WHEN commanding your army in Fire Emblem Engage, it feels a bit like overseeing a fleet of anime superheroes.
Three Houses’ cast of stuffy rich kids and nameless troops has been eschewed entirely for a gaggle of VTubers – as in, they were designed by a VTuber designer.
They’re intensely colourful, both aesthetically and in terms of their personalities.
When they use the titular Engage mechanic, they are granted the abilities of a past Fire Emblem protagonist, which transforms them into something between an idol and an angel.
The switch from Three Houses’ moody tone to Engage’s vibrant hopefulness can feel slightly jarring, like jumping from an older Shin Megami Tensei game into a modern Persona title.
The characters are all so much brighter, with designs that will be both memorable and divisive.
Céline, for example, is a princess who wears a dress with absurd panniers – essentially pauldrons for your hips – and the image of that hip armor will burn into your mind and haunt your every waking moment.
The whole cast has the same hyper-cute aesthetic. Girls often have heart or star shapes on their cheeks, just because.
Are these tattoos, or some creative makeup choices? Who knows, but some clarity would be nice for the lass who seems to have a Chelsea grin.
Some of these cutesy visual style choices work – Yunaka, an agile thief, is brilliantly designed, as is Pegasus rider Chloé.
Others, like Céline, Ivy, and the protagonist Alear can feel overdesigned and busy. I certainly wouldn’t be able to sketch their outfits from memory, aside from a basic shape.
While visual choices will be down to taste, it’s impossible to say that Fire Emblem Engage doesn’t look gorgeous.
From the CGI intro to simple battle animations and the character models themselves, everything looks fluid and beautiful, with the colourful characters dancing around the screen in battle.
It’s a striking game, and that extends to the environments.
Yes, you’ll mostly be battling in ruins, grasslands, or castles, but you’re also able to explore a battleground on foot from a third-person perspective after battles, which gives you a brief moment to let the post-fight euphoria sink in, and appreciate that the environments are really quite nice.
While Three Houses’ environments are so often clearly copied and pasted assets, everything here feels custom.
To be clear, every game is composed of reused assets, but some games are better at inventively disguising that fact.
This is clearly a game made by Intelligent Systems, and the same visual chops put into Paper Mario: The Origami King are on display here.
Now it’s time to address the Marth-shaped elephant in the room: Engage’s new mechanic, and primary marketing gimmick, is the inclusion of past Fire Emblem protagonists that you can summon in battle.
Marth, Lucina, Sigurd, Roy, Ike, Byleth, Corrin, and even more previous FE heroes are here.
The story, luckily, does not revolve around them.
These heroes are summoned with Emblem Rings, which are essential items in the story, but whether Marth or Lucina is by your side really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, only the abilities they grant you.
Engaging with an Emblem gives you access to a unique special attack, on top of a few unique weapon choices.
This allows you to plaster over certain characters’ weaknesses – you should give a bow-wielding Emblem to a unit that usually has only short-range attack options, for example.
In general, if you’re Engaged, you’re more powerful in battle, so ensuring you’re able to Engage when you need to, and visiting Engage resource pools on the map, adds an extra tactical layer to battles.
Combat in general is what you would expect from a Fire Emblem game, and it returns to pre-Three Houses mechanics for the most part.
The classic weapon triangle has been reinstated – rock, paper, scissors for anime nerds – with the likes of spells, daggers, bows, and martial art weapon types being given their own strengths and weaknesses.
It feels like a good move – your army of units might feel a bit smaller and more focused than in previous titles, but it also asks you to think a bit harder about your unit placement and strategies.
Engage is welcoming, and so is the world. Playing as Alear, the Divine Dragon, you are beloved by almost everyone in the land.
Travelling and meeting new people usually results in everyone laying out the red carpet, as best as they can.
It feels a world away from battling through hostile territory in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, where every move forward brought its own challenges.
Compared to previous games juggling political machinations and ground-level racism in story beats, Engage feels like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Everyone loves Alear, except the big bad guy, who is basically Satan reincarnated, and that’s a good reason to defeat them. Case closed.
There’s not as much complexity or nuance in Alear’s story – or perhaps it’s just grit. Fire Emblem used to be gritty, y’know?
But it speaks volumes about Engage that the only complaint I can really muster is something born from my nostalgia for games I played when I was a teenager (and the hip pauldrons).
Fire Emblem Engage is a solid tactical JRPG, and one of the most visually impressive in recent memory, especially for a Nintendo Switch exclusive.
It is a gorgeous and engaging (ayy) adventure, and is a great start to 2023 for the Nintendo Switch. Let’s hope it can keep that momentum up for the rest of the year.
Written by Dave Aubrey on behalf of GLHF.
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