Fire Emblem Engage preview: Brilliant battles but lackluster characters

Big in 2023: Fire Emblem Engage
(Image credit: Nintendo)

JRPGs love character collect-a-thons. Our hero nearly always starts out penniless with nary an ally to their name, and over the course of a couple dozen hours, journey around a vast world, amassing followers galore through the power of friendship, or through a shared desire to just see a villain smashed to smithereens. 

Fire Emblem Engage definitely does not break from these traditions. You wake up as the amnesiac Alear, an apparent divinity in the world of the latest Fire Emblem game. Almost immediately, Alear is tasked with recruiting allies for a big fight against mysterious evildoers who want to resurrect another divinity – only this one's bad. Sound familiar? 

To collate friends, you're put on a predesignated route around Fire Emblem Engage's world, periodically stopping off for big battles. You might meet a village under attack from local bandits, for example, and decide to stop off and help them survive the onslaught, recruiting a character to join you for the rest of the game in the process. 

Fire Emblem has always been a turn-based tactics game, and Engage doesn't mess with that formula. You move and attack with each character in a turn, positioning them in a way that maximizes their damage against foes dotted around the battlefield. You'll need to think a few steps ahead too, as you consider how to shield your most vulnerable allies from any potential retaliation the following turn.

A grand return

Fire Emblem Engage

(Image credit: Nintendo)

This is where Fire Emblem Engage's biggest strengths lie in its early hours. Battles play out as daring chess games – you might venture forth with an armored knight, attempting to land a critical blow to despatch an enemy soldier, while praying said knight can stand up to the forces of a nearby monk with fiery spells the following turn. Engage strikes a great balance between rewarding players for being daring, and punishing them for being utterly reckless. 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses might've ditched the classic 'weapon triangle' combat system, but it's alive and well in Engage. Now swords have an advantage over axes, axes can topple lance-wielders, and lance users can fell swordsmen with ease. This makes strategizing even more crucial in Engage's battles – you can't just throw your most powerful lance user at an axe-wielder, because a counterattack from the latter will 'Break' your lance soldier, rendering them powerless to fight back against other enemy attacks. 

The weapon triangle's return pays dividends for bringing each unit crashing down to Earth. Fire Emblem Three Houses' Byleth felt like a tank at times, near-effortlessly carving through anything foes could throw at them, but now all it takes is one well-positioned enemy unit to send a hero to their exit from the battlefield. Fire Emblem Engage wants you to stop and think carefully before acting, and the weapon triangle's return accomplishes that in the opening chapters. 

Fire Emblem Engage

(Image credit: Nintendo)

"You can't summon a classic hero like Marth at will in battles, destroying any foe who draws your ire"

Fire Emblem Engage is really all about the characters. Aside from recruiting followers throughout the world, Engage's key feature is summoning heroes from the series' past in the heat of battle to assist you. This plays out through precious rings, each one containing a different Fire Emblem icon, that you'll dole out to your troopers before battle, offering them a limited chance to take on the weapons and abilities of an allied hero.

The key here is limitation. You can't summon a classic hero like Marth at will in battles, destroying any foe who draws your ire. Heroes are treated as an incredibly limited resource in Engage's battles – once you've activated them, they won't stick around for more than three turns at most, meaning it's up to you to decide when's best to activate Roy or Ike. Do you summon Marth before charging into a sea of axemen, or hang back and use the hero as a defensive buffer?

The limitations of this system ensures there's still a focus on the core roster of soldiers that you recruit and train for combat, rather than constantly returning to the well of storied heroes repeatedly. However, it's hard to ignore the fact that Fire Emblem Engage's bespoke characters are utterly disinteresting. Protagonist Alear follows in Byleth's footsteps of acting more as a vessel for the player than an actual character, but least Byleth forged meaningful relationships with comrades like Edelgard and Dimitri through conversation, instead of getting snapshots of one-note characters through what precious little dialog there is.

Clueless comrades

Fire Emblem Engage

(Image credit: Nintendo)
Big in 2023

Big in 2023

(Image credit: Big in 2023)

Big in 2023 is the GamesRadar+ guide to the most anticipated games of the year. Join us all throughout January as we explore the biggest upcoming video games of 2023, and the developers making them.

I'm still in the early game for Fire Emblem Engage, but it's clear that the character roster has taken a massive step back from what we received in Three Houses. The latter melded battles and downtime effectively over dozens of hours for memorable character-driven developments, while Engage puts battles first and characters second. I wish I could tell you about a favorite or endearing character here, but the entire roster blends into dull tropes of honorable knights and nervous women. 

Fire Emblem Engage's characters are an unfocused shotgun blast, and the same can be said of downtime activities. The enigmatic chapel/monastery/old building Somniel functions as your base of operations, letting you cook meals for your allies, fish, pet animals, polish rings, train comrades, and much more. It's a weird smorgasbord of features that don't honestly have a great connection to the wider game, but if the downtime was always more your thing in Fire Emblem Three Houses, there's comfort to be found in this leisurely time. 

Fire Emblem Engage's opening chapters show a graceful reintegration of the classic weapon triangle, dragging a lackluster character cast at its side. Every step forward on the battlefield is a nerve-rattling decision when no one character is invincible, making your army feel more like a battalion rather than a troupe of supersoldiers. Where Engage really disappoints in its early hours is its characters – they're a huge step back from Three Houses' beloved cast, not outwardly unlikeable at least, but entirely apathetic.

Line break

Fire Emblem Engage is one of the big new games for 2023, and it's set to launch on January 20. While you wait, why not check out the other upcoming Switch games expected to launch this year.

Hirun Cryer is a freelance reporter and writer with Gamesradar+ based out of U.K. After earning a degree in American History specializing in journalism, cinema, literature, and history, he stepped into the games writing world, with a focus on shooters, indie games, and RPGs, and has since been the recipient of the MCV 30 Under 30 award for 2021. In his spare time he freelances with other outlets around the industry, practices Japanese, and enjoys contemporary manga and anime.