Somniel is No Garreg Mach but I May Value My Time There More

Ever since Fire Emblem Fates, the FE series has been experimenting more and more with having a home base to return when you need a break from your battles. While preceding titles such as Path of Radiance certainly had a camp your characters stayed at, this location was always moving and was only ever presented to the player as a series of menus. My Castle in Fates pitched the concept of a consistent base of operations, one you could customize with structures of your choice in order to reap better benefits. Fire Emblem Three Houses took this concept and amplified it with Garreg Mach Monastery and the Officer’s Academy, a large structure that served as dormitory, cafeteria, training ground, fishing pond, market, and so much more. On weekends where you used your free time to explore the monastery, you could walk around the grounds and talk to characters while also engaging the many facilities on offer. Garreg Mach became an essential piece of the Three Houses experience, both from a story perspective and as a mechanical function. Maximizing your time there was key to performing well in your tactical battles.

In Fire Emblem Engage, your base of operations is the Somniel. This is the floating sky island where your character, the Divine Dragon, slept for one thousand years. When you begin adventuring across the continent of Elyos, Somniel becomes your base of operations, a consistent home to return to when battle is over to rest, converse, and prepare for what comes next. The bonuses that Somniel has to offer and the way the mechanics there function are quite different than Garreg Mach. So today I want to dig into the features of Somniel that I currently have unlocked – at the time of writing, I’ve progressed the game through the end of chapter seven. I’ll be discussing the different facilities and how I’ve learned to utilize them, and comparing the overall experience of Somniel to Garreg Mach to discuss my preference between the two.

Let’s talk first about time management in Somniel versus Garreg Mach. In Three Houses, your character has a professor level that determines their capacity for activities during a given free day at the monastery. As your professor level increases, you can do more things, and for the most part any one task can be done repeatedly so long as you have the activity points to fund it. Fire Emblem Engage moves away from the activity point structure and instead limits each facility individually, giving them a set number of uses or establishing a resource that you need in order to take advantage of the facility. For example, you can only use the arena for standard training three times per Somniel visit, and you can only have a meal at the cafe once per visit. You’ll also only benefit from one exercise session (although you can play the minigame as much as you want). By tying your limitation to the specific facility rather than a point pool you spend at will, Somniel encourages you to diversify your activities and to learn and utilize the unique benefits of each.

Some people won’t care about this feature but I love being able to customize the casual outfits for my characters. The world feels more grounded to me when the cast don’t wear armor when they aren’t on the battlefield.

During the marketing cycle for Engage I saw a lot of understandable clowning on the surplus of minigames in Somniel, particularly on playing faux DDR with Alear at the gym. So what’s up with the gym, anyway? Strength training is a facility which allows you to choose one of Alear’s stats and give it a temporary buff by winning a minigame. Initially only certain stats can be boosted – I imagine more exercises will unlock and change what you can increase but I don’t know that to be true. I usually do pushups because they increase Alear’s relatively lackluster strength stat for the duration of one battle. A bonus of 2 may not seem like much, but Alear is often double-attacking foes and 4 extra damage every fight definitely makes a difference, especially in the game’s early battles. The pushup minigame is also relatively unintrusive – just a series of increasingly-fast timed button presses.

While exercising only boosts a stat for the player character, you can boost stats for the entire party by having a meal at the cafe. Similar to Three Houses, when you have a meal you choose two companions to eat with you and increase their support levels with Alear and with each other. One nice quality of life touch with the cafe is that you select the characters to eat with first and then select the meal, and the game organizes the meals in order of what the two characters both like. I remember spending a mildly irritating amount of time in FE3H trying to hunt for something that both characters would eat; Engage puts the favorite foods right at the top for you. Meal quality fluctuates based on the number of ingredients you invest in the meal, with higher quality food – and by extension, bigger stat bonuses – coming more often when you add a lot of extra ingredients and special toppings. Like with the exercise, these bonuses may seem small but they can matter more than you think. A meal that grants +2 to strength, speed, defense, and resistance is essentially two temporary level ups for your whole army and can mean the difference between a killing blow and a blow survived, or being double attacked versus not.

