Fire Emblem Engage gets off to a slow start

One of the biggest games to release in the early weeks of 2023 has been Fire Emblem Engage. As the first true follow-up to the hugely successful Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Nintendo has been pushing this title hard in the hopes of continuing the momentum the series has built up over the last few years.

Like many fans, I spent much of my first weekend with the game waging tactical warfare against Corrupted. While I still have a lot of hours to get through, I’ve certainly started to form an opinion of the game. There is a lot of good here along with a couple of pain points for me.

My Fire Emblem Engage first impressions

Fire Emblem Engage protagonist

The Fire Emblem series has seen an exceptional resurgence in recent years. Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS was developed as a possible final game in the series but sold well enough that it breathed new life into the franchise. Fire Emblem Engage is the most recent entry to benefit from this renewed interest and it shows that there is still life left in the classic tactical combat JRPG.

Many of the staples of the Fire Emblem series are in Engage. The combat is familiar without feeling stale and the characters are exactly as stylised as you’d want from a JRPG. Personally, I don’t care for the main character’s design, which looks like a toothpaste company got into VTubing on a dare, but it works within the plot so I can’t complain too much.

The weakness of the game’s opening hours, for me, comes from it feeling much more linear than its direct predecessor. Getting to choose which house to join in Fire Emblem: Three Houses made certain you knew each playthrough would be slightly different. Here, there is one route to take at the beginning and, despite some optional recruits to your army, it doesn’t look like Fire Emblem Engage will have the same kind of replayability.

Nor does any of the initial cast have the same appeal as Edelgard and Claude, which is a shame. Aside from Vander, who is unbearably hot in a way I didn’t know I liked, everyone is somewhat plain. There is nothing truly offensive to them but they don’t grip me in the early stages. They’re just background pieces, waiting to be replaced when more interesting characters are introduced.

Where this game does shine for me is in its combat. Just like in previous Fire Emblem games, Engage gives characters a relationship boost when they go into combat beside each other. Upping these bonds, particularly with the main character, will unlock new abilities and skills that make these characters more useful going forward. As your army grows in size, so do the opportunities to forge these relationships, which has always been the best part of a Fire Emblem game.

Fire Emblem Engage also feels like a celebration of the series’ history thanks to the Engage system. Rings with the souls of heroes trapped within them are scattered all over the land. These heroes are main characters from previous Fire Emblem games. The protagonist starts with series mainstay Marth bonded with them and quickly unlocks the likes of Sigrun and Celica. The opening cutscene also shows Blythe and Ike in action.

Wearing one of these rings in combat will let units sync with these characters and unlock new abilities and generally become more powerful. I know some people have been sceptical of this system, but, for me, it has been my favourite part of Fire Emblem Engage so far. I like the fact that these heroes from previous games float around like JoJo’s stands. It is both cool and a little creepy, especially when Marth confirms that he spent 1000 years watching you sleep.

Some minor technical issues aside — like hair clipping through character models in a way that feels lazy and haphazard for a big release like this — there is more to like than dislike in Fire Emblem Engage thus far. My biggest worry, looking forward to the next several dozen hours of my life, is that some of the more interesting characters aren’t being introduced as early as I would like. But we shall see!

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