Prior to the Switch era, I had a vision for what my dream Fire Emblem title would be. It would be a game that looked and sounded like Echoes, with the class system and weapon triangle from Fates, and told a story as grounded and compelling as Path of Radiance. But instead of looking to the past, the first Fire Emblem on Switch looked to the future, imagining a game that functioned very differently from any of its predecessors. Three Houses resonated strongly with me – I have roughly five hundred hours in the game and have beaten it no less than seven times (I might actually be at eight, I’d have to go back and count my save files).
Now Engage is out and I’ve played it through to completion. Engage is a return to form after the experiment that was Three Houses, but still brings in new mechanics that really impact the gameplay significantly. Where Three Houses told a pretty solid story highlighting a cast of students who were all neat characters to connect with, Engage returns to the wacky Saturday morning cartoon vibes of a game like Awakening with one note, goofy supporting characters. Each game has different strengths that I would like to see continue into a future title, but at the same time it is difficult to see certain aspects of these games ever making a return in quite the same way. Or if they do, well, that might not be a desirable way to move forward.
Let’s start by discussing what Engage does that makes it such a unique experience from a mechanical standpoint. Fire Emblem Engage features items called Emblem Rings that, when equipped to your characters, allows them to fight side by side with a legacy hero from the series. There are 12 Emblem Rings in the base game and something like six or seven in the DLC, once all of it is released. Just wearing an Emblem Ring makes your characters a little stronger, giving a stat boost as well as access to sync skills that may change how the character moves, the number of hits they get, or adjust their stats in specific conditions. However, the true power of an Emblem Ring unlocks once you Engage with the Emblem.
The Engage mechanic fuses the Emblem together with the character wearing their Ring, unlocking even more powerful skills as well as stronger weapons called Engage Weapons. It also grants access to an Engage Skill, a one-off super attack with unique effects depending on the Emblem. Some damage wide areas, some alter the terrain, some hit from a massive range – these game-changing moves can give you or your opponent a huge advantage in combat. Engaging adds a new mechanical consideration to your strategy: choosing when to unleash all that power is key to victory, because the game’s difficulty (at least on Hard) is balanced around the assumption that you’re using these skills to the fullest.
Emblem Rings don’t just impact your immediate tactics though – they impact your long-term strategy in terms of character building. Characters don’t really get skills on their own in Engage. They start with one personal skill, pick up a class skill at level 5 of their advanced class (or level 25 of a special class like thief or dancer), and can have one skill granted by wearing a bond ring – weaker Emblem Rings that don’t Engage. However, as characters take action in combat, they build up a stat called SP which they can use to inherit skills from any Emblem they’ve formed a strong relationship with. The skills you can inherit from an Emblem will never be the full suite of their abilities, but they can still help you pick up a nifty feature from a particular Emblem and use it on other characters.
While the Emblem Rings are the biggest difference in Engage mechanically, there are other important changes. My personal favorite is the Break mechanic, which works like this: when a target with weapon advantage initiates combat and lands their attack, the opponent cannot counterattack during the rest of that exchange or during the subsequent exchange. This allows the breaking character to open up the opportunity for a more fragile character to come in and finish the job safely. Or if the breaking character is strong enough to kill the enemy, they can do so without the repercussion of damage. The break mechanic rewards a more aggressive playstyle and demands that you be more careful about “turtling,” or huddling up in a tight defensive formation and just slowly letting enemies come to you and die. Once an enemy breaks your character, they are totally vulnerable during the next combat.
Break works in tandem with other new mechanics to create interesting new possibilities and weapon types. For example, the heavier “Blade” type sword that is prevalent across the series as well as the Greatlances and Greataxes from Radiant Dawn now function differently with a mechanic called Smash. Heavy weapons always attack last, but they knock the opponent backwards off of their tile, and if this causes them to slam into someone else, they get broken as if they were attacked with an advantageous weapon. Not only can this help you break enemies you don’t have advantage against, but it can also force enemies out of defensive positions so someone else can come pick them off. Modify a heavy blade to be more accurate and you’ve got the perfect counter to frustrating foes hiding in thickets or forts.
My other favorite new mechanic is the addition of unit types. Each class in the game falls within one of eight unit types: dragon, backup, cavalry, flying, armor, covert, qi adept, mystical. Each unit type has a benefit associated with it. Some are straightforward, like cavalry having longer movement range or flying units ignoring the effects of terrain on themselves. But many of the other unit types add essential new strategies to the game. Armored units cannot be broken by weapon advantage, forcing you to find other strategies for nullifying them. Covert units double their avoid bonus from terrain that grants it, making them extra dangerous on thickets or forts. Thankfully, mystical units ignore terrain bonuses to avoid, allowing them to counteract covert units with their magic. Qi adepts can use chain guard to protect an adjacent ally from a single attack, preventing them from being broken or killed in the right conditions.
