Fire Emblem as a franchise has had a zigazag of quality over the past decade or so. After stylistically bland DS remakes of some of the series’ earliest games (one of which didn’t even make it out of Japan) came Fire Emblem: Awakening, a game so good it literally changed my life. The followup, Fire Emblem Fates, attempted to satisfy both casual newcomers and diehard vets and mostly just made everybody mad with a mess of a plot. Fire Emblem Echoes then remade Fire Emblem Gaiden while retaining its weirdness, and hey, I loved that one (though I’d rate it just a tad lower in retrospect). Then the franchise debuted on Switch with Fire Emblem Three Houses, which I personally didn’t click with at all. Basically every game here is extremely divisive, with some regarding them as personal favorites and others as shameful travesties.
Fire Emblem Engage looks to continue this tradition by being a game you will either absolutely love with every fiber of your being or… well, still a great time but one you grit your teeth for whenever a cutscene plays out. Me personally? I can’t get enough of it. Forgoing frivolities like politics, moral complexity, or “restraint,” Engage is a game about being the medieval fantasy equivalent of a god who is also a Power Ranger who summons past Power Rangers to aid them in battle. And it is awesome. So, so awesome.
Engage stars Alear (or [Insert Name Here]), a glorious deviantart oc of a Divine Dragon who’s awoken after a thousand years of slumber and forgotten their past. In an attempt to reconvene with their mother Lumera, they and their stewards run into monstrous revenants known as Corrupted; Alear, stricken by fear and caution, wants to flee, but ends up summoning the power of an Emblem, which contains the spirit of a legend of yore – Marth, the Hero-King (and OG FE protagonist). Alear must collect the Emblems to put a stop to the Fell Dragon Sombron, who seems to have awoken alongside them…
Engage’s plot is more straightforward than a drag race track. The Good and Bad guys are clearly delineated, and while there are plenty of shocking twists and heel-face turns straight out of a daytime soap opera, the tropes (cliches if you’re nasty) will be immediately recognizable to anybody who’s experienced any narrative in their life (especially to the Fire Emblem faithful, as it’s largely homage to earlier, simpler series plots). This has been the main point of criticism from most reviews I’ve seen of the game, and I certainly get where they’re coming from – but I love it to death. The story may be full of well worn ideas, but they work for a reason, and the sheer intensity of emotions and dramatism on display is enough to provoke some sort of reaction from the audience. The unabashed earnestness was so captivating that by the end I was legitimately tenderhearted for Alear and their kin, especially in the last five chapters or so, which saw what will go down as both the craziest plot development(s) of 2023 and also the greatest title drop ever put to code. Not everyone will agree, but as a lover of raw, unapologetically sappy media (i.e. a Kingdom Hearts fan) it was a great ride.
The writing in general will be love it or hate it depending on who you are. If you’re the sort of person who thought Awakening made the franchise’s characters “too anime” in terms of quirks or personality, then playing this game might kill you. If you’re like me and absolutely love those kinds of idiosyncratic goofballs, then you’ve got a whole cast of wonders in store. Every character in Engage is an eccentric with a tendency towards the absolute extremes of their tastes – or in other words, complete maniacs. Nobody in this game is normal, from the alpaca-loving knight who blows raspberries on you to wake you up to the ingenue constantly apologizing for being too perfect to the chef so obsessed with finding exotic ingredients he asks if he can eat your bed. Like any Fire Emblem game, some characters are more onenote than others (and the more interesting army members are relatively backloaded in the narrative) and the sheer absurdity will be off-putting to some. But I absolutely fell in love with this band of deranged weirdos, from self-conscious country girl Lapis to cool as a cucumber prince Fogado to zappy and happy Definitely NOT An Assassin Yunaka. I could watch their Supports forever. And hey, no gender limits on marriage this time! Go forth and be bisexual to your utmost, gays!
And I’m endeared not just for their bizarre personalities. The voice acting in Engage is insane. Fire Emblem’s voice acting quality has only gotten better over time, but basically every line delivery in this game is pure gold, full of emotion pushed to its highest level: whether it be in goofy laughter, anguished yelling, or quiet pain. I’m sure the JP dub is similarly excellent, but we really have to appreciate how good the EN voice cast is in making the characters all their own. Special shoutout to Female Alear’s Voice Actor, Laura Stahl, whose performance elevated the character (and thereby the entire narrative) with sheer force of feeling – my jaw dropped at some of her work (And I’m told that Male Alear’s VA, Brandon McInnis, is similarly excellent). I would list more specifically fantastic performances, but that’d result in me basically listing the entire cast out. Kudos to all of them, and the directors and scriptwriters that helped them to flourish.
It’s not just the voice acting, either – the game’s presentation in general is a huge step up, and perfectly aligned with the over the top writing as well. Mika Pikazo’s character designs are vibrant and full of pop, infusing each army member with a booming personality that you can see just by looking at them – shoutouts to Panette, Citrinne, and Timerra for having some of my favorites. Alear’s overdesigned pepsiman look became immensely charming to me only about two hours after I first saw it, and it’s even more affable in action. The general UI is a lot more polished and meshes together with solid texturing work, even if there’s an occasional UX hiccup (it took me a bit to find weapon Mt). The music has remained a constant excellent in FE over the years, with some killer remixes of old tracks in paralogues and also the franchise’s first true blue anime opening, a burning and unbridled buttrock song that I’ve loved from the moment it first jumpscared me. Not to mention you can play dress up with your army members and they EACH HAVE THEIR OWN CASUAL OUTFIT. This is the most important feature they’ve ever added. Goated.
