Fire Emblem
Image: Nintendo

How would you feel if the next mainline Fire Emblem game was exclusively a social sim?

While a change this drastic is almost certainly not in the cards, the identity crisis currently faced by Fire Emblem means that change must come. While Engage’s 1.61 million sales as of March 2023 is respectable for the franchise, it marks a return to 3DS-era numbers after whispers of blockbuster status when Three Houses sold nearly 3 million in its first fiscal year. The reason for this discrepancy is simple: Three Houses expanded the fanbase by shifting the focus away from its strategy elements, whereas Engage doubled down on its strategy roots.

It's quite the pickle for any franchise when a popularity spike occurs for reasons that run counter to its traditional formula. However, those that are already playing to niche genres can quickly be reshaped by such a phenomenon. Turn-based strategy games—one such genre—rarely come close to attaining million-seller status. It took Fire Emblem over two decades to achieve this despite being arguably the biggest player in the space. Awakening notoriously saved the franchise from imminent demise by garnering a fanbase around its marriage system that later evolved into the Persona-coded social simulation of Three Houses.

Simplifications like oversized bland maps and the removal of the signature weapon triangle would’ve buried any other entry than Three Houses, but the average player wasn’t focused on this; they wanted to sip tea with their lord of choice, romance their favorite pupil (insert a collar tug here), and micromanage their monastery tasks. If social media chatter around the franchise wasn’t already character-focused before this seminal Switch entry, after releasing it became an all-out shipping war. Some fans of older Fire Emblem formulas were left behind in the process, but a newfound audience doubled the franchise’s reach. Fire Emblem became synonymous with its social elements and there was no turning back if Nintendo wanted to maintain the momentum of its popularity.

Three Houses characters look and act like people, whereas Engage characters look and act like caricatures.

But turning back is exactly what Nintendo tried with Engage.

Perhaps more aptly, Engage tried to have its papaya and eat it, too. For my money, the crucial moment-to-moment decision-making—particularly regarding the titular “engage” mechanic—resulted in Intelligent Systems’ most enthralling combat system yet, but by this same token many new fans who showed up for an immersive social narrative were alienated.

That’s if they showed up at all, as the game’s narrative and writing quality were widely panned, and there were fewer meaningful social systems through which to interact with characters. Even the characters themselves didn’t fit the mold of modern Fire Emblem wants. Three Houses characters look and act like people, whereas Engage characters look and act like caricatures. This boldness works well for the traditional Fire Emblem formula wherein most characters only have plot relevance during their introductory mission (so that they’re free to perma-die thereafter), but that philosophy is antithetical to what made its predecessor sensationally popular.

Fire Emblem
The less we talk about Fates, the better — Image: Nintendo

Would it be so much of a reach to then say I could enjoy a Fire Emblem game that only focused on socializing?

It may seem obvious that Intelligent Systems should simply copy and paste the Three Houses formula for the next mainline Fire Emblem, but this tactic has spectacularly faceplanted in the past. Fates carbon-copied Awakening’s homework but colored between the lines with less memorable characters and bloat by the boatload. It’s also noteworthy that Heroes, the biggest Fire Emblem moneymaker, simplified combat to the point that it plays second-fiddle to the seasonal character outfits.

So, change must come. Or more specifically, the franchise must adapt to the wants of its largest player base, lest it risk returning to its perilous pre-Awakening state. To which I ask again: what if the next Fire Emblem game fully embraced being a social sim, even to the point of abandoning its turn-based strategy roots?

Let’s consider three possibilities of what this future could look like:

  • If you entirely remove combat, you then have to confront the issue that warfare is still a narrative pillar of the franchise. Perhaps a social sim in this setting could act as a commentary on the impact an outside war has on citizens inside a kingdom. Think of this as the story that takes place while the turn-based Fire Emblem game you’d typically be commandeering is ongoing. Character choices influenced by your interactions could lead to outcomes like permadeath (maybe you fail to convince them not to join the war) or romance. Point is, many of the conceptual ideas and thematic elements of Fire Emblem can live on in a format that eschews combat. Combat-based entries could be relegated to remakes of classic games in the Echoes lineage.
  • For a less nuclear option, turn-based combat could be an optional offshoot of a social sim story. You could choose to send armies out to automatically fight for you to net extra time for social tasks, while players who want to take point on the battlefield could still do so. Balancing storytelling and pacing in this format would be difficult to strike and creating essentially two games in one is something developers aren’t often wont to do. Still, a 'do what you want' model worked for games like Fantasy Life so perhaps there’s a way to also implement it here.
  • They could change the combat genre to one more approachable for the average gamer. I mentioned the Persona stylings of Three Houses earlier, but what if it took the concept to its logical conclusion and made full-stop medieval Persona? Frankly, little change would be needed to fit traditional JRPG dungeons into the slots where major story beats happen in Three Houses and fill the interim content with Mementos-style dungeon crawling. We could even go as far as going the action route, something Three Hopes already proved viable.

This is not to say that I’m championing a future where Fire Emblem isn’t a bastion for turn-based strategy fans. However, when thinking back on the two mainline Switch entries I’m met with a conundrum. Despite having major issues with Three Houses’ combat design whilst adoring Engage’s, I still think more fondly of the former for the bonds I built with its student body. Would it be so much of a reach to then say I could enjoy a Fire Emblem game that only focused on socializing?

Fire Emblem Engage
Image: Nintendo

I suppose the answer to that question could only ever come in the form of Nintendo greenlighting such a project, but the more I’ve pondered this possibility the more I’ve become interested in seeing that game exist.

Would you play a Fire Emblem game that focused primarily on its social elements instead of turn-based combat? Or do you still swear by the stalwart weapon triangle?