For the most part, the Fire Emblem series has enjoyed a small but devout fan base. However, with the release of Three Houses in 2019, everything changed. The franchise’s Nintendo Switch debut is the best-selling game in the series. Thanks to the combination of stellar turn-based strategy gameplay and social interaction with well-written characters, Fire Emblem appeared poised to become one of Nintendo’s tentpole franchises.
Fire Emblem Engage, the newest entry in the series, represents a return to basics. The “triangle weapon” system in past games is known for makes a return. This foundation, together with an impressive amount of polish, lays the framework for what could be the best Fire Emblem game yet.
This immaculate gameplay, combined with the expansive character development and social interactions that have become franchise staples, helps–
Wait. The relationship building and social systems are gone?
Well, that’s disappointing.
Fire Emblem Engage continues a frustrating trend with recent Nintendo games: one step forward, two steps back. Engage falls victim to genre tropes and a scaling back of expansive features. Unfortunately, the best gameplay the series has ever seen, nor some of the best graphics on Nintendo Switch, can overcome the game’s faults.
Rock, Paper, Scissors, Engage!
To say that the traditional combat of Fire Emblem Engage does the game’s heavy lifting is an understatement.
This is the Fire Emblem you know and love, back and better than ever. There’s a beautiful balance between the tried and true formula of old alongside new ideas and innovations. For example, the triangle weapon system feels like a giant game of rock paper scissors. Certain weapons are effective against others. This brings back the strategic element of planning your turns and outfitting characters with types of weapons.
Returning to this gameplay formula is like riding a bike. It may feel unfamiliar initially, but you’ll quickly ease into it. Working in the triangle weapon system alongside battlefield terrain and unit assistance results in a memorable combat experience. However, it’s not just about lining up the right weapon types; can you deal with enemies cooperating? How do you use your characters’ abilities to their fullest potential?
These are the questions you constantly ask and answer in Fire Emblem Engage. It results in a memorable experience and some of the best gameplay in a tactical strategy game. And that’s before talking about the game’s marquee feature: the Engage system.
Ghosts of Fire Emblem Past
Characters can channel the energy of past Fire Emblem protagonists. For lack of a better term, this allows you to go Super Saiyan. As a result, you can perform powerful attacks and other beneficial abilities. For example, are you trying to pick off that enemy far away on the map? An Engage power can do that, for example.
The Engage mechanic opens up an impressive amount of opportunities. Despite the return to Fire Emblem’s roots, the Engage system feels like a wonderful breath of fresh air for the series. I never want to go back.
Given the design of each battlefield, you’ll need to use everything at your disposal, especially if you’re playing in classic mode, where a character’s death is permanent.
There’s a mechanic that exists that lets you rewind time even in the classic permadeath mode, which does cheapen the experience a little bit. Still, it’s a nice fail-safe for when the unexpected happens.
Fire Emblem Engage Is a Beautiful Game
As great as the gameplay is, the game’s presentation is just as impressive.
Engage may be the best looking Fire Emblem game yet. The graphics are some of the best seen on Nintendo Switch. Character models are crisp and clean. Character design is equally impressive; villains in particular jump off the screen with over-the-top flair.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the game’s protagonists. While some showcase potential, most of the playable characters are forgettable. They suffer from falling into the traps of genre tropes. Not only is it disappointing, but it’s also incredibly off-putting.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
After the rousing success of Three Houses, this is Engage’s biggest misstep, and it cannot be ignored. As great as the gameplay is, it feels like Fire Emblem Engage is half the game it should be.
The social elements that have become popular in Fire Emblem are gone. Talking and developing a relationship with characters feels like an afterthought, and the story suffers for it. There’s no reason to care about the plot, which is nothing to write about.
Worst of all, there’s potential to be found in the game. You’re encouraged to talk with your allies after battles and expand upon your base of operations. Beyond that, however, there isn’t much depth. These systems would have been innovative twenty years ago, but coming after one of the series’s most extensive and feature-rich games? That’s a big swing and a miss.
I’ve grown to enjoy talking with my fellow squad mates. I want to grow with them and become invested in the story. But, for some reason, Engage doesn’t care. It’s as if the game is stuck in the past. It’s as if the developers aimed to make an old-school Fire Emblem game but took the assignment too literally.
Fire Emblem Engage could have been regarded as one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch. When you consider its competition, that’s not something you say lightly. The gameplay in Engage is that good. I’m invested in combat like never before.
I wish I could say the same for the game’s story and characters. My enjoyment of Engage increases every time I skip a cutscene. I do not like these generic characters; they’re boring and annoying. Any potential within them is quickly snuffed out.
Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have the chance to get to know them better. Yet if that’s the case, what happened here? Three Houses did wonders in terms of storytelling and character development. But unfortunately, all of those lessons were quickly forgotten.
Maybe the next Fire Emblem can combine the gameplay of Engage with the features and depth of Three Houses. That’s what Engage should have been. The warm-bodied, bourbon barrel-aged game to help propel the series to mainstream success. Instead, it feels like Fire Emblem Lite. A game with great combat and a good entry point for newcomers, but longtime fans will have mixed feelings.
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Was there too much water?