Fire Emblem has been a longstanding franchise for Nintendo, being their premier strategy RPG series amongst their ranks for over 30 years. There have been ups and downs along the way, with some notable highlights in recent times that have propelled it to the heights we see today. However, there has been some doubt since the announcement of Fire Emblem Engage. Ditching the aspects that made Fire Emblem: Three Houses so popular and instead going back to its simpler roots, does Engage live up to the franchise’s pedigree, or does it fail to be engaging?

The female form of Alear posing alongside Embem Lucina.

Fire Emblem Engage
Nintendo Switch

Developed by Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Released: 20th January 2023
Digital copy provided by Nintendo UK

The story of Engage takes a step back from the complex, politically driven plot of Three Houses. You won’t be engaging with moral grey areas or dubious motivations, as Engage adopts a more traditional good versus evil plot. It follows the awakening of the Divine Dragon, Alear (or whatever you wish to call them) after they have slept for 1,000 years after the war against the Fell Dragon Sombron. The end of their slumber marks the signs of Sombron’s resurrection, inflicting their wrath against the land of Elyos once again. It’s up to Alear to gather an army from the many nations of the land to strike back against the dark dragon.

Just because the plot is simple doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad though. There were several moments where the game knew when it should be taken seriously. However, there are also plenty of moments of levity, sometimes even bordering on farcical. I would argue that it’s all subject to opinion, as the tropey nature of the plot will either be gladly expected or underwhelming, or even cringe worthy.

It is worth noting that Engage is absolutely a return to form, bringing things back to simpler days like with the Game Boy Advance titles, rather than pushing things forward. For people whose first entry was Three Houses, this could well be a disappointment, but for long-time fans it can be a welcome moment of reprieve from all the seriousness. Considering Engage is a celebration of Fire Emblem’s history, with all of the Emblem heroes from across the series, having a traditional affair is very fitting.

Gameplay revolves around taking turns to position your units on a grid based map. Foes litter the map, which you must move up to and engage (pun not intended) in combat. Likewise, the enemy also has turns to position itself too, so be on the lookout for when they attack too. Careful planning of where you position your units is paramount to success, as not to take too much damage and even lose a unit in battle. The terrain of a map will impact where you can move, with some obstacles like thickets reducing the move distance, or others that outright can’t be crossed unless the unit can fly. The type of unit affects how far they can move on the grid, as heavily armoured ones can’t move as far as regular infantry, and those on horseback can move even further than that.

A scene from the grid-based tactical view of a scenic town. The princess Céline speaks to Alear, saying: "Divine One, with your blessing—and hers, of course—I would like to fight by Celica's side."
She refers to the Emblem Celica.

Attacking a foe is as simple as positioning a unit within their attack range close enough for them to strike, usually one space away for melee attackers or several for ranged ones. Once in battle, it isn’t just a case of selecting an attack and being done with it, there are variables that can affect the outcome, some of which are left to chance. The most important one is the weapon triangle, determining an attack’s effectiveness. In simplest terms, swords are effective against axes, axes against lances, and lances against swords. There are a few others to keep in mind, such as bows being strong against flying enemies, but this covers the jist of things.

New mechanics to the game are the break and smash systems. If you attack with a positive weapon match-up, the enemy is inflicted with break and drop their weapon. This makes them unable to counterattack and be incapable of attacking for the next combat instance they’re involved in. This makes it rather handy for levelling up weaker units, as you can break them with a stronger one and allow them to finish the enemy off without fear of being damaged, or even killed. Do note that the status reverts to normal once it’s the enemy’s turn, so it can’t be used to stagger them indefinitely. Smash is a status that is inflicted by certain heavy weapons. Once you attack with one, it pushes the foe back one space on the map. If you do this with their back up against a wall, it will also inflict break on them.

The character Alcryst, a prince of the nation of Brodia, readies a bow to inflict a critical hit.

As an RPG, the stats of the unit also factor in, with stats such as attack, defence and speed determining the amount dealt, taken, whether it misses or the order you get to go in. A forecast of a possible outcome is shown prior to engaging, so you can decide if you feel it’s worth attacking or retreating. Sometimes you may have to gamble with unfavourable odds, which can lead to some tense moments, leaving you on the edge of your seat. 

The Emblem Rings are where a good glut of the customisation comes in, as there are loads of different aspects beyond simply equipping your favourite heroes onto characters. Each Emblem has a bond level per character, with higher levels granting more skills when equipped. Once you’re a high enough bond level, you can also inherit a skill from them, meaning you can have access to it even if they aren’t equipped anymore. While many passive skills grant extra stats, some key skills will add a new trait, and these can’t be stacked if the original Emblem is still equipped. There’s a lot of tinkering you can do with the variety of skills at your disposal, making for some truly devious combinations with enough planning.

Further Bond Rings beyond the main Emblems can be forged, based on other characters from each hero’s respective games. These give stat boosts to any unit they’re given to, and each character has different tiers with higher stats the higher up you go. You can’t give both a Bond Ring and an Emblem Ring to the same character though. This is something of a gacha system, and can produce duplicates, but they can be melded together to forge another of a higher tier. It all uses an in-game currency called Bond Fragments, no actual real world money can be spent on this, so don’t worry about you bank account. It’s also a smaller aspect of the game that won’t hold too much impact, as the main Emblem Rings are generally more potent than these.

Anna taking centre frame with a bewildered look, speaking to Alear, saying: "Hang on, what?! You're the Divine Dragon?! My sales...they're gonna go through the roof!"

