March 29, 2023

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Fire Emblem Engage Kotaku Review: Good Tactics, Bad Story

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

With its somewhat more grounded depictions of military life and interpersonal tragedy, 2019’s fantastic tactical RPG Three Houses was a break from the optimism of most Fire Emblem games. Despite the unprecedented popularity of that game, the series’ latest, Fire Emblem Engage, is a return to its fairytale roots. And as I played the game, I realized quickly that Engage was also taking inspiration from another source: the mobile gacha game Fire Emblem Heroes. As Nintendo’s first billion-dollar mobile game, it’s easy to understand why the developers chose that success story to influence their vision of the Fire Emblem multiverse. Unfortunately, what made for a solid mobile game ultimately doesn’t translate well to this console gaming experience.

Fire Emblem Engage is a tactics RPG where you battle magical zombies with swords and sorcery. You play as an amnesiac dragon (in human form) named Alear, who had been asleep for a thousand years. An evil dragon wakes up at the same time you do, and is determined to take over the world with the aid of his powerful minions. Like previous games, the goddess of the world chooses you to save the world. Unlike previous games, you accomplish this by fusing your soldiers with spirits called “Emblems,” who are the protagonists of previous Fire Emblem games. They also haunt physical rings called Emblem rings—which can be lost, stolen, or hidden in inconvenient places. While the main rings are obtained through the course of the story, some optional character rings can also be obtained from an in-game gacha system.

Celine syncs with Celica during battle.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

This isn’t the developers’ first attempt at a Fire Emblem multiverse. Intelligent Systems first experimented with inter-dimensional crossovers in 2012’s Awakening for the 3DS, in which players could recruit classic heroes (albeit without any interactions or dialogue). The 2017 hack-and-slash title Fire Emblem Warriors also featured characters from other worlds, though purist fans don’t consider the musou game as a main part of the franchise. Heroes, however, became an indispensable part of the franchise. While Three Houses, a very successful game by series standards, sold 4 million copies, the mobile game has been downloaded 18 million times. It showed not only that a Fire Emblem multiverse could be successful, but that it might be the most profitable way to sustain a franchise.

The Heroes influence is most readily apparent in the flashy character designs, which make liberal use of bright, contrasting colors and unusual silhouettes. This is tolerable for two-person conversations, but any cutscenes involving three or more characters feel visually jarring. The drastic changes become even more apparent when you watch the new characters fight alongside the classic heroes. Established characters Byleth and Marth have cohesive appearances despite being created nearly 30 years apart. On the other hand, newcomers Princess Ivy and Prince Alfred wear so many clashing accessories, I was frequently distracted by their outfits during emotionally charged cutscenes. They didn’t just seem out of place in a medieval setting; their appearances actively undermined my attempts to take the story seriously. Which is a huge problem for a series that has always tried to seriously wrangle with war themes with varying degrees of success.

The mobile-fication of Engage can also be seen in how the characters communicate with each other. Unlike the lively banter of the previous two games in the series, interactions between characters feel brief and disjointed. Oftentimes the dialogue isn’t even anime nonsense—it’s just nonsense. Discussions end abruptly, or they don’t flow organically. The conversations feel like they’re designed to be screenshotted and shareable on social media, and the overall narrative experience suffers for it. I’ve never felt compelled to skip the dialogue in a Fire Emblem game before. In Engage, however, I lied to myself as I fast-forwarded my way through a couple of support conversations: “I’ll come back to view it later.” Dozens of painfully dull conversations later, I don’t think I ever will.

This is all forgivable in a mobile game where casual players are engaging with dozens of characters in small increments of time, and they don’t have the mental bandwidth for the complexity of a traditional Fire Emblem game. It just doesn’t work, however, for a console game where players expect to be immersed in a world for hours on end. Engage is so shallow about its worldbuilding and characters that I find myself feeling unattached to any of them. When the main character proclaimed that she wants to save the world even at the cost of her own life, I found myself asking: Why? What are the specific things that she believes are worth saving? Awakening’s similarly amnesiac protagonist had a believable redemption arc because the game centered their relationships with other important characters. In contrast, Alear feels like a figurehead to many but a friend to none. There’s a lot of interesting territory to be explored about the detached nature of a messiah’s relationship to their followers, but it never materializes in this game. Again and again, Alear asks their followers to treat them like a friend. Yet the game never shows the small ways in which the characters depend on one another.

What little character development Engage manages to accomplish is ultimately undone by its clumsy attempts at redeeming its villains. One of its protagonists has an evil, murderous personality caused by psychological abuse. Her cultist abusers pull unbelievable heel-face turns at the eleventh hour, and the victim immediately absolves them of all blame. I don’t enjoy these narratives, but I can buy into a convincing performance. Unfortunately, the voice work just can’t salvage poor writing. There’s one particular endgame scene about motherhood that made me want to shrivel up and die. If Three Houses was two steps forward for mature video game storytelling about warfare, then Engage is ten steps back. Even when a plot twist seems conceptually interesting, the terrible delivery manages to sabotage any sense of gravitas.

