Fire Emblem Engage is the mainline follow-up, in name only, to 2019’s excellent Fire Emblem Three Houses. That game’s focus on story, characters, and its expanded social systems helped make it the best-selling in the series, creating new fans of the franchise out of those who had previously watched Fire Emblem flourish from a distance. I was one of those new converts three years ago, and while I was initially concerned if I was a Fire Emblem fan or just a Three Houses fan, Engage has solidified me in the former. Where Three Houses succeeded by emphasizing its larger-than-life heroes and social systems over combat, Engage triumphs in doing the opposite. Engage is a combat-first, everything-else-second strategy RPG, and although its story takes some time to become engrossing, battles are terrific from the jump and only get better.
Engage’s story begins in a familiar way: A hero saves the world from the Fell Dragon, an evil divinity, and goes into a slumber afterward. They awake 1,000 years later only to discover their battlefield prowess is needed once more. This hero, your protagonist known as the Divine Dragon, must obtain all 12 Engage rings held by neighboring kingdoms. I was never bored by this narrative, but it was simple and often predictable for a large portion of my 50-hour playthrough. The last third of the game’s story further reeled me in with twists, turns, drama, and heart, though, and by the end of my playthrough, I laughed that I had written the story off initially.
Still, Engage is more straightforward; it’s a traditional fantasy story about saving the day, and while at times it’s melodramatic, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t all-in on it, especially in the last third. Power Ranger-esque team-up moments left me smiling like a kid again, and I was sad to say goodbye to these characters when the credits began to roll.
Engage’s combat is a return to form for the Fire Emblem series, bringing back the traditional rock-paper-scissors formula where lances beat swords, swords beat axes, and axes beat lances, while fisticuff fighters have an advantage over archers, mages, and thieves. It’s a simple fighting premise that works because it forces you to examine unit placement, movement, and strategy well in advance based on enemy positioning on a given map. And this formula is strengthened by a game that builds on the combat in virtually every sense; most everything you do ties back to what happens in battle, including the game’s namesake, Engage.
Each unit can wear an Emblem Ring, which gives them the ability to Engage or tap into that ring’s power fueled by the soul of a hero from Fire Emblem’s past. This brings series favorites like Marth, Lucina, Roy, Byleth, and more to the game, and while they aren’t the same person as the hero from their original world, they embody them, bringing a heaping dose of nostalgia to Engage for longtime fans.
For newer fans who might not realize the excitement behind these returns, the Engage mechanic is still a battlefield boon as it allows the wearer to physically change in appearance, almost embodying the past hero, to become significantly more powerful. When you Engage a unit, they get a special one-time move that usually does extreme damage (or healing), standard attacks are more devastating, some units can move even further, and their ability to dodge or withstand enemy attacks is strengthened.
The Engage mechanic felt overly powerful in the first half, but was still exciting to use nonetheless. The second half, however, is a stern reminder that strategy is still required in nearly every battle, including the Paralogue side quests, which is where Intelligent Systems really stretches its combat design prowess with challenging map layouts and matchups.
Social systems between units take a backseat to social standings with Emblem Ring heroes mechanically, but strangely, support conversations between units and heroes are short and shallow compared to those that happen between two unit members. Regardless, these conversations serve as small windows into a hero or unit member’s personality, unlocked after ranking up to C, B, or A with someone. Like in previous entries, these support conversations aren’t a requirement in Engage but are additional flavor for the game’s various characters.
As the bond level between a unit and an Emblem Ring hero increases, so do the skills available to purchase. These skills and abilities, like increased luck or avoid, can be equipped for use even when not wearing a given ring. My Divine Dragon can, for example, equip traits from Marth’s ring even if he’s wearing an Emblem Ring of another hero. And even units that you never equip with an Emblem Ring can tap into these skills and abilities thanks to special Emblem bond training.
Bond rings created by Emblem Ring heroes further expand the possibilities of combat-focused customization. You can create hundreds of bond rings, meld them to strengthen them further, polish Emblem Rings to increase bonds, and so much more. Engage’s various ring mechanics power much of what you’re doing in the game, but it’s also mostly optional. If you want to play it straight, it feels like you can do that in Engage, but if you’re looking for deep customization and optimization, that’s there too, and I appreciate that flexibility.
Ring creation happens at The Somniel, which is Engage’s open hub where virtually everything outside of combat, like cooking, shopping, and more, occurs. It’s also home to exercise minigames that temporarily boost a given stat in the next battle and a Wyvern riding minigame that earns you additional bond fragments. You can train in the Arena, fish, collect ingredients in the orchard, and explore this hub to find items. The Somniel is expansive enough but, in most ways, a step back to Three Houses’ monastery, which felt like a crucial pitstop in between every combat encounter and a place I came to know like the back of my hand. The Somniel never quite felt like home, but rather a place to strengthen my party for the next battle. Given the game’s focus on combat, though, this wasn’t surprising. Still, I was slightly disappointed it didn’t have more personality.
The Somniel is also home to the multiplayer-focused Tower of Trials, which is where you can build maps, connect them to other players’ maps, and duke it out in Outrealm Trials. While this is neat in practice, Engage gives you the same square base to build on, and every map felt similar as a result, with the biggest differences coming from where I placed a fire cannon or something like destructible crystals. Every map I played on, including the ones I created, lacked the excitement, variance, and challenge of the developer-made maps in the single-player campaign.
There’s also the Tempest Trial, which has you fighting across multiple battles in one go for increased rewards, and the Relay Trial, which sees multiple players controlling the same units in a relay-style battle. But neither these nor the Outrealm Trials are things I see myself returning to post-game. They’re interesting additions but feel half-baked, only there for those who desperately need more after the core game’s dozens of combat encounters.
Engage’s characters and social systems never quite hit the high bar set by Three Houses, but it does surpass its predecessor in almost every other way. Players looking for deep customization, expertly crafted strategy RPG combat, and a heartfelt story with adoration for more than 30 years of Fire Emblem history will find that and more in Engage. It’s one of the most gripping games I’ve played on Switch and, ultimately, one I struggled to peel myself away from. If Three Houses was an experiment with where Fire Emblem’s social mechanics can go, then Engage is doing the same for the series’ evolving combat, and excelling just as much, too.
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