Another essential function at Somniel with a limited number of uses is the arena. The arena offers two types of training, standard training and Emblem training. Standard training is limited by uses: you can only perform it three times between battles. Its function is to increase EXP for a chosen character by having them battle another character at random. They get EXP no matter what but get more when they win the battle. Because their foe is chosen randomly, this can be an exercise in frustration, especially when you’re training someone underleveled because you want to catch them up and try them out (looking at you, Jean and Anna). I read somewhere you can supposedly rig these fights by putting everyone’s items in the convoy except for the character who has the best matchup with the person you are trying to train. But in my own experience, that doesn’t work – characters who are fully dequipped still show up in my training pool. I generally use the standard training to push a character who is right at the cusp of a level up over the edge so they can get some stat bonuses for the next fight.

Emblem training is limited by your resources – you can only do Emblem training as long as you have bond fragments to spend, with higher bond levels costing more fragments. The purpose of the training is to improve the relationships between your characters and the Emblems at their disposal. This is invaluable for establishing a relationship between a character who doesn’t usually wear an Emblem ring and the Emblem that would benefit them the most, opening the potential for skill inheritance (more on that shortly). Engage is pretty generous with bond fragments for this reason, and I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from Emblem training to either have characters without an Emblem still get some useful skills, or by having new characters with new Emblems catch up to the rest of the party quickly.

Raising bond levels with Emblems is important because this is how skill inheritance is enabled. The characters in your party don’t obtain skills naturally by level-up in Engage. Instead, they learn skills from the Emblems they wear. When you have an Emblem equipped the character automatically benefits from all the bond skills they have unlocked with that Emblem. To continue to get those benefits without the ring equipped, you have to inherit skills in the ring chamber. Skill inheritance requires skill points (SP), a resource that in my experience has proved to be particularly rare as it is tied to dealing the killing blow against opponents and requires you to have an Emblem ring to fully benefit (characters wearing bond rings get SP at a reduced rate). Most of the time the most useful skills an Emblem carries are attached to a massive cost, though some helpful ones are mercifully cheap (like Micaiah’s version of what used to be called live to serve, essential for getting your chain guards back on qi adepts). Unlike most of the facilities I have described up to this point, I don’t visit the ring chamber every time I come to Somniel – it takes quite a few battles to build up the SP for even cheaper skills, and there are some characters I haven’t spent SP for at all in hopes of learning some truly powerful skills down the line.

One facility that Somniel shares in common with Garreg Mach is the smithy. This facility hasn’t necessarily changed a lot since Three Houses, but it’s worth exploring the differences. Engage has narrowed the list of upgrade materials to only three types: iron, steel, and silver ingots. These materials are generally found on battlefields after combat or can be dropped in smaller quantities by animals on your farm. By spending materials and a bit of gold on a single weapon, you can upgrade it to the next level. Each level of the weapon has a different increase, sometimes improving the damage while sometimes improving the accuracy. In Three Houses, each weapon simply had a + form that was an improvement on the original, without the ability to stack additional pluses onto the same weapon. In my experience with Engage so far, weapon upgrades have been a lot more accessible than stronger new weapons like steel weapons. I’ve got the main weapon for each of my core party members up to +2 but have almost no steel weapons to speak of. It’s a different relationship with improvement over time, investing in the weapons I already have rather than purchasing new ones as they become available.

This is a very serious tactics game, stop laughing

So let’s break down my typical Somniel visit. The first thing I do after battles is head to my orchard and farm to pick up resources that have been dropped in those locations. I’ll also head to Sommie’s grotto to build my relationship with Somniel’s guardian and net some bond fragments to spend. Next I’ll run out the charges on all the limited activities: the cafe, the arena, and the strength training. This prepares my army for their next battle, topping off levels on characters who were close to 100 EXP as well as giving +1 or +2 to everyone’s stats, including a +2 strength bonus to Alear. Once that’s done it’s on to spending resources, if I have them; improving bond levels at the arena, spending SP to learn skills from my new bonds, and then investing materials and gold into weapons to make them stronger. Once that’s done, I’ll prepare myself to head into the next chapter or paralogue battle I have available.

