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‘Fire Emblem Engage’ is a solid series entry, but also a compromise

(Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)

Fire Emblem Engage

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Developer: Intelligent Systems | Publisher: Nintendo

Release: Jan. 20, 2023

The Fire Emblem series is in the middle of an identity crisis, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the latest entry, “Fire Emblem Engage.” Tough-as-nails tactics and permadeath defined the series’s earlier games, but in the last decade, the overwhelming success of its more role-play-heavy and approachable entries has seen its focus pivot accordingly. “Engage” feels like a compromise that fails both tactics and RPG fans, in a way, but it also nails exactly what’s been keeping me playing the series all these years.

More recent Fire Emblem games still have you building a powerful army to emerge victorious in top-down, turn-based battles, but also playing matchmaker for your units or relaxing by having tea and fishing at your home base. In melding those two genres, modern Fire Emblem games — “Engage” included — can feel like whiplash between two radically different tones; when you’re dressing up your army like dolls, it’s hard to capture the emotional toll of war. “Engage” lacks the character depth and nuance RPG fans are looking for, but still retains the lighthearted side content and minigames that feel tonally at odds with its overall themes. But in its combat, the riveting (and oftentimes infuriating) challenge makes each battle a puzzle where the goal is to keep all your units alive. In my eagerness to build an unstoppable army, to master “Engage’s” dense web of abilities, unit classes and weaponry, I easily sunk more than 80 hours into the game, and will likely sink a few dozen more.

The last mainline Fire Emblem entry, “Three Houses,” wove a “Game of Thrones”-like tale of political intrigue, warring nations and the all-too-human intentions behind those shaping history. “Engage,” by comparison, feels like a bad anime, defined by clunky pacing, a laughable and predictable story and one-note characters. You play as the Divine Dragon — their gender and name is up to the player — who wakes up with amnesia after a 1,000-long nap. Apparently, you’ve been snoozing since you used the Emblem Rings, equipable items that let you summon heroes from past Fire Emblem games, to defeat the evil Fell Dragon, a half-cobra-half-dragon-looking monster that terrorized the world of Elyos before you and the other Divine Dragons sealed it away. Now the only ones left are you and your mother, whom you don’t remember but are still devastated when she dies a few chapters in, slain by followers of the Fell Dragon who plan to resurrect their master.

As in past games, you assemble a ragtag group of nobles, mercenaries and fighters to build an army strong enough to topple the big baddie, but the plot unfolds more like a series of sitcom mishaps than a tale of war. In one of the first chapters, the Divine Dragon’s head guard boasts about the security of the holy land of Lythos just moments before the Fell Dragon’s peons break in and murder your mother. In another, a foreign nation’s queen is held hostage after she lets one of the Fell Dragon’s generals walk right into her castle due to a misunderstanding. The Emblem Rings are hyped up to be these highly sought-after treasures, only one or two of which have been entrusted to each nation, guarded for millennia, but throughout the story, they’re treated more like office staplers than priceless heirlooms. Both sides seek to collect all 12 Emblem Rings, but the Fell Dragon’s top brass seems to be given carte blanche to take them into battle whenever the mood strikes (losing them just as quickly).

“Engage” adds some interesting new wrinkles to Fire Emblem’s combat, as well as the return of series mainstays that have been absent from recent installments. Weapon durability is gone, with the exception of staffs, and the rock-paper-scissors-like weapon triangle is back (lance beats sword, sword beats ax and ax beat lance), but with a new “break” feature that makes weapon choice even more crucial in battle. Landing an attack with an advantageous weapon inflicts break, and broken units can’t counterattack for a turn. Taking advantage of the weapon triangle can give you an opening to whale on enemies, but can also leave your units just as vulnerable to damage if you fail to take it into account when setting up your front line.

Pairing nicely with this debuff are smash weapons, which deal tons of damage for the trade-off of attacking second. I found that breaking an enemy and then following up with a smash weapon made for a devastating one-two punch. Attacks with smash weapons also send units flying back one space, breaking their guard if they slam into a wall or another unit, which proved to be a useful strategy if my most advantageous units were all out of range.

Certain units have the ability to chain attacks, inflicting additional damage if they’re within range when another unit initiates combat; it’s only a few extra points, but that can easily add up if you get surrounded. A new class, Qi adepts, can use chain guard to shield adjacent allies from attack and take a portion of that damage instead, which can dramatically shake up how you place your units and which enemies you target first. Another addition is revival stones, items held by stronger enemies that return them to full health once their HP hits zero. Some bosses can have up to three or four revival stones, forcing you to think about your endgame strategy as more of a war of attrition than one of overwhelming force.

Easily the stars of the show are Emblem Rings, which not only feature heavily in the plot but are also powerful tools with the potential to turn the tide of battle. They seem to take direct inspiration from “Fire Emblem Heroes,” a sort of “greatest hits” mobile game and one of the franchise’s most commercially successful to date. Once a unit’s engage meter is full, they can merge with that character (known as an “Emblem”) for a set number of turns, unlocking new weapons and abilities. As a longtime fan, it was genuinely emotional seeing some of my favorite Fire Emblem characters from the games I grew up playing — some, like Lyn from “The Blazing Blade” or Eirika from “The Sacred Stones,” re-created in 3D as I’d never seen them before — fighting alongside my army.

