In January 2023, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems launched “Fire Emblem Engage,” the 17th entry to the main Fire Emblem series that has persisted since “Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light” launched for the Famicom in 1990. It’s a remarkably unique game series that places the player out of direct combat between forces, allowing them to control the characters moving across the map and leaving the combat itself up to strategic decision-making. While this can sound less engaging than other Japanese role-playing games, I assure you that “Engage” is a cut above the other titles in its genre.
The first step in making a game series like Fire Emblem appealing to the public is to give you characters you care about, that you don’t want to send into combat to die. Of course, the Fire Emblem series has taken it a step further by making it so your characters don’t return after each individual battle. However, for recent titles such as Engage, that feature has been locked behind the “Classic” game mode, allowing other players to opt for a more casual experience. Nevertheless, removing that barrier does little to make each battle feel less stressful due to how easy it is to rally behind the characters. Each one comes with their idiosyncrasies that can be explored through character conversations. The most engaging of them have traits that should be considered outside the realm of relatability, while still grounding them in human tendencies:
- Alcryst’s level of self-deprecation exceeds anything even I have come across in the past, but I can’t truthfully say I’ve never encountered those same feelings of doubt.
- Sure, my past might not include being a hired killer, but is it really that uncommon to feel shame about where you come from, akin to Lapis or Yunaka?
- I might not have to regularly come face-to-face with royalty, but I still occasionally have to put up a mask and act outside my normal state, like Panette and Ivy.
By allowing you to regularly delve more into each character, it becomes harder to send any of them out to die, even if that sacrifice might net you a win for the time being.
Of course, characters can’t make a game, but they don’t need to. Engage’s combat system is downright addicting, making it hard to come up with words to describe it. It’s structured, with details that can make scrutinizing every facet of gameplay feel very rewarding, such as with the class-changing feature and the incremental temporary stat bonuses that can be obtained through various means. Still, at its base level, just understanding the rules is enough to find success:
- Swords beat axes, which beat lances, which beat swords in what is called the “weapon triangle.” Attacking any unit that has a weapon you have an advantage over doesn’t allow for any counter-attack.
- A total of 12 emblem rings (plus an additional five with the current amount of DLC released) allow for pairing your units with a strong enhancement, giving them even more power than they already had.
- Ranged units can put themselves in a place where they can’t be retaliated against, such as bow users being strong against flying units and magic users being strong against armored units.
Both at the surface level and in the small details, Engage knows how to make you feel rewarded for your efforts. When you make a decision and put yourself in an advantageous situation, it feels remarkable.
The story itself is nothing to write home about, full of the twists you might expect from a fairy tale, but this game still stands as one of my favorites among recent releases. The gameplay is phenomenal, the characters are inviting and I would be remiss to ignore how exceptional the soundtrack is. If you have a Nintendo Switch and 120 hours of availability, there are worse ways to spend your time.