Those who enjoyed 2019’s Fire Emblem Three Houses video game will be pleased to know that the latest game in Nintendo’s long-running, tactical RPG series has returned to that earlier, character-driven style. In fact, Fire Emblem Engage gives nods and winks to the franchises 30-plus year history (ranging back to Japanese titles never released in the US).
But there are also parts of this game that aren’t quite as satisfying as a fan—or a family—might hope.
The tale this go-round focuses on the land of Elyos and its embattled past and present. Gamers play as Alear (a male or female character who they can rename) who wakes from a thousand-year magical slumber after a long-ago deadly battle with an evil Fell Dragon.
Players quickly learn that they are the Divine Dragon—a human-appearing young deity who has lost his or her memory completely. And they are charged with gathering together 12 magical Emblem Rings, scattered throughout the land, and finding forces to take on the Fell Dragon, Sombron—a demon-like, red-eyed baddie who has awoken from his slumber and is filling the land with corrupted monsters.
As they travel to the various kingdoms of Elyos, players pick up new good-guy warriors who flesh out their army ranks; find and use the Emblem rings; and engage in many, many tactical, turn-based battles while upgrading their team of fighters.
Combat mechanics focus on two major elements.
The first is Engage’s triangular battle system. In this setup, fighters with swords have an advantage over those with axes, axes beat lances, and lances ace swords. So, for instance, when a swordman hits an axeman, the axe-swinger drops his weapon and can’t retaliate or block for a short period.
The advantage to this kind of battle system is that strategic choices made in the heat of a fight can not only turn the tide in a losing battle, but give weaker characters a chance at besting even elite fighters.
The second important element is the Emblem Rings themselves. The rings magically house the spirits of great heroes (representing main characters from past Fire Emblem games, such as Byleth from Three Houses). When your battlers wear this ring and call upon the spirit’s unique powers and skills, the heroes leap forth and offer special attacks or defenses that quickly boost that fighter for several turns. Byleth, for instance, offers a move that gives nearby teammates a second chance to attack. With repeated use, characters also bond with the heroes and inherit new skills that they can make their own.
That brings us to the relationships between Alear and his team of fighters. This is an important tactical element since characters with raised affinity for each other join in on a friend’s attacks or step up to defend them at key moments. That relationship-building part of play also transforms members of your team into people who you, the gamer, come to care for and work to defend.
But unlike Three Houses, the relationship side of this game feels much more shallow and tacked-on. And that makes the story side of Engage less, uh, engaging. It’s not that the Elyos-spanning tale is poor, it just feels as if the world and its characters were meant to be more compelling than they end up being.
The various maps and tactical battles of Engage are excellent. The challenges here are many and well designed. And with just a little strategic thought, players end up feeling like a genius general with each victory.
In addition, the world of Elyos is colorful and graphically impressive, and the game story presents a very clear good-vs-evil set of goals.
There is, of course, lots of battling. Characters fight with swords, axes, and magic attacks to defeat enemy soldiers and demon-like dark entities. But the blasts and slashes are mess-free, and beaten foes just disappear or say a few words before retreating from the field.
That said, some zoomed-in sequences at times highlight slow-motion stabs or bashes. These attacks aren’t bloody, but they focus more on the pain of the impact.
Speaking of which, some of Sombron’s underlings are pretty pain-focused themselves. Griss, for instance, is a masochistic character who groans in pleasure over the prospect of pain and humiliation. Another of Sombron’s “hounds,” Zephia, is a horned, witch-like female who inflicts torment on others and uses a mind-controlling power to turn the innocent into villains. These characters and others end up killing quite a few people.
Zephia is also one of many women who expose quite a bit of digital skin. She wears, for instance, a leather bikini/garter get-up that regularly exposes ample cleavage and backside.
We hear uses of “h—, yeah” and “b–tard” in the dialogue. And though there isn’t any reference to Christian faith, this is a world of good and bad magic, churches and gods. One character regularly says things like, “all will be saved” during battle.
Alear is considered to be a deity that characters recognize in an almost worshipful way (though Alear always downplays that reception). Sombron, meanwhile, is very powerful and demon-like, and he longs for worship and obedience. He uses his power to kill people and turn them into zombie creatures called the corrupted.
There is a seemingly transgender individual in the character mix. This person doesn’t talk about their sexuality, but they’re very petite, cute and feminine visually while speaking with a definite male voice.
Alear (in either male or female form) can also have a special relationship with any male or female on his or her team by giving them a “pact ring” when their affinity rates hit a certain point. (This ring can also be given to kid characters who appear to be about 11 or 12.). And although the relationship can be easily interpreted as a romantic one in many instances (including same gender), the dialogue is kept nebulous enough in each case to be seen as a pact between very good friends.
From many perspectives, Fire Emblem Engage is a very well-made game that fans of the series can enjoy. That said, some could find parts of the game to be less engaging (or in some cases too engaging) than they’d hoped.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.