After Heroes and Three Houses and Three Hopes, now we’ve landed on Engage, the latest Fire Emblem title. Depending on which long-time fan of the series you want to believe, this either is or isn’t a welcome return to the classic play style and structure of yore.
This’ll take some unpacking. Buckle up.
Fire Emblem Engage is the latest in a surprisingly long line of games bearing that naming scheme. They are, generally speaking, turn-based strategy games played on a square grid with characters who are placed into certain classes which allow them to use one or more types of weapons & other gear.
Beyond that point the description for an individual installment may or may not vary. For instance, Heroes is a mobile game complete with “gacha” mechanic for whether or not you can get one of the latest half-dozen vastly overpowered (or disastrously underpowered in a lot of cases) new characters on offer this week. (But at least it obeys the almighty Weapon Triangle.) The wildly successful Three Houses tries for a grittier, multiple-arc story with characters who are somewhat more fleshed out (thus less disposable, emotionally speaking) than you might get in other titles. (But it throws out the Weapon Triangle and, yes, even a filthy casual such as myself will admit that combat is kind of a breeze on difficulties short of Maddening.)
Three Hopes is a “Warriors”-style action fighting game built around Three Houses’ characters and motifs. (But it does kind of nod respectfully in the general direction of the Weapon Triangle.)
And those are all of the Fire Emblem games I have direct experience with. I’ve never owned any of the older Nintendo devices, and only a few of the titles prior to Three Houses made it to the US market anyway.
As I understand it from watching a few YouTube videos and reading the occasional Reddit post, Three Houses is a bit like Spiders Georg: It is an outlier adn [sic] should not be counted. For one thing, it allows the player to eschew the “classic” Fire Emblem shtick of “permadeath.” Which is to say, if you lose a unit during combat, that unit is gone. Kaput. Plant ’em in the ground, pal. If you choose Casual Mode then the only character deaths are the ones required by the plot. It’s not the first FE game to offer this option (say hello, Awakening) but folks gripe about it in relation to Three Houses anyway.
(My thoughts on “permadeath” in a nutshell: You want it, the option is there, use it. But don’t give other players crap because they chose not to go that route. With that said, when they decide to sunset the mobile game, Heroes, it’d be hilarious if they flipped a global “permadeath” switch. No, I’m not joking. Whose Hegemon Edelgard will be the last one standing?)
Three Houses also basically front-loads nearly all of the playable characters at the start. You’re given a house’s worth as soon as you land in the monastery, then you can acquire more through various means in fairly rapid order. Then there’s the lack of aforementioned weapon triangle (axe beats lance, lance beats sword, sword beats axe) plus the addition of battalions and giant monsters, among other features & oddities. It’s a whole other beast from what one might expect from having played previous main-line games. (It probably drove long-time FE fans absolutely insane, understandably.)
And that’s the experience from which I’m coming into Engage. Boy howdy, is this a very different beast.
Setting aside the, ah, vibrantly colored and costumed characters who are doled out several at a time, every few chapters of story, Engage brings back the almighty Weapon Triangle with a twist: Instead of just “doing a lot more damage,” there’s a new Break mechanic. Which is to say, if your unit equips a sword to bash on an axe-using opponent, as long as they’re not armored or otherwise protected, your unit will “break” them and they won’t be allowed to retaliate.
Against anyone. For the rest of the combat round.
Suddenly, paying attention to who’s using which weapon against what opponent becomes important… and paying attention to which enemy unit may use what weapon against your units during the enemy half of the combat round (“enemy phase”) is supremely vital.
This change alone from my previous 3H experience instantly made combat an order of magnitude more interesting and challenging. Honestly? Going back to 3H later is going to feel even more like a cakewalk by comparison.
Put a pin in that, as folks like to say nowadays.
The actual combat part of Engage is far and away the best thing about the game. Make no mistake: This is a gorgeous game with properly challenging mechanics which require at least a modicum of paying attention during the fights as well as during preparation (choosing who to bring, their equipment, skills, classes, and so forth). Even on the easier difficulties! Never mind the varied party tricks that certain maps bring in, like quicksand greatly reducing movement or destructible barriers or torches that burn down to nothing over time or ice tiles that boost movement. And since the various available between-chapter skirmishes recharge/reset every so often through the day, it’s perfectly possible to just hang out before doing a big chapter-ending event and go place to place, enjoying more fights.
I mean, that’s what we’re here for, right? Right.
Speaking of skills and classes, these are almost nothing at all like either Three Houses or Three Hopes except in some of the names and basic functions. Classes come in two main flavors (Basic and Advanced) plus the occasional Special and in the case of some named units, a Unique. Also, each Class is of a particular Type that determines which of certain extra actions are available during combat. (For example: The Backup type can partake of Chain Attacks, while Qi Adepts can do Chain Guard if their HP is full up.) Your Class determines what weapons & other equipment you can wield. Keeping in mind the weapon triangle stuff, putting your front-line units into a class which can wield more than just one weapon type (say, one which allows swords and axes) can be a Very Good Idea!
