Wakey-wakey, Divine One. After a millennia-long nap, Fire Emblem Engage‘s protagonist Alear has a lot on their plate. The latest turn-based strategy from Intelligent Systems, Engage sees a shadowy cabal of villains make a play for the world’s Emblem Rings – powerful artifacts that allow their wearer to summon iconic faces from Fire Emblem‘s past – before Alear can so much as brush their teeth.
Their goal is to resurrect the Fell Dragon, an all-powerful deity that nearly brought about an apocalypse before it was last subdued. This leaves Alear with the job of touring the continent of Elyos, rescuing besieged kingdoms and hunting down Emblem Rings before they fall onto the wrong fingers.
Whether you’re an existing Fire Emblem fan or Engage is your introduction to the series, its core loop is simple to grasp. Off the battlefield you can befriend fellow soldiers and juggle a slew of budding relationships, yet you’re mostly kept busy trotting around the game’s on-rails world map and fighting through turn-based combat missions. The large majority of these missions involve reaching the enemy commander and battering them into submission, but there are enough twists to keep things fresh – some highlights include using a flame cannon to turn the tables on your ship’s would-be boarders, and fighting a hectic retreat where the only objective is to get out alive.
In terms of combat, this is the best Fire Emblem has ever been. Certain classes still counter others (mages still cook knights in their armour) but in Engage, a weapon triangle system now gives fighters a chance to “break” their opponent, which prevents them from retaliating with an attack of their own. It’s a simple system – axes trump spears, which best swords, which beat axes – and it offers melee fighters far more flexibility than previous titles.
Additionally, the rewind system from Fire Emblem: Three Houses is back and at normal difficulty offers unlimited uses – meaning any tactical blunders or thumb slips can be brushed under the rug as if they never happened. It’s incredibly strong and Fire Emblem veterans may prefer to up the difficulty for limited rewinds, but in the game’s Classic mode – which means permadeath for any characters that fall on the battlefield – it’s a godsend for newer players who just learned the character they were crushing on had a fatal weakness to arrows.
Beyond a keen polish, the biggest change to Fire Emblem‘s formula is the addition of Emblem Rings, which transform individual fighters into lethal two-person tag teams with powerful abilities. You can only summon an Emblem for three turns before your companion returns to their ring, but that’s more than enough time to carve bloody swathes out of the enemy’s forces. One Emblem allows her wearer to teleport almost anywhere on the map to deliver a destructive magical attack, while another provides the ability to hunker down and soak up damage for a turn before unleashing a hammer swing that would make the buffest blacksmith blush.
Each ring means you’re going into battle hiding a devastating ace in the hole, yet there are some drawbacks – you can only summon an Emblem hero for three turns before it needs to be recharged with good old-fashioned murder, and your opponents may be hiding some familiar faces of their own.
Though long-time Fire Emblem (or Super Smash Bros) fans will recognise many of Engage‘s Emblem heroes, it’s a standalone title featuring an all-new cast and plot. A twisting tale of politicking, backstabbing and adventure, Engage‘s story is gripping from the get-go – but it took a little bit more time to warm up to the game’s new cast. It’s unfair to pin this entirely on the new party members, because many of them are brilliant when you start to unlock their support conversations with Alear and fellow party members.
However, Engage is relentless with the rate it throws new companions your way: In the first hour alone, Alear builds up a small army of loyalists vying to be useful, and it’s difficult to dote out your attention equally. There’s too much going on to get a sense of each individual’s character – yet when the recruitment rate plummets later on and you’ve settled on a group of fighters that work for you, their personalities take on some definition and it becomes much more rewarding to spend time chatting with them.
When you’re not introducing sword and sternum, Fire Emblem Engage knows how to kick back and relax. Alear’s home of Somniel, a floating villa in the sky, offers a chance for you to get to know your followers by chatting with them, sharing meals, and training together.
There’s a lot to love at Somniel: Engage‘s warm, soft-palette visuals look beautiful here, and there are plenty of side activities to keep busy with, from fishing to quick-time workout routines. There’s even an adorable little dog-thing you can whack shades and a top hat on. Yet as a follow-up to Three Houses‘ academy-monastery of Garreg Mach, Somniel feels a little dull. While Garreg Mach was flocked by students and always felt bustling, Somniel feels like a bunch of sunburned pensioners lounging around a holiday resort in Tenerife. Though there’s plenty to keep you entertained – my favourite area is a small farm where you can tend to animals you find on your travels – the floating fortress feels a little bit too sterile to linger in for too long.
Though I never managed to click with Somniel, Engage‘s biggest strength is the way it improves and grows with every hour you sink into it. The cast, while initially overwhelming, worms further into your heart with every conversation; and as the plot twists toward a conclusion with more Emblem powers to play with, every single story mission becomes an explosive high-stakes assault. Whether you’re a fan of social-strategies like Persona and Marvel’s Midnight Suns or you’re chasing pure turn-based thrills, Engage is waiting and thoroughly unapologetic about the free time it’s going to devour.
Fire Emblem Engage launches on January 20 for Nintendo Switch.
Driven by kingdom-trotting carnage, Engage is an essential addition to any strategy fan’s library. Though its opening hours are too cluttered to capture the same charm that Three Houses boasted, riveting combat and an engrossing plot help Engage find its footing long before the credits roll.
- Engage is a visual treat, especially when wandering around in 3D
- Battle mechanics are improved for veterans, while offering newcomers a perfect entry point
- An engrossing story that will leave you beelining for the next revelation
- Fire Emblem‘s traditional social elements have taken a step back
- Somniel lacks character
- Certain crucial systems, including changing a character’s class, are buried in menus