Fire Emblem Engage preview - Tales of Elyos

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An anime-style cutscene in Fire Emblem Engage.

After hopping on the bandwagon with Fire Emblem Awakening, getting stuck into Fates, and enjoying the all-stars gimmick of Heroes for a while, I took a little break from the series when Three Houses, apparently the best of the lot, came along. If Fates taught me anything, it was that the branching storylines just wouldn’t gel with my busy schedule anymore. But after playing (and loving) Three Hopes, it was hard to imagine the anime aesthetic of Fire Emblem Engage being anything but a game filled to the brim with cute costumes, careful planning, and a quirky cast of characters with plenty of endearing interactions between the all-out war.

And, from what I’ve played thus far, Fire Emblem Engage is hitting the right notes. Though the new main character, the Divine Dragon Alear, hasn’t made a fantastic debut, already being singled out for their heavy two-toned hair reminiscent of a toothpaste brand, I’m happy to report that the whole cast of this romp around the world is truly bunch. Oh, and the combat is as punchy as ever.

Like most Fire Emblem games, you start off in the heat of battle. Rather than happening across a brawl or seeing some kind of near-future premonition, you instead take part in the grand battle against the Fell Dragon Sombron, engaging with your Emblem ring and using a hero from a past game to vanquish the big bad. Then, after a 1,000-year snooze, you, as Alear, wake up to the sound of the shy and dragon-obsessed twins Framme and Clanne - your Stewards as the Divine Dragon - who then fetch Vander, their wise old teacher and Steward one generation their senior, who’ve all been presumably changing your clothes and giving you sponge baths for years.

Various fight scenes from Fire Emblem Engage.
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Back-to-back brawls

Once the story gets going, it doesn’t take long to wind up in another battle. Though little spats have broken out over the years you’ve been asleep, the other regions of Elyos have been gently jabbing Elusia, where Fell Dragon Sombrom was locked away, to keep it from bringing back the darkness. Surprise surprise, though - the arrival of Corrupted soldiers in the woods signals his slow return. The dark demons popping up all over the continent thrusts the peaceful world back into another full-scale conflict over the twelve Emblem rings entrusted to the various friendly nations. If it’s starting to sound a little Lord of the Rings, that’s because it basically is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Across the eight chapters, I’m allowed to cover as part of this preview, there’s been no shortage of combat. And almost all of the same systems from previous games, from my recollection, are here: though there are some noticeable omissions early on: like being able to pair up allies to fight on the same square. Instead, there’s the new Engage system that stems from the rings everyone’s fighting over.

Being able to kit out any unit with any Emblem rings in your possession is a great way to spice things up with a classic character’s signature attacks and weapons, costume changes, and the cool cutscenes that come with them. You can reassign these rings at will outside of battle, and anyone without one can use points to bond with any Emblem to acquire some of their skills. You can even create rings based on units from said Emblem’s respective game in a gacha-style system to give other units in your army a little stat boost: all of which will create some resource management aspects you’ll need to consider as you continue your campaign.

Though you’re likely to give your strongest rings to your beefiest characters, plugging a unit’s lacking defences with an Emblem Ring is also a great way to train up your favourites. Anna, Framme, and Etie all struggled early on in my playthrough, but I’m happy to report that they’ve all managed to become MVPs in various battles since. When you find your favourites, you’ll do anything to keep them around that little bit longer.

And for those put off by the game’s heavy emphasis on strategy and decision-making, the Draconic Time Crystal is here to help. Unlocked early on, it lets you rewind the moves you make on your turn, which can really help alleviate the frustration of making one wrong decision. But if an unlikely critical hit lands on your team, it’ll happen again if you re-attempt the same move. There’s no getting around destiny.

Exploring in Fire Emblem Engage before and after battles.

The calm before (and after) the storm

Between battles, you’re free to mosey around the battlefield to chat with allies, rescue townsfolk, collect items, and adopt animals for your pen back at your floating fortress, the Somniel. Here, you can make meals to bond with allies, train them up at the arena, pet a weird dog on an altar, shop for goods and costumes, and take a nap that a random ally will wake you from in a sort of bizarre ASMR scenario.

Spending time at the Somniel between brawls can feel like a colossal waste of time early on, but as your army grows in size and you pick out your favourites to spend time with, you’ll start to appreciate the downtime more and more.

You’re free to gun it through each single-battle chapter if you’re in a hurry, but you’ll still see skirmishes, training battles, and the odd paralogue chapter dotted around the map if you’re itching for another fight.

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You won’t really need to see these through if you’re playing on the lower difficulty settings, but it’s easy to imagine having to risk losing units on the permadeath mode by throwing yourself at every battle just to afford some new equipment, train your troops, and bag the rare Master Seals needs to promote your units to Advanced classes. Resources are hard to come by even on the lower settings, but you’re unlikely to feel the effects too much unless you’re asking for trouble on the higher difficulty settings.

Framme, in Fire Emblem Engage, talking about the fan club she formed with her brother around the slumbering Divine Dragon they tend to.

A colourful cast of idiots

Back to the characters, though. They’re the real selling point here. They’re rather one-note in their personalities, sure, with most conversations back at the hub world quickly falling back to their single, often comical, interests. But they end up feeling like the cast of a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel show in the best ways - goofy, lovable, and practically all sharing a single brain cell.

A few great examples would be Clanne always finding a way to mention his hobby of making pickles, Princess Céline drinking tea with virtually everyone all the time, her frilly-clothed retainer Etie always pumping iron, and clingy Clanne and Framme going into town to plug their Divine Dragon fan club. Interactions with Emblems are relatively short-winded by comparison, but there’s enough of the traditional Fire Emblem chit-chat here to keep you in the Somnial for sometimes longer than you spend in a decisive battle.

By chapter eight, I can admit that I was left a little perplexed by Fire Emblem Engage, but not necessarily in a bad way. The combat is as impactful as ever, and while I appreciate that the change in art style isn’t for everyone, I’m convinced it (and the characters it affects) is the hook that’ll see most through to the end.

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The story is hardly groundbreaking, but I’m having a blast firing arrows, clashing steel, and talking about tea and pickles back at home base. There’s just the feeling in the back of my mind that hardcore fans might be a little disappointed by the game’s ‘lite’ leanings. It does feel like a simplified form of what came before. Whether or not you think Nintendo has trimmed the fat will be based on what you liked and disliked about previous entries. Or perhaps things get a little more serious down the line.