Fire Emblem is a revered tactical role-playing classic franchise with a dedicated fan base. That base has steadily grown into the mainstream over the years, culminating in 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses in which Intelligent Systems gained its largest audience to date by putting out one of the best games on the Switch. Fire Emblem: Engage has arrived as the studio’s follow up, and it made my head spin. This latest installment delivers more of the franchise’s signature strategic gameplay, support character interactions, and epic story lines, but somehow, Fire Emblem: Engage falls short of expectations once you go beyond surface level.
Insert Beyoncé Joke Here
The splashy new mechanic to differentiate Fire Emblem: Engage is the Emblem Rings equipment. This new feature allows players to equip their favorite classic Fire Emblem heroes by way of special rings that grant various bonuses and abilities in battle named after iconic weapons and abilities over the course of the series. While this sounds like an interesting addition to mix up the gameplay, it can sometimes feel like a cheat button. In previous Fire Emblem games, players had to carefully strategize and position their units in order to gain an advantage in battle, which is the core appeal to the series. Now, you turn on turbo mode, go back home, and polish the ring while it embarrassingly talks to you.
With the Emblem Rings, it’s possible to compensate for poor positioning or other mistakes with a simple ring ability, on top of the rewinding time mechanic returning from Three Houses. This can make battles feel dissatisfying as players are less incentivized to think ahead and more likely to rely on Marth, Tiki, Roy and Ike to carry them through. While the Emblem Rings are a fun idea, they remove depth from a strategy game, which is the point of playing Fire Emblem. In Casual Mode, where no characters can die, a lot of the early game battles aren’t quite so riveting, and the Emblem Rings generally overrides the already lacking personality of the cast to nostalgia bait fans.
Points for Listening
While Fire Emblem games have always had a focus on building relationships between characters, the writing for Engage’s cast, at least for those playing the English translation, is paper thin. Characters feel one-dimensional, and, frankly, really annoying. A little bit of cringe is expected from the series, but these characters make the cast of Fire Emblem: Three Houses look like Oscar winning performances.
It says a lot that I was able to make up more entertaining joke summations of these characters prior to actually playing, and was scarily accurate. While the social link tasks in between battles come off as generally optional, they are actually required in order to get the most out of the game by way of earning Bond point resources and upgrading their Support levels.
Bond points are absolutely necessary if you want to have your crew equipped with high ranking minor rings; to properly succeed at this you are going to become used to monotonous dialogue and petting your strange spirit animal (I named mine “Orb.”) Because of this, players are forced to waste time grinding through these half-baked interactions by way of ring polishing, random item pick up from the stables, a stripped down meal planning mechanic, workout mini games that do temporary stat buffs, and taking a nap while the game advises headphone use while a character whispers some sweet ASMR in your ear.
But Wait, There’s More
In order to unlock new abilities and bonuses, which can become tedious when the character stories aren’t interesting, players are required to grind for money, Bond Fragments and SP, all of which become increasingly scarce in the late game, and even sooner if you’re not picky with what characters you use. However, the game also allows bond fragments to be used in the Arena, where you can have characters train to grind stats and bond levels. This is a much more useful way to spend these points, but even then the rings are essential to have on all your characters.
The rabbit hole goes even deeper: once you’ve become hypnotized by Engage’s gameplay loop, and the importance of as a resource. SP is gained for a character when they wear one of the game’s Emblem Rings, housing skills and weapons of classic characters. The game maxes out a character’s bond level with a ring rather quickly, incentivizing you to split off protagonist Divine Dragon PepsiMan and his canon companion Marth, so that they may earn new skills. The game urges you to swap these rings around with each character. As characters use rings they slowly gain SP, which can be used to inherit skills from the Emblem characters they bond with, but the game also sneakily makes skills cheaper if you buy other skills first. This doesn’t even touch upon the seals to change or upgrade Classes for characters, most of which you can earn via story events, or grinding out in a very passive multiplayer mode, at least until you unlock them in the shop in the late game.
By the time you even reach the midpoint, the monotony of returning from battle to the hub world just feels like a loop that will make your eyes glaze over and where Fire Emblem: Three Houses had a bit of charm to the Academy characters combined with the magic fantasy school concept having debilitating sentimental value for many millennials, this iteration just feels soulless. By as far as two thirds into the game, I felt no attachment to characters, no excitement when they upgraded their class, and minimal satisfaction when I saw their battling improve. But boy, did those numbers sure go up.
It still plays good, right?
Despite its missteps, Fire Emblem: Engage does have some redeeming qualities. The classic gameplay that the franchise is known for is still present and accounted for, with the return of the triangle weapons system, namely. These are tried and true mechanics that have been refined over the course of the franchise’s long history, and they are just as satisfying to engage with now as in past games. For legacy fans of the classic Fire Emblem gameplay, there is still plenty to enjoy in Engage. However, while these aspects of the game are solid, they alone are not enough to carry Fire Emblem: Engage. There’s just not a lot of polish or balance.
For fans who joined the Fire Emblem franchise after the release of Three Houses, Fire Emblem: Engage is less appealing. While the core gameplay is the same, it lacks a certain spark that made that game popular, and it’s not the social links. Three Houses had an approachable sense of world building, character development and overall presentation that elevated it beyond previous entries. The return of the weapon triangle is welcome, and the introduction of the Emblem Rings mechanics not only undoes that revival, it particularly feels like a forced attempt to differentiate and replicate on the success of Fire Emblem Heroes on mobile, but it just falls flat here.
Fire Emblem: Engage’s battles sure play well, and maybe it’s unfair to judge it across from the most streamlined and successful entry in the series. However, the missteps in the game’s design, such as the Emblem Rings mechanics, the use of the SP resource, and the tedious social link tasks, ultimately make Fire Emblem: Engage a hard sell to newer fans, and a tepid recommendation to those who have stood by the series. If half of your gameplay has a statistical backbone that makes players treat story content and resource management as a grind compared to the combat encounters, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep playing.