Day 67:11Nintendo serves up a nostalgic turn-based strategy game with a side of dragons in Fire Emblem Engage. But should you play it?
Remakes are having a moment in the video game industry.
Among 2022’s most anticipated games were a remake of the 2013 PlayStation classic The Last of Us, ahead of its HBO TV treatment. The trend won’t slow this year, with remakes of 2004’s Resident Evil 4 and 2008’s Dead Space on the way.
But Fire Emblem Engage, out this week for the Nintendo Switch, shows a different way of tapping into the nostalgia factor by literally summoning the old and merging it with the new.
The turn-based strategy role-playing series debuted in 1990 in Japan, releasing more than a dozen sequels. The first English-language version didn’t hit Western audiences until 2003, but the series has since sold millions of copies worldwide.
Given this history, Kyoto-based developer Intelligent Systems could have easily followed the gaming industry trend, remaking a classic Fire Emblem game — perhaps an older instalment that was only released in Japanese.
Instead, it chose to invoke nostalgia with a novel twist.
With Engage, players experience a new story, in a new world of fantasy, with new characters — but won’t survive on the battlefield for long unless they summon the help of familiar faces from Fire Emblem‘s past.
Fire Emblem games are usually set in separate worlds, but those worlds are united in harbouring some all-powerful, all-important magical object. In Engage‘s world, this MacGuffin is spread out in the form of magic rings.
By using these rings, Engage‘s characters can summon the spirits of heroes from past Fire Emblem games, including favourites such as Ike, Marth, Roy and Lyn.
While this defining feature of Engage is innovative, Kenta Nakanishi, one of the game’s developers, said it’s meant to invoke traditional elements of the series which have drawn so many gamers to Fire Emblem..
“I believe the appeal of the Fire Emblem series is the bond formed by trusting each other and fighting together,” Nakanishi said in an interview with Nintendo.
“One thing that’s consistent throughout the series is that even if the characters are from different countries, they build a trusting relationship with each other as allies to whom they can entrust their lives.”
The feature was a gamble, especially for a series that’s usually looking forward instead of alluding to its past — but it’s one that’s paid off.
Engage features a roster of dozens of new playable characters, any of whom can equip one of the 12 rings for a combat boost. Put together, it makes not only for a lot of exciting combinations, but also a sense of stakes; with a limited number of rings in the army, players will have to choose who gets one and who doesn’t. Fire Emblem is often about picking favourites, and no choice is inconsequential. The rings fit into that tradition nicely.
The rings do mean that Fire Emblem fans are going to get a bit more out of Engage than new players — but only a bit.
Several of the revisiting characters debuted in games that never saw a retail release outside of Japan. But in a way, that only makes their inclusion more meaningful.
Engage looks and feels like a way to acknowledge that series’ road to worldwide success came largely on the backs of its memorable, emotionally compelling heroes and their relationships with one another.
Gameplay vs. story
Ironically, Engage falters with its characters and plot compared to most of its predecessors. That has some fans asking whether the series will always face a tradeoff between a great game-playing experience and a great story.
The contrast is stark enough to make one wonder what’s most valuable about a Fire Emblem title.
Engage’s predecessor, 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses, featured a ton of activities outside of battle. After hanging up their sword between skirmishes, the protagonist could teach classes, have tea with allies and even relax in a sauna with his or her teammates.
While this allowed for an unprecedented amount of world-building and character depth, it came at a price; the lengthy interludes held up the action significantly.
If Three Houses invested a lot in story and setting, Engage is its mirror image, featuring a familiar, often predictable plot coupled with enthralling, well-paced series of battles.
But Engage shows that it’s a trade worth making. I found it hard to miss tea time, nice as that was, when the battlefield called more frequently, bringing new enemy types and exciting maps along with them. Fighting on fertile plains, rugged mountains, barren deserts, spooky castles keeps the chapters from feeling stale.
Engage also solidifies Fire Emblem’s commitment to accessibility. Many past games could be punishingly difficult, especially for newcomers. Few clashes were a breeze on Engage’s hard mode, but I only rarely threw my controller in frustration. (Thankfully, nothing broke.)
While the characters were a bit one-dimensional when it comes to personality, Engage gets points for their visual design. No other Fire Emblem looks as colourful or as appealing. The vibrant colours even get a chance to shine in the protagonist’s unique hair — a vibrant blend of red and blue.
Engage takes Fire Emblem a step forward by looking back in a new and exciting way. Fans of the series expect no less from a series that’s never content to rest on its laurels — and they won’t come away disappointed from this instalment.
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