Fire Emblem Engage, as ever, gets the tactical RPG combat just right. The story, though? That’s less engaging.
What makes a Nintendo kingdom worth saving? In the case of Hyrule, from The Legend of Zelda, one could make a number of arguments. Its overall funkiness, for example – any spot home to the Gorons, those cheery mounds of monkeyish rock, is surely worth preserving. Or its royal family, whose wise princess has steered its citizens into prosperity. As for the Mushroom Kingdom, from Super Mario, well, mycologists would surely petition for its protection, along with connoisseurs of omelettes du champignon. But what about Elyos, the continent at the heart of Fire Emblem Engage? It sounds like a budget airline. It runs perilously low on both funky and fungi. I have yet to spot a single rubble-rousing Goron. And as for the royal family, there are several, but they keep squabbling. Frankly, if Ganon or Bowser wanted to rock up and roast the place, I’d leave them to it.
As it happens, there is a roaster on hand, known as the Fell Dragon. And also as Sombron. The names in this game are the chewy, screwy kind that make you appreciate the earthy timbre of Tolkien. Doubly so, considering the plot cribs freely from him. Sombron was vanquished, a thousand years before our story starts, but his loyal goons are hanging around, huffing his fumes, and making plans for his return. What they seek are rings, each of which is suffused with the phantom of an old warrior who, bound to their immortal coil, will grant the wearer great powers. You play Alear, better known (or known, at least) as the Divine Dragon. Your Divine status is signalled, presumably, by your hair, which suffers from dye-polar disorder; one half is crimson, the other lagoon blue, as though you had dunked each side of your head in a different bowl of Kool-Aid.
The battles are of the turn-based tactical RPG variety. You and your coterie take arms against the Corrupted: an army of highly motivated corpses, clad in spiky black, like those pain-craving cosmic interlopers from the Hellraiser movies. The terrain in each fray, be it a rutted hillside or a flat castle hall, is sliced into squares, onto which your troops are to be positioned for attack. There is a slight hint of chess in this setup, and Fire Emblem, which began in 1990 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, has always tipped its hat to that ancient game. The character designs (done here by Mika Pikazo, who favours acrylically bright hues) are a mix of the monarchic and the pawn-like. We have Alfred, a princeling who sports a ruff and crowns his blonde locks with a laurel wreath; but also Boucheron, a knight with plain shoulder pads and a faintly dozy demeanour.
Where Fire Emblem Engage is most winsome is in the thick of these skirmishes, and in the strategies that emerge as your units strike alongside one another. If Boucheron is next to an ally, say, then when they attack he’ll toss in his axe for an extra hit; thus your movements in the field become an important part of the fun. Though, it must be said, not that important. This is an easy game, for all but its very latter hours, and you can march through by sheer force of muddling for most of it. (The basic rule that governs the flow of combat is a triangle strategy, so to speak: swords beat axes, axes beat spears, and spears beat swords.) Your soldiers level up at quite a lick, and there is a methodical satisfaction in hacking down ranks of foes, square by square, and watching as victory inevitably nears. There are nights where that is all you need from a game, but I was still left with a sense of something missing.
The extra hook lies in the Emblem Rings, which not only buff their wearers but provide an added kick, for fans of the series, as they draft in its previous stars. Lacking the proper grounding in the history of these games, I only recognised those characters who turned up in Super Smash Bros. – the likes of Ike, Roy, and Marth, who all blurred together, next to Mario and chums, courtesy of their shared preference for capes and choppy swords. Nonetheless, when you start furbishing your chosen warriors with emblems, the tactics you can cook up are delicious. If only the game’s premise did more to prod us into action.
Having whooped Sombron all those years back, you saw fit to hibernate until needed next. Now, roused from your millennial slumber, you are pressed into service as a saviour. “I have heard many a tale of your kindness, nobility, and bravery. Your unflinching heroism,” says Vander, one of your new best friends, who canters into conflict atop an armour-plated horse. “There’s no need to put me on a pedestal,” Alear says, although this is difficult to take at face value, considering he does his saviouring from his own private airborne island. It’s called the Somniel, and it lolls above Elyos on a mattress of milk-white cloud. It’s tough to dispel the air of smugness in this conceit; you don’t exactly buy the desperation of the moment, given that Alear, lapped in pale marble and plashy fountains, wafts high above the woes of ordinary folk.
Then again, the Somniel is yours to customise with the spoils of your campaign. There are animals to adopt, businesses to establish, and friends with whom to dine, fish, talk, work out, and woo. In other words, lodged in the genetic code of Fire Emblem Engage is a warm memory of Monteriggioni, the walled Tuscan town from Assassin’s Creed II, which required similar renovation. But that game rooted you in its tale of revenge, and when its hero – who donned an ice-white hood and adopted the tactics of homicide – devoted his spare time and his passion to the place, flooding it with florins, it felt like an act of desperate relief. He had built a miniature world of incorruptible privacy, because he knew the real thing to be anything but. Here there is neither relief nor urgency, nor even much sense, in the Somniel: simply something compulsive to do.
And so to the crux of the Fire Emblem series. Its best entries are those in which the drama isn’t leveraged against the mechanics but, rather, locked to them. Fire Emblem Awakening, which released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012, saw the bonds between your units nourished if they attacked in neighbouring positions. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, from 2019, dipped into dating-sim territory; it was set in a school, and romance bloomed on and off the battlefield, bestowing perks and stoking rivalries. That is where the developer, Intelligent Systems, plays its best magic: when these forces are marshalled and balanced against each other, and, crucially, when they plug meaningfully into the grid at the heart of each clash. All is square in love and war.
Fire Emblem Engage may not reach those heights, and certainly no narrative in which one character says to another, “I’m pleased to meet you. As is my ring,” can hope to claim a lasting hold on us. But Intelligent Systems, having worked with Nintendo for over three decades, has such an instinctive grip on its craft that it’s easy to cruise through with a smile. The studio has made a Somniel of a game: the trappings are in place, the heroes of old are all here, and the foundation is untouchable, but it drifts ahead, untethered from its world and its trouble.
Game: Fire Emblem Engage
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: January 20, 2023