Fire emblem turned 30 years old in 2020, but you could be forgiven for thinking about his latest entry, Enable fire emblem, as a belated celebration of the 30th anniversary. It has that kind of wild festive energy; a Fire Emblem game with a little bit of everything, plus the kitchen sink, and then some. That approach to development has positives and negatives in almost equal measure – but it’s nevertheless hard not to be enamored with what Engage offers as a sprawling package.
As a series, Fire Emblem is quite similar in structure to things like Final Fantasy and Persona, in that each game tends to be a relatively closed affair. There are crossovers, and very occasionally there are direct sequels, but for the most part each game is self-contained, connected primarily by strategic RPG mechanics that are tweaked in each game and flavored with unique gimmicks. Such is the case with Engage, but with the fan service for the series’ past both voluminous and streamlined at the same time. As contradictory as that may seem.
For this title, the gimmick is called the Engage System, and this titular mechanic is also the main channel through which this title’s nostalgia flows. Specifically, it involves equipping “Emblem Rings,” special items that more or less contain the essence and consciousness of past heroes from each of the past Fire Emblem adventures. Emblem characters cannot exist on the battlefield as separate units, but each character can jump onto a particular character’s ring and thereby gain skills, weapons, abilities, and a general upgrade, both passively and when you ‘Engage’ with the ring, where the equipment and the emblem merge into a super-powered state.
The 12 launch decals and the fact that they can be equipped on a wide variety of Engage’s traditional suite of new Fire Emblem units leads to a surprisingly strong new layer of depth in the game’s mechanics, and overall this is actually the most strategically meaty Fire Emblem in a while. But more than that, it actually gives this Fire Emblem something very unique and remarkable in the pantheon of the series within its combat system. Other recent Fire Emblem games have distinguished themselves by systems outside of combat. However, Engage is eager to flex his SRPG muscles.
Nostalgia can often be a bit of a conceptual meringue in a series of this age, but here it’s put to good use. Yes, it’s exciting to see the likes of Marth, Ike, Lyn or even Lucina again – but it’s also just as exciting to experiment with how they can deploy their skills on the battlefield – and by whom. Each decal has some really powerful abilities, although the number of times they can be used is limited – meaning you have an interesting strategic dilemma as to when to use them and also who each ring should be equipped for.
It’s good strategic RPG stuff and a potent dose of nostalgia. But it also comes with a price – and it’s in an area that might disappoint fans of the last major title in the series, the mega-hit Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The story is just… not that good.
I think a lot of this has to do with the structure of the game. The character-building ‘Paralogues’ are now largely focused on the Emblems, taking players on nostalgic tours where the Emblems briefly relive battles from their past and from games fans will remember, including remixed music and recreated battle maps. Initially, as a riveting dose of nostalgia, this is brilliant – until you realize it’s partly at the expense of Engage’s original characters and world.
This coupled with the game’s decision to give you a fairly aggressive stream of new fighters, who have leveled up and are ready to take on the next story mission, means you’ll feel less pressure to spend a lot of time with the new cast of characters. Moving to get to know them better, many feel relatively sparsely characterized, with little of the nuance found in Three Houses. Yeah, Three Houses was anime stuff. No denial. But it was that with surprising depth. Engage is much less so.
In fact, outside of combat, this is kind of a theme at Engage. For instance, the main story is too straightforward for its own good, and while Somniel’s hub zone has even more side activities and distractions to partake in than in Three Houses, I haven’t reviewed half of them. Everything is optional, but it’s all so optional that the perks and rewards for participating in most of these systems hardly make a difference to your adventure. If things make a difference, there’s still that general feeling that working around Somniel is more overwhelming than Three Houses’ downtime ever was.
In fact, the best of the Monastery’s energy has now been replaced with an all-new feature, the ability to walk through areas that represent the environment of each battle. Here you can debrief with your fighters, talk to the locals you’ve helped, and grab a few collectibles. It’s kind of chill, and I really like it. Another thing that I really like, by the way, is that the Persona-style calendar and time system is gone. Each time you return to Somniel you can kill as much time as you want or move on to the next battle. This makes Engage easier to play as a tight strategic RPG.
I don’t dislike the story and the character work, just to be clear. I always enjoy spending time with Anna – who for my money should be featured prominently in any title, like how there’s always a Cid in Final Fantasy. There are some strong story moments. The bright character designs, including the protagonist, really grew on me over time. And I love that there’s a nation in this game, Solm, with royalty of color and multiple playable dark-skinned party members. You see, not all fantasy worlds have to be all white!
So yes. I don’t hate the Fire Emblem Engage story nor what it does when you’re out of combat. Though it’s also fair to say that compared to Three Houses, that side of the game feels a little underwhelming. Even though there’s more of everything thanks to that kitchen sink approach, not all that quantity is equally high quality – and that’s a shame.
On the other hand, however, Fire Emblem Engage is definitely superior to Three Houses, and that’s as a strategic RPG. It’s probably a bit easy in normal mode for those more experienced with the series or genre, but crank it up too hard and it’s truly awesome and one of the most mechanically satisfying Fire Emblem games in many years.
In some ways, that shift in focus back to SRPG fundamentals feels like a possible course correction after the significant “personification” of Three Houses. On the other hand, this game still feels like it’s aiming to marry old-school Fire Emblem with those fresh ideas. As a fan of older Fire Emblem and strategy games in general, I loved seeing the depth of the combat and the level at which you can make combat your absolute focus. That’s still true, even if Engage doesn’t quite get the balance of performance right in a way that could put off a small subset of Three Houses aficionados. It’s still a hugely satisfying experience, though. It’s engaging – sorry, I had to get it in – and an easy recommendation.