Your skill slots are limited: Each named character has their own unique ability, usually some kind of situational buff. Most Advanced classes unlock an ability at level 5. Emblem Rings provide a whole stack of abilities (and weapons, if in Engage mode)… and we’ll get to that. Patience, Iago, patience. Also, each character has a couple of “inherited skills” slots. Filling those involves leveling up the “bond” with a given Emblem Ring and spending currency to “inherit” selected available skills. Two slots, limited currency, choose wisely. (Or read a lot of online guides.)
It’s all a bit complicated but also fun and rewarding and I’m here for it.
And then there’s the not-Monastery. The Somniel.
I get what they were going for: You need a place to do all of the non-fighting, non-story-event things. A home base. A place for shopping, hanging out, managing and improving gear, building support bonds in a non-fight-y way, and general puttering around. A space devoted to all the downtime activities you need (and a bunch that you don’t). All of the stuff that Garreg Mach was used for in Three Houses and the “camp” took care of in Three Hopes.
And on the face of it, the Somniel actually improves on those earlier examples, especially the sprawling monastery. It’s smaller, which means it’s easier to get around in even if you don’t use the fast-travel feature. You get a little barnyard in which you can feature some of the animals you “adopt” as you move around the game world. Those animals will provide various rewards from time to time. (Pro tip: Dogs always give ore… and ore is vital for weapon upgrades.)
With that said, I heave a big sigh most of the time when I load in, because I know I’m in for a bit of frustration. To start: Two of the most important activities in the Somniel involve your Emblem Rings. (Don’t worry, I still haven’t forgotten about the primary gimmick of the entire game. I’m getting there.) Basically, you’re able to “train up” the bond level between your regular characters and the available Emblem Rings, who are kind of… pseudo-characters? It’s complicated. But if you want to inherit some of the Emblem Rings’ abilities (remember those two skill slots) then you need to do these things:
- Go to Arena, build up bond level.
- Go to the Ring Chamber, inherit skill(s).
- Lather rinse repeat every time a new character shows up and/or gets enough “SP” to afford a new skill. (More on that in a moment.)
That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Here’s the catch, though: The Arena requires a separate loading screen from the rest of the Somniel. The Ring Chamber also requires a separate loading screen from the rest of the Somniel. So one of the key methods available for beefing up your crew is going to involve you watching the loading animation a lot. A lot a lot.
So about that SP. It, like Gold, is one of the very scarce currencies you need in order to get things done. SP lets you inherit skills, Gold lets you buy and improve gear (among other things) and there’s never enough of either when you really want it. (Mind you, Engage wants you to replace old units with new ones as you go; part of the incentive is that the newbies often show up in Advanced and/or Unique classes and have a decent stack of SP already on hand. Seems rude, honestly.)
That screenshot at the top of this entry? Yeah, the “Gold Corrupted” there carries 1200G and I need every last ounce of it to keep making upgrades to my team’s kit. There are two types of intra-chapter skirmishes we keep an eye out for, ones with Gold Corrupted and ones that offer “Training.” (Basically every unit which survives a Training fight gets a big lump of XP… and you earn 3000G for your efforts as well. Cha-ching.)
SP, meanwhile, is something your characters earn by Doing Things In Combat While Wearing A Ring Of Any Kind. Full-up Emblem Rings are great, but you can also… well, roll a ring “gacha” in the Ring Chamber at the Somniel to see if you can get A-tier or S-tier random rings associated with characters from previous FE game titles. You want to do this because you need something to put on all the units who aren’t deemed good matches for your usually-limited supply of Emblem Rings, and hey, they provide stat buffs (and in the case of some S-tier rings, a Skill). So out you go into the skirmishes and chapter fights, hoping to eke out a bit of SP here & there so you can try to inherit that really cool skill on your favorite new unit.
Oh yeah, and you can spend “bond” currency (which is used for nearly everything to do with rings, Emblem or otherwise) to merge lesser rings together to make higher-tier rings. Gotta have a currency sink for every currency, right? Right.
I covered the Ring Chamber and Arena mainly because outside of gear shopping & improvement, plus cooking a meal to get team buffs for the next fight (hopefully… sometimes meal prep goes very wrong and you can instead take a hit to several stats) & build a bit of support level between a few units, there’s nothing else of value to do on the Somniel.
There are minigames, which range from the inane to the infuriating. (Okay, the “target shooting from wyvern-back” one is… fine. It’s fine.) There’s a weird dog-like pet-ish thing that follows you around which by default is named “Sommie.” You can feed and pet it to get some of that bond currency every so often.
There’s a clothing shop, but since the only time you see characters in the clothes you bought & selected for them is when standing around at the Somniel, there’s little point to wasting currency on it. (Seriously. How hard would it have been to have them wear their selected clothing during the support conversations and/or cutscenes? They’re generated using the game engine anyway, they’re not pre-rendered near as I can tell.)
And the less said about the Heroes-like online-multiplayer-ish gaming available in the Tower, the better. Feh. As it were.
Anyway. There’s a whole lot of words which boil down to, “The Somniel is simultaneously vital and a hot mess of both good and bad ideas.”
Good thing the characters are so interesting and vital, isn’t it?
(We shall now pause to allow folks who’ve played the game to pick themselves up off the floor after their fits of uncontrollable laughter.)
