Finally, a Fire Emblem for Tactics Sickos

My emotions and expectations for Fire Emblem Engage have been all over the place. When I saw the first trailer during the Nintendo Direct, there were a lot of things that had me worried. The emphasis on the returning protagonists of other FE games gave me the impression that we were looking at a Fire Emblem Heroes or Fire Emblem Warriors situation – a game selling you nostalgia and fanservice rather than good storytelling or a tight mechanical experience. As more details were shared about the game, my mind opened a bit. The engage mechanic from which the game takes its name looked like an interesting change-up for the series, but I had some concerns that it could be overpowered and make the game laughably easy. And once previews began to hit and reveal that a lot of the focus on supports and socializing from Three Houses was pulled back, my hopes for the game became fully focused on the mechanical experience.

On release day I played through four chapters of Fire Emblem Engage. This is enough of the game to have a couple of battles with real stakes, experiment with a small portion of the game’s twelve Emblem rings, and have a couple of visits to Somniel – although only one of those visits really has anything to do and many of the game’s base mechanics are still locked at this point. It is this portion of the experience on which I am basing my first impressions. It is also worth noting that I have chosen to play the game on hard/classic, with the battle difficulty more suited to experienced FE players and with permadeath as a factor for me to consider in battle. With all that in mind, let’s dig into my first impressions of Fire Emblem Engage.

First, the core premise. One thousand years prior to the events of Engage, the Divine Dragon Lumera battled against the Fell Dragon Sombron using the power of the Emblem rings: twelve magical rings that hold the power of heroes from other worlds. The rings were spread across the four kingdoms of the continent of Elyos and some were kept with the Divine Dragon herself. During the events of this war, the Divine Dragon’s child, Alear, fell into a deep slumber. After 1000 years, that young man or woman (you choose) has awoken to a world where trouble is brewing. The Fell Dragon stirs and his soldiers, reanimated corpse warriors called the corrupted, are attacking folks left and right as forces loyal to Sombron conspire to steal the Emblem rings. As the successor to the Divine Dragon, your goal is to gather all the Emblem rings and stop Sombron once again.

If you’re reading that and thinking “gosh Ian, are you sure this isn’t a first impressions article for Fire Emblem Awakening?” you’re not alone. From the fell dragon to the animated corpses to the Maguffins spread across the kingdoms, the story of Engage – at least in the early chapters – is about as bog-standard Fire Emblem as you can get. You even have some of the same early set pieces as Awakening down to mysterious premonitions of the final battle as well as visions of an evil version of Alear. If you prefer a more grounded FE story focused on the political turmoils of the setting (as I do) then the early segments of this game promise disappointment in that regard. But here’s the thing. Sometimes Fire Emblem is for the story sickos and sometimes it’s for the tactics sickos. Story sickos got a solid meal for the most part with Three Houses. With Fire Emblem Engage, it’s time for the tactics sickos to eat.

There are a few different factors that contribute to making even the early battles of Engage feel a lot more strategically engaging (I promise I won’t do this too much) compared to previous titles. One of the most notable is the new break mechanic, which takes the weapon triangle from “cool bonus you want to try for maybe” and changes it to “serious tactical consideration that is essential to successful combat.” When you initiate combat with an advantageous weapon, you break the opponent’s fighting stance. This prevents them from counterattacking during the rest of your phase, not only protecting your current unit from damage but also any subsequent unit who attacks the same enemy. Naturally break works the other way too – if an enemy hits your sword wielder with a lance on their phase, it’s open season on your defenseless unit until your next turn. Taking full advantage of break while avoiding having it used on yourself is essential to a good turn.

This is wrinkled by the advantages and disadvantages tied to a unit’s type. There are a number of unit types in the game: dragon, backup, cavalry, qi adept, mystical, and armored are just a few of the ones you’ll see in the initial chapters. Each unit type has a specialization they bring to the table when fighting. The whole break strategy I described above? Useless against armored unit types; it’s better to chip them down with magic because you’ll never break their fighting stance. Attack an enemy adjacent to one of your backup units and that character will jump in and make an additional attack for a bit of extra damage. Qi adepts can perform a chain guard at full health which completely prevents damage to an adjacent ally, instead causing the qi adept to take damage equal to 20% of their max HP. This can prevent an enemy with an advantageous weapon from breaking one of your characters. Learning to maximize the benefits of your unit types while also working around the enemy’s unit type adds another layer of consideration to each of your moves.

