It's been almost four years since the hugely successful Fire Emblem: Three Houses stormed onto Switch and reignited our passion for Intelligent Systems' long-running tactical RPG franchise. Here was a game that deepened the relationship and social sim aspects and captured the hearts of gamers who revelled in three separate campaign paths packed full of interactive melodrama that sat perfectly alongside the series' signature strategic action.

Fast forward to 2023 and you'd be forgiven for expecting Fire Emblem Engage to follow closely in the footsteps of its all-conquering predecessor whilst refining combat, smoothing rough edges, and adding even more relationships, more romance, and just generally more of all the aspects that so many people readily connected with last time around. Well, excuse you for being wrong, because this latest Fire Emblem escapade is side-stepping all of that in favour of a different flavour of adventure that harks backs to earlier entries in the franchise. Its focus is set firmly on combat, with everything else taking a firm backseat.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Yes, when we previewed Intelligent Systems' latest, it seemed as though everything was primed for more of what we were dished up in Three Houses. The stage was set for lots of OTT drama, we'd been introduced to the new Somniel hub area — which seemed like the kinda place a couple of fellow fighters might do a little bit of the old romancin' — and we were fully expecting to divide our time equally between smashing Corrupted on the battlefield and chilling out at the Somniel's quaint little café as we got to know our favoured party members a little better. *flutters eyelashes*

As it turns out, the Somniel, as big as it is and as wonderful as it looks, actually acts as little more than a base of operations from which to recharge, reload, and respec between combat sorties. It may give you plenty of side activities to engage in, with QTE training games, meals to cook, pets to adopt, an arena to train in, and, yes, endless support and bonding conversations to have with your teammates, but this time around all of the deep relationship stuff has been stripped back and streamlined to a minimum in order to get you back into the action quick smart.

Take those support and bonding conversations as an example. Forget about Three Houses-style dialogue choices or meaningful back and forths here; tête-à-têtes in Fire Emblem Engage are rarely more than a few lines long and they deal almost entirely in banalities, with no meaningful attempt to dig very deep beneath the surface of the characters involved.

And so it goes for the duration of the game as far as the social side of things is concerned, with the Somniel quite quickly becoming a place we almost avoided going back to if we're completely honest. In quite short order it becomes little more than a series of menus and hoops that you jump through in order to get your stat increases and new gear. There's the odd cute encounter here, make no mistake, we do enjoy heading down to the pens to pet all of our adopted sheep, pigs, and cats — and giving people a surprise gift of horse manure never really grows old — but we'd take the option to do all our levelling up, purchasing, ring polishing and weapon upgrading from a menu on the world map in a heartbeat if it was offered.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Is all of this disappointing? In a way, yes, but this game isn't in the slightest bit interested in presenting the sort of social sim its predecessor did, and so it's hard to judge it too harshly for not living up to our own misplaced expectations.

So, if you're coming to Fire Emblem Engage looking for the deep relationship antics that you so enjoyed in Three Houses, well, that stuff just ain't really here. And so it falls to the game's narrative to pick up the slack and inject some drama into proceedings which, thankfully, it absolutely does. The story of Alear, a divine dragon who's been awakened from a 1000-year slumber in order to do battle with the evil Fell Dragon, is packed full of cheesy OTT anime silliness and surprises.

There's a hugely likeable cast to get to know, lots of far-flung regions to venture to along the way, and it all ramps up nicely in the game's final third, introducing some wonderful villains who're absolutely bursting at the seams with big-time pantomime energy, providing a finale that twists and turns and gives players plenty of revelations to enjoy as it all comes to a suitably ludicrous end. We won't spoil a second of it here, but needless to say it's a satisfyingly strong narrative backdrop to the slick tactical action at the core of proceedings.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Further to this, and as much as it may very well be found lacking from a social sim standpoint, Fire Emblem Engage does still manage to introduce us to a host of highly enjoyable characters through its entertaining story, it's just that this time around you'll get to know them much better on the battlefield than you ever will back at the Somniel. Much like last year's stellar Triangle Strategy, this is a tactical RPG where we found ourselves warming to various characters as they became important parts of our combat strategies rather than through dialogue encounters. It's been almost a full year since we played Square Enix's masterpiece and we still fondly remember the likes of Anna, Benedict, and Cordelia for their escapades in action, through the moments when they pulled us out of the fire and away from almost certain death.

Here we feel exactly the same about the likes of Framme, our absolute MVP healer, Vander, the cast iron vanguard of our party, and Etie, the covert sniper whose long-ranged bow shots have saved our bacon time and time again. Oh and Merrin, dearest Merrin, let us not forget the ultra-cool, wolf-riding swordfighter who joined us at the midpoint of the game and quickly became a proper battlefield legend. It's in the heat of combat that real relationships and emotion are forged here, and this is a game that turns that heat right up to 11.