The one thing I picked up from nearly every review I saw before release day was that the combat in this game is better than ever (especially better than Three Houses, some folks were very smug about this) and that the story and characterization are… thin. Very, very thin. And that’s… mostly fair.
Near as I can tell, Engage was meant to be the 30th anniversary game in the series. So while it’s a “main line” title in one sense, it’s also… not. Which is to say it’s more of a celebration of the lineage than a magnum opus in its own right. (The whole Emblem Rings thing, which I am just about to get to, supports this theory.) This means that the core gameplay received all the attention and polish, while the story was always meant to be… serviceable. Basic. Trope-laden, even. And the characters are bright, shiny, intentionally replaceable (permadeath, remember?) foot-soldiers in the Divine Dragon’s forces.
You’ll see a lot of grumbling about how nearly every character is reduced to one identifiable trait (maybe two, if they’re lucky) and they tend to hammer their one note on the piano over and over again. This is mostly accurate, I’ll be honest. But it’s not terrible. Some characters are more tiring about it than others, I’m looking at you Etie and Alfred, while others have at least some hinted-at depth revealed through support conversations. (Catch Citrinne grilling Yunaka about her past for a good example. It doesn’t get deep by any stretch, but an effort was clearly made.)
So let’s end this on a stronger note by talking about the elephant in the (Ring Chamber) room: The Emblem Rings (and bracelets, if you bought the DLC package).
Engage’s entire gimmick is that you, the Divine Dragon, possess the ability to awaken the spirits that slumber inside of these rings (and bracelets). By shouting “Engage!” in combat while wearing one of these rings, you can be transformed into an absolute avatar of destruction on the battlefield… if that’s the kind of thing the ring you’re wearing is good for. It might also make you a long-ranged ICBM launcher of an archer, or whatever. Read the fine print before engaging. And of course it wouldn’t be any fun if only one of your party could do this, so you can give whatever Emblem Rings are on hand (ahem) to whichever party members you see fit so they can join in the fun.
The gotcha? (Not to be mistaken for gacha, obviously.) You only get a few rounds of combat to enjoy being glowy and overpowered before you return to normalcy. It’s possible to recharge the ability to “engage” over time or by ending your turn on special tiles (if available), but for the most part you’re looking at a once-per-fight thing… so choose your timing wisely. Also, your heavy-hitter attack party-trick can only be used once per “engage.” (Being in Engaged mode does offer other perks like special weapons and lesser special attacks, however.)
And, of course, as the marketing for this game was absolutely pedantic about, this whole thing is a gigantic nostalgia festival. Each Emblem Ring features a primary character (possibly the player avatar, but I don’t know enough about the older games to be sure about this) from one or another of the preceding titles. How all of these spirits are supposed to be available in this game when very few (if any) of the games take place in a shared timeline is left as an exercise for the player. The Heroes mobile game takes a very Marvel Cinematic Universe “multiverse” approach, but the handwaving in Engage is left a bit unclear by comparison.
Then there’s the DLC. Which, yes, we bought. Because one of the things you get almost immediately is the Emblem “Bracelet” (not a ring, doncha know) featuring… the three House Lords from Three Houses. All crammed into one piece of jewelry. Again, it’s best not to think about how this is supposed to make the slightest lick of sense. You know what though? I don’t even care, because between this and knowing I’m a couple chapters away from getting the Byleth (in this case, “Boyleth”) Emblem Ring as well makes my little 3H-loving heart go pitty-pat, and that’s enough. It’s fine.
I mean you also can get Tiki’s bracelet, which is a giant pain in the butt to acquire by the way, but it pairs great with a Qi Master like Jean so I’ll put up with the insufferably cute little alternate-universe Divine Dragon because her party trick is absolutely broken. (3H players who’ve dealt with Giant Monsters that have multiple hit bars: Tiki can give one of your units an extra entire hit bar. Whoah. Yeah it’s only once per Engage but still: WHOAH.)
What I’m really saying here is that the DLC… kind of breaks Engage. Your power level is to some extent tied to your available Emblem Rings/Bracelets and getting two “extras” fairly early on provides one heck of an advantage. To say nothing of… a certain plot point partway along that I won’t spoil.
(I could “solve” the overpowering “problem” by simply not using these bracelets but… ha ha ha ha, that’s such an adorable thought, like that’s ever happening.)
Let’s try to wrap this up.
Am I enjoying Engage? Yes. A lot. Will I replay it? Almost certainly, despite the lack of “New Game Plus” mode. (SERIOUSLY!?!?) When I’m done, will I go back to Three Houses and/or Hopes?
Let’s put it this way: Engage is for when I really want to have a good, moderately challenging time in a Fire Emblem combat environment. Three Houses and, to a lesser degree, Hopes is for when I want to enjoy the company of characters I’ve grown to love and I can cheer them on while they curbstomp their enemies. I like Fire Emblem Engage. I still love Three Houses.
And that’s fine. I don’t see them as in direct competition because they serve different purposes in my gaming life.
Dang, that was a long post. Thank you for reading this far. Have a fun, wonderful rest of your day.