Using Chain Attack, I was able to get my healer to level up without her getting hurt – or even dealing any damage!

While I imagine that players experiencing the game on normal are having a bit of a simpler experience, I am regularly facing foes who are higher leveled than me who can take out my units in two hits, leaving room for only a single mistake with a particular character at any given time. This level of lethality has me fully seeking to take advantage of every mechanic I can get my hands on. I’m looking to break enemies, activate chain attacks, protect myself with chain guards, and even using personal skills in this game that I would typically not strategize around in older games. Alear’s personal skill that gives a small damage buff to allies has been an essential tool in giving characters like Clanne or Framme the hitting power they needed to finish off an opponent and prevent me from taking some dangerous damage during the enemy phase. The fact that I’ve been positioning around it is a testament to how tight the numbers are in these early game fights.

So how do the Emblems themselves factor in? Each Emblem is a legacy character from the Fire Emblem series. Equipping them gives a stat boosts and unlocks a single sync skill. Engaging with them unlocks more powerful skills as well as the Emblem’s Engage weapon. You start battles with the ability to Engage immediately but once you’ve spent your three turns powered up, you either have to manually build the meter again by battling or by ending your turn on a tile with Emblem energy, which fully recharges the ring. Alternatively, you can save your Engage benefits for a coordinated play later on in the battle if you wish. Timing your Engage skillfully so you can take full benefit of its abilities is essential.

One of my biggest concerns during pre-release coverage surrounded the possibility of the different Emblems simply being a win button for the player to press. I’m happy to say that at least the early battles feel very well balanced around the Engage system – you need it to win, and it comes with risks if you burn it at the wrong time. Celica for example has a powerful skill called Warp Ragnarok that allows you to teleport up to ten squares away and appear in range of a foe, targeting them and blasting them with a high power magic spell. It is essentially a delete button on a single enemy, but you have to be very aware of your magician’s position when they land. Celica doesn’t really offer additional survivability, so the unit Engaged with her can easily be overwhelmed and killed by enemies teleported to a position where they are surrounded. And since Warp Ragnarok only works once per Engage, you don’t have the option to nope back out of trouble you’ve warped into. The stat boosts from equipping the rings are useful but not game breaking – Alear for example pretty much needs the strength boost and extra attacks from Marth to be competitive due to their relatively low attack power.

My experience so far with Engage is that the battles require forethought and precision. Unit positioning matters so you can take full advantage of the bonuses from personal skills and unit types. Playing to the weapon triangle is essential for preserving your units and defeating enemies who have a lot more durability and hitting power than you do. And Engaging with Emblems isn’t an overpowered win button but rather a necessary tool in your belt to stay competitive, and one that still requires you to make smart choices lest you get burned. Four chapters in, I’ve had one battle that I only won because of a lucky miss and another where I had to bust out the rewind mechanic in order to prevent the death of one of my magicians. Again, some of my experience may be the result of my difficulty choices, but Engage feels like a real test of your tactics abilities compared to previous entries.

So far I’m having the experience I expected from Fire Emblem Engage. I am almost rolling my eyes at the rote story beats, an unneeded retreading of some of the most common tropes across the series. But when battle starts I’m leaning forward in my seat and the gears begin turning in my brain, analyzing each option at my disposal to build a winning strategy for overcoming the opposition. I wish Intelligent Systems could find it in themselves to create a compelling experience from both a writing perspective and a gameplay one, but for now I’ll celebrate that we’ve potentially got a tactically engaging Fire Emblem once again.

One thought on “Finally, a Fire Emblem for Tactics Sickos

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  1. You know, I had 0 interest in playing this title, but reading what you wrote here might actually get me to shell out the 100 dollars it’d cost to buy Engage. So many people that I know, or follow focus so heavily on the story side of FE games, and the sentiment for this game was that it wasn’t very good. Will keep myself tuned for your final impressions to see if the tactics stuff holds true from start to finish though.

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