Sometimes the performer who went on stage before you is a really, really tough act to follow. That’s the case with Fire Emblem Engage.
The latest entry in Nintendo’s decades-long anime fantasy tactics series hits a lot of the right notes. Its turn-based chess-like combat is as strategic and fun as ever, with new character-fusion mechanics adding some more spice to the gumbo. Plus, it’s a massive visual upgrade over the last game in the series, 2019’s tremendous Three Houses.
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That said…it’s just not hitting for me. Granted, I haven’t finished the game, but after several hours, it hasn’t grabbed me like Three Houses did. I couldn’t put that game down, while playing Engage sort of feels like digging for treasure. Sure, there’s fun to be had, but most of the time, you’re just getting your hands dirty.
Fair or not, all I can do is compare it to Three Houses, the only other Fire Emblem I’ve sunk serious time into. Here’s how Engage stacks up to its 2019 forefather.
Divine Dragon status makes it hard to connect with the story
These characters just aren’t doing it for me.
In Fire Emblem Engage, you play as the Divine Dragon, who is confusingly just a guy or girl, depending on which you choose. That said, you’re a very special guy or girl who has been asleep for 1,000 years before being awoken to help the good guys beat the bad guys. Like any Fire Emblem game, you’ll make new friends and enemies along the way, and sometimes one may become the other as the story goes on.
I’ll admit that the premise of Engage is one of the most off-putting things about the game right away. Three Houses was immediately more enthralling, casting the young nobility of three different softly opposing nations into the same war academy. Most characters, like the charming Claude, the idealistic Edelgard, and himbo supreme Raphael were lovable (or at least fascinating) right away.
Everyone had their own unique political and personal motivations, and the knowledge that eventually some students at the school would eventually be at the wrong end of your blade when stuff hit the fan gave everything stakes.
Engage, instead, fully embraces the divine right of kings, making your character one of the most beloved people in the world before you’ve even done anything. Many characters join your army not because of some complex political machinations, but because they just think you’re really cool. Furthermore, I haven’t been able to get attached to anyone like I did with Claude and Raphael. Everyone is just kind of…there.
A fresh coat of paint
Battles really look fantastic here.
Yes, I’m disappointed with the story so far in Engage, but there are a couple of really great upgrades over Three Houses, to be fair. One of them is in the visual presentation.
Put simply, Three Houses was pretty ugly. The environments were plain and the character models, animations, and effects weren’t much to write home about. Engage is the complete opposite of that. It’s one of the best looking games on the Switch. No, seriously, it’s gorgeous.
The overhead tactical view is fine, but things really shine when you take on an enemy unit. The camera seamlessly swings down, turning the abbreviated tactical environment into a beautifully realized and detailed interpretation of what you just saw on the overhead map. Character models are stunning, especially by the admittedly low standards of the Switch.
And when one character attacks another, the animations are convincing and satisfying. Sword, axe, and spear strikes feel weighty and substantial, especially when one of the oh-so-sweet critical hit animations plays out. It’s a turn-based game where the fights actually look like fights. I love that.
‘Super Smash Bros.’ fans will see some familiar faces in this game.
The combat in Engage is mostly very familiar if you’ve ever played a Fire Emblem before it. You drop into every mission with a squad of diverse heroes with varied roles, from sword users to axe battlers, magic casters, healers, and archers. Everyone moves on a square-based grid and each character’s movement range is dictated by their stats and combat class. Swords are strong against axes, spears against swords, and so on. It’s classic stuff.
One big change this time around is the titular “Engage” system. Over the course of the story, you’ll collect magical rings that contain the essences of various characters from previous Fire Emblem games, like Marth and Byleth. You can bond these rings to any hero you choose, at which point they’ll be able to engage (or fuse) with said hero, becoming extra powerful for a few turns.
It’s a neat little wrinkle to an established formula and a nice excuse to see old friends, but it’s not revolutionary, nor does it need to be. Fire Emblem combat works pretty flawlessly as is, and it’s still great here. There’s not that much more to say about it, really; if you liked other Fire Emblem games’ tactical shenanigans, you’ll like them here, too.
Compared to Three Houses, however, the hub world you return to between missions is kind of plain. It’s a floating sky island called the Somniel with very calming vibes. There’s a cafe for preparing stat-boosting dishes with your homies, a swimming pool where characters will occasionally go for a dip, grazing grounds for animals you collect after battles, and various other distractions.
It just doesn’t feel anywhere near as lively as the academy from Three Houses. I relished every opportunity to do chores, teach my students, or just hang out with friends between battles in that game. In Engage, I have to make myself do all of that because otherwise I’m too tempted to just go onto the next battle. The academy felt like a real place where people had jobs and daily routines. The Somniel, by comparison, is just an island where people hang out.
You can do push-ups to temporarily increase your stats, though. That’s fun.
Better luck next time
It’s a little mean to make these three legends accessible only via DLC.
I don’t think Fire Emblem Engage is a bad game by any means. Its battles are still strategic and rewarding and it looks fantastic. Most of the composite parts of a good Fire Emblem game are here, but just not the ones I care about.
Namely, I just can’t get into the story or its characters. I’m willing to believe things flesh out later in the game, but Three Houses was so much better from the start that I find that slow buildup (if there is one) harder to forgive. The Somniel doesn’t have the same magic as the academy from Three Houses, either.
As someone who is ambivalent at best about turn-based tactics games, I really need the ancillary parts in the margins to be great in order to keep me hooked. That just isn’t happening here. I guess you could say it’s…not engaging me. Sorry, I had to do it.
Fire Emblem Engage rides into battle on Nintendo Switch on Jan. 20.