting with the original game’s Marth and taking a jewellery-based journey through some of the series’ most iconic characters, granting the bearer the ability to merge with these heroes and gain immense power as they do.
This connection, both to the series’ past and between the characters is one of the things that’ll make Fire Emblem Engage mean that much more to fans, with an almost Pokémon-esque feel to the collecting and levelling of these integral additions to your party. Players can chop and change rings between characters and as your pairings achieve deeper bonds they can permanently learn skills from the hero in the ring. This gives you the opportunity to forge unstoppable characters while finding the best match-ups, and it’s one of those things that’ll keep you worrying over the menus late into the night.
The rest of Engage’s roster bear all the hallmarks of Fire Emblem’s commitment to character, and as with Three Houses you’re seeing a more diverse selection, especially in terms of gender and sexuality. They’re a thoroughly likeable bunch to spend time with, at times forthright and focused, and at others goofy and playful. Altear, the player character, is a bit whiny at times, and that’s exacerbated by the male English dub, but they’re kind and committed enough that you’ll let it go.
You really get to know everyone as the relationships built on the battlefield extend to the Somniel, and you can participate in conversations that deepen the bond or alternatively lavish them with suitable gifts – just be wary of who you give the horse manure to. Framme, your opening healer who’s also a mean martial artist, remained a favourite thanks to her positive outlook, while Alcryst, a prince from one of the kingdoms, is utterly endearing as he attempts to grovel his way out of every situation.
Engage’s story is pretty typical for the series, mixing political machinations with dragons, magic and immense evil. You’re the Divine Dragon, a hallowed hero who’s spent the last 1000 years asleep, and it soon becomes obvious that the only reason you’ve woken up is that everything is about to go wrong. You’re initially tasked with collecting the Emblem Rings, but you soon find that the Fell Dragon, a big bad that you put down a millenia ago, is making a comeback. Returning fans of Three Houses and Fates may lament the loss of multiple storylines to choose between, a feature that had become core to the series, but this makes Engage more approachable and revives the original games’ singular focus, while avoiding the potential plot holes that spring up amongst multiple routes.
Fire Emblem’s tactical gameplay – built upon the basic choices of move, attack, wait – hasn’t changed a huge amount since its inception and that’s undoubtedly a good thing, but Intelligent Systems have made quality-of-life improvements to keep the game feeling fresh. They’ve mildly altered the weapons triangle, so attacking an enemy that has a weapon that has a weakness to your own now results in them being broken. This cancels their ability to counterattack, and allows another character to follow up without any fear of reprisal. Engage does a great job of indicating when these things will happen thanks to small icons above a character’s head, making tactical decisions that much clearer to come to.
The other major change is, of course, the Emblem Rings, and these imbue their holders with nigh-on god-like powers. Intelligent Systems has avoided the very real danger that when the characters merge with their ring-based buddy they become utterly overpowered by limiting the extent to which you can use this, forcing you choose when to unleash this force.
The battlefields feel more expansive than ever before, and at times the number of enemies that are thrown your way can be overwhelming. It never feels insurmountable though, at least on the standard difficulty, and if you do make a misstep you have the option of rolling time back – as long as you’re in possession of the crystal that does this.
For fear of losing a character I still had to resort to the tried and tested method of turning the console off and starting again – something I’d thought the series had left behind – and while it was brief, and is likely to annoy people who’ve not spent thirty years doing it, I loved the wave of nostalgia it brought with it. You can forget all about it if you’re playing on Casual mode, where characters return at the end of each battle, but for me, it’s not Fire Emblem if you can’t experience that sense of loss and danger.
Whether you’re living on the edge or not, Fire Emblem Engage is the best-looking and best-performing game in the series, with fantastic anime-styled visuals that really pop, especially during the dramatic cutscenes. There’s no hint of the slowdown that has cursed the third-person sections for years, and the Somniel is a beautiful headquarters that rewards exploration, expanding as you progress with all sorts of distractions that include fishing, push-ups and dragon riding. There’s even the option of adopting a range of pets during your adventures, as well as caring for Sommie, a weird cartoon dog/cat/thing that you can dress up in a little top hat. These amusements don’t feel frivolous or needlessly time-consuming, managing the balancing act for downtime perfectly.