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Alear and Marth stand at the ready in an early cutscene of Fire Emblem Engage

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Fire Emblem Engage is a wild left turn from Three Houses

Newcomers may experience whiplash

Image: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

If Fire Emblem: Three Houses was a zig, Fire Emblem Engage is the resulting zag. Whereas the 2019 epic dove headfirst into relationship simulation between turn-based battles, the upcoming Engage is almost entirely focused on the militaristic side of things.

That’s not to say there aren’t any social elements in Engage. Throughout the first eight chapters (the chunk I’m allowed to talk about here), I’ve spent a great deal of time at the Somniel, this game’s base of operations. I’ve dined with some teammates, exercised with others, and gifted my allies a variety of items I’ve found lying around our HQ. Occasionally, the “support rank” between two characters has improved from a “C” rating to a “B,” promising proximity buffs in subsequent missions.

Engage’s intermittent social elements are cursory, less concerned with character development than in how these interactions will manifest in the next fight. Three Houses gave you a concrete group of students to instruct, train, and fall in love with throughout your campaign, while Engage returns to the traditional formula of recruiting new soldiers as you traverse the world map. In fact, it hurls new recruits at you. By the time Chapter 8 ended, I was already defaulting to the same dozen characters for most fights, consistently leaving the redundant eight or so in reserve.

Clanne, Alear, Vander, and Framme from Fire Emblem Engage pose in front of the camera Image: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo

Enabling the permadeath option may necessitate relying on greenhorns more often, but I turned it off for this playthrough in order to avoid missing any enticing subplots. However, with few exceptions thus far, cast members all feel like rough drafts — one loves cooking, while another enjoys lifting weights. Their 10-second support cutscenes are all about (you guessed it) cooking and lifting weights. In Engage, characters rarely transcend the one or two hobbies that define them, and the resulting web of relationships is just as flimsy.

So, no, you won’t spend your time at the Somniel getting to know a small cast of characters intimately — instead, you’ll be micromanaging your fighters’ skills, gathering cooking ingredients, doing pushups to gain buffs during the next skirmish, and adopting a veritable zoo of barnyard animals to grant you supplies. If Three Houses drew inspiration from Persona’s calendar-focused and character-oriented gameplay loop, Engage feels more like a management sim in which you’re returning to base to perform menial chores and maintenance before the action kicks in again. The overall loop actually feels more like Fire Emblem games used to, before Three Houses shook things up. (I’m also reminded of last year’s Cult of the Lamb.)

As lacking as Engage is on the social side, it soars in its turn-based battles. Maps in the first eight chapters are varied, with rivers, castle ramparts, siege equipment, and fog of war creating compelling obstacles for you to solve and exploit. It’s an absolute joy to send a strong armored unit (in this case Louis, a royal bodyguard) into a group of bandits before covering him at a distance with a lightning bolt from a mage (Clanne, a powerful sorcerer who began as a lowly peon), and finishing off the remainders with cavalry, archers, and skilled sword masters.

A view of the battlefield in Fire Emblem: Engage, in which the protagonist Alear moves ahead of his army to confront enemies Image: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo

Pre-Three Houses, Fire Emblem games used a rock, paper, scissors system for weapons, and it returns here: Alfred, a crown prince who begins the game with strong spear skills, can prevent enemy sword wielders from counterattacking, for instance. That same swordsman can break any of my soldiers using axes. Finally, axes are the bane of spears. The cycle of vulnerabilities adds yet another consideration to each move you make.

Engage’s biggest departure from previous games may be in how these characters actually master new weapons, classes, and skills. Enter: the ring system. By “bonding” with different Emblem Rings (whether by wearing them in battle or through a useful activity in the Somniel), characters can inherit the skills of the ring’s associated character, each of whom is a character from the franchise’s past. Increasing the bond between a character and Marth, for example, will unlock proficiency with swords, allowing that character to move into sword-centric classes. They’ll also gain new attacks, defensive skills, and passive abilities that are all vaguely Marth-themed.

A menu screen in Fire Emblem: Engage showing the bond between protagonist Alear and Marth, whose Emblem Ring grants sword-based abilities Image: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo

Any character who wears an Emblem Ring in battle will also be able to perform the titular “Engage” maneuver, essentially supercharging them for three turns and granting them game-breaking abilities. My favorite requires the ring of Micaiah (from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn): It heals every ally in the battle, but knocks the user’s hit points down to one.

Engage’s ring system is initially difficult to parse, but now that I’ve spent hours in the menus, I’ve uncovered one of the more flexible class systems in any Fire Emblem to date. By allowing any character to learn any weapon (their starting character traits notwithstanding), Engage leaves the door open for a dizzying swath of army possibilities. My current army relies heavily on mages, cavalry, and an armored frontline, but I’m already theorycrafting several other army compositions when I’m not playing.

As of now, Engage has me hooked. Its social elements are lacking, and I imagine that a lot of people who came to the series with Three Houses will be disappointed and/or overwhelmed with this new outing. In fact, looking back, Three Houses now feels less like a blueprint for the series going forward, and more like an aberration from its previous trajectory.

But as someone who appreciates tactics games that let me find my own stories among a multifarious band of fighters, I’m enjoying the hell out of it so far. It’s always rushing to get to the next battle, where one of my weaker archers can deliver the killing blow to a problematic enemy, rank up, earn a new class, and become one of my most prized snipers. Fire Emblem Engage, at least in its first eight chapters, is all about the nuances of turn-based battles. Everything in between is just preparation.