With this in mind, and without being pushy, we really can't recommend enough that you play Fire Emblem Engage with its signature Permadeath option switched on, it adds so much tension and drama that's missing otherwise — we endured a couple of properly sore losses along the way — and it really helps you connect on a deeper level to the personalities that make up your team. Also, if you really can't take the pain of losing a favourite fighter, the time-rewind mechanic has returned for this outing and it gives you unlimited uses (at least it does on normal mode) so you can always flip back a couple of turns if it's all too much to bear.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

With regards to the combat here itself, well, if you're knowingly going to step away from one of the most important aspects of such a hugely successful game as Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you're gonna need to make sure the action element you're focusing on so intently isn't anything less than very good indeed. In this regard, Intelligent Systems has absolutely nailed it. Yep, the turn-based tactical action that's always been right at the beating heart of this franchise is hands-down the best it's ever been this time around.

Right from the get-go, Fire Emblem Engage feels like it's in a rush to get you onto its battlefields, flinging you almost immediately into quick tutorial scraps that teach you the fundamentals that you'll need to understand fully if you're going to make it through the huge encounters you'll face further down the line. For the most part, series veterans will know what to expect here, with the signature Weapons Triangle returning to the fray (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords), although this time it's been cleverly tweaked to incorporate the ability to break your opponent, disarming them so they don't get to respond to your attack in a turn if you've taken their weapon choice into account. A small tweak on paper, perhaps, but one with huge ripple effects on how you go about your murder business once you're in the thick of the action.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

There's all the usual planning of fancy flanking manoeuvres and risky one-man stealth ventures behind enemy lines, with plenty of breakable scenery to brush aside if you need to open up routes, and carefully placing units in and around enemies in order to unleash huge chain attacks is as fun now as it's ever been. It's always a huge rush to take a seemingly insurmountable situation and toy around with it, pushing and pulling your party members here and there, experimenting, rewinding mistakes, and digging into your available attack options until you strike gold, pulling together some ridiculous combo and decimating an enemy force that seemed to have you totally outgunned. All of that good stuff is here in spades across countless battles that often run for a good hour at a time, it's proper sweat-inducing stuff, the kind of thing fans of this genre will absolutely revel in.

The combat maps on offer are full of their fair share of surprises too, with innocent bystanders to rescue, useful treasures to nab, points to defend and a host of other environmental tricks and traps that happen later in the game which we're not going to spoil. This is top-notch tactical action, in short, the kind of stuff that keeps you playing into the wee hours, keeps you on your toes, and punishes you in a heartbeat if you haven't been paying attention. We wouldn't want it any other way.

The biggest new addition this time is the titular Engage system itself, which is based around the Emblem Rings that Alear and their pals set out to collect from all around the continent of Elyos. Each of the 12 rings that you'll need to gather in order to face off against the Fell Dragon and his corrupted armies contains the spirit of a powerful Emblem Warrior — just about every character you can think of from across the series' long history — and by equipping a ring to any combatant in your party, you imbue them with that warrior's skills to make use of beside their own unique battle abilities.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

As you fight alongside your chosen Emblem warrior, you'll charge up an Engage meter ("Engauge" was right there, people!) which allows you to enter Engage mode proper, merging you with the spirit of your equipped ring and giving you three combat turns to put all manner of special skills to work against your foes. During these three turns, you'll also get access to your Emblem's signature Engage Attack, an often screen-shaking assault that you'll want to keep for just the right moment as it can save your skin in a tight spot. Take Emblem Celica's Warp Ragnarok as an example here, which sees her partner character imbued with the ability to warp across the map to unleash a powerful magic bombardment that can often one-shot tricky distant foes and get them out of your hair as you push your party forward.

Fighting with an equipped Emblem warrior also sees your bond with them increase over time, in turn raising your attack powers and opening up new abilities as expected. However, it also gives regular fighters the chance to inherit some of the skills of their magical Emblem counterparts, enabling you to accrue lots of extra abilities and buffs which you can then switch in and out of use for battles as you see fit, even when you're not wearing a particular Emblem Ring. You can also forge Bond Rings, sort of cheap knockoff versions of Emblem Rings proper, that give your party members buffs and stat increases without the ability to call forth an actual Emblem in battle. There is a lot to get to grips with, a ton of choice in how you present yourself on the battlefield, and it gives this game a huge amount of replay value going forward as you attempt to romp to victory on both the hard and maddening difficulties, the latter of which is giving us nightmares just thinking about it.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Engaging with Emblems, utilising all of their skills on top of your own, and pulling off great big Engage attacks is what it's all about here, then. You've got everything that's made the Fire Emblem series such a blast to play in the past, that same wonderfully tight, intricate, deep combat that'll have you scratching your head and carefully considering every single option, now enhanced by the truly impressive level of choice and flexibility that the ring system brings to the table. There's an almost endless array of matchups to make between your favourite fighters and Emblems here, with tons of variations in the builds you can take into battle. It all works seamlessly, feels fantastic to muck about and experiment with, and, more importantly perhaps, it's all conveyed to the player in a concise and easy-to-parse manner.

