Monday, July 15, 2024

Fire Emblem Engage Review — Safe to the point of tedium

Fire Emblem Engage is safe, in a way that ping pongs between “pleasant but boring” and “dreadful and boring” — mostly thanks to an uninspiring storyline that plows forward mechanically. 

My emotional temperature stayed lukewarm for the most of the game. There were no gasps, no laughter, nothing in reaction to the cutscenes preceding new maps. The only time I got nudged from the perch of zen boredom was when bosses not only hit hard enough to KO my favorite units, but also had three f*cking full health bars. The good part of the game, in other words.

The beating heart of Engage, maybe the only part that has a delightful pulse, is on the battlefield. In the game, heroes from past Fire Emblem titles show up as Emblem rings. Units in Engage can equip the rings, gaining stat boosts and special ablities when they trigger an “engaged” state–providing a great amount of flexibility and depth for unit customization. You can turn your units into any class just by improving their bonds with the right Emblem. And the weapon triangle being back? Great stuff. I love it. Maps are hard, enemies don’t play around, and the final few chapters become a satisfying test of how well you’ve prepared and built your units. 

While the Emblems play a central role to unit building and on the battlefield, they do not in the main storyline. You don’t need to know who Corrin, Lyn, or Sigurd are in order to follow the Divine Dragon’s path forward.

It’s a safe decision. Major Fire Emblem fans are attracted by the callbacks, no matter how shallow, to heroes from past games– and this is a positive aspect –a return to harder maps and the weapon triangle. But there’s still enough of a new story so that newer players who haven’t done three thousand runs of Awakening and maybe really liked Three Houses, can still follow along.

And unfortunately, while I think this balanced approach could work in theory (and is smart!), it just plays out as a very tepid experience.

Fire Emblem Engage
Some new characters shine, others not so much.

There’s not a commitment to making the Emblems — and thus Marth, Sigurd, Lyn, LUCINA (my girl), and more — a real meaty part of the narrative. In the Paralogues, sure, players can increase the max bond levels with the Emblems and participate in maps significant to the Emblems’ original games. But the bond chats between Emblems and the units you’ve chosen to assign them to are literally, one sentence max per milestone — dissatisying to anyone who has investment in past Fire Emblem heroes. In the main story, the Emblems are also simply weapons to be tussled over — leading to this uncompelling process of accumulating rings, losing some, getting some more, and losing some more. Rinse and repeat.

And the standalone-ish story for Engage–man, where to start with this. I can see the effort put into every lovingly and impressively rendered cutscene. But this is just narratively many steps back from Three Houses. It’s almost as if, to make the whole “get 12 rings over the course of 26 chapters” happen, the writers stuffed in filler scenes in a true get to A from B way. The story is simple with middling-to-bad dialogue and no emotional weight in any scenes. Characters die, but it’s very hard to care that they do.

Engage ends up hovering in that safe, but awkward space between meaningfully bringing past characters into the fold and also trying to provide room for a new story to take root. It doesn’t commit to providing a thoughtful callback to past titles and heroes. It doesn’t commit to letting the new Divine Dragon and their comrades explore new terrains beyond gaining and losing the rings. In fact, I really wish I could’ve told the Fell Dragon to just have the damn things.

Fire Emblem Engage
Combat is where Engage excels

Hell, Fire Emblem Engage doesn’t even commit to marriage! What the hell is this pact bullshit? Setting up romantic pairings — for yourself as the main character and other characters — has always been a fun cherry-on-top for modern Fire Emblem games. So to have marriage replaced with something as timid as a PACT?! Please! Either remove the romance options entirely or just COMMIT TO THE ROMANCE!*

*Okay, asterisk here. I’m glad you can create a “pact” (also known as moving your relationship up to S-Rank) with a lot of the characters as any gender — a nice improvement from the gender-locked options of yore. Many of the pact scenes are romantic, but some are ambiguously open-ended

The only thing going for Engage are the maps, battlefield, and most of the preparation aspects. Somniel and the prep systems aren’t without flaws though. The weapon upgrade system feels underbaked and there are resource limitation problems. Ingots are hard to come by, and SP–even for units used constantly–generates at a very slow rate. It’s intentional, but feels unnecessary–especially since some skills are very SP expensive, and it’s hard to put multiple inherited skills on one character even by endgame. Somniel has a few add-ons that feel entirely unnecessary. Why is there a polishing ring section (“Press A to polish”) in the ring chamber that doesn’t do much? Not sure! 

Ultimately, Fire Emblem Engage following after Three Houses feels like a disappointment. Three Houses, whether you like the more social elements of Fire Emblem games or not, leaned fully into a whole new story, slower story-telling, and a refreshing replayable experience. Engage, unfortunately, feels trapped in comparison. It just could not make room for both meaningful integration of past Fire Emblem heroes and a new story with a new cast. The only saving grace is the core mechanic — preparation, battle, preparation, and repeat–being solidly formed, in an otherwise forced march from Chapter 1 to 26. 

Score: 3/5

A copy of Fire Emblem: Engage for the Nintendo Switch was provided to Gayming Magazine by the publisher

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