I don’t play many video games to completion any more, or rather, the games I tend to play don’t have a proper ending. Slay the Spire, Enter the Gungeon, Rocket League, and Shotgun King are all examples of the games that I default to playing when I’m tired, or don’t feel like I can commit the time to really get into a video game. Generally I’m procrastinating writing a board game review, or I’m waiting for my toddler to wake up, so she can destroy the house I just spent the last hour cleaning. Situations where I don’t want to spend the time and effort to launch into a campaign, only to be forced to shut it down in a hurry.

The Fire Emblem series has always been broken into manageable chunks, with a chapter encompassing a bit of story, a single battle, some more story, and then some army management before repeating for the next chapger. It was easy to budget my time accordingly. Knowing what to expect in terms of session length encouraged me to launch the game more frequently than some of the other games that are still sitting half finished in my queue. Borderlands 3, Dragon Quest XI, and Ni No Kuni 2 are all games that I started that I don’t play because I feel like I don’t have enough time to really sit down and enjoy them.

What is a Fire Emblem?

Fire Emblem is a tactical RPG franchise developed by Intelligent Systems. The Franchise is known for it’s grid based tactical combat, hosting a large cast of colourful and varied characters, and featuring perma-death of said characters. Generally being set in a magical, medieval world, complete with kings, knights, mages, and dragons, the story usually revolves around a certain blue haired lord fighting back against an invading army.

The Titular object, the Fire Emblem, is different in each game. In the Sacred Stones, it was a magical gem, in Path of Radiance, it was a medallion, in Fates, it was a chainsaw sword. It fills whatever role the plot requires it to be.

Fire Emblem: Engage tells the story of Alear, the Divine Dragon, who has awoken from their 1,000 year slumber, only to be thrust into a conflict that could result in the destruction of not only Elyos, but of all worlds in the universe. To combat this ancient evil she embarks on a quest to collect all the Emblem Rings, because only with their power united, does our heroes stand a chance against the darkness.

My History with the Series

I’ve been a fan of the Fire Emblem series since I was 15 years old, when Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones made its way into my Game Boy Advance. It kicked off a decades long love for the tactical RPG genre of games, and taught me what a ROM was, and how to patch fan translations simply to access the 6 games that never made it over to North America. The turn based combat of units moving around a grid, all of their stats boiled down to a damage value and a hit chance. I’ve had my bacon saved more than once with a 5% critical hit chance pulling through, and I’ve had whole battles thrown down the drain at the very end becuase I got a hit when there was a 70% chance to miss. Luck swings both ways I suppose.

Etie has a 100% chance to do 64 damage, with a 5% chance to land a critical, which triples the damage of that attack

One of my favourite features of the Fire Emblem series has always been the relationships the characters can develop with each other. As characters fight alongside each other, they gain ‘support’ and can have support conversations with each other, developing each character’s backstory. I remember laying on my living room floor, pairing sets of characters, and just grinding out skirmish after skirmish, trying to unlock each of the character’s support conversations. It was a long process, but in the end I was successful. Then I discovered the internet, and I no longer had the need to grind out support conversations for myself.

I’ve played the majority of the Fire Emblem games that have been released in English, but I am by no means an expert, I generally play on the normal difficulty with the perma-death turned on, I loved Blazing Blade, Sacred Stones, Path of Radiance, and Awakening. I liked Shadow Dragon, was luke-warm on Fates and Three Houses (too much army management downtime, the dating-sim aspect was too prevelent for my liking), and was actually angry at Radiant Dawn, just due to how bad the support conversations felt.

In Fire Emblem: Engage, the support conversations themselves aren’t that engaging, no one is going to pull these quotes and create inspirational wallpapers with them. But they’re great little vignettes that give colour and personality to the characters that you bond with. It’s kind of amazing how attached you can get to a character, after they’ve pulled through impossible situations for you, and bared their heart to the other characters. It’s that level of attachment that makes the perma-death mechanic so impactful. It physically hurts me when I make a mistake, and Jill, my wyvern knight, takes an arrow to the heart and falls. I restart my game every time, determined to make it to the end without losing a single character.

Weaponized Nostalgia

The gameplay keeps to traditions by including the tried and true weapon triangle, but turns it on it’s ear by including a ‘break’ mecahnic. If you smash into a sword user with a lance, you’ll ‘break’ them, rendering them unable to counter attack. This tweak really helps get the weaker, or less defensively capable units into the battle, as they can slip in, deal some damage without getting one-shotted by the opponent.

