Fire Emblem Engage releases next week, and I’m pretty stoked. Obviously there’s a bit of caution (I’ve been disappointed by new entries in the past), but the character designs, combat, and overall feel look amazing. My optimism isn’t shared by everyone though – particularly those who fear that the inclusion of past characters will overshadow the present game. A valid concern, but for me, the honoring of past Fire Emblem characters offers a chance to finally treasure the series’ past equally – a chance that’s been squandered for a decade.
Let’s go back a bit. The legend of Fire Emblem Awakening is well established at this point. After years of the franchise coasting along in its niche and dipping slightly in sales, they were given an ultimatum: make a smash success or the series is done. So the developers drew upon every ounce of inspiration and legacy from the past games, infusing elements from throughout the series in one grand epic that could have been a beautiful swan song. But rather than a tragedy, it catapulted the series to a new level of fandom and success, selling millions in a series that had never broken 900k copies before.
It was both a blessing and a curse.
Awakening’s sheer popularity was followed by similar (if more divisive) popularity for follow-up Fire Emblem Fates, and an even higher ceiling in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. This new level of fame allowed the series to obtain spinoffs: Atlus crossover Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Musou title Fire Emblem Warriors, gacha mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes. But in these crossovers, a problem quickly arose – the volume of games before the series got popular vastly exceeded those after the fact. But it was those trio of titles, Awakening, Fates, and Three Houses, that hold the characters more people recognized and held dear. What was there to do?
In many cases, it was to downplay the olden titles in crossovers, providing lip service at best and absolutely nothing at worst. Tokyo Mirage Sessions, originally billed as an SMT x FE crossover, ended up being more of a quasi-Persona title, pulling characters from only the original FE Shadow Dragon and Awakening. Warriors, a game that easily could’ve pulled lords from throughout the series, ended up only using three games as a base – Shadow Dragon, Awakening, and Fates. When it got a sequel, instead of offering itself as a chance to spread the game representation around, it became a sole spinoff to Three Houses – nice for fans of that game, and perhaps more focused, but another case of older Fire Emblem fans left hanging.
Heroes is a little more complicated. At this point, the full breadth of the series has been covered to one degree or another, but the skew towards popularity is still felt in who gets alts and who doesn’t. Not to mention that for the first couple of years of the game there was a definite skew towards some games – Awakening got most of its cast in before Leif, protagonist of Thracia 776, got a chance to shine. Even now the cast sizes of Awakening or Fates units in Heroes are comparable to the combined totals of two less known titles.
This is, from a certain perspective, entirely logical. Video games (on this scale) are a business, and if you’re trying to get people to buy in, especially with a crossover/legacy title (predicated on “hey remember your favs?”), it makes sense that the suits at Intelligent Systems and Nintendo would “play the hits” so to speak and offer the proven favorites first and foremost. Who needs a character from the SNES era almost nobody knows when you could have another alt of the beloved Lyn from Blazing Blade, a pivotal character in the franchise’s history? It’s not an irrational decision.
But sometimes it feels like this method squanders prime opportunities. Warriors included Celica and Lyn as bonus characters, but missed other fan favorites with huge presences like Roy or Ike, who were arguably better known in the first place due to Smash Bros. TMS’ overall style, drenched in Jpop aesthetics and idol optimism, was off-putting for a lot of fans of a series focused on medieval European-style war. Heroes’ missteps are too much to detail here (without even getting into unrelated subjects like feature creep/power creep), but it can provide some truly jarring alternate versions of existing characters that feel built to appeal to the lowest common denominator (and I mean it is a gacha game, so that’s arguably the whole point).
All of this has been a thorn in the series’ celebrations of its past. But then we have Engage.
Rather than offer a dozen Awakening characters alongside one each from older titles, the distribution here is almost perfectly equal – one Lord per title, even from games with multiple (or in the case of Eirika/Ephraim, the ability to swap between them with the same ring). Each one has abilities lovingly considered and thoughtfully implemented, both honoring their original game and offering great power in this one. And while they certainly seem to have a great presence in the plot, there are other characters to get to know at the same time. It’s a way of venerating the past fairly while also pushing forward.
Though this wouldn’t be the first game in the series that honors its legacy properly. What was? Why, none other than Fire Emblem Awakening. While it confined a lot of its legacy content to Spotpass add-ons and DLC, as mentioned large swaths of the game were itself inspired directly from past entries – the children system of Genealogy of the Holy War, the World Map of Gaiden and The Sacred Stones, the lore tied directly to Shadow Dragon and Mystery of the Emblem… it was actually incredible in the way it honored the series to that point. Such irony that it then skewed perception of the series so heavily in its own direction.
Ultimately, we won’t know how Fire Emblem Engage engages with the rest of the series until it’s in our hands. But just from the information we already know, it looks to be the most egalitarian treatment of a vast franchise in a long time. As a longtime Fire Emblem fan who got into the rest of the series in large part because Awakening showed me bits and pieces from the past that interest me, I hope that Engage inspires a similar love in the new fans who find it.
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