If there’s one part of Engage that isn’t contentious, it’s the most important element – the gameplay. FE gameplay has struggled to find a balance between accessibility and complexity over the past decade, but by the Divine One they finally nailed it right on the head. The big addition is the Emblem system – rings containing the spirits of past Fire Emblem protagonists, imbued with special powers that often reflect attributes of their original games or skillsets. Corrin from Fates can terraform, Lyn from Blazing Blade is a speed demon who creates afterimages, Sigurd from Genealogy of the Holy War has a horse, and so on. Each Emblem not only feels incredibly unique and powerful (which adds weight to a narrative focused on collecting them) but is actually quite balanced, with the skills lasting temporarily or only able to be used once per Engagement. Celica’s Warp Ragnarok can be an impossibly good nuke from anywhere, but you can only use it once before a strenuous recharge. Roy’s Rise Above will pump your unit full of levels, but only for three turns. And your stats don’t magically balloon just by activating a ring, either. Emblems feel GREAT to use, but have to be utilized strategically to get the most out of them. And Bond Levels + Skill Inheritance makes you have to plan not just in the short term, but the long term as well.
Emblems do contain the one aspect of the game that disappointed me, however – Bond conversations. Essentially a special version of Supports that takes place between Emblems and your army members, they sound interesting but are often completely frivolous, repeating stock sentiments heard in a dozen other ones. This is because every army member has three Bond conversations with every single Emblem, meaning there are literally over a thousand of them – and the majority contain only two lines of dialogue, which just isn’t much space to be interesting. Some fair better than others – Lucina’s balance of hope and silliness is well maintained from Awakening – but especially the Emblems from earlier titles tend to falter in terms of interesting conversations. It doesn’t help that the A level one is often the more involved one, but that requires Bond Level 20, which is difficult to achieve for even a single Emblem/Unit pair. Bond Levels are great mechanically, but it leaves the Emblems’ character presence sparse, especially as the Bonds tend to focus more on the Engage cast’s peculiarities than the past characters’ experiences. I don’t mind focusing on Engage’s characters more than the older ones (in fact it’s much better than the opposite) but as a huge FE nerd geeking out about crossover possibilities it was a letdown.
Besides the Emblems, Engage gets a lot of gameplay minutiae right too. The other big addition is the Break system, which I really hope carries on into future FE titles – it rewards initiative and diverse loadouts, allowing you to prevent counterattacks temporarily if you hit an enemy with Weapon Triangle Advantage. New toys like Surge tomes (powerful 1 range magic) or the twice-hitting Arts class of weapons allow for new strategic options. And the maps are nicely designed, with a good mix of curveball mechanics, thoughtfully designed enemy placements, and bosskilling objectives that incentivize a more proactive playstyle, which is generally more fun than turtling up. It’s not all perfectly balanced (knives are stupidly good), but in general all these new and refined implements are both enthralling and challenging to use to the utmost. And they make Engage, bar none, the best gameplay experience in the entire series.
And delightfully supplementing that core strategic gameplay is the Somniel, the new hub area where you can chill and hang with your squad. Besides minigames like Fishing and Training that actually provide some pretty nice benefits, you can also cook meals to bolster stats and support points or hit up the Arena for some EXP or Bond Levels. The most important activity is, of course, caring for Sommie, the strange little creature you can spiffy up in funny accessories. The Somniel is great because if you want to just kick back between maps, there’s a good deal to do – but the amount that you “need” to do is pretty small and can be taken care of in a much shorter period of time, allowing you to adjust your time investment around your playstyle. Plus, again. Dressup. Game of the Millennium.
What really makes Engage work is cohesion. The FE titles of recent years I disliked often felt torn between identities, trying to catch two rabbits and losing both. Fates attempted to be a grand drama that would please both old diehards disgruntled by Awakening and Awakening lovers looking for more, and ended up pleasing almost nobody (save for at least one good campaign). Three Houses attempted to be both a quasi-life sim school drama and a gripping and serious war epic, and the result to me just felt bland and misconstrued (not to mention all the discourse it causes to this very day). Engage, in comparison, is laser focused, with gameplay, writing, and aesthetic all geared towards the excessive and melodramatic. This isn’t a game where your characters are here to contemplate the harsh realities of war, but to explode a bad guy by Engaging Marth and stabbing them a billion times with Lodestar Rush. Would it have been better if it tried to be more complex or nuanced? I can’t say. Why ask, when the end product before us is so wonderfully forthright?
In a series I adore, Fire Emblem Engage has already implanted itself in the highest echelon. Some will sigh wearily at its gratuitous nature, but others will love its campiness, its bombast, its complete bucking wildness. And there’s no denying just how purely fun and addictive it is, whether you’re a newcomer or a longstanding veteran. The series is in a phase where it seems perfectly content to reinvent or restructure with each new title instead of coasting on one idea for multiple entries, so I have no doubt the next FE game will be vastly different. But this one will embed itself into my memory for some time to come, full of passion, vigor, and glory – fire.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: January 20, 2023
Categories: Strategy RPG
Developer: Intelligent Systems