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Fire Emblem Engage has a refreshing rendering, especially by Nintendo standards

There’s a lot to like Enable fire emblem. I particularly like his more detailed approach to his strategic combat, more in line with some of the older entries in this series than Three Houses. I also like the characters, even if they’re arguably less developed than in other recent Fire Emblem games. But one thing I especially like about it is… there’s just a quietly good rendering.

Fire Emblem Engage has a handful of dark-skinned people, and the game doesn’t make a big deal of it. They’re just there, and it’s the most normal thing in the world. This is rare and I love it.

You do get black characters in Japanese RPGs, of course – Final Fantasy 7’s Barret is the classic poster child – but it’s also fair to say they’re not exactly common. Art reflects the culture in which it was created, but in my experiences exploring the country, black people are probably even rarer in Japanese games than in Japan itself, especially in cities.

This discussion has recently flared up again with commentary from Final Fantasy 16 director Naoki Yoshida essentially saying there wouldn’t be any major characters of color in FF16’s cast, as it was meant to be a “story rooted in reality” even though it has dragons and magic. Some were angry and disappointed, while others argued that the developer’s vision of a less ethnically diverse medieval fantasy should be respected. Social media was insufferable for days.

But at the same time, there’s an undeniable ongoing shift in design sensibilities, especially as franchises like Fire Emblem experiment with understanding new and growing audiences in the West. It seems like some developers are sitting up and saying, hey, these people are playing our game, and it’s set in a fantasy world where pretty much anything is possible. So why shouldn’t they be reflected somewhere in our cast? Of course, for something like Persona, set in real Japan, non-Japanese people will be unusual. But Fire Emblem is pure fantasy – so let it go.

There have been a handful of explicitly black ally characters here and there in Fire Emblem before, but one thing I really like about Engage’s Timmera and Fogato is that… they’re just there. Main characters that fit into fairly traditional Fire Emblem series and anime storytelling tropes – but without making a point of being, yes, a different color from the rest of the cast.

Sometimes, of course, it’s good if the media makes a big deal out of it. Likewise, it can be good for minority characters to more explicitly highlight, emphasize, or demonstrate their culture. It depends on the setup. It depends on what the creators are trying to achieve. But in an exhausting, loud world where the culture war is constant, sometimes it’s just nice to see a piece of yourself in a game, no strings attached, no big message, no performative song and dance about the hows and whys. It’s just like that.

When I first saw them, I sort of hardened myself for the final product. When I learned that they were the princess and prince of one of the kingdoms based in Engage, I was ready for that kingdom to become some sort of caricatured tribal broadcast. But not like that! There’s a vaguely predictable Gerudo-esque vibe of desert sand, but the kingdom is also wonderfully fused with more western medieval looks to make it fit in with the rest of this world. As for the princess and the prince, they’re just pretty classic Fire Emblem characters, and I love that for them. They just happen to be black royalty served by a bunch of non-black knights and servants. When you have your post-battle debriefs, there are often a few NPCs around, their backgrounds and skin tones vary. In this world that is normal. None of this is a big deal, which in turn feels like kind of a big deal to me.

I especially love that Timmera is a character archetype and trope that appears in virtually every Fire Emblem game. She’s the kind of character who usually proves popular with fan-service-driven elements of the public, which is why it would probably be pretty easy to stick to the mold. And for the most part, she does—except in the one way she doesn’t.

Nintendo historically hasn’t been great at including a lot of dark-skinned people in its games. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has nearly ninety playable characters, and the only dark-skinned one is Ganondorf, a character who’s also in that classic “dude corrupted by evil magic is so dark-skinned they’re essentially gray” trope. I was one of those people who were disappointed when they added Min Min from ARMS when Twintelle, who is hugely popular and endlessly but lovingly memorized, was there. Fire Emblem Engage’s silent rendition sits with similar showings in Pokemon to show that the company isn’t completely clueless about this stuff – and it makes me happy and excited to see more characters like this in the future.

To be honest, Fire Emblem Engage’s story left me a bit cold. The actual game is significantly better than Three Houses, I think, but the story isn’t as strong. But these late-game units and their world have been encouraging to watch – and hopefully this kind of representation, where it’s quiet but very present, can become more of a genre norm.

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