Review – Fire Emblem Engage

Overview

Developer Intelligent Systems
Publisher Nintendo
Genre Strategy RPG
Platforms Nintendo Switch
Release Date January 20, 2023

Nintendo’s developers have a “success problem,” if such a thing can exist. Much like the expectations for Tears of the Kingdom are likely impossible to achieve thanks to the incredible popularity of Breath of the Wild, Intelligent Systems has a gargantuan task in following up Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It is by far the best game in the series and one of my favorite games of all time. Fire Emblem Engage presents itself as quite a different beast, clearly relying on nostalgia for past titles to win fans over. Does that actually work? Let’s find out! 

Scary bad guy is mean.

Content Guide

Keep in mind that I did not see every single Support Conversation. This is primarily about the main quest. 

Language: I’m sure this is wrong, but I honestly don’t remember any swear words. But maybe I’m right! According to the ESRB, someone says “bastard” and that’s it. But keep in mind that language is not just about cuss words. A recurring theme in the story is the damage that can be done by a parent who does not love their children, and some of those words were painful to hear, particularly as I think about my own children. 

Violence:  Okay, look, it’s a game about big medieval battles, there’s going to be violence. But I’m actually kind of amazed at the extent the game goes to not show it. There’s no blood or gore. Any character deaths somehow happen in battle and then you just see the character dying (but not bloody!) giving their final words. One character is killed outside of battle, but the camera shows the (magical) attack headed towards the screen without showing the target on the receiving end. A dragon eats one of his human underlings, which is shown all the way up until the actual bite, at which point it fades to black. It is described that a villain has killed his own children, and another villain kills one of her comrades (“adoptive family”) by stabbing (again, not directly shown). Even when a character is slapped (this happens twice) in fury, the screen goes black. Between this and the lack of foul language, it’s almost like they were trying to make the game E10+, except…

Sexual Content: There are a few main characters that appear very often, with very revealing outfits. A big part of Engage’s appeal is supposed to be its celebration of the series. If you look at the 12 Emblems brought back from past games, the six female characters are all covered to their throats. And their designs are awesome! Someone at Intelligent Systems has learned the wrong lesson. Sex appeal was never why we were playing Fire Emblem.

There is a shop where players can buy outfits for the characters to wear outside of battle, and eventually, swimsuits are available. This is entirely optional (and I spent my money on Brave Lances and Warp Staves instead). 

In a very awkward scene, a male villain suggests that the best way to accomplish your ambitions is to have children, who have to be loyal no matter how you treat them. A female villain then suggests they should have children together, to which he says “eh, maybe later.” 

There is a character who I will say cross-dresses rather than calling them transgender. Rosado has a clearly feminine presentation with long hair, a bow, cat ears, and an obsession with all things “cute”, but a clearly male voice. In the epilogue he is referred to with a male pronoun, however. 

There is a way to form a “deep bond” with a character without restriction on gender by giving them a “Pact Ring,” but it is a side option and not part of the main quest like in Three Houses, and its expression is largely platonic (no kissing, etc.).

Spiritual Content: Many people of the world worship the divine dragon, in this case the protagonist himself/herself. One recruit is a cleric of a church who worships the divine dragon. Additionally, a central aspect of the plot is that the villains use “Corrupted” as their army, which are essentially zombies. The Emblems players use are (dead?) heroes from other worlds, but this is presented as mystical (magic portals, etc.) rather than spiritual. While they are thin, I think the connections to Christianity are found more in the parenting and adoption motifs than the explicitly spiritual aspects.

Does anyone actually leave combat animations on?

Review

I’m just going to be honest: I was skeptical about this game. The trailers looked incredibly corny, and calling upon past heroes (“Emblems”) sounded too similar to Tokyo Mirage Sessions and the mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes, both of which were unsatisfying in their nostalgic efforts. Well, the game is corny, it turns out. The opening beats feel like an old Fire Emblem title in a bad way, with a very basic story and subpar graphics.

Let’s discuss the graphics and sound for a minute. The graphics are not actively bad or low quality; they seem to be about the same level of detail as the character models in Three Houses. But a lot of it feels unfinished or at least under-budgeted. Cutscenes in a room that should have forty people in it show only two or three (but show the vast “empty” room!). Action Scenes are frequently shown in a way to avoid depicting complicated sequences. It doesn’t look bad necessarily, but you can tell a bit is missing. The music was fine, but forgettable, other than the “big bad villain fight” music which was used too often (I had an ear infection most of the time I played this game, so maybe you should ignore me about the music).  

