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KitGuru Games: Fire Emblem Engage feels like a step back

A few years ago, Nintendo took some bold risks with the Fire Emblem franchise, adding new Persona-style social elements to the game and expanding the story to include three paths and a huge cast of likeable supporting characters. Now just a few years later, Fire Emblem is back in the spotlight, this time with Fire Emblem Engage. Unfortunately, this time around, the development team has shied away from the elements that helped Three Houses stand out so much. 

For classic Fire Emblem fans, Engage brings a lot to the table. Instead of having a story with multiple paths and slower ‘social' sections where you explore your home base and interact with secondary characters, Engage reverts back to the linear storytelling of older titles in the series. You don't have to play through multiple times to get the full breadth of the story, and you get to the action a lot faster. However, the trade-off here is that there is less room for characters to develop and the story overall is not as interesting as it was in Three Houses, creating a game that I think will prove to be divisive amongst fans, particularly those who were very fond of the previous game.

Engage opens up with you as the main character, complete with ridiculous red and blue hair, waking up with amnesia. You are the hero, tasked with solving a conflict between five kingdoms and also stopping an evil dragon from reawakening and destroying the world. Along the way, you will collect all the Emblem Rings so that you can slay the dragon and save all your friends. There are twists and turns along the way but ultimately, as Engage is so gameplay-focused, you don't spend enough time with the characters for some of these moments to hit as hard as they did in Three Houses.

In Engage, there are five kingdoms, but you only learn surface-level details about each one. In contrast, Three Houses had three separate kingdoms, with the leader of each house being royalty from one of those kingdoms. As you spent time with your students in the monastery and on the battlefield, you built up real camaraderie with these characters and it made the time skip and war arc in the second half of the game all the more hard-hitting.

In Engage, the monastery is gone and is replaced with ‘The Somnium', a scaled-back home base where you can have tea parties with characters, give gifts and participate in other small activities to gain stat boosts. There is little story content to be found here compared to the monastery in Three Houses, where exploring could unlock some of the best story beats in the game. In Engage, a lot of new characters have most of their story told in their introduction and there isn't as much to peel back by interacting with them regularly in between missions.

Three Houses did a great job of making you feel like the teacher of a class, attempting to guide these students on the right path and aid them in getting over their issues so they could be successful in achieving their personal goals. Here, you don't get the same opportunities to connect with your squad. You still get support levels, and these can be boosted by talking to characters between missions and giving gifts, but ultimately, it feels shallow compared to what Three Houses brought to the table.

This is furthered by the introduction of former Fire Emblem heroes into the story. I was hoping that these characters would have more of a hand in the overall story and that there would be more opportunities to interact with them and learn about their past adventures – something that would be particularly helpful for those who missed out on some of the earlier games. Unfortunately, these appearances don't feel like they add much beyond a nice nostalgia nod for long-time fans. This, coupled with the scaling back of the social systems, is the most disappointing part of Engage for me.

Engage does shine through with its battles. While in Three Houses it was easy to burst through battles with just a handful of overly powerful characters, in Engage, the weapon triangle is back and you do need to think through encounters a bit more. The tactical elements of Fire Emblem are back in place, classes are better balanced and it is fun to play through. However, for someone like me who was so heavily invested in the characters and story in Three Houses, even with the improved gameplay in place, Engage just feels like a shallower experience.

Three Houses made a lot of changes to the Fire Emblem formula, but to me, it felt like the next frontier for the series and I was truly excited about what was next. Unfortunately, a lot of what made that game stand out has been stripped here in favour of a more classic Fire Emblem adventure. To me, it feels like a big step back for a franchise that I felt was on the cusp of something truly exceptional with its previous game.

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KitGuru Says: Have many of you picked up Fire Emblem Engage already? What do you think of this one compared to Three Houses? Do you prefer the more linear approach? 

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