Fire Emblem Engage Just Made We Want To Play Three Houses Again
Fire Emblem Engage isn’t the game many of us hoped it would be. It isn’t bad, in fact, it boasts the best combat and character customisation the franchise has ever seen. Unfortunately, this advancement has come at the cost of intriguing characters and a developed narrative. Emblem is often reliant on tiresome tropes and cutesy banter instead of Three Houses’ mature yarn of royal allegiances and eventual betrayal. Here it’s all adorable anime hijinks and an aesthetic bordering on garish, hampering any potentially compelling developments. Weak supporting characters and an underbaked social system means that forming bonds with this world is far more difficult and less rewarding.
I’m still working my way through it, having already committed with the Divine Edition and expansion pass, although I didn’t expect the opening hours to be so uneven. When you break down precisely how Engage builds upon Three Houses, it shouldn’t be such a rocky road. It uses the same basic gameplay formula and storytelling tropes as we step into the shoes of a hero who is strong and admired by all those around them, swept into a grand destiny regarding their ancient ancestors and several different kingdoms fighting over a mystical power. Yep, this is definitely a JRPG, and Engage has no quarrels with diving right into the deep end.
Three Houses remains a subject of discussion years later because it not only introduced the series to a new generation, but because it was a mature step forward that never abandoned familiar tropes and gameplay mechanics. Much like Engage, you are immediately thrown into the action and encouraged to make massive choices that will affect the rest of your playthrough. Edelgard, Claude, and Dimitri became beloved figures amongst the fandom, each with their own distinct and empathetic stories to tell, and a house filled with equally fascinating students to befriend. You came to care about all of these characters, and right now I can’t say the same for Engage. Early on at least, most are either cliched or irritating.
Everyone appears to be simping over you in ways that make for weirdly uncomfortable moments where a teenager is excited to see you sweat during training, or older allies who are more than happy to flirt with characters who seem far younger than they are. It’s your usual anime nonsense, and nothing Fire Emblem hasn’t touched on before, but after Three Houses abandoned much of it, to see Engage lean into these problematic tendencies more than ever has given me some sort of cringe-induced whiplash. I was in the trenches when Nintendo decided to gut the weird face-touching minigame from Fire Emblem Fates only to have the fan base erupt in protest. It was creepy and strangely perverted to grow closer to your comrades by rubbing the shit out of them on the touch screen only to have them moan and shower you with compliments, because nothing gets me ready for war more than a nice squish of the cheeks.
Fire Emblem Awakening didn’t just open the mainstream gates for this series, it also swung the horny ones ajar and invited everyone in to take a look. I’m no prude, and have proudly simped over certain characters in the past and will do so again, but there is a balance to be struck here that Engage just doesn’t manage. Three Houses was more than happy to work in appropriate moments of fan service and humour pulled from familiar archetypes. All of these worked because the character writing was present to justify them, making each personality believable as we came to love every student under our tutelage. Engage has you reading a couple of sentences before playing dress-up and wanking off rings to keep all the ghosts happy. Don’t do it too hard though, they don't seem to like that. I told you it’s weird.
Character designer Mika Pikazo is famous for designing a number of famous VTubers in recent years, likely attracting the attention of Nintendo for both their popularity and distinct contemporary flair. Virtual idols like Calliope Mori, Takanashi Kiara, and Gawr Gura boast millions of followers between them and a cultural presence around the world that few can match, so of course a series like Fire Emblem hoping to capture the attention of players through modern trends would do the same, even if it feels awkwardly detached from the game that preceded it. This is because, naming conventions and gameplay formula aside, Engage gives off an entirely different, and far less serious vibe after a few hours.
Two weeks after release I don’t see Fire Emblem Engage lighting the world on fire like Three Houses did, even with its superior strategy combat. It doesn’t have the lovable characters or narrative intrigue that has fans gathering around the water cooler to discuss what house they picked or what they think of everyone’s fashion choices after the controversial timeskip. This is because Nintendo seemed far more invested in anime flair and tired cliches when it should have been piecing together a universe we’d have a reason to care about. That time may still come for me as I progress, but given how Engage celebrates the series’ history so proudly, part of me expected it to help move it into the future, instead of rigidly committing to the past.
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