Fire Emblem Engage has some big shoes to fill. The series has always had a cult following, but 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses rocketed the game into another stratosphere. Engage is clearly aware of the new position it finds itself in, mining its own history as a core gameplay mechanic, and building on the life sim elements of Three Houses. But for all the steps it takes forwards, there are also some tactical retreats backwards.
Fire Emblem games tend to start slowly, with the winding narrative unfolding more as the game goes on. I’ve played eight chapters for this preview (I’d guess I’m somewhere between a quarter and a third of the way through), so most of my impressions of the story are rooted in the characters rather than the overarching plot. Fire Emblem Engage’s characters are like a big bowl of sugar.
My list of favourites is ever-changing, as I’m introduced to more and more energetic and excitable characters. They all have distinct personas, but interacting with them feels quite shallow, like I’m getting canned responses. Every exchange is somehow both over the top and stilted, packed with strange lines, eccentric vocals, and nothing of value to say. It’s compelling in the moment, but often forgettable. Compared to my Black Eagles run, there’s no one who seems as well-defined as Edelgard, Hubert, Bernadetta, Petra, or Dorothea in terms of motivation or personality.
That’s not to say I don’t care for them – as I said, my favourites keep switching as different characters charm me. There’s just a disappointing lack of substance so far. This isn’t helped by the much larger cast (no houses this time, so you’re dealing with everyone all at once), nor the lack of activities in your downtime. Despite giving gifts aplenty and talking to every character between missions, I have only unlocked three support conversations and cared about three fewer than that. You’re nowhere near as close to your allies as in Three Houses, and that’s a major disappointment.
However, the improvements to the gameplay itself are magnificent. I was not convinced by the central mechanic (bringing back old heroes via magical rings) from the trailers, but in action it’s a revelation. The closest comparison I can think of is Gigantimaxing in Pokemon – the rings allow you to summon an old hero who grants new powers for a limited number of turns. Some just give you extra attack strength, others let you teleport, storm through a line of enemies, or temporarily change your class into a healer. It asks you to consider which characters to give each ring to, when to ‘engage’ for the boost, and which foes to target. It’s an extra layer added on top that fits naturally and without disrupting play.
These rings are central to the narrative, too, and while how successful this is remains to be seen, I do appreciate that these old characters hang out at your base and can hold conversations. Unfortunately, even more so than the others, these conversations are one-sided and bland.
The basic gameplay is as it has ever been, moving units tactically and utilising different strengths to take out your opponents in turn-based battles. Aside from making the animations more cinematic, nothing much has changed. Thus far I haven’t even unlocked any unique classes, but the Engage gameplay elevates the experience.
Supplementing this gameplay outside of immediate battles is not as smooth, however. Rings can be used to create other, less powerful rings, but the process is hidden away and not all that interesting. There’s also a lack of a lesson-based structure guiding you on how to build up each character, and while you can share meals for temporary boosts as you could in Three Houses, the general importance of the life-sim elements has been relegated, despite still offering you lots of opportunities to engage. Geddit?
While there’s a lack of friendship to Engage, it makes up for this with maximum horniness. All of the male characters can walk around bare-chested, pecs glistening in the sun. The ladies have a far more modest one-piece frilled bathing suit, but the villains (mostly female) bring a lot to the party. While your allies are often wholesome to the point of irritation, the villains have a cool, dark edge to them. If anything, they do the job too well. The narrative is simplistic and I find myself rooting for the bad guys, hoping the battle ends with a truce or conversion rather than vanquishing the few interesting people from the game.
As with most previews, it’s too early to tell how I’ll feel about Fire Emblem Engage in the end. My most basic interpretation would be that the gameplay is better than Three Houses but the characters are worse. I don’t expect that will change once I’ve played the full game and can review the whole thing, but maybe by then I’ll be able to contemplate what that means for the experience as a whole.
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