The new gameplay hook in Fire Emblem: Engage comes in the form of Emblem Rings. Artifacts that allow the wearer to engage with a spirit in the form of heroes from prior Fire Emblem games, such as Ike from Path of Radiance, or Byleth from Three Houses. Doing so can grant a myriad of benefits, such as new special attacks, enhanced stats, special legendary weapons, and more. Spending more time engaged also grants the unit special skills, and new weapon proficiencies, which in turn allows the unit to change into more classes.

By including a main character from every main line Fire Emblem game, I found myself with an overwhelming affinity towards some of the spirits. I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of some of my favourite characters, such and Lyn and Ike. Further to just their presence in the game, each emblem has their own paralogue, which recreates a pivotal moment from their game. For Lucina, it recreates the battle in Arena Ferox, where she first fought her father, Chrome. For Ike, you relive the chapter from Path of Radiance where Ike is cornered in a fortress with enemies flowing in from all sides. Each time I approached a paralogue, I felt a surge of nostalgia, and a strong urge to replay those older games. Having these nostalgic hooks in me kept me engaged, thirsting to play more. I couldn’t wait to find the next emblem, or tackle the next chapter, which is good, because one thing that didn’t keep be engaged, was the story.

Scantily Clad Children

Look, I’m not expecting artistic prose, or dialogue that makes me weep from a Fire Emblem game, but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the overly dramatic, anime-esqe, trope filled plot line. From multiple characters striken with convenient amnesia, characters being raised from the dead multiple times, and a dash of time travel left me rolling my eyes more than once. Some of the support conversations, which used to be my favourite part of a Fire Emblem game, left be sighing. I got annoyed when Etie’s entire personality was just “Work out, get buff”, and that same sentiment was repeated with every support partner she had.

It’s not as bad as Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, but it’s nowhere near almost any other game since 2004, where the characters felt more real and fleshed out, less one dimensional. They formed different relationships with different characters that made reading all the different support conversations fun. In Fire Emblem: Engage, it feels like each character has one trait, and they just repeat that same trait in every support conversation. It wasn’t enough to drive me away from the game, but I wasn’t compelled to seek out more support conversations than what happened organically.

A much harsher criticism that I have has to do with the character costumes that I simply found problematic. Never have I ever been more aware of the scantily clad children, running into battle with midriffs and cleavage bare. Heaven forbid characters protect their organs or eschew constant fan service. I know this isn’t new, I’m sure I could find a busty, nearly bare chested character in every game, and my distaste for problematic costumes likely stems from the fact that since becoming a father, I’m much more aware of how women are portrayed in media. But man did it feel front and centre in Fire Emblem: Engage. Between Ivy and Zelestia’s chests, and the bare tummy and spandex shors of the Sage class, I felt awkward playing this in front of my wife and kid.

Lady, there is a war going on! Put on some pants!

Final Thoughts

What Fire Emblem: Engage does well, is gameplay. I had FUN playing this game! There’s freedom to grow your army however you want it. Jade comes to you as a knight, but with just a couple skirmishes with the right emblem attached, you can turn her into an archer. Or a Pegasus knight. You can mix and match emblem skills with class skills, and unique character powers to customize exactly how you want to fight each battle. Do you want defensive Framme to one-shot the boss? Have at it! Feel like turning the heavily armoured Diamont into a mage? Not recommended, but fill your boots! I never felt stuck or like my team was missing something, because I could so easily use any character I wanted to fill any role that needed filling. Turning the Thief Yunaka into a nimble Wolf Knight that no one could hit felt way better than I expected it to.

There’s a lot in Fire Emblem: Engage that I didn’t explore. I barely crafted weapons, I hardly cooked, or donated resources. I didn’t battle in a single skirmish, and I have over a dozen relay tickets that I didn’t touch. There’s a lot more game to explore here if you’re so inclined, and if you don’t want to engage with those systems, you don’t have to, which I love. One of my biggest problems in Fire Emblem: Three Houses was the full hour it took between every combat to run around and collect all the little items, talk to every character, play all the mini-games, over and over and over again. I like they dialed back the dating-sim elements here, and made it, so I could be competitive in a normal game while not sinking excess time in army management simulation.

There’s a very good chance that I’m going to replay Fire Emblem: Engage, which is probably the highest praise I could give it, given how limited my video game time is these days. I want to use another 12 characters that I immediately benched in my previous playthrough to see how different the game feels. Considering how popular Alcrest and Hortensia are, I should probably let them play at least a few battles.