There are many other aspects of customisation and character build options available at your disposal, such as refining weapons and class optimisation, but I feel it’s best to tinker with these in your own time rather than discussing the minutia any more than I already have. There are so many options at your fingertips that you can create all manner of different units, making each unique save file different from the rest.

In-between chapters, you can visit a hub called Somniel, where you can do a variety of smaller activities and chat with your allies. This is primarily where the support system of prior games takes place, where hidden points accumulated while fighting alongside them eventually build up to unlocking a series of unique conversations with them. While not quite as built up as in something like Three Houses, where it was a pivotal aspect, it’s still very interesting to learn more about each character. As before, higher supports also give boosts to stats whenever the units are close to each other in battle, so it’s always worth doing them. 

Other activities include strength training, which gives you a temporary buff for the next chapter, shopping for items and weapons, customising you and your allies’ clothing, and so on. There’s a surprising amount of things to do here, making it an interesting break from having to constantly battle one chapter at a time. All these activities give you something in return too, whether it’s support points or extra items, so you’re never not rewarded for taking the time to do them. It’s also not forced upon you like with Three Houses academy sections, so you can just skip ahead to the next chapter if you so choose.

Alear performing a special attack with a Rapier weapon.

After finishing a map in each chapter, you get the opportunity to explore the area on foot, outside of the grid based movement restrictions. Scattered around are hidden items, conversations with NPCs and allies, and even animals you can adopt to take back to Somniel. It’s surprising just how detailed these maps are, as you get the opportunity to look at them from angles you otherwise couldn’t in the battle view.

The game’s visuals are probably the most contentious aspect of the game. The aesthetic, and approach as a whole, may come off as off putting to some. It is exceptionally “anime”, for lack of a better term, adopting a bright, colourful style with lots of flamboyant designs compared to the more grounded approach Three Houses took. While it is pleasant to have such crisp, vivid visuals, you can’t help but feel that the entire aesthetic was moulded into the style of Mika Pikazo’s art, rather than her art being adapted to fit Fire Emblem.

Mika’s previous works include a variety of light novel illustrations and Vtuber art for Hakos Baelz of Hololive, which is a far cry from what you might expect from a fantasy driven franchise. It likely won’t be much of a bother to anyone comfortable with the JRPG genre though. If anything, it produces very emotive expressions on each character, which is easily readable at a glance.

The pre-rendered cutscenes, while definitely enjoyable to look at, do suffer from visible compression artefacts. Things like fading to darker scenes or sharper colours display elements of pixelation, which feels rather disappointing. I imagine it was to keep the file size down as these cutscenes have been done twice over to also feature both male and female versions of Alear. These aren’t too bad on the handheld screen, but when displayed on a TV they can look a little rough.

The character Merrin petting her wolf companion in a desert town, with Emblem Lyn floating alongside her.

Many in-engine cutscenes use flat backgrounds, but these are far better disguised than the ones in Three Houses, which effectively put you inside a cylinder with a texture wrapped inside it. They can sometimes look rather low resolution, especially if playing in docked mode. At least here you get a variety of different angles to help with the illusion, making it much more welcome as a resource saver. They load much faster than if they were to render the scenes in 3D, especially for the supports that take place in entirely different locations.

The performance is thankfully a major highlight, after Three Houses was relatively unstable. Frame rate dips are rare, tending to only happen in the transitions from map to combat sequence, which never actually impacts your inputs. Sometimes it dips when loading into new scenes, but this also doesn’t impact the gameplay. It’s nice to have a game that maintains a high resolution whilst performing well at the same time, keeping a relatively stable 30fps at most times.

Engage has an expansion pass available with a road map of new content to be drip fed to players over time. The first wave includes new support items, accessories and, most notably, new Emblem characters. Edelgard, Dimitri and Claude from Three Houses come together as a single Emblem, swapping between the three for different abilities, as well as Tiki from Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Lastly, a Silver Card is available, which grants a whopping 30% discount at the armoury and item shop. 

The second wave adds further new Emblems, being Hector, Soren, and Camilla. Later comes the third wave, with Chrom and Robin as a duo, and Veronica. Most of these require some sort of prerequisite to be completed, either through a paralogue or reaching a certain chapter, so they aren’t complete freebies. Wave four, due later this year, consists of a brand new story section called the Fell Xenologue. This will add new characters and classes alongside it, expanding the world of Elyos further. We’ll cover this new story when the time comes, so keep an eye out for it.

As a whole, Fire Emblem Engage is a very complete package, with plenty of stuff to really sink your teeth into. There is plenty of customisation available and lots of side content to make use of your options. As a strategy game, being able to tinker with things is half of the fun, so it’s good to know that there’s lots to do with it. The lighter tone and simpler story probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea though, not to mention the jarring shift in art style. For anyone comfortable with this though, it’s an absolute blast. This is the ideal starting point for anyone who hasn’t played a Fire Emblem game before, being on the simpler side with less getting in the way of learning the ropes. Not only that, but it acts as a primer to the series as a whole, with various allusions to events in prior games. With the promise of more on the way too, you’ll no doubt be playing this for some time.

Princess Timerra offers words of encouragement to Alear, saying: "What matters to me isn't how you were born. It's what you do with the life you're given."

Final rating – 4 out of 5

Fire Emblem Engage is available now for Nintendo Switch.

Long time fan of Nintendo and games in general, I always lean on the quirkier and unique sides of things in particular. It all started when I was lucky enough to get a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow for my tenth birthday and it’s been going strong ever since. I’ve always had a need to get my voice heard and share anything I find interesting with the world.