Emblem Rings open up a lot of potential for new strategies and interesting ways to coordinate your army, particularly if you’re already familiar with Fire Emblem’s unit classes. But “Engage” throws a lot at you at once. The abilities and weapons available to each Emblem are determined by their bond level with a unit, which increases by using their Emblem Ring in battle or training with them at your home base, the Somniel (more on that in a bit). Some Emblems, like Corrin from “Fates” and Byleth from “Three Houses,” have an arsenal that changes based on the class of the unit who has their ring equipped.

Keeping track of it all proved difficult during the game’s first few hours, compounded by the fact that certain plot points during the main campaign add and subtract from your supply of Emblem Rings. I’d confidently send my knight forward with Lyn’s Emblem Ring only to realize his bond level was too low to access her Mani Katti, a sword strong against cavalry and armored foes, which put a serious dent in my plan to carve through the mounted units in my path. Or I’d try to use Corrin’s Dragon Vein, which adds special effects to the terrain surrounding a unit, to set up a blockade of ice, but discover that this particular class can only use her ability to create a healing circle. Similarly jarring was how some Emblems are the sole wielders of weapons that, in previous games, were rare but otherwise available to all units, such as rapiers or the Nosferatu tome. It felt like an unnecessary roadblock being billed as a shiny new feature. Now that I’ve completed the main campaign (around 40-50 hours) and spent plenty of time playing around with “Engage’s” other modes and completing side quests, it all feels second nature, but getting to that point involved one hell of a learning curve — and that’s saying something for a series with gameplay as dense as Fire Emblem’s.

Where “Engage” shines most is in its level design. Confrontations play out across sandy coastlines with ships carrying hordes of enemies, sprawling castle courtyards outfitted with ballistas and other ranged weaponry, fortresses with miasma choking its narrow hallways, and mountainous fields flowing with lava, among others. Figuring out a solution to each chapter — where to push, when to retreat, which combination of Emblems and units has the most potential to devastate enemy lines — is a thrilling challenge. The Paralogue side quests were some of my favorites; there’s one themed to each Emblem Ring that resembles a level from past Fire Emblem games. If you’re a longtime fan of the series, prepare to get weepy-eyed with nostalgia (or at least, I did). Fighting on maps inspired by the Sacaen Plains from “The Blazing Blades” or the Black Temple from “The Sacred Stones” made me feel like I was back on my Game Boy Advance, staying up past my bedtime to spend endless hours trying to level up my units. They were also some of the most difficult, as the boss in each Paralogue is the Emblem itself, abilities and all, and it turns out that it’s terrifying to be on the receiving end of those.

For the first time, you can now explore battlefields after the fighting’s done, and while there’s some novelty to be found in exploring certain Paralogues of levels from past games, these settings mostly feel empty. Aside from a few collectibles, you’ll mostly find invisible walls in otherwise wide-open spaces, buildings you can’t enter and NPCs that repeat the same trite phrases. In a way, it’s to be expected; creating a challenging top-down tactics map doesn’t necessarily translate to an environment that players are dying to explore.

When you’re not duking it out in battle, you can return to your home base, the Somniel, to train your forces, resupply and collect resources. The Somniel feels like a pastiche of different management sims, simple to a degree that my time there felt like mindless grinding. You can cook meals to increase your support level with allies, using ingredients farmed from the animals you adopt (which you can’t pet). Different minigames for working out and, later, a wyvern riding minigame grant temporary stat buffs or bond fragments, used to level up your bond with Emblems, but none of these rewards felt compelling enough to justify sitting through their simple and repetitive gameplay. A few simply weirded me out too much to spend much time with them, like polishing the Emblem Rings to improve your bond as the character reminds you to clean out all its nooks and crevices (ugh). Or going to your room for a “Rest” to unlock a cutscene of a random teammate waking you up; there’s a whopping total of six unique cutscenes for each unit depending on your support level with them. Oh, and don’t bother picking out your waifus; there’s a ring ceremony to cement your friendship, but marriage isn’t an option (even though “Engage” is right there in the game’s name).

More often than not running around the Somniel felt like a chore to complete between battles, a checklist of tasks to ensure my teammates would live to see another day. I suspect one reason for this is that the teammates themselves aren’t all that interesting. Each character is about as complex as an Animal Crossing villager. The bulk of support conversations, cutscenes that are unlocked after units fight side by side for long enough and can add stat buffs in battle, center on three subjects: food, exercise and tea. A few characters’ supports gesture at the web of political alliances and problems of Elyos, but they are few and far between. For the most part, if a character likes working out, all their supports will be out how they maintain their physique; if a character likes making pickles, you can bet they’ll talk your ear off about pickles (looking at you, Clanne).

I spent the majority of my time at the Somniel playing around in the Tower of Trials, home to additional challenges beyond the main campaign. There are two online modes, Relay Trial, a confusing relay-style cooperative mode, and Outrealm Trial (my favorite) which lets you build ridiculously intricate custom maps guarded by your forces for other players to try to break through. There’s also Tempest Trial, a circuit of three consecutive battles with varying difficulty levels, that I had fun competing to set a personal best for how few turns it took to beat. Between these modes and completing my second playthrough on Maddening difficulty, I know my time with “Engage” isn’t yet finished. And I’m looking forward to it, even as I already know I’m going to be skipping the cutscenes.

“Engage” continues the series trend of mashing up tactics and RPG elements, but while the latter falls flat and feels out of place, it excels in the former. And if my biggest qualms are with the game’s least Fire Emblem-y parts, I consider that a solid entry in the series.