Through all of its iterations, the Fire Emblem series has always been about finding your people: the ones you trust, the ones you worry about, and the ones you just can’t seem to help, though that doesn’t stop you from trying. With Fire Emblem Engage, developer Intelligent Systems has put that process front and center. Almost everything ancillary is lying in heaps on the cutting room floor.
Structurally, Fire Emblem Engage plays out like a typical fantasy adventure. As the protagonist Alear, you travel around a ring-shaped continent, fighting demons and bandits and evildoers in turn-based battles, and recruiting new characters to your scrappy army along the way. Between encounters, you return to the Somniel, a floating castle and your base of operations, where you purchase supplies, train your recruits, upgrade their weapons, and strengthen their interpersonal bonds, the better to serve your cause.
Said cause? Collecting 12 powerful “Emblem” rings to power up a Good dragon, so as to take down a Bad dragon. That’s the plot in a nutshell, and honestly, a nutshell is all this plot is worth. It’s laced with tropes that range from harmless (the protagonist has been asleep for 1,000 years but wakes up to combat a great evil) to exhausting (the camera introduces many female characters by panning slowly from their feet up to their cleavage). Its dialogue wavers in that cringey territory between camp and cheese, and it never commits to either with confidence. Your army reveres the protagonist, which manifests in sycophantic, cloying dialogue at every turn. From a scripting standpoint, Engage’s story is nothing short of terrible.
However, I can’t help but adore Engage’s commitment to brevity. Almost half of the total cutscenes — I am not exaggerating — go something like this:
- Alear and teammates approach a location in search of an Emblem ring
- One character notes how safe the location seems
- Another character shouts, “Oh no, are those bandits?”
- The cutscene ends and a battle begins
2019’s Three Houses, one of the series’ best outings (my top spot goes to Awakening on 3DS) made brilliant use of social simulation in an academic setting to let you teach, console, criticize, and ultimately shape a small group of students across two time periods. I’ve written at length about the ways in which Engage departs from its predecessor, so I won’t dwell on those comparisons here. Suffice it to say, Engage is not pulling from the relationship-simulation school of RPGs, with its complex interpersonal story arcs and calendar-focused loop. It’s as laser-focused of a tactics game as I’ve played in years, one in which characterization and drama emerge chiefly from the turn-based battles themselves.
Some of these battles play out on prairies veined with rivers and bridges, which become crucial chokepoints for your heavily armored units — forcing you to make tough choices, in severe cases, about who lives or dies. Others unfurl on the coast, where high tide can hinder units’ Movement and Evasion stats every few turns until the water recedes. Engage also rewards players who take on additional battles. If you partake in many “skirmishes” — rotating battles that pop up on previously completed nodes that grant you gold, items, and useful experience for your greenhorn units — these landscapes can get repetitive.
But there are plenty of other variables that make grind-oriented fights compelling. The series’ “rock-paper-scissors” weapon triangle is back after Three Houses omitted it. And the litany of possible character classes, including support monks, poison-wielding assassins, and fucking wolf riders, is extensive enough for several playthroughs.
Engage’s ring system adds another layer of strategy. By equipping one of the 12 Emblem rings Alear is seeking, a character can borrow the abilities of the ring’s corresponding hero. These heroes comprise a who’s who of Fire Emblem mainstays: “engaging” Marth’s ring amplifies a character’s sword skills and temporarily unlocks a seven-step strike; activating Ike’s ring grants an area-of-effect earthquake attack that bails out surrounded fighters. Activating Emblem rings can turn the tide of many a particularly tough scuffle.
There are also Bond rings, which simply boost the stats of their carrier. By spending a dedicated currency (note: there is no way to spend real-world money in Engage, so breathe easy) at the Somniel, you receive Bond rings with random stats and grades. By combining several rings of the same name and grade, you can increase their ranking.
The result is an elegant, if initially overwhelming, system in which you can alter your army’s strengths and weaknesses in a matter of minutes. Because the majority of a character’s abilities are “inherited” from Emblem rings, you can teach any unit any ability, so long as they’ve developed the necessary bond with the corresponding Emblem hero. In just one visit to the Somniel, you can teach a mage how to wield an ax, a medic how to cast a fireball, and a wolf rider how to summon an obstructive pillar of ice. It’s one of the most flexible progression systems the series has ever implemented. And it changes my army composition enough that even the repetitious skirmishes can still surprise me.
One such retread, about 10 hours into my 40-hour playthrough, caught me off guard. It took place in a coastal village, with market stalls and debris cluttering the alleyways between thatched huts. My first encounter on the map was a series of incremental movements, as my frontline strategically destroyed the debris to funnel enemies through makeshift chokepoints. It was, in the end, a methodical battle, and I relied heavily on the staunch shields of Jade, Louis, and the ax-wielding horseman Bunet to hold the line while we moved through the town.
When I returned, hubris came with me. I chose a team of underleveled soldiers, confident in the strategy I had used when we first tore through the village. This time, however, the enemy spawned nearly a dozen units over the ocean. Riding wyverns, they moved in quickly on our flank. By activating Lyn’s Emblem ring, Fogado rained down magical arrows on the flock before they could wreak havoc on my back line. What was previously the stage for an offensive jaunt had become the site of a desperate amphibious defense. It was downright thrilling, and I grew all the more attached to the recruits who had weathered the storm, and the veteran who guarded them.
That, right there, is why I gravitate toward tactics games. They’re uniquely suited for a sort of self-told, emergent story. Louis didn’t become my favorite character because Intelligent Systems expounded, ad nauseam, about his backstory in a 10-minute cutscene. He became my favorite character after marching headlong into countless breaches so my mages and swordmasters could follow. I didn’t grow protective of Framme because the script told me to be — I kept her safe because, fragile as she was in the early hours, she grew into an adept medic who could just as easily heal Louis as she could roundhouse kick an enemy into the afterlife.
For every masterful turn-based tactics game, there are so many more that dilute their systems with overwrought scripts and control-freak levels of exposition. And while I absolutely appreciate good dialogue and plotting, and the rare expert hand that can guide a narrative alongside the action (Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters did this in spades), it’s always disappointing when a game strikes gold, only to bury it again with so much dirt. One of my most anticipated games of 2022 did just this.
Engage, even when it’s fixated on stats and weapons and training, is always rushing toward the next battle, because that’s where the story lies. It’s not a reinvention of the genre, but a distillation. It can’t quite reach the crescendos that Three Houses did, and it certainly doesn’t achieve the longevity of Awakening. But it is consistently great. And it’s confident enough to let me take the reins.
Fire Emblem Engage will be released on Jan. 20 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.