Where is everyone else??

Despite the seemingly lower budget compared to Three Houses, it seems that Engage still made sure to study its predecessor extensively, both in good and bad ways. The most obvious is that players again have a central hub from which to participate in various activities, many of them social. You can cook and share meals, give gifts, and participate in special battles. Much of this is wise; e.g. it is nice to be able to elevate Support with other characters without tediously making sure the characters are always adjacent in battle. And other than buying equipment, none of it is really necessary to complete the game (on Normal/Casual). 

But there are definitely too many subsystems. I’ve finished the game and I still don’t know how to Augment an Emblem. Polishing rings? Doing virtual labor while an entrapped ghost goes “Oh, yeah, that feels nice!”? Equally creepy is having various cast members wake you up every time you take a nap, even if there is a story-related reason for that. “Bond” scenes with the Emblems are literally one sentence from the recruit and one sentence from the Emblem, and the scene is over—what’s the point? Creating non-Emblem rings was also a confusing and tedious process, and watching the random encounters rearrange on the world map was just tedious. I suppose it’s unfair to fuss over mostly skippable content, but it definitely feels unfocused, with too many ideas that could have been reduced to work on improving the few that remain. 

Good morning, sleepyhead…

On the other hand, Engage does make several improvements. The game (finally!) has an in-game Achievement system for players who like to 100% titles, but it requires far too much interaction with the extraneous subsystems (Create 1000 Bond Rings!?), and it doesn’t show you the full list, so you often think you’re done only to find you have a long ways to go. So, maybe this is a half-improvement. On a more positive note, weapons no longer break (although staves do), and it made me realize just how much time was wasted repairing and rebuying equipment in the past. And saving in battle is finally possible! Not just Quicksave/Bookmark, but legitimate saving.

Since this essentially negates the need for a “rewind” mechanism, it is still present but has unlimited uses. Hardcore fans might consider that cheating, but for new players (or parents of small children with limited gaming time), it is nice to be able to explore strategies without being terrified that one would have to replay the entire battle. Engage also returns to its roots and goes back to the distinct lance/axe/sword rock-paper-scissors concept, and introduces the “break” mechanic: when you use the “trump” weapon among those three, the enemy cannot counterattack. Additionally, while I was skeptical of the story aspect of the Emblems, using them is downright fun. I enjoyed the actual battles in Engage perhaps more than any other Fire Emblem, and a large part of it was using the superpowers gifted to the players by the Emblems (and infinite Rewind felt like a superpower, too, to be honest).

Tried and true classic gameplay.

So we have classic gameplay, but less impressive graphics and a middling start to the story, combined with too many subsystems. On top of that, I found many of the supporting cast of allies a bit boring, not only in the main quest but in any Support conversations that I unlocked. But I kept playing. And you know what? By the end of the main story, I had completely flipped on this game.

Yes, it’s campy. Yes, it has some rough edges that could be improved. But the combat is just fun, and I found the back half of the story incredibly engaging, even though it was often predictable. And I still found Alear’s allies incredibly flat, but her own personal story and the characters that connected to it wove a beautiful tale of what it truly means for a child to be loved. As both a natural and adoptive parent to three young ones, the story resonated with me (Plus, Alear TALKS! Thank you Jesus! Please, no more silent protagonists!).

Fire Emblem already has a “floor” on how bad of a game it can be because the central systems are so good, but by the end I found that Engage was far more than the sum of its parts. I stayed up too late and even picked up the Expansion Pass simply because I want to see what happens next with the gang, and in the meantime, I’m grinding through the rest of the achievements.

I choose you, Celica! Celica uses Warp Ragnarok! It’s super effective!

Look, I spent a long time on this review complaining about graphics and subsystems and “modern” things. But three years ago I played every single Fire Emblem I had missed (Shadow Dragon, Echoes of Valentia, Fire Emblem Fates) and I had the time of my life. This game has better graphics, sound, and gameplay than all of those, doesn’t it? While it can’t avoid the long shadow of Three Houses, it was still incredibly fun and the story had me deeply involved by the end, and now I want more. Isn’t that enough? 

(Note: You may notice that this game is getting a higher score than Three Houses. That’s because Three Houses is actually a 10/10 game and Samuel Kim is a grumpypants.) 

The Bottom Line

 

A worthy celebration of the series.

 

8.5

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Derek Thompson

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