Few gameplay moments are as heartbreaking as losing a character in Fire Emblem. Whether you reload a save or not, you lose minimal progress and possibly a character you’ve invested hours of your life into making as effective as possible. Even worse than that, it’s not just another unit on a chessboard. It is a character with a name, a history and a personality that you have come to know intimately to this point. You know his or her dreams and ambitions, and see them go up in smoke in front of you. That is the power of Fire Emblem: a power that is sadly largely missing in Engage.
Clichéd story and new systems
As I pointed out in my preview already discussed, Fire Emblem Engage begins rather abruptly and cliché. Your main character Alear awakens with amnesia, and is told that he or she (the choice is yours) has the responsibility as a holy dragon to defeat her evil equal – just as she did 1,000 years ago. To do that, though, she must first collect a number of rings containing the souls of previous Fire Emblem characters, such as Marth, Ike and Roy. Some of the rings you get directly from your guards, but the rest are scattered throughout the kingdoms of the world – including the kingdom that the evil “Fell Dragon” wants to resurrect.
When Alear or one of her companions wears such an “Emblem Ring,” the corresponding soul fights with you. You can even merge with that classic Fire Emblem hero. This not only transforms your character into a brightly colored cyberpunk version of herself (complete with a tasty ’90s “Magical Girl” transformation clip), but also gives them temporary access to the weapons and abilities of the respective hero(s). For example, rider Sigurd suddenly gives a slow unit a lot more mobility, and Micaiah gives you access to a strong heal, and the use of magic.
This new Emblem system is central to Engage, but a number of familiar systems also make an appearance once again. For example, the stone-paper-scissors system is back, and the class system has all the depth you would expect from it. Other typical Fire Emblem systems are also present, of course, such as how terrain affects your stats, and locked doors or weak walls give access to convenient shortcuts.
Where in my preview I thought the Emblem Rings felt reasonably balanced, they gradually start to overshadow those other systems a bit. The earlier rings give you access to better stats and an extremely useful active skill that you can use once per transformation. Later in the game, they also offer very strong passive skills, so you always use the most effective weapon in a counterattack, for example. Thus the systems can still be exploited again to create almost unbeatable units that can wipe out entire armies, without having to do anything yourself.
Balance is up to you
Of course, you don’t have to take advantage of these kinds of options. When you don’t, the game is perfectly balanced – especially with all the options the game gives you to determine that balance yourself. Permadeath can be turned on or off, and you can always turn up the difficulty a notch if you don’t encounter enough resistance. Along with that, there’s another “rewind function” like the earlier “Divine Pulse,” which allows you to rewind a wrong move or frustrating breakdowns.
The latter system was still controversial in Three Houses, and it will be a bit worse in Engage. After all, in Three Houses such a system was much needed. You had a relatively small number of characters at your disposal and put dozens of hours into building them out with all the systems the game had to offer. If you lost one of these characters, you not only lost a character you had built a bond with, you were also weakened for the rest of your playthrough. In Engage, things are a little different. You don’t have to teach your units here, and an extra support level more or less is hardly noticeable compared to the power of an Emblem Ring. ‘Bond levels’ that increase your compatibility with Emblem Rings, on the other hand, are pretty easily maximized. This makes most characters relatively easily interchangeable.
That’s immediately Engage’s biggest flaw. Three Houses took such great strides to tell a good story, with characters you invested in not only strategically and financially, but emotionally as well. Engage’s plot, on the other hand, is wafer-thin, and the characters are visually “flashy” – sometimes verging on gaudy – but in terms of personality are as flat as it gets. Most of these are immediately impressed with you as Divine Dragon, which spills over into fandom, shyness or an extreme sense of duty. If every relationship starts from that point, there is also no sensible way to work out that bond. Don’t get me wrong: there are quite a few nice characters among them. They just rarely transcend their stereotype.
Engage thus has the plot of an average anime game. This is not about telling a good story starring the new characters, but about fan service around the classic heroes. The problem is that a Leif, Lyn, or Lucina do not generate the same enthusiasm as a Goku, Luffy, or Tanjiro. Besides, Fire Emblem has told the same kind of story before and more effectively with the Warriors games, which made the power fantasy around these heroes much more tangible.
Fortunately, there is a lot of strategic depth in return. With all the options the Emblem Rings offer, there is a lot to sink your teeth into if you like min/maxing. On top of that, there are numerous systems to beef up your Emblems’ weapons, for example. There is also a rather arbitrary (but thankfully free) gacha system that allows you to give your Emblems even more stats. Even if the storyline should provide insufficient challenge, there are still (indirect) multiplayer modes to fight with, or against, the armies of other players. Thus Engage theoretically offers more gameplay and depth than ever before.
Fire Emblem Engage thus offers everything you can expect from a Fire Emblem in terms of strategy – and more. But while the game has more gameplay depth than ever before, the plot and its characters are clichéd and uninteresting. Thus Engage drops an important – even essential – aspect of a good Fire Emblem. If you get excited by the idea of Marth and Byleth going up against each other, or go hard on Fire Emblem strategy – not to mention all the characterization – then you will have quite a bit of fun with the game. Just don’t expect to feel anything when you say goodbye to Alear or her shallow henchmen.