Fire Emblem Engage spoiler-free review - Just the tea-cket

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Alear, the Divine Dragon from Fire Emblem Engage, looking determined.

After 60 long and mostly enjoyable hours with Fire Emblem Engage, I’ve seen the credits roll and learned of the future I carved out for my army along the way. And I have thoughts. The be-all-and-end-all is that the latest iteration of Nintendo’s continuously growing SRPG series is a blast, but it’s as much a deviation from its most recent success as it is a finely-tuned take on the formula kickstarted by Gameboy designer Gunpei Yokoi back in the 80s. I think it’s better for it, but what you’ll get from this release depends entirely on what you got out of the last.

As you likely already know from the trailers, Fire Emblem Engage sets itself up like an all-stars compilation. It’s an entirely standalone narrative, requiring no knowledge of the series’ storied history, but it finds a way to incorporate almost its entire back catalogue of primary protagonists by way of the Emblem rings - objects which, when “engaged” by a character - call out the spirit of those heroes to fight alongside you with cool attacks, flashy weapons, and awesome outfits.

Of course, a war breaks out to control these powerful artefacts, leading to a second major world kerfuffle once the evil vanquished the first time reemerges. It’s all cookie-cutter stuff that you don’t really need to be able to keep up with to enjoy. You come in for the combat, and you stay for the characters. Whether they’re royalty, retainers, or rowdy priests, they’re all dumb and charming enough to keep the journey from growing too stale.

Lapis and Pandreo enjoying lunch at the Somniel.
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Daggers and dragon

Things kick off pretty quickly in this one. You get a taste of the final battle from a thousand years ago to set the stage of the Divine Dragon you play as, then wake up in the present day to see the signs of war trickle out again; your roused sleep suddenly seeming less like a coincidence and more like divine intervention. Corrupted assailants are spotted on the lands between your floating house and the kingdom’s palace. You get to work fighting through them, learning the ropes of its series’ tactical turn-based combat by moving your characters around like chess pieces on a board, dramatically zooming in with each decision to see them duke it out with intensely satisfying animations and witty (or wacky) battle cries.

There’s plenty of heft behind each blow, whether it’s from a heavy lance swing or a flurry of swift kicks and jabs. And it never gets old to see the top-down view of the battlefield seamlessly transition to a 3D brawl between the two chosen combatants. You won’t see footsoldiers trudging behind like in Three Houses, going about their own important bouts, but you will get to take in some gloriously gargantuan landscapes like the Firenese fields and the occasional grandiose place of religious worship. It all helps to put the countless battles on your whirlwind tour of Elyos into perspective, and watching armoured pikemen stomp through a fence just to get slapped around by an axe-wielding child with a penchant for peddling pairs a neat detail with an almost slapstick type of humour that’s just missing a cartoon bonk sound for good measure.

For all the things Fire Emblem Engage gets right with its punchy combat, there’s one thing wrong, though: a glaring omission of rumble support. Given Nintendo’s original push for the 3D haptics of the Switch’s Joy-con controllers, it’s strange not to feel the feedback of your button presses in the fingers that trigger each advancement.

Most battles boil down to the tactical use of your acquired Emblem rings. Any unit can equip them, and with 12 to collect, the fancy signature moves they temporarily bestow work wonders to ease the sometimes repetitive flow of battle by way of impressively impactful cutscenes. Just watching them be used by another character can give a whole new perspective and appreciation for each: like the slim and wishy-washy spell-weaver Clanne suddenly throwing down with Ike’s hammer the size of his torso; his calm demeanour giving way to a raspy line delivery filled with the inflexions of desperate-yet-dutiful passion.

Clanne scoring a critical hit with Fire in Fire Emblem Engage.

Welcome to the Divine Dragon Fanclub

On the subject of its characters, any Fire Emblem game wouldn’t be the same without its quirky one-note cast. The brunt of battle would still be present, but the motivation wouldn’t quite last were your army to consist solely of gruff military and battle-brazened men. Fire Emblem sticks to its guns (or lack thereof) with a varied kaleidoscope of units the majority of which seem obsessed with tea.

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You’ll mostly fill it out with royal bloodlines and their retainers, but from an Alpaca-riding buffoon to a party-obsessed man of the cloth, you’ll be hard-pressed to make it to any fight without spending ten minutes deliberating who stays behind and who goes to war. You might not have a choice on the gruelling permadeath mode, but play it on an easier setting, and you won’t have to worry about seeing your favourites kick the bucket to a low-probability critical blow, giving you dozens of hours to get to know them through an impressive array of dialogue.

You’re unlikely to walk away with many profound messages save Rosado’s wise words on gender, self-expression, and charisma, but interactions like Clanne’s obsession with the manufacturing of pickles to Lapis’ country-girl tater talk eases the grind of a potentially hours-long battle. Ways to have your whole army organically interact with one another outside of battle are few and far between, however. Don’t expect to see every potential line of the script without multiple playthroughs, purposefully elongating your run by thrusting yourself into more brawls than you need, or finding a way to game the chat-unlocking Support system with some specific skills. It can be done, but a more natural way would have been welcome in an age where we’re looking for any reason to wrap up our current obsession and move on to the next.

