Fire Emblem practical impressions on impressions

Fire Emblem Engage had some fans baffled before launch. The Fire Emblem series is known for being more grounded and morally complex than your average JRPG or Nintendo game, with some even dubbing it the “Anime Game of Thrones,” but this latest entry feels a bit different. Fire Emblem Engage opts for a bright, poppy aesthetic, and its story feels more akin to standard JRPG tropes. The game’s new Engage system that lets you pair units with the spirits of classic characters from the past offers a unique twist, but some have questioned if it’s just nostalgic fan service.

Will Fire Emblem fans find this latest entry appealing? I had a chance to hit the battlefield with Fire Emblem Engage, and while I can’t report on everything yet, I can share my experiences from the first 8 chapters of the game (which works out to about 8 hours of gameplay). Sharpen the blade and scroll for the details…

Fire Emblem Engage is set in Elyos, a land divided between four nations surrounding the Holy Land of Lythos. Players take on the role of a “Divine Dragon” in human form (called Alear, though as usual with Fire Emblem heroes, you get to choose your name and gender). After sleeping for a thousand years, you wake up without any memories, and unfortunately you don’t have much time to make up for the past millennium. The mysterious nation of Elusia has awakened the Fell Dragon Sombron and plans to steal the 12 Emblem Rings in order to restore it to full strength. A sneak attack puts you in a vulnerable position, and it’s up to you and your rogue army to try and collect the Emblem Rings before the bad guys do.

If all of this sounds a little JRPG-book, it is. Much of Fire Emblem Engage’s writing seems callous and pointless, with most characters easily reduced to one descriptor (loyal, insecure, loves to exercise, etc.) that. another, yet they still revere him without question because he is their god. Not really a formula for a masked hero. Meanwhile, rather than seasoned warriors, most of the game’s villains are groovy anime clichés, often in costumes that looked like they were ripped from a particularly gendered fighting game. There are some attempts to give each country of Elios a unique personality — warlike Brodia, peaceful Lavryn, etc. — but any evolution of politics between these states seems swift at best.

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Of course, there is the opportunity for the Fire Emblem Engage story and the world to come to life as you progress deeper into the game. This certainly wouldn’t be the first JRPG to start out slow. At least everything is well presented. Engage’s preset scenes are impressive and its in-game visuals are bright, crisp and colorful. Character designs are not equal Bad By themselves – as mentioned, they would probably work well in a fighting game – they just feel out of place in this particular franchise.

Fortunately, in terms of gameplay, this is still very much Fire Emblem as you know it. You and the enemy take turns moving all available units on different grid-based maps in tactical battles, with strengths, weaknesses, and individual personalities rather than just random grunts. There are different rock-paper-scissors style systems, most notably the classic weapon triangle (swords beat axes, axes beat spears, spears beat swords), and you’ll need to keep these in mind if you want to win the day. It would be nice to see Fire Emblem incorporate modern elements from other tactical games, such as a greater focus on cover and the ability to ambush lookouts, but the basic scheme still works.

The new Engage system is where most of this game’s innovation lies. Each of the Emblem Rings you collect contains the spirit of the classic Fire Emblem character. There is a fair amount of freedom inherent in the system, as these rings can be equipped to any unit, at which point that unit will accompany the spirit of the ring into battle. This allows you to create impromptu tag teams, where the tag spirit grants the unit which is attached to various passive bonuses. You can also ‘engage’, fusing unit spirit and emblem into one, which boosts stats and gives you some powerful special attacks. You can only stay busy for four turns, after which you’ll have to wait for the power meter to refill before you can do it again.

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Each emblem has a specialty of some sort, and combining them with certain units can create some interesting possibilities. Sigurd provides movement bonuses, including the ability to move twice per turn, so I paired him up with a medic to create a unit that can pop in and out of battle to heal allies. Celica is all about magical attacks, so I gave her ring to one of my buffs in order to create a spell tank. Engage gives you more opportunities to make your team truly feel like your team.

There is also a set of upgrade mechanisms attached to the Engage system. Units can inherit skills from emblems; You can forge Bond rings to boost stats, emblems, and more. It takes a while to get your head around it all, but it all fits together well enough. While there are some mild gacha-style mechanics going on with the Bond Ring forging, any concerns that the Engage system is an excuse to put more Fire-Emblem-Fates-style cash into the game are largely unfounded. Yes, Fire Emblem Engage does have a season pass, but arguably the main selling point for that is the additional story content. It really does seem like the Engage system is an add-on designed to take advantage of gameplay first.

Oh, and yes, the social elements the Fire Emblem series is known for are returning (especially in the more recent entries). Your home base, a floating island called Somniel, offers a variety of quirky side activities, including fishing, playing sports, and building a farm full of fuzzy friends. Unfortunately, the awkward writing that gets in the way of Fire Emblem Engage’s main story also hurts this part of the game. There’s no real hint of romance I’ve seen — sorry, no condescension or pairing for you — and the conversations are often more supportive than interesting. Characters will talk about how they love watching you sleep or their obsession with weird food, and it’s not clear if they’re meant to be charming or scary. Honestly, I don’t know if the game makers are confident.

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Current ideas about Fire Emblem are engaging

So far, Fire Emblem Engage offers a split experience. On the other hand, concerns about the game’s story and presentation are more well-founded than I’d like, with oddly written, shallow characters and JPRG metaphors in the more complex storytelling of previous entries in the series. On the other hand, the franchise’s core tactical gameplay remains as satisfying as ever, with the Engage system adding a new approachable strategic wrinkle. It remains to be seen if both sides of Fire Emblem Engage will eventually be combined into a deadly fighting force. Look out for the full Wccftech review in the coming weeks.

Fire Emblem Engage launches on Nintendo Switch January 20th.

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