The emptiness of Engage feels especially tragic because it had all the fundamentals for a great game. The animated cutscenes are beautiful for a game housed on the ancient Nintendo Switch system, and the live-rendering is better than it ever was in Three Houses. I just wish it had been more consistent about the kinds of stories that the developers were trying to tell. There were moments of grounded realism and motions at emotional sincerity. These were the times when I held my breath and waited for Engage to replicate the magic that drew me to the series over the course of a decade. They never came. Despite the feeble attempts at fan nostalgia, even my favorite characters such as Celica and Byleth felt shallower than they did in their original titles. Engage had all the correct ingredients of a compelling Fire Emblem game—but the script did not break from shallow one-liners or trite melodrama.

Alear is selected on a top-down map.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

Fortunately, I spent more time engaging with the combat system than the story. Out of all the modern Fire Emblem games I’ve played, Engage feels the most balanced. I thought that the Emblem rings were an annoying gimmick at first. I later came to appreciate that they offered me character customizability without child marriage or eugenics (looking at you, Awakening and Fates). If I decided that I no longer wanted my thief to moonlight as a mage, then I could simply swap her Micaiah ring for a Lucina one. While this system may seem egalitarian on paper, the game still forces you to pick and choose favorites within your army. There are a very limited number of deployment slots per map, and you’ll probably want to pick the royal characters because of their disproportionate plot relevance. This meant that I ended up neglecting over half of my total roster—something that I rarely did in other Fire Emblem games. But did I want to spread the experience equally across 30 people? Probably not. I felt obligated to in prior games because I had conversations to unlock. I didn’t have this problem with Engage, which didn’t give me anything interesting enough to unlock. That’s one way to design around FOMO, I suppose.

I like the improvements Engage makes to the traditional rock-paper-scissors nature of the series’ weapons triangle. Fire Emblem normally tries to balance things by adding or subtracting weapon weaknesses. Magic spells in the classic games would require different types of counters. In Awakening, you’d counter archers with abilities that made it easier to hit archers and dodge their attacks. Engage simplifies the system while retaining tactical complexity. Fists are effective against bows and magic, which still retain the upper hand with their extended range. The lance-sword-axe weapons triangle still exists, but disadvantages hurt more than in previous games. If an enemy hits you with a superior weapon, then your character loses the ability to counterattack for the entire round. That meant that I could no longer send out a beefy armored character to bait attacks during the enemy’s turn like I might in another game. And positioning has become even more important in Engage, where multiple enemies can chain attack you at once. While other aspects of the game have tried to appeal to a more mainstream audience, the combat in Engage remains deep and satisfying.

Like its predecessor Three Houses, Engage brings back the Persona-esque minigames that allow you to train other characters or to spend free time with them. They also seem to be even more optional than in previous games. I didn’t finish Three Hopes because every chapter became a depressing resource grind in which I went back and forth across the map in order to manage upgrades and conversions. This was caused by the fact that I had a limited number of activity points to spend every chapter. There isn’t a similar limit here. Engage offered me a feast of minigames, and the freedom to play them to my heart’s content. I could go fishing, coordinate meals, adopt stray animals after every battle, exercise, or pit my soldiers against each other in gladiatorial combat. The social rewards in Engage feel so negligible or easily obtained that I would complete several consecutive chapters without ever returning to my home base. I know that I complained about the endless activities, but Alear’s castle feels like a step too far out in the other direction. I felt like I had a schedule and a sense of belonging as a professor in Three Houses. For the past forty or so hours, I was funemployed—with all the freedom and boredom that it entailed.

Alear has toast dinner with two companions.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

Social progression feels more casual compared to Three Houses or Three Hopes, where I was constantly rushing to max out some relationship stat before terrible consequences befell certain characters. In Engage, by contrast, the members of my current army barely know their own siblings. I have decided that this is fine. I’ve spent more time trying to adopt stray cats in the countryside than I’ve spent speaking to my own soldiers. Engage doesn’t pretend to be about getting close to those who would risk life and limb for you. Followers are required to worship, but gods are not required to give.

I’ve always believed that mobile games are an approachable gateway for new fans to enjoy an otherwise esoteric IP, and Engage streamlines the gameplay in all the right ways. Unfortunately, though, the story falls short of what I’ve come to expect from any Fire Emblem game, and I’m still struggling to understand why. With Fates, the poor writing could be attributed to its sheer character bloat, but Engage has a reasonably normal-sized cast. The watered-down stories felt like an intentional appeal to capture new audiences. But at some point, I want to move on from the appetizer to the main course. With its disposable conversations, shallow handling of themes, and incohesive visual design, Engage is the chicken wing, rather than a full chicken dinner.