Happy New Year, Fire Emblem fans! And what a start to 2023 it looks like being for all you tactical RPG aficionados, as Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem Engage gets set to drop onto Switch in just a handful of weeks. We've already been busy blasting through the game over the Christmas holiday period and, at around about 12 hours into the main campaign, we reckon there's plenty of reason to get very excited about the imminent arrival of this one.
Fire Emblem Engage introduces a colourful new continent in the form of Elyos, alongside an expansive new cast of characters who get to mix it up with a host of Emblem legends from across the series' history. The story here sees you assume the role of Alear, the red and blue-eyed Divine Dragon who's been awakened from a 1000-year slumber in order to go toe-to-toe with Sombron, the Fell Dragon, an ancient beast who's got his mind set on world domination. In order to stand any chance of defeating this newly-resurrected enemy, Alear is gonna need to venture across the length and breadth of the game's gorgeous world in search of magical Emblem Rings which contain the power of legendary heroes. Only Alear has the ability to call forth the Emblem warriors from the rings, and they're going to need every last one of them by their side in order to prevail.
As far as gameplay goes, if you've played previous entries in this series you'll know pretty much what to expect for the most part, with lots of satisfyingly deep tactical battles based around the franchise's flexible Weapon Triangle system alongside an epic story that gives you plenty of downtime to explore, make new friends, develop relationships and gather your strength in the brand new Somniel hub area - think Garegg Mach Monastery from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but bigger! In fact, just think bigger with regards to everything here really. We're not permitted to discuss beyond chapter 8, but this is looking set to be the most all-encompassing Fire Emblem adventure to date.
Kicking off with our impressions of the story so far, we absolutely won't spoil anything for those of you who can't wait to dive in unsullied, but what we will say is that we've been most pleasantly surprised by just how quickly Fire Emblem Engage kicks into gear. Within just the first couple of hours, the narrative thrust has been established, Alear's mission to save the world is clear, there's already been plenty of heartfelt drama, and the game is busy sticking you into exciting early skirmishes designed to ensure you've learned the core skills you'll need to succeed in the really big battles that follow a little down the road.
And, boy oh boy, is there plenty to learn here. The turn-based combat is as tight as ever and the addition of the new Emblem Rings mechanic really elevates things, giving you lots of choice in how you go about pairing up your existing team members — all those wonderful folk you'll meet as you explore the continent of Elyos — with Emblem Legends who imbue them with a raft of new skills and explosive special attacks.
In terms of strategy, Fire Emblem Engage takes all the best parts from its predecessor's deep combat systems then layers on this new Emblem Ring aspect that allows you to build unique bonds across your entire team. You can mix and match Emblem powers with the combat abilities of all the regular warriors at your disposal by simply equipping an Emblem Ring, leading to a wonderful flexibility in how you choose to set up your squad for different battle scenarios. This freedom to swap out character pairings at your leisure before scraps gives you a ton of moves to cleverly consider and utilise during encounters, with class-based skills, special Emblem skills and flashy Engage abilities that you can unleash once you've filled up an Engage meter as you battle.
You've also got Engage attacks here, real screen-shakers that can be used once every time you Engage with your currently equipped Emblem. These attacks can instantly change the course of battles and pull you out of some really tricky spots, our favourite so far being Emblem Celica's "Warp Ragnarok" which allows you to teleport right across the battlefield in one movement to deliver a devastating magic blast that one-shots most foes.
You'll quickly find favourite strategic pairings between fighters and Emblems, too. Alear paired with Marth, for example, is a great way to utilise and compliment both of these character's flashy sword-fighting styles, whilst Vander, Alear's absolute unit of a protector and the real powerhouse in battles for us so far, is a mounted unit whose skillset fuses perfectly with Emblem Sigurd, his powers giving Vander a super-boosted range of movement on the battlefield, as well as the ability to perform a ferocious gallop attack straight through multiple foes in a straight line. We're still early doors with regards to the possibilities here, of course, with lots more characters, rings and powers to unlock, but already the potential is almost dizzying.
