After the major success that was Fire Emblem: Three Houses, whichever entry became the next in the franchise would have a tall task ahead of it. How do you improve on a game that so effortlessly blended the turn-based strategy of FE with the relationship-building mechanics and branching story beats of what some consider to be the franchise's magnum opus? The answer, it seems, is Fire Emblem Engage, which eschews a lot of that extra relationship stuff in favor of a more streamlined, "traditional" FE experience. Is it better? Is it worse? Honestly, it's somewhere in the middle.
Engage follows the story of Alear, the child of the "Divine Dragon" that saved the world from ruin one thousand years prior to the start of the game. Alear awakens from a deep slumber, but just as they are getting their bearings and adjusting to the new world around them, nefarious forces attack and the adventure progresses from there.
Without diving into deep spoiler territory, the story is rife with twists and turns, most of which fall into predictable territory. That said, there is only one prevalent storyline to follow – as opposed to Three Houses and its branching, multiple story beats – so keeping up with the twists isn't as daunting as it sounds. I personally appreciate the more streamlined main story approach here in Engage, though I wish that story made more sense in some areas.
Combat is classic Fire Emblem: all characters in a battle appear on a grid, and you can move each of your fighters a certain amount of spaces before attacking, using an item, or wait for the next turn. The rock-paper-scissors approach to weaponry returns, as do long-range outliers like bows and magic spells. Everything that makes the core Fire Emblem experience what it is appears here, and it's done incredibly well to boot. Battles are tense – especially if you're one of those permadeath players (I am not) – and the action flows just as I'd hoped it would.
There is a social element to the game as well: the Somniel, a massive castle in the sky that serves as a hub world between missions. I can speak with my soldiers, ready equipment for the next battle, and even check in with the Emblems whose rings I've acquired, but other than that there's not a whole lot going on here. The Somniel is fine, but ultimately it feels inconsequential.
Engage's unique gameplay element is the Emblem Ring, an item that lets the wearer summon a famous face from Fire Emblem's past for assistance in battle. Marth from the original game, Celica from Fire Emblem Echoes, Lyn from FE6, Sigurd from FE4, and more are found throughout the game, with each one offering unique attacks and equipment to the wearer. The longer a character wears a certain Emblem Ring, the higher each character's affinity for one another will rise, which opens up even more options in battle.
When I first used the Emblem Ring, it seemed like a pretty transparent gimmick. "Equip this item and summon the Fire Emblem All-Stars" felt like, on the surface, something about the game didn't fill the dev team with a lot of confidence. However, the more I played around with Emblem Ring loadouts and the more powerful I became with them, I began to see how effective a tool this is in battle. Emblems helped me win battles I should have lost more than once, making the extra layer of strategy they create pay off multiple times throughout a playthrough. I also appreciate how the Emblems are involved in – and directly impact – the overall story, though again I wish that story didn't repeatedly stray into bizarre territory.
Leveling up the rings is super easy too, with each ring having 10 levels before unlocking a special challenge. Completing the challenge lets the ring level up to 20, which turns these otherwise ordinary side quests into something much more meaningful. I like how the game threw this extra challenge in there, as simply building each ring to its max level without a challenge might make the rings seem more ordinary, and not the special game changers that they are meant to be.
Unfortunately, where the game tends to suffer is that, while all of these systems work and allow for fun to be had, they get repetitive, even bordering into stale territory, very quickly. I have never been as happy to see a save screen in my life as I was after some of the chapters in this game, and that is never a good thing. The chapter-based format gives clear places to take breaks, which is fine, but a game like Fire Emblem ought to be striving for a "just one more battle, just one more battle" reaction from its players, and that did not happen with me. In bite-size chunks, Engage is great, but marathoning it takes a lot of willpower that I did not always have.
Despite my fatigue at playing the game, I never did get bored of looking at it. Fire Emblem Engage is a gorgeous game, particularly through its use of bright, vibrant colors. Alear is one of the most visually interesting characters the franchise has ever produced, while the wispy looks of the Emblems matched with the rest of the characters on-screen makes for some very cool effects. When you couple that with anime-quality cutscenes and Engage is a true visual stunner, which is even more shocking considering the hardware is approaching its sixth birthday.
Fire Emblem Engage has a lot of great elements, from its striking visuals to the classic Fire Emblem turn-based strategy gameplay. The story being told, however, does not live up to the bar set by other games in the series, while some battles drag on to the point where I'm fighting off a nap just as hard as I'm fighting the enemy armies. I enjoy the game in spurts, but before long I find myself wondering when I can stop engaging with this Fire Emblem. There's enough here to enjoy Fire Emblem Engage, but only the most dedicated will be able to see this through to the end.