My army advances through an over-the-top anime castle. In the shadow of its looming sandstone walls, the forces of good make their stand against the machines of the evil Fell Dragon. Our mission is simple: defend the gate. I’ve got permadeath enabled, so every move counts in this turn-based tactical RPG. I agonize over every decision, trying to predict my enemies’ movements. My pegasus rider stays clear of enemy archers, lest she is shot down. Vander, my tough-as-nails Great Knight, holds the vanguard while my archers and mages take refuge behind a line of unbending steel.
Despite my solid formation, the enemy is slick and maneuvers to flank me. I adapt as best I can, completely engrossed in Fire Emblem: Engage’s elegant combat systems. My slow, steady and strategic approach pays off as we finally lay the enemy leader low, completing the mission. At this point, however, I realize something’s not quite right. I look up from my Nintendo Switch. It’s 1 am.
No Fire Emblem has been this effective at triggering my voracious “one more turn” hunger since Fire Emblem 7, the first title of the series to grace Western shores back in 2003. In those days, gorgeous sprites did battle on 2D plains, and permadeath was compulsory. In almost every aspect, Engage is a powerful and conscious effort to evoke the nail-biting tactical demands of “classic” Fire Emblem.
It stands contrary to the gentler approach of its predecessor: Fire Emblem Three Houses, which paired the series’ turn-based combat with a relaxed anime-academy simulation experience. Fire Emblem Engage returns to the grit and ruthlessness at the heart of the tactical series.
What’s old is new again
Features old and new help to reinforce Fire Emblem’s challenging turn-based battles. The weapon triangle returns, seeing the game’s weapons take on a rock, paper, scissors-style relationship – swords get buffs against axes, axes against lances, and lances against swords. But developer Intelligent Systems has added welcome twists to the mechanics.
The new “break” system means that if you hit an opponent with a weapon against which they are vulnerable, they’ll drop their weapon, disabling their counterattack. This can be a great way to take out tricky boss enemies, removing the threat of their (often deadly) counterattacks. However, you’ll need to watch out because your units are just as vulnerable to ‘break’ as your opponents’. Putting your sword wielder in weapons range of a lancer is just asking for trouble.
The big new system is what gives the Fire Emblem Engage its name. Throughout your campaign, your warriors will find rings containing the ghosts of Fire Emblem heroes past. Just wearing an Emblem Ring gives the character access to extra skills and abilities reminiscent of the hero in question. However, with the “engage” command, your fighter can merge with the ghost, unlocking a bunch more skills and a single-use ultimate move. Though you typically only have a three-turn clock to use these powers, they can radically alter the course of a battle.
This also allows for some wild combinations. Give your slow, stompy knight Sigurd’s ring, and they’ll be able to zip across the battlefield with uncharacteristic speed. Characters can also inherit abilities from their Emblem Rings, allowing these alterations to become permanent. The versatility and scope for inventiveness are staggering; Emblem Rings are far from an empty gimmick.
Live and let die
I’ve been playing the game on hard difficulty with permadeath enabled, and I’ve needed every advantage I can eke out over my enemies. Though there’s no right or wrong way to play Fire Emblem Engage, but I’ve always seen the threat of character death as a hallmark of the series. The threat of losing one of your beloved anime buddies adds considerable weight to battles – and it’s something that harks all the way back to turn-based RPGs like Tactics Ogre.
You can rewind time if you mess things up, but the get-out-of-jail card has limited charges, so you can only bail out so often. Even with rewinds softening the experience, I’ve found classic mode to be the best kind of uncompromising puzzle box. The punishment for a poor tactical move is deadly, so I think through every troop order, considering how I’m opening myself up to the enemy, but even then I make mistakes. In some of the more challenging battles, 10 rewinds feel like a drop in the ocean.
The puzzle goodness runs through every mode and difficulty level of Engage, so you shouldn’t have to ratchet things up to see what Fire Emblem Engage offers. No matter your preferred difficulty, it provides a deeply satisfying and well-realized combat experience. As a somewhat long-in-the-tooth Fire Emblem fan, I am exactly the kind of person that Engage is trying to appeal to. When it comes to strategy and scratching the classic “just one more turn” itch, Engage delivers in spades, offering the most fleshed-out and satisfying tactical combat experience in Fire Emblem history.
However, as a fan of the nuanced storytelling and organic friendship-building of Three Houses, I found Engage’s out-of-combat experience to be somewhat underwhelming. The complex and fascinating web of relationships that defined Three Houses has been dispensed with in favor of a more streamlined, but less deep array of character interactions. Despite this, I’ve very much enjoyed my time with Engage. The granular challenge of its well-crafted battles is enough to keep me returning for more.