With a history that stretches all the way back to 1990—and the release of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light on the Nintendo Famicom—Fire Emblem is a property with a seriously lengthy legacy. Its migration to the States, however, took some time. It was the early 2000s before the series proper (in the form of Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade) and its iconic characters (Roy and Marth cameoed two years earlier in the GameCube standout Super Smash Bros. Melee) made their way to American shores.
As could likely be expected with a niche genre like turn-based strategy, Fire Emblem’s relationship with American audiences was good but seldom great. While the game’s themselves were generally well received, it began to seem as if the franchise would never make the same big jump into the pop culture consciousness as other fantasy RPGs like Final Fantasy or even Monster Hunter. All that changed in 2019 with the arrival of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Aided in no small part by the mass adoption of the Nintendo Switch, Three Houses’ well-paced combat, heavy focus on relationship-building, and its weighty, emotionally resonant branching storyline made it the Fire Emblem game that even fans not sold on its traditional strategy RPG trappings felt comfortable taking on.
I say all that to say this: Fire Emblem Engage is not Three Houses, and that’s ok.
Engage begins, as have so many previous chapters of Fire Emblem lore, with an ancient battle, an unexpected awakening, and a dash of amnesia for good measure. In this case, players are put into the (ultra-fancy) boots of the Divine Dragon Alear, a long-slumbering spiritual avatar to the good and true inhabitants of Elyos.
Elyos—again, in classic Fire Emblem fashion—is a vast and varied continent where, one thousand years prior, its four great kingdoms joined forces to drive away the evil of the Fell Dragon, the Yang to the benevolent Divine Dragon’s Yin. Alear’s awakening belies a darker but no less certain fact; the forces of the Fell Dragon are again marshaling themselves to make war against the nations of Elyos.
While initially aided only by his retainers, stewards set to watch over the sleeping dragon-man by his ageless mother, Alear at once begins his requisite journey throughout the continent, gathering allies and uncovering powerful new foes along the way.
This is done primarily on gridded battlefields where friends and enemies are moved around each turn, positioning themselves tactically to unleash a variety of attacks. Returning elements include Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle; swords are powerful against axes, axes against lances, and lances against swords.
Distance weapons like arrows and knives, as well as magic attacks, help round out combat, each acting in a system of checks and balances that serves to benefit a robust and varied fighting force. Engage’s battle system also provides each unit a designation tied to their character class. Flying units can travel a map while ignoring terrain effects but are particularly vulnerable to bows. Armored units are immune to the break effect, which temporarily disarms the fighter at a weapon disadvantage, but take massive damage from magical attacks. Backup units can add a chain attack to an adjacent ally’s assault, while Qi adepts (hand-to-hand fighters) can employ a chain guard to help protect units around them.
Classes can be changed easily—using a Master Seal to unlock advanced classes at level 10 or a Second Seal to change within the unit’s current class tier—to increase or unlock additional weapon proficiencies. However, proficiencies (as well as stat buffs and other bonuses) can also be acquired using the new Emblem Rings.
The crux of Engage’s narrative involves Alear’s attempts to seek out and acquire these rings from the various kingdoms of Elyos to help defeat the Fell Dragon. Each of the dozen Emblem Rings contains the spirit and personality of an otherworld hero hailing from a previous Fire Emblem title. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s Lucina, Ike from Path of Radiance, and even Three Houses’ Byleth are all represented.
Primarily, the power of Emblem Rings is employed on the battlefield. By simply assigning them to units you open an expansive suite of abilities for their bearers. And not only will heroes like Lyn and Corrin fight alongside their assigned units, but the new Engage mechanic also fuses both personalities into angelic super soldiers that may employ unique attacks, specialty skills, and even unique Emblem-exclusive weapons.
The catch? A unit may only Engage for three turns before returning to its natural form. Then, you’ll need to refill the related meter (or seek out special terrain spaces) to recharge before Engaging again. Yet, other units can benefit from the might of your Emblem Rings too.
At the Somniel, your floating island base of operations, you’ll find the multiplayer Tower of Trials, places to eat and exercise (to help build relationships and secure buffs for your next battle respectively), and even Sommie, the game’s weird dog-like mascot. This is also the home of the Arena, where you can… er… engage ally units and Emblems in mock combat.