You may have noticed a distinct lack of “talk to everybody around Somniel.” This is one of the key differences compared to Three Houses; characters in Somniel don’t really change up their dialogue according to what’s happening in the story. A lot of the characters have the same lines of filler text when you’re running about regardless of the circumstances, and rarely does that filler text really give you any additional perspective on the situation at hand or any valuable insight into a character. You also don’t get conversation opportunities for upping support points, nor do characters hand you resources or do anything that makes a useful mechanical contribution to your experience. So if the snippets of dialogue rarely change, aren’t particularly interesting to read, and don’t do anything for me, I choose not to engage (ugh) with them. Granted, there was a point in Three Houses where I stopped talking to everybody too, but Somniel is worse and I hit that point significantly faster.

Overall, while Somniel’s function as a social simulator is abysmal in comparison to Garreg Mach and it lacks the same sense of place, I am finding that I prefer it to the monastery of Three Houses. The activities there are quicker to perform and have immediate benefits for your army; there’s less of an emphasis on “grinding” features that will lead to improvements for your characters later down the line. Instead of fishing to get professor XP so that I can have more activity points three more visits from now, I’m exercising for a material boost to strength that will make Alear more capable immediately. Instead of eating for the sole purpose of having instruction time so I can eventually make my character have a high enough skill level to class change, my party all receive what is essentially a free level up for the next match thanks to the meal. I love Three Houses broadly and there’s still something to be said for the payoff of investing in your units long term and seeing them achieve goals you’ve been working towards for in-game months. That said, Somniel does a better job of respecting your time and making it immediately clear why you want to play fantasy DDR in the middle of your tactics RPG. I know I still have features to unlock moving forward, so I will be interested to see how those new opportunities continue to affect my perception of Somniel.

4 thoughts on “Somniel is No Garreg Mach but I May Value My Time There More

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  1. It really sounds like Intelligent Systems took the criticism of Three Houses having too much down time, and completely 180’d on it. What you described sounds like how I would engage with a base system, even if there was dialogue to check out. Shame that there isn’t though – from what I’ve been able to gather, that’s what most FE fans are most interested in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have noticed since writing this article that there are markers on the map that show when characters have context-specific things to say instead of their generic banter, so people looking for that can at least know when there is something slightly more interesting to read, but it is still pared down. Generally you’ll only have a handful of characters with unique dialogue after any given mission.

      It’s interesting because I have a buddy who was new to FE with Three Houses and they aren’t gelling with this one nearly as much, but I’m seeing a lot more legacy fans go wild for it. So it seems like Intelligent Systems is struggling to figure out how to appeal to classic fans while still engaging newcomers and vice versa. It’ll be interesting to see if their next game swings back towards a Three Houses style and they essentially have two flavors of FE moving forward.

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      1. I think Atlus ran into something similar with Persona and SMT. For the longest time (like 30 years) this company repeatedly released what would be considered relatively niche RPG titles. Persona 5 absolutely blew up though, and because of that Atlus has tried (unsuccessfully) to onboard the new fans into their other titles. Problem is, most of the new fans like the talky-talky bits, and aren’t as big on all the things that old-hat vets want to see more of.

        It’s tough. Hopefully Intelligent Systems are able to eventually strike a perfect balance, but I gotta imagine they’ll be walking around like a fish outta water for a while as they try to determine the correct balance to appease the widest possible audience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reflected my thoughts exactly with this. The monastery (no I won’t spell it right so why bother) was a lot bigger and more tedious while the island (Somniel. HA Got it!) is just easier to get around and doesn’t feel nearly as tedious. I actually find myself hanging out there just micromanaging little things and feeling cozy while in Three Houses I dreaded doing my “chores” so much I would end up avoiding it to the point of playing other games. Yes that’s a bit extreme, but thus far Engage, meh story aside, has been a lot more mechanically satisfying and mechanically enjoyable. You know…all the stuff you’ve already said in your last two articles about it. I’VE HAD FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP AND WANNA TALK ABOY MY ANIME COMBAT SIMULATOR OKAY!?

    Liked by 1 person

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