Luckily, with all of this and so much more going on around you in heated battles, the game does a top-notch job of presenting all the vital information you need onscreen in a clean and precise way. You can always see all of your current attacking options with regards to the character/Emblem pairing you're controlling, cursor over any friend or foe to get detailed info on attack radiuses, movement options and important skills available to every combatant on the field and, if you need to dig even deeper, you can pause to jump into menus stuffed full of more info. Setting up your units and equipping them in an optimal manner is wonderfully streamlined, too, with an auto-organization option available in the pre-battle phase which sorts all your currently available gear to the most suited fighters and can even switch who is wearing which Emblem Ring in order to give you the best match-ups should you wish to just skip a lot of the downtime and get raked right into scraps. For a game with as much depth as this, Intelligent Systems really has done a great job in making it all very accessible, easy to read, and fun to dig into and learn as you go.
There's tons more to the battles here, even in the early stages. Combat arenas feature destructible scenery, allowing you to create your own flanking routes to sweep around and divide the attentions of enemy forces. You can send archer-class units onto huge ballistas in order to one-shot multiple foes and thin out the encroaching threat, and there's plenty of treasure to be picked up, barriers to protect, and citizens to rescue as you go. Take on "Paralogue" side missions that pop up here and there as you traverse the game's gorgeous world map and you may encounter new characters to approach and speak to during fights, adding new combatants to your available roster, and there are replayable skirmishes to dig into in order to rank up and earn rewards.
Of course the series' signature permadeath makes a return when you play in the classic mode — there's a casual option available for those who can't take the heartache of watching beloved friends die — and there's also the returning time-rewind mechanic that softens that permadeath blow somewhat, allowing you to use a Dragon Time Crystal to jump back through all the moves taken in a battle and restart from any point. We usually prefer to take the hit and let comrades perish if we screw up in these games most of the time, it makes everything doubly dramatic, but there's no doubt that on occasion, and especially when it's a super-important member of your squad, it's certainly nice to be able to simply zip back a few moves and go again.
We should also mention here that the battles in Fire Emblem Engage look uniformly superb. There's an immaculate crispness to the colourful graphical style on display, fights are packed full of cutscenes and flashy animations for special attacks, and the whole thing runs without a hitch so far in both docked and handheld modes. There are some excellent corrupted enemy designs too, some huge big mounted beasts to take on and a never-ending conveyor belt of handsomely designed friends and foes popping out of the woodwork as the story unfolds.
And what of the downtime between battles? What about those all-important relationships and the epic story that drives the whole thing forward? Well, as we mentioned briefly a little earlier, we've been thoroughly impressed by how fast-paced this new Fire Emblem adventure has been so far, it really does get itself set up and into the action quickly. Alear and his comrades are a cracking bunch of characters so far too, and in the floating island of The Somniel, the game's great big hub area, you've got a ton of ways in which to interact and build those all-important bonds that feed cleverly back into battles, unlocking new skills and strengthening the combat connections between your ever-expanding roster of fighting friends.
Honestly, there's already so much going on in this flashy new hub area between scraps, and we're still only early in the story. You've got bonding and support conversations between characters, QTE-based strength-building minigames (prepare to break the buttons on your controller doing sit-ups) loads of pets to adopt and take care of, an arena to train in, meals to cook and share with pals, endless achievements to tick off, treasures to collect and a nice Parisian-style café to chill out in. There's an armoury, a smithy, a general store, a clothes boutique for picking up those all-important new threads, and even a records hall where you can organise fun photoshoots with all of your new buddies. Prepare to waste a staggering amount of time messing around and fiddling with all of this stuff is what we're saying.
It's also back in the Somniel that you'll get to work creating Bond Rings, lesser powered rings that can be equipped to all characters in order to raise their stats, as well as cashing in piles of collected materials in order to strengthen weapons and augment the special Engage weapons that you'll use once your Engage bar is full in battle. There is, in short, a lot to take in, even at a rather early stage in proceedings and, as the battles ramp up, as the stakes are raised ever higher and our party continues to grow, we reckon the balance Fire Emblem Engage is already striking between top-notch tactical action, engrossing storyline, and engrossing world/relationship building in its quieter moments has the makings of an adventure we're not gonna be able to put down any time soon.
With a wonderfully slick new art style that looks super crisp and colourful, great performance across the board so far, a huge roster of returning heroes to rediscover from across the entire history of Fire Emblem, and an epic story full of brand new characters we've already grown very fond of, we're feeling pretty positive about this one right now. We'll be dropping our full review in due course, so tune in then for our final verdict on a game that's looking like it's gonna kick off Switch's 2023 in fine style.
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Looking forward to getting stuck into Fire Emblem Engage when it drops on January 20th? Let us know in the comments.