Intelligent Systems has made sure that every single bit of battle knowledge you need in the heat of the moment is clearly represented onscreen at any given time. Your available abilities, your enemy's potential attacks, and movement radiuses, health gauges, ranks, classes, attack, and defensive stats... it's all present and correct and commendably simple to understand. For a game with so much depth, with so many layers and moving parts to its action, it's easy to get to grips with. It really is super slick stuff — hugely addictive and challenging, even on the lowest difficulty. Indeed, we played through the campaign on normal mode, the lowest available setting, and found ourselves needing to rank up by utilising the endless side skirmishes and paralogues scattered around the gorgeous world map in order to be at a level capable of defeating some of the harder battles towards the end of the game.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Speaking of paralogues, make sure not to skip any of these if you can. You'll add lots of cool new fighters to your roster by doing so and, by jumping into them as they pop up, you'll likely be able to avoid some of the grinding we had to do late in the game as we rushed, perhaps a little too quickly, through the main campaign. All in all, it took us well past the 45-hour mark to see the end of this one first time around, but if you factor in skirmishes and paralogues — if you're a player who wants to adopt every pet, find every available character and max out all sets of Bond Rings — well, you're looking at a significant amount of extra gameplay on top of that figure.

This is a big game then, and it's absolutely jam-packed full of ways to do battle. Whether it's a critical story mission, side skirmishes, paralogues, or a run at the Tower of Trials — where you're faced with overcoming back-to-back battle scenarios in order to win rewards — Fire Emblem Engage always puts its combat front and centre. It feels like an unabashed celebration of the tactical side of this beloved series and, when the action feels this good, it's hard not to get swept up in it all.

There are also a smattering of smart online modes to dig into which have impressed us overall, adding yet more in the way of replayability to the mix. Relay Trials see you tackle maps with other players in a co-op mode accessed via tickets earned in the main campaign. Battles here don't have to be played in one sitting, and you can match up with friends or random players to jump into the fray in order to help out others who've had a turn and then put their game to one side. This mode also adds a new mechanic, with Entryway portals dotted around arenas to be opened up for other players to then spawn at when they take their turn.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Outrealm Trials, on the other hand, see you take on other players' armies in preset or custom-made maps. Here you can engage in quick battles on a selection of arenas from the main campaign or, in custom battle mode, make use of a slick and simple map editor to lay down various blocks of terrain, obstacles, and even stationary weapons before uploading your unique battlegrounds and getting stuck into combat. All of this online goodness works really well as far as our experience has gone so far, and it's been super quick and easy to jump into all of the modes on offer.

We should also give mention to the overall presentation of Fire Emblem Engage at this point. Three Houses certainly had a few issues with its overall performance upon release, as we noted in our review, but this new entry is nigh-on flawless in this regard. Over our entire extended play time here, we didn't experience a single noticeable hitch in the frame rate, no bugs, no crashes, no stuttering as you rush around the Somniel or explore battlefields for treasure once the fighting is done. In both docked and handheld modes it looks and sounds glorious, too, with Mika Pikazo's artwork and Yuka Tsujiyoko's stellar soundtrack making for one of the most polished experiences on Switch thus far. Yes, we know Alear's multi-coloured mop has proven controversial amongst fans online but trust us, they'll get over it.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

In the end, what you've got here is an entry in this iconic series that is inevitably gonna divide players. Fire Emblem Engage isn't trying to emulate its most recent predecessor — it's taken a different stance and focused on combat first and foremost, ditching most of the deep social and romantic aspects in favour of preparing for and indulging in great big tactical battles. It may seem like a negative to some, but for us the reigning in of certain narrative excesses makes for a game that's much easier to simply jump into for a quick strategy fix, it makes for a Fire Emblem adventure that we can see ourselves replaying and coming back to over and over again, because it doesn't bog its scraps down in dialogue and cutscenes.

If you're coming to this one looking for the depth of content in the downtime between battles that Three Houses provided, you're going to be disappointed, simple as that. But if you're here for the combat — if all you really want from Fire Emblem is to test your mettle against super smart adversaries in some of the slickest and most satisfying turn-based combat around — Intelligent Systems has got you well and truly covered. We doubt you'll play many better tactical RPGs in 2023 than this one.

Conclusion

Fire Emblem Engage is another stellar entry in this storied franchise, but it's also one that takes a noticeably different stance than its most recent predecessor. It's all about the combat this time around, at the expense of the relationships and romance that made Three Houses such a fan favourite, so if you're looking for that social element here, you're bound to be left feeling at least a tad disappointed. However, for those jonesing to get down and dirty with some sweet turn-based tactical action — action that's embedded in a satisfyingly OTT, beautifully presented anime narrative — this is as fine an example of the genre as you'll play this year.