Sparring with allies further advances interpersonal relationships, but you’re limited to three matches per day. Battling Emblems deepens bonds, which unlocks weapon proficiencies and other abilities. You can spend bond fragments—a sort of secondary currency that’s generated by everything from completing minigames to taking care of Sommie—in the Ring Chamber to put these inherited Emblem skills to use.
This means, while only one unit at a time can actually Engage with an Emblem Ring, your entire army can benefit from their presence.
In the Ring Chamber bond fragments can also be used to craft Bond Rings, lesser rings imbued with a little of the might of an Emblem’s ally. These can be doled out to the rest of your troops to further buff their stats.
The deeper you get into the gameplay, the more Engage’s unique aspects are broadened to their next logical steps. Weapons—which, with the exception of staves, are wonderfully free of that stodgy old destruction mechanic—can be improved at the smithy, new costumes and clothes can be acquired at your boutique, and you can stage photo shoots to adorn your profile card. Even the multiplayer Trials, which boast both PVP and co-op flavors, can yield specialty materials used to refine an Emblem’s already mighty Engage Weapons.
If all of this—the relationships and various home base activities and robust class system—seems even more expansive than the corresponding elements in Three Houses, it’s because they are. Fire Emblem Engage offers so, so much on many fronts, but there are a few exceptions that fans of the previous entry may miss.
Chief among these is the big branching storyline. Don’t expect to find plot-altering decisions around every corner like you did in Three Houses (and its musou sequel, Three Hopes). Engage is a fairly linear affair, with much of the game’s various choices related directly to which units you employ and how they grow and evolve in tandem with their attached Emblems.
While Engage bonds and ally support conversations also play a crucial role in your army’s relationships both on and off the battlefield, you’ll likely notice that a lot of the personalities in the game’s earliest chapters are a little one-note. Personally, I was into the double-digit chapter numbers before I began encountering what I think of as my S-tier allies—delightful weirdos like a princess obsessed with music, a fortune-telling dancer, and a knight convinced that his true power lies in his preternatural cuteness.
The same can be said for the flow of the game’s non-combat elements. Whereas Three Houses made it easy to establish a rhythm, a predictable flow from fighting to returning to Garreg Mach to talking with your allies to preparing for your next battle, Fire Emblem Engage is a bit more scattershot.
After completing each chapter, you’re dropped onto a mini-map where you can talk to the troops, hobnob with the odd local, and, weirdly enough, adopt an occasional animal. Consequently, you can return to the Somniel at any time from the world map, where new diversions routinely pop up as the game progresses.
My only real knock again Engage is that, in both cases, these interactions seem a tad uninspired. After a point, I began speeding through my little post-combat rituals and only returning to my floating fortress when I needed to change an ally’s class, spend a chunk of my hard-earned gold/bond fragments, or speak to an Emblem to increase their maximum bond level.
Still, it’s impossible to play Fire Emblem Engage and not notice what a huge leap forward it is for the franchise. The granularity afforded to the growth and development of Alear and his allies—thanks to the natural synergy between the old class and combat systems and the new Emblem Ring mechanic—is unparalleled.
Yet, somehow, it does all this while still honoring everything Fire Emblem has been in the past. Hell, each Emblem even gets a special paralogue map that’s a modern recreation of an iconic battle from their own source game!
But there are also plenty of opportunities for the same sort of character interactions that made Three Houses such a crowd-pleaser. You just have to work a little bit to get to them.
As a longtime Fire Emblem fan, I hope to see universal critical acclaim, sales numbers through the roof, and the name Fire Emblem Engage on scores of best-of-2023 lists. I also hope that those who were introduced to the property through Fire Emblem: Three Houses give this new game a chance, even though, on paper, there are some real differences between Engage and its predecessor.
Mostly, though, what I hope is that you, dear reader, have just as much fun with this title as I did. Because underneath the slick new combat options, the dazzling anime-inspired art direction, and the driving soundtrack (which seesaws from guitar pop to ambient woodwinds and back again), Fire Emblem Engage is about finding your people when and where you least expect them and drawing strength from that unlikely comradery.
In fact, I’d encourage any Switch owner to pick up Fire Emblem Engage this Friday and give its unique blend of old-school RPG goodness and forward-thinking innovation a spin. I believe you’ll find—if you’ll allow me to trot out a well-worn trope of my own—that the true Emblems were the friends we made along the way.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. Pro-tip: give Panette the Berserker Ike’s Emblem of Radiance and watch the axe-swingin’ carnage unfold!