The big one though is the chain attack. Chain attacks are executed by backup units, and it allows them to throw in a quick additional blow that deals low damage at decent accuracy. A single chain attack can help an ally who almost gets the kill to finish off the opponent, but this is just the beginning of the possibilities. The properties of chain attacks are consistent regardless of the circumstances or stats of the units involved. In other words, they are always gonna do about 2-5 damage (depending on how far into the game you are) at a reliable 80% hit rate. So even if your unit who initiated the attack only has an accuracy of 20%, their four buddies jumping in on the chain attack will still have 80%. Even if your attack is doing zero damage to the armor knight, your two companions doing chain attacks will do about 6-8 damage to them. Setting up a series of chain attacks around a tough or evasive enemy can wear them down through attrition even when you don’t have other tools to overcome them. And by the same token, enemies can do this to you – a character with high defense that you consider effectively invincible can still be chipped down to nothing by being surrounded and chain attacked to death. It feels like the most balanced version yet of what the series tried to accomplish with things like the pair up system or adjutants.
All of these elements work together along with some solid maps and enemy placements to create compelling battles to fight. One fight might be centered around strategically Engaging to disperse harmful terrain that puts you at a huge disadvantage, another might depend on effectively using break to make sure you’re never overwhelmed by too many foes at once, and another may have a powerful boss who requires judicious setup of chain guards and chain attacks to whittle them down without dying yourself. Most situations have a “correct” solution but there’s generally going to be another tool in your toolbox you can use to jury-rig a victory when you need to. On hard classic, I found myself consistently using about half of my allotted rewinds each battle for things like reconsidering an approach that *almost* got the job done but failed to account for one small facet that allowed the enemy to kill one of my units, or because I thought I could be more aggressive but smart use of break and chain attacks allowed the enemy to shut me down. In terms of tactics, Engage is the strongest that Fire Emblem has been in a long time.
Naturally I’d like to see a lot of these mechanics come back in future titles, and for some of them it is easy to envision what that would look like. Break and Smash can easily stick around with little modification. Unit type bonuses also feel like they would transfer well. But perhaps the most impactful mechanical addition to Engage – the Emblem Rings – is going to be quite difficult to justify bringing about again in a subsequent title. What are they supposed to do, put Marth in every game now? There’s no way. Bringing in the legacy characters like this is a system that is interesting exactly once, so how would Emblem Rings feature in a subsequent title without compromising or limiting creative possibilities?
I have a few thoughts on how that might go. The first is that you could create a setting where the rings are ancient heroes, but not legacy heroes from older games in the series. Instead, you make new characters to be the Emblems and build out their bond conversations to be more involved so that they serve as a tool for learning about these new heroes. Perhaps pair this with a smaller cast so that the amount of supports doesn’t become too overwhelming. My second thought is that rather than having the Emblem Rings represent people, they represent a class. You have the myrmidon ring, the armor knight ring, the archer ring, etc. and use the rings as the basis of a class system where you can mix and match inherited skills to create your own unique units. Many Engage powers already resemble super moves from previous games like Astra or Aether – leaning into that would make sense.
What I most anticipate them to do though is just flat out abandon the Emblem Ring mechanic. They did it, it happened, and now we won’t see it again. Just as right now the school mechanics from Three Houses appear to have been a one-and-done, I think the Emblem Rings will turn out the same way. The next Fire Emblem may keep some of the other features of Engage – and I certainly hope it does – but it will likely let go of the Engage forms and skills and instead find a different core “gimmick” to drive the game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Personally I think the other mechanics introduced in Engage have enough potential that, added to a game where the story and characters have more depth and nuance, they could lead to a truly incredible Fire Emblem title. But only time will tell what path forward Intelligent Systems chooses to pursue.
This is absolutely going to be a one, and done style affair. I don’t know if Intelligent Systems is known for leaving behind mechanics, but Nintendo sure is. Coming up with some new gimmick for every new game is their thing, so I could 100% see the engage mechanic being scrapped in favour of…literally anything else.
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I agree, I don’t expect it to stay. I just hope they keep a lot of the good stuff around it and don’t abandon really good new additions like the break mechanic or chain attacking or basically everything that made this game actually feel tactically interesting for a change, haha.
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Fingers crossed. Typically I think they’re good about moving mechanical system changes from title to title though, right? Or at least, if they don’t move them then they try to rebalance them like they did with chain attacking.
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Generally yes, with the period from Fates to Echoes to Three Houses being the big exception there. So I guess it depends on if they just make their next game or if they try to do more remakes, as that might lead in an unexpected direction.
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