Fire Emblem Engage feels like the tactical RPG game I've been waiting for, yet after a handful of hours in its presence I'm still unsure if I prefer it to Three Houses. It's a natural evolution for the series with a classic touch, building upon Fire Emblem's modern gameplay while taking cues from older entries. That might sound obvious when former protagonists like Marth are back, but this goes beyond the 12 familiar faces. Engage reminds me more of Fire Emblem Awakening, the 3DS entry that pushed the series’ popularity to new heights – and even if it might not yet trump Three Houses, after eight chapters I’m struggling to put it down.
Set on Elyos, you play as Alear, a divine dragon who's spent the last millennium sleeping after defeating the Fell Dragon, Sombron. With both sides awake once more, it's a race to recover the twelve Emblem rings, each housing the spirit of a former hero. Engage falls into some tired tropes like the amnesiac protagonist, though I'm currently enjoying its character writing. Alear's a charming leader, and there's a likable supporting cast, even if I do miss the moral greyness that made Three Houses (and Fates, somewhat) so intriguing. However, that's a likely consequence of ditching multiple routes for a singular campaign.
After clearing the first few chapters, Engage opens up and you can visit The Somniel, an airborne base that functions similarly to Three Houses’ Garreg Mach. Alongside a training arena and fitness minigames to temporarily boost stats, this is where socialising occurs. Alear can invite allies to meals, give them gifts, or even polish an Emblem’s ring to increase your bond. Don’t give me that look. Once you're ready to go, select a mission from the Overworld map and prepare for battle.
Engage doesn't mess with the basics; you're still eliminating commanders or routing enemy forces. Emblems are undoubtedly Engage's most profound addition and units equipped with a ring can temporarily merge with that Emblem. Alongside new weapons, each has a unique ability, available once per activation. For example, Celica’s Warp Ragnarok teleports your unit across the battlefield to unleash a devastating magic attack, helpful against tricky foes out of reach. Meanwhile, Micaiah's Last Sacrifice restores HP to everyone but reduces your paired unit to 1 HP.
These abilities can make or break a mission, adding further layers to an already-rich combat system, and the changes don't stop there. Weapon and magic tome durability are gone, though staffs still have a limit, and no more battalions. The famous weapons triangle is also back. This time, hitting enemies with an advantageous weapon inflicts break, which prevents units from counterattacking. Picking off individual units became much easier, though this works both ways and I lost some key units at points from my own carelessness.
I'm enjoying combat but a surprise highlight comes after the fighting, when Alear can fully explore the battlefield. They can chat with allies and local NPCs, take in the scenery, and even adopt animals to take back to the Somniel in what feels something like Three Houses’ ground-level battlefield view without the combat. It gives new life to these locations and emphasises one of Engage's most significant improvements - the visuals. It's cleaner, more vibrant, there’s better attention to detail and not a single unusually flat fruit in sight.
Engage holds significant promise and while I currently think Three Houses has a stronger story, this feels like a refreshing throwback to older entries. Tactical combat remains thrilling, seeing the old favourites back is lovely, and it never relies on nostalgia to stay compelling. Which is reassuring, considering Sigurd, Leif, and Roy's games remain unlocalised. Still, Intelligent Systems is onto another RPG winner right now and I can't wait to finish this.