Yanaka casting Great Sacrifice, an Engage skill from Micaiah in Fire Emblem Engage.

And that takes me to some of the mechanical shortcomings of Fire Emblem Engage. I could stand alone with this take - especially against those who played every route of Three Houses and Fates, but the 50-60 hour campaign could have been shorter. No chapter is longer than a single skirmish or two, but you’ll often spend as much time progressing the story as you do back in the Somniel, dealing with menial army upkeep and bouncing between a few too many menus.

The convoluted Emblem system, which allows characters to unlock and use the skills of a Ring they don’t have equipped, is a particular pain point that requires you to visit multiple areas of the hub to achieve what should be a single-step process. Because it often can’t give you all the necessary details on one screen, there were multiple instances where the cluttered information on one screen distracted me from my aim. I had to bounce between loading screens just to re-confirm which skill I wanted to inherit, where it came from, and the Bond level that specific character and Emblem needed. I then had to head to another screen to learn and equip it, praying I wouldn't forget a detail, just to find a reason why I couldn’t.

It’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but I did find myself abandoning or neglecting certain systems because of the headache the contrived execution of a simple idea entailed. And if you’re in it primarily for the characters, you might be let down by the outfits available to customise your favourites, too. Beyond the unique set they have for their primary class and their default out-of-battle garb, the costumes you can unlock by blowing your in-game cash are rarely more than simple regional attire worn by the commonfolk. Don’t go expecting multiple extravagant outfits per character or any unique flair beyond the occasional palette swap.

Lapis standing around a snowy landscape after a victory in Fire Emblem Engage.
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Swings and roundabouts (and Fell Dragons)

Again, none of my qualms with Fire Emblem Engage dampened my spirits, but unlocking the tailor ended up just being a more constant source of disappointment than the story as the chapters progressed and more areas opened up. And that’s because the stories of these games have never been particularly great, instead just being a reason for the cast to fight with their words as well as their swords.

It’s clear from the setup that Engage isn’t setting out to reboot the history of Fire Emblem. It hits many of the same tired story beats as past entries, with there even being a point where I feel they outright admit it’s all a bit dumb. But hilarious character interactions between its one-note cast go hand-in-hand with it all. Paired with the consistently satisfying combat you have a game that can reliably bring a smile, a chuckle, and keep your eyes glued to the screen for a good half-dozen hours at a time. I can imagine Twitter collectively gushing as they circle around a few of the scenes (and maybe question one particular character arc that skirts manipulating mental illness), but I don’t think the writers are expecting any sort of narrative awards for this one. And that’s fine. The designers nailed it.

Back to the point, though - the game does go on for a while, and the wind can get taken out of your sails when you try to chew everything it offers between each major battle. Learn to ignore a few, though, and you’ll see it through. You can always reload your final save and grind optional battles to unlock anything you might have missed if you do eventually feel like having it go on a little longer. If you really want more, online activities let you take on unique battles together, make your own battles, and challenge yourself with gauntlet-style runs to grab rare materials.

Etie sniping a dragon-riding Ruffian from the sky in Fire Emblem Engage.

If you’re afraid of the grind to reach those final moments, let my experience be proof that you won’t need to worry about getting into the weeds of army management. All of these convoluted systems are relatively inconsequential on lower difficulty settings. I never once upgraded a weapon, augmented my Emblems, or bothered with the standard stat-boosting rings you can forge and equip other allies with. I didn’t even touch a side-story Skirmish beyond maybe chapter 12. To my surprise, even having only completed the odd paralogue mission to unlock the level soft-cap on my Emblems, I trudged through the story without a single Game Over. I wouldn’t say I even had any close calls.

Five years after a mainline game, and only a few months between a Warriors-style spin-off, Fire Emblem fans continue to eat good with the release of Engage. Its single campaign path might upset those hoping to ride it out until Nintendo’s next big release, but it’s a title worth its asking price. It’s one of the most visually appealing games on the ageing system with a bright and saturated art style that’s gorgeously realized on an OLED screen, and its appropriately playful and unabashedly goofy cast helps its relatively uninspired story not feel like a complete waste of time. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but Fire Emblem Engage is a joy from start to finish that’s only really dampened by some convoluted UX design and story bloat.

It almost overstays its welcome, but I’ll be thinking about its merry band of men, women, and that doctor’s kid who decided to become a child soldier for the foreseeable future. The brilliant range of the soundtrack won’t leave my ears for weeks to come. I just doubt I’ll have the heart to try a Classic run any time soon. Lapis and Etie were bullied throughout my standard pass at it, and I’m not smart enough to keep them from an embarrassingly dim-witted demise that’ll leave me emotionally spent for days.

Fire Emblem Engage
From a solid score to a rapturous cast of characters, Fire Emblem Engage refines the strategy format into a worthy successor to what kicked off the West’s obsession with the series. The story is barebones at best, but the Emblem system is bound to ignite a call for more remakes and releases. And we